Tuesday, June 30, 2009

DVD review: "The Betrayed"

Made on a miniscule budget, "The Betrayed" is a psychological thriller packed with real tension, not to mention a knockout performance by Australian actress Melissa George.

The film is set entirely inside a grimy warehouse. A young woman, Jamie, awakes in a daze. A man behind a door talks to her over an intercom, and explains several things. First, she's his prisoner. Second, her mild-mannered husband is actually a very dangerous man who has stolen millions from a crime syndicate. Third, if she doesn't help him get the money back, both she and her young son will be killed.

Based on that set-up, you might think "The Betrayed" is another flesh-carving entry in the "torture porn" genre. But writer/director Amanda Gusack isn't churning out a cheap "Saw" knockoff. Rather, she methodically ratchets up the dark mood while providing stark glimpses into the minds of both the victim and her tormentor.

George, probably best known for her role on TV's "Alias," is terrific as a woman who surprises her kidnappers, and herself. Filmmakers love to create characters they bill as intelligent, then make them do very dumb things. Despite having her whole world turned upside down, Jamie grows craftier and craftier -- first trying to keep herself and her son alive, and eventually outsmarting those holding her.

The film reminded me very much of "The Usual Suspects" in tone, but with a much smaller cast and a deliberately claustrophobic feel, with literally only a single room and a hallway in which to let the action play out.

Oded Fehr, despite spending most of the movie behind a mask, is frightening yet charismatic as Jamie's captor. As he alternately threatens and reveals bits of himself, Jamie grows less certain about who she can trust.

As for extras: There are none, not even a theatrical trailer. That's a shame, because this tidy thriller deserves better.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 1 star

Monday, June 29, 2009

Newspaper journalists now ending up on the streets

Yes, really.

Check out this account from Steve Persall, the film critic at the St. Pete Times, about a former colleague who lost her job and became a homeless drug addict.

Man, gives me the shivers. There but...

New on DVD for 6/30

Here's my weekly roundup of new video releases, with links to buy:

Reeling Backward: "The Charge of the Light Brigade"

"The Charge of the Light Brigade" is about the arrogance of the aristocracy and military stupidity, a combination that inevitably spells tragic results.

In 1854 during the Crimean War, the light brigade under the command of Lord Cardigan foolishly charged an entrenched army of Russian artillary, and were cut to pieces. Cardigan was a bully and a brute, and an incompetent officer to boot, but because he was also an earl, such behavior was tolerated.

With only a couple of hundred dead, it would have been forgotten as yet another in a long line of military blunders, except for one thing: Lord Tennyson wrote a poem about it which immediately vaulted the incident into the legion of brave-but-disastrous battles that the British so love to enshrine. Indeed, the poem was written and distributed so quickly that troops in Turkey got to read it, no doubt wondering how it possibly related to the bloody massacre they'd barely survived.

Trevor Howard gives a great performance as Lord Cardigan. The character is mercilessly mocked and shown to be an intolerant tyrant, and yet Howard plays him deadly serious. That's the right move, since if we caught him winking to the audience or playing for laughs, the film would play almost like a comedy rather than a tragedy.

John Gielgud plays Lord Raglan, Britain's top military commander, who is so senile and confused that he thinks they're still fighting their old enemies the French. When some French soldiers, who are allied in this war against Russia, ride up to his post one day he thinks they're under attack until his aide reminds him the French are on their side.

The other major part is David Hemmings as Captain Louis Nolan. Unlike the aristocracy who rule the military as their own private fiefdoms, Nolan is a career officer who wants to see the army become a professional endeavour rather than the vanity-soaked plaything of the rich. This quickly makes him a target of the upper-crust bumblers.

Even Lord Raglan, who takes Captain Nolan onto his staff, states that he doesn't like Nolan because "he rides too well" and has a great deal of knowledge about soldiering. "It will be a sad day when England is officered by men who know too well what they are doing. It smacks of murder."

There was another version of "Charge" made in 1936 starring Errol Flynn that was historically a sham. (There were also several silent-film era versions.) The 1968 take is much more accurate, although it still plays around with timelines and characters.

For example, the famous "Black Bottle" scandal is rearranged. In this incident, Lord Cardigan objected to Captain Nolan bringing a black bottle, which he presumed to be porter beer, to the officers' dining table. This was the drink of choice for cavalry officers in the day, but Cardigan considered it common and forbade it from his table. It was actually white wine that just happened to come in a dark bottle, but it turned into a row.

Cardigan demands Nolan apologize, and Nolan refuses, and the issue escalates until he is relieved of duty and arrested. The newspapers get ahold of it, and it becomes a major embarrassment for the British military command. Cardigan is even booed when he goes out in public.

In actuality, the black bottle incident involved another officer, and happened years before the Crimean War.

I don't mind the filmmakers rejiggering the timeline, since the episode further illustrates what a pig-headed blowhard Lord Cardigan was. And they take it even further. Incensed over his humiliation, Cardigan orders a sergeant-major to spy on Nolan. The senior NCO refuses such a dishonorable order, is stripped of the rank it took him 20 years to obtain, and later is flogged and driven from the regiment.

I'm not sure how I feel about the several animated sequences that interrupt the action to provide exposition about the ongoing political climate. They're drawn in the style of political cartoons of the day (especially "Punch" magazine) with England represented as a regal lion and Russia as a menacing bear. They are interesting in that they show the way propaganda was used to whip up the masses. But frankly, every time they came onscreen they reminded me of similar animation from the Monty Python movies.

Made in 1968, "Charge" was a conscious attempt at a more brutal and graphic depiction of violence than war films up to that point. There's one scene where soldiers are playing cricket and otherwise horsing around, while a few steps away at the field hospital a trooper is having his arm sawed off while he's still conscious.

Overall the movie is a fine anti-war drama, but it kind of spreads itself too thin in some places and too thick in others. The stuff showing the incompetence of Lord Cardigan and his ilk is high satire. But the Nolan character is never really fleshed out, other than a subplot about him having an affair with the wife (Vanessa Redgrave) of his best friend, which is both historically dubious and stops the film in its tracks.

On a final note, I should say that in real life Lord Cardigan was very successful at avoiding blame for the disastrous charge. In fact, he was hailed as the hero of the battle for leading a suicidal attack. He even was promoted to Inspector-General of the Cavalry, and the queen bestowed on him the Order of the Bath, one of England's highest honors. Only later did questions arise about his actions. It wasn't until a highly critical 1953 book titled "The Reason Why," upon which this film is partially based, that Cardigan got his comeuppance.

Let us not forget that the Tennyson poem, while undeniably tragic, is actually an exaltation of those who follow the orders of their superiors, even when those giving the orders are fools -- typified by the most famous line: "Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die." By 1968, such pomposity was ripe for skewering.

3 stars

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Coming this week

I'll have a review of "Public Enemies," the Johnny Depp picture about Indiana gangster John Dillinger. I'm really looking forward to this one -- believe it or not, it's one of the two big movies remaining this summer. The other is "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

The DVD review will be "The Betrayed." I'll have classic film reviews of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "The Hill" starring Sean Connery.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Brute Force"

I had high hopes for this 1947 prison movie starring Burt Lancaster, but was mildly let down by it. Still, it's an interesting enough film to make a few points about it.

One of the least successful things about the movie is also the most intriguing: A series of flashbacks as various prisoners recall the circumstances that led to them being locked up in Westgate Penitentiary. As a critic, I think it weakens the movie because it gives a lot of screen time to a bunch of minor characters who clearly are not the center of the story.

But in the genre of prison flicks, what's notable is that all the men are guilty -- up to and including the hero, Joe Collins (Lancaster). Usually in prison movies, even the best ones like "The Shawshank Redemption," filmmakers find it necessary to provide a protagonist who's innocent of his crimes. That gives them free rein to explore the dehumanizing aspects of imprisonment, with the hook that "it could be you," sentenced for a crime you didn't commit.

Not here. Every one of the flashbacks shows the prisoners willfully committing crimes, knowing it could send them to jail. One guy embezzles to buy his wife a fur coat, while another is a soldier who steals food for his Italian war bride. Collins' racket was knocking over banks to save up money for his wife's operation.

Another interesting choice is to have the main heavy, the prison guard Captain Munsey, depicted as an out-and-out evil character. Don't forget, in 1947 it was a pretty ballsy thing to portray the prisoners as decent men, and their chief incarcerator as a sadist. But that's exactly what he is.

Hume Cronyn, who I most remember as one of the lovable oldsters from "Cocoon," gives an icy and quiet performance as Munsey. It reminded me very much of Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of the Nazi prison chief in "Schindler's List" -- especially in one scene where he's cleaning his rifle. This is immediately followed by a brutal scene in which the captain beats a prisoner with piece of rubber tubing.

The other main characters are a sympathetic prison doctor, who's also a drunkard, and a prison tough named Gallagher (Charles Bickford) whose loyalties lie somewhere between Collins and Munsey. Gallagher orchestrates the prison gangs, trying to keep Munsey at bay while protecting the welfare of the prisoners. He's not above enforcing a code of justice that lives within the prison walls, such as arranging the murder of a prisoner who planted a shiv on Collins, sending him into isolation.

Interestingly, Gallagher's prison job is running the prison newspaper. This allows him to send his men into any part of Westgate, carrying information or smuggling contraband.

Oh, and Calypso singer Sir Lancelot has a minor role as a prisoner who narrates the goings-on through a sing-song commentary.

Anyway, they're building a drain pipe for no good reason that I can see, and Collins comes up with the idea of using it to attack the guard tower from two sides at once. Things go horribly awry, as you might expect.

Overall, the movie just didn't really go anyplace for me. The Collins character maintains a resolute opaqueness, and the Munsey character -- once we get over the shock of his harsh portrayal -- is kind of a one-note character.

I can't say as I was dying to escape from "Brute Force," but I wouldn't want be locked up with it, either.

2.5 stars

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

New podcast: Movie robots

I have to say I found this one of our more interesting discussions. This week's podcast is about cinematic portrayals of robots, from "Metropolis" to "Transformers."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

10 Best Picture nominees? Crazy!

I am not one of those curmudgeonly old-timers (even though I seem to spot more gray in my whiskers daily) who thinks everything, including movies, was better back when.

But I have to say I think the idea of having 10 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, instead of the normal five, is crazy.

Let's face it: Most years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has to struggle to come up with five legitimate contenders for the top award. Usually, there's a clear winner, one or two contenders, and a couple of nominees that have no chance of winning.

Padding out the list with five more wannabes is just going to dilute the honor of being nominated for the film industry's top prize.

Let's take the awards just given out a few months ago. "Slumdog Millionaire" was the clear favorite, and ended up winning. "The Reader" was considered the dark horse candidate, with "Benjamin Button" on the outside looking in. "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk" were hangers-on.

Now, I happen to think 2008 was a better-than average movie year. Here was my top 10 list, as published in December:

  1. Wall·E
  2. Slumdog Millionaire
  3. The Reader
  4. Traitor
  5. Marley & Me
  6. Iron Man
  7. Frozen River
  8. Defiance
  9. Changeling
  10. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
I saw a couple more movies after I wrote the list that I would include if I was writing it now -- notably "Waltz with Bashir" and probably "Frost/Nixon."

Still, can you see the Academy nominating "Iron Man" and "Marley & Me"? I think not. And "Boy" and "Changeling" had wildly varied critical receptions.

The only possible benefit I can see to this change is if the Academy frees up its stranglehold on letting animated, documentary and foreign language films competing in the Best Picture category, in addition to their own. Even though several animated movies deserved to vie for the top prize in recent years ("Finding Nemo" and "Wall·E," notably), rules and tradition kept them out.

But mostly what I think will happen is that we'll see a whole lot of drek getting Best Picture nominations. It reminds me of 1991, one of the weakest years ever, when "Bugsy" and "Prince of Tides" -- two mediocre dramas -- got nods.

It's true that back in the 1930s and '40s, it was common for there to be up to 10 Best Picture nominations. But let's face it, 2009 is not 1939.

In 1939, you could have gotten to 10 legitimate Best Picture nominations, and kept going. ("Gone with the Wind," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Wizard of Oz," "Dark Victory," "Drums Along the Mohawk," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "Gunga Din," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Love Affair," "Ninotchka," "Of Mice and Men," "Only Angels Have Wings," "Stagecoach," "Wuthering Heights," "Young Mr. Lincoln," "The Rules of the Game.")

For 2009, so far I see two or three Best Picture contenders, and shaky ones at that: "The Soloist," "Up" and "Adventureland." The first and last died at the box office, and had critical receptions that were all over the place. So halfway through the year, that leaves us with one clear Best Picture nominee -- and that's assuming they allow for flexibility in letting animated films compete.

Do you really think we're going to find nine more films this year worthy of a Best Picture nod? I think not.

Review: "My Sister's Keeper"

I've heard people say "My Sister's Keeper" is one of the most emotionally devastating books they've ever read, but I just never connected with the movie version of it.

Ostensibly it's a courtroom drama, about a girl named Anna (Abigail Breslin) who sues her parents (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) to stop them from making her donate a kidney to her sister, Kate, who is dying of leukemia. But really it's a fairly conventional family-brought-together-by-tragedy drama -- a three-hanky weepy, full of forlorn looks and a lot of wet eyes.

I haven't read the book by Jodi Picoult, but to its fans I will only warn that the film version diverges pretty radically from the text.

One of the biggest mistakes director and co-writer (with Jeremy Leven) Nick Cassavetes ("The Notebook") makes is including some half-hearted narration from each member of the family. We get to hear a bit from Kate, Anna, Mom, Dad and son Jesse, which gives a little of their first-person perspective and then disappears.

It seems like an attempt to make the cast seem balanced, when anyone can see that this is Anna's story. The two male characters in particular are so far on the sidelines, including their narration feels like the filmmakers are throwing them a bone -- pity scenes, if you will.

The best parts of the movie deal with Anna talking about her life, and how she was genetically engineered to serve as spare parts for Kate. At age 11 she's had enough, and hires a lawyer she saw on TV (Alec Baldwin, in a sly performance) to sue her folks. The courtroom scenes have a pretty good snap to them, with Joan Cusack as a sympathetic judge, but they're soon pushed aside for more time at Kate's bedside as she grows more wan.

The movie never addresses the relationship between the sisters, which is puzzling, since Anna is going to court to ensure than Kate will die. Their silence should be a tip-off for the not-so-surprising twist near the end.

Sofia Vassilieva is solid as Kate, and the physical transformation she goes through is impressive, and daunting -- a completely hairless skull (including eyebrows), pallid complexion, blood-tinged eyes and cracked lips.

A quibble: At one point the mother shaves her own head in solidarity with Kate, and there's one scene of her walking around bald, and the very next scene her hair is back to normal. I realize the story jumps around in time, but we only ever see Cameron Diaz with two hairstyles: bald and shoulder-length. Since it would take years to grow from one to the other, the continuity wizards obviously were out to lunch.

I didn't actively dislike "My Sister's Keeper"; I was just enormously indifferent to it. For a story that's supposedly about human connections, that's a death knell.

2 stars

Clint the tenant

This is what happens when you have movies on the brain.

Last night I had the most vivid dream. I dreamt that the tenant of our rental property was not, in fact, a mild-mannered paralegal, but Clint Eastwood. Why the 78-year-old director and screen icon would want to rent a 3/2 ranch in Carmel is beyond me, but you've got that thing going where dreams honor their own internal logic.

It seems that Mr. Eastwood was planning to have a cook-out in his backyard, and some of his neighbors were objecting. You see, Clint was having the party in honor of VV Day. Don't know what VV Day is? No surprise, since I invented it in my dream. Like Victory in Europe or Victory over Japan from World War II. This was Victory in Vietnam Day. Again, you might find this curious, since by most accounts we lost in Vietnam. Not in my dream.

So Clint was planning to round up a bunch of his old war buddies from Vietnam and have a cookout to commemorate the fictional victory. Doesn't sound too bad -- other than the fact that Eastwood served in the Army during the Korean War, but not Vietnam. Again, dream logic.

Problem: His two-doors-down neighbor is a naturalized citizen originally from Vietnam who fought in the North Vietnamese Navy (if there even was such a thing). He and his large extended family are appalled that Clint and his buddies are going to celebrate his former country's defeat.

Anyway, most of my dream consisted of me interviewing first one party and then the other to see if I could resolve the conflict. I remember that Clint started to cry during our talk -- not about offending his neighbor, but about all his comrades who died in Vietnam.

I think it ended up with me telling the Vietnamese guy that I couldn't see any reason to ask Clint to call off his cook-out, or that I even had the right to do so. My secret agenda was to convince Clint to invite the Vietnamese clan to his cook-out, but it never quite worked out. Then I was asked to look at some light switches that were acting up (a landlord's duty never ends).

It has been suggested, not for the first time, that I watch too many movies.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

The sequel to "Transformers" improves upon the original by managing to be intermittently lucid, and having a few scenes centered around robot hero Optimus Prime that are, dare we say about a movie directed by Michael Bay, emotionally stirring.

The action scenes are still a mess; I had a hard time following them in either the first movie or this one, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." Because both the heroic Autobots and their nemeses the Decepticons can transform into everyday vehicles like a Camaro or a dump truck, their robot forms are indistinct and contain a lot of widgets and extra stuff that gets lost in the shuffle.

When two transformers fight, it's virtually impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. A lot of junk gets knocked off them as they rumble, like reptiles shedding their skin in chunks. Overall, the effect is like watching piles of welded metal scrap caught in a Kansas twister.

The backstory, already a confusing bramble about tribes of robots from a doomed planet and an All Spark that can turn any mechanical device into a transformer, grows ever more layered with gobbledygook.

It turns out that Megatron, the chief villain defeated in the first movie (but not for long), is only a servant to a secretive overlord called the Fallen, who wants to set off a weapon hidden on Earth eons ago to suck our sun dry, but to activate it he needs a key called -- I kid you not -- The Matrix of Leadership.

The key to the key, somehow, is again earthbound teen Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who's now heading off to college in a stab at normalcy. In the first movie, Sam had a completely extraneous love interest played by Megan Fox, whose purpose was more to fill out a T-shirt rather than flesh out a pivotal role. She's back for more jiggle time, and to coax Sam into whispering to her the L-word, that bane of cinematic protagonists.

Sam's college roommate (Ramon Rodriguez) is brought along to go comedically weak-kneed at moments of high danger, and disgraced fed Agent Simmons (John Turturro) appears out of the woodwork to lend a hand. Simmons has lost his job, his security clearance and his pension, but apparently still retains the ability to call military stations and convince them to send helicopters, or fire a death ray in whatever direction he points.

There are something like three times as many computer-generated transformers in the sequel, which is impressive until you realize it's daunting to tell them apart, other than Optimus Prime and a few other of the good guys. The most distinctive Autobots are a pair of twins who speak in urban slang and transform into neon-colored rice rockets. One of them even has what appears to be a gold tooth in his mouth, which in their parlance is known as a grille, and in this case actually is one.

The film's saving grace is Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen, who also played him in the 1980s cartoon show on which this movie is based. Optimus gets into several hellacious fights, and gives a moving basso profundo speech or two. He's certainly more viscerally engaging than any of the humans in the movie, whose job is essentially to get out of the transformers' way. To the aging army of geeks who love this stuff, that's just the way it should be.

2 stars

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DVD review: "Waltz with Bashir"

“Waltz with Bashir” was not only one of the best films of 2008 – it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – it also represented a cinematic watershed, blending and transcending the genres of animation, documentary and fiction.

Centering on the Israeli war in Lebanon during the early 1980s, “Bashir” is more than writer/director Ari Folman’s diary of his experiences as a young soldier caught in insanity of war. Unable to remember key sections of his time in battle, he sets out to interview comrades and strangers alike in an attempt to recover his own memories.

Folman accomplishes this through hypnotic animation that is somehow both hyperrealistic and dreamlike. The slow-moving images, which resemble cut-out photographs being slowly manipulated, are crude by Pixar standards. But this simplicity lends an evocative note to the horrible events they portray.

The DVD comes with a robust set of extras, which shed light on the process by which a combination of real people and actors were videotaped, and that footage was then animated using a combination of traditional animation, Flash animation and 3-D techniques. In the short but information-dense making-of documentary, we learn among other things that chief animator Yoni Goodman switched from drawing with his right hand to his left because he felt the results were “too pretty.”

For those who want more detail on the animation process, another feature shows the step-by-step transformation of four pivotal scenes from video to finished film. There's also a Q&A with Folman at the Cannes Film Festival.

And Folman supplies an engaging commentary track that adds new layers to the search for his lost memories. In one of the more amazing sections, he talks about how Israeli soldiers on leave would travel by helicopter from the frontlines of battle to quiet Jewish towns in 20 minutes, only to encounter residents who were barely aware of the war.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

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Monday, June 22, 2009

New on DVD for 6/23

Here's my weekly roundup of new releases on video, with handy links to purchase.

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Reeling Backward: The Stratton Story

Jimmy Stewart was not missing a leg, and he could not throw a big-league fastball. Despite this, he makes a fairly convincing portrayal of a real-life right-hander in "The Stratton Story."

This 1949 movie tells the real-life story of Monty Stratton, a promising young pitcher for the Chicago White Sox who had his right leg amputated following a hunting accident. Its shaky veracity pushes it more into the "based on a true story" category, as much of the facts have been changed around.

The film portrays Stratton as making a big comeback in the All-Star game a few months after his 1938 accident. In fact, Stratton never played major league ball again. The Sox took him on as a pitching coach for a few years, and then he tried to make a comeback throughout the 1940s, pitching on a variety of minor league and semi-pro teams.

Don't get me wrong: It's still very impressive that he was able to compete at a high level with a prosthetic leg -- and the crude wooden versions from 60 years ago, not the high-tech jobs they have now. But if you're going to make a movie about a one-legged guy who keeps playing in the big leagues, it would kind of help if he actually did.

It's like making a movie about someone with no arms who climbed Mount Everest, except he never made it closer than 500 feet from the summit.

But that aside, it's a pretty entertaining flick in that familiar vein of "humble country boy makes it big." The tone is very close to "Pride of the Yankees."

Stratton's wife is played by June Allyson, who also was married to Stewart in "Strategic Air Command," which I wrote about a few months ago and also had a baseball connection.

Not to rag on Jimmy Stewart, but his pitching motion is rather weak in the movie. I realize that an actor's goal is not to throw a 90 mph fastball, but to make the audience believe that he could. Well, in that regard they fail.

Director Sam Wood makes the bold choice of actually having his leading man throw the pitches himself, and shows the ball's progress all the way from mound to catcher's mitt in a single take. Stewart's throwing style is awkward -- he has a strange wind-up and virtually no follow-through. If this picture were being made today, you'd see the star in close-up winding up, then a bunch of fast edits to make it seem like the ball was screaming across the plate.

I liked the supporting performance by Frank Morgan as Barney Wile, a washed-up ex-ball player who discovers Stratton while he's hitching around the country as a train hobo. Stratton's meteoric rise also allows Barney to return to the game as a pitching coach. Morgan's crusty but warm-hearted presence lights up every scene he's in.

The redoubtable Agnes Moorehead plays Stratton's mother. Moorehead had a wonderful run as a supporting actress on film and TV, getting her first movie as the mother in "Citizen Kane."

I'd like to point out that Moorehead was only eight years older than Stewart, who was 41 when this movie was made -- 15 years older than Stratton was when he lost his leg.

3 stars

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Coming this week

Things are a little more up in the air than usual this week, as Jean and I are just getting back from visiting her folks in Connecticut. I'll try to shape up the outlook ASAP.

I'll have new movie review of "Transformers 2," which just couldn't possibly be as bad as the original -- could it?

The DVD review will be "Waltz with Bashir," which was nominated for best foreign language film for 2008 (and many people, including me, though it should have won).

I'll have a classic film review of "The Stratton Story," a Jimmy Stewart baseball movie, and possibly one other, if I get my rear in gear.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Fury"

"Fury" is one-half of a great movie.

This 1936 film was Spencer Tracy's big break-out role, and also marked the Hollywood debut of the great German director Fritz Lang, who had wisely fled to the States in the wake of Hitler's rising persecution against the Jews. Alas, his American films would never reach the pinnacle of "Metropolis" or "M."

The first, and best, half of "Fury" is an exploration of mob mentality, as innocent everyman is persecuted for a crime he didn't commit. The second half is a revenge story/courtroom drama, as Tracy connives to get his comeuppance against those who did him wrong.

The second half is not bad -- it's just that we've seen it a million times before. The revenge story is a common cinematic theme, in everything from "The Count of Monte Cristo" to "Darkman."

And the fact that Tracy's character, Joe Wilson, does not actually participate in the trial (because everyone thinks him dead) means he's essentially on the sidelines. So most of the attention is focused on his fiance, Katherine Grant, who does the whole damsel-in-emotional-distress thing. Perhaps this is not a coincidence, since Katherine is played by Sylvia Sidney, who was a bigger star than Tracy at the time, and in fact got top billing in the film.

Joe basically just hangs out in a seedy motel, listening to the trial on the radio, and occasionally manipulating events in his favor.

The first half is where Fritz Lang really shines. Joe is on his way to marry Katherine after a long separation, and gets pulled over by some bumpkin deputies. He bears a superficial resemblance to the description of one of a trio of kidnappers, so he gets hauled into jail until the district attorney can figure out whether he's really involved.

But one of the deputies, angry at being teased at the local barbershop about their lack of progress on the kidnapping case, blurts out that they've got a man in custody. A whispering campaign -- perpetrated mostly by women, interestingly -- soon reaches the ears of some rowdies at a local bar, enjoying the suspension of Prohibition. They convince themselves the man must be guilty, and don't want to wait for the law to take its meandering course.

The group keeps saying they just want to talk to Joe Wilson to ascertain the truth for themselves, but it quickly devolves into mob mentality, with a lynching the inevitable outcome. Meanwhile, Joe cowers in his jail cell with his dog, Rainbow, who escaped his own confinement to be with his master.

There's a great scene where the mob is confronting the sheriff, who refuses to give in. Lang sends his camera fleeing over the faces in the crowd, showing how their passion is stirred by the shared sentiment. It's as if the crowd is a dutch oven, melting the diverse ingredients into a single concoction, and heating it to boiling point.

Despite the way it careens into a totally different track halfway through, "Fury" is a worthwhile look at a rising star, and the devolution of the crowd.

3 stars

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: "The Proposal"

"The Proposal" starts out as a really great screwball comedy, with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds trading fast-paced zingers with enough snap and zest to make one recall "His Girl Friday." Then, inevitably, it contracts a case of the sappies and gets all serious and gooey, and lines up all the clich├ęs of the romantic comedy, and hits them like tripwires.

Bullock plays Margaret Tate, the boss from hell, who clocks around her New York publishing office in high heels that herald doom on the march. Indeed, the cubicle worker drones send text alerts that pop up on every computer when she's on the move, warning "the witch is on her broom," so they can duck for cover.

It would be the duty of Margaret's assistant, Andy Paxton, to inform her about nasty messages like that, if he weren't the one sending them. After three years of mindless toadying, he's desperate to be promoted to book editor.

So desperate, in fact, that when Margaret curtly informs him that they're going to be married, he goes along with it. It seems she's a Canadian with immigration problems, and unless she gets hitched, and soon, she loses her job and her home. Andy extracts a promise to be promoted, so both of them look upon it as a mutually beneficial business arrangement.

Until, that is, they fly up to visit Andy's parents (Craig T. Nelson and Mary Steenburgen) in remote Sitka, Alaska, to play up the charade for an immigration investigator who smells fraud. Of course, while basking in the glow of Andy's good-hearted family -- not to mention forced to share a bedroom -- they suddenly realize that they are, in fact, in love.


Now, it is a long-standing Hollywood tradition to make us believe that a man and woman can fall in love in a matter of days. But frankly, Margaret and Andy are so much more entertaining when they hate each other, that when they start to exchange doe-eyed stares, it's a comedown.

Especially with so much delicious repartee flying, courtesy of rookie screenwriter Peter Chiarelli. I loved the moment when Margaret first sees Andy's parents' palatial home, and accuses him of being "an Alaskan Kennedy." Another funny bit is when they're boning up on personal information a couple should know about each other, and she quizzes him what her allergies are, and Andy immediately comes back with: "Pine nuts -- and the full spectrum of human emotion."

Director Anne Fletcher also does a wonderful job of staging a delightfully daffy scene where they catch each other in the buff. With so many movies using naked men for comedic purposes lately, it's nice to see Bullock get in on the nude (well, nude-ish) escapades.

There's plenty more funny stuff going on, including the town's lone Latino who moonlights as its only male stripper, and Betty White as Andy's rambunctious grandmother, who knits fertility quilts and performs Indian chants in the woods.

If only "The Proposal" had stuck to its excellent comedy instincts, and shunted the lovey stuff aside, it would have audiences begging to say yes.

2.5 stars

Review: "Easy Virtue"

I wanted to like "Easy Virtue" more than I did.

This new adaptation of the Noel Coward play -- the first one was in 1928, directed by a fledgling Alfred Hitchcock -- has all the ingredients of a delightful romp. You've got the war between the classes, as upstart American girl marries into upper-crust British society. Plus the fact that she's a proto-feminist who races cars and treasures her independence sets up lots of opportunities for puncturing the hot-air balloon of English aristocracy.

The movie revs up promisingly, but never quite seems to get into gear.

I have to say I think the problem is Jessica Biel in the starring role. She just doesn't have the ear for Coward's erudite dialogue and subtly serrated wit. Particularly standing next to accomplished thespians like Colin Firth and Kristen Scott Thomas, her line readings sound so ... well, read.

Her physical performance plays better. Wearing a platinum blonde bob and killer Roaring' 20s ensembles, Biel struts into a room with verve and style. It's the sort of role where everyone is supposed to stop what they're doing and pay attention to her, and Biel seems to welcome the stares.

Her character, Larita, has just married John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), the impressionable scion of the Whittaker clan. Their expansive summer home looks like something out of a picture book, but there's a rot in the foundation.

Mr. Whittaker (Firth) only reluctantly came home from the Great War, and the way he putters around the estate, unshaven and paying little attention to his wife or even their financial state, suggests that much of him remains permanently abroad.

Mrs. Whittaker (Scott Thomas) is all velvet and steel, an implacable foe hidden by a veneer of perfect manners. She takes an instant dislike to Larita, because of who she is but also because Mrs. Whittaker was vying to marry John off to one of the local aristocracy.

Their two unmarried daughters are Marion and Hilda (Katherine Parkinson and Kimberly Nixon), whose dimming prospects pushes them toward the apathy of their father and the domineering ways of their mother, respectively.

Director/co-writer Stephan Elliott makes an interesting choice to weave period pop songs into his scenes, sometimes even having the characters sing along with tunes like "Mad About the Boy" and "Let's Misbehave." Many of the songs are by Noel Coward and Cole Porter, and the sound is delightful, but sometimes the music intrudes on the film's mood rather than enhancing it.

The most enjoyment to be had out of "Easy Virtue" is the dialogue, especially the escalating ripostes and parries between Larita and Mrs. Whittaker. As more of Larita's past comes to light, their simmering feud turns to all-out war.

Elliott and co-screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins change around much of Coward's play, although the basic architecture remains, as well as the delicious barbs. "Have you had as many lovers as they say?" Mrs. Whittaker asks Larita, who replies, "Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me."

It's exchanges like this that make "Easy Virtue," despite its shortcomings, a modest delight.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

DVD review: "Friday the 13th"

If you're curious why they made a 12th "Friday the 13th" movie -- in this case, a remake of the 1980 original -- all you have to do is add some numbers.

According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, this movie cost $16 million to make. At a guess, the promotional and distribution costs doubled that number. Enough people hungry for a bloody slasher flick with a heavy dash of sex and nudity showed up on its opening weekend to record $43 million of ticket sales. It died quickly -- taking in barely more than half that the rest of its entire run. But when you add in foreign box office and video, it's a low cost/high return wager to bet on the "Friday the 13th" brand name.

Never mind that the hacks making these movies keeping insisting theirs is the last one. Heck, the subtitle of the fourth one in 1984 promised "The Final Chapter," only to fall off the wagon with the fifth, "A New Beginning." In 1993, the ninth film claimed it was "The Final Friday," and for eight years it actually was. But hockey mask killer Jason Vorhees came back again, and even squared off with the king of another horror franchise, Freddy Krueger.

This new one adds absolutely nothing to the formula, which everyone should know by heart now: Horny teens show up at remote Camp Crystal Lake for some sex and drugs, and are sequentially turned to filet mignon by the machete-wielding Jason. Rinse and repeat, and repeat again. There's no tension or build-up; just boo/gotcha moments followed closely by miscellaneous impalings and beheadings.

The DVD comes with an 11-minute making-of featurette that consists mainly of cast and crew talking delusionally about how great it is to be in the umpteenth "Friday the 13th" film. Plus, there are three deleted scenes, two of which are slightly different versions of existing scenes, including Jason's "death." That needs quotation marks, since this film's box office success guarantees he will live on in a new round of sequels. Kill us.

Movie: 1 star

Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, June 15, 2009

New on DVD for 6/16

Here's this week's handy-dandy list of what's coming out on video, with links to buy:

Reeling Backward: "Catlow"

Alright, here's something I didn't know existed (and probably would have been perfectly content never knowing): A Leonard Nimoy nude scene.

Yes, really.

It's from this 1971 Western starring Yul Brynner called "Catlow." I believe it's just been released on DVD for the first time. It's a moderately entertaining star vehicle for Brynner as a rapscallion cowboy bandit. There's so much humor and hijinks, in fact, that you'd almost have to call it a Western comedy.

Nimoy, fresh off the cancellation of "Star Trek," plays the heavy, a bounty hunter by the name of Bill Miller. Nimoy actually makes for a convincing villain, with his aquiline features and a full beard. He's sorta got that whole "evil Spock" thing going on.

Anyway, at one point Catlow corners Miller while he's in the bathtub, and there ensues a rather lengthy fight scene with Nimoy in the buff. I guess it's supposed to be an intense scene, but for obvious reasons I found it pretty hilarious.

And before you ask: No, you don't get see little Spock. Shame on you.

"Catlow" is based on the Louis L'Amour novel, and was directed by Sam Wanamaker with a screenplay by Scott Finch. They're both TV guys, and it shows. The level of humor is pitched right at television level, as are the production values in general. Although there are a few bloody spurt scenes, using that incredibly orange fake blood they used during that period.

The main interaction is between Catlow and Ben Cowan (played by Richard Crenna), a lawman with a warrant for Catlow's arrest. The two men are old friends -- and possibly once partners in crime -- who enjoy a bantering game of one-upmanship. Cowan repeatedly arrests Catlow, only to have Catlow escape with the aid of his gang or some clever sleight of hand.

Catlow's got a bead on $2 million in hidden gold, and Cowan is trying to recover it for the American government, with the Mexican army trying to stake its claim, too. Oh, and Catlow has a Mexican girlfriend whose loyalties are constantly in question. Nimoy is the X factor, hired by a Catlow enemy to take him out before the lawful authorities can nab him.

All in all, it's not a bad flick, although as I say the level of sophistication is pretty low. I enjoyed it in part just because I love hearing Yul Brynner talk; somehow I find it enjoyable and hoot-worthy simultaneously. Brynner was apparently mostly Russian, although he sometimes claimed Japanese ancestry in an attempt to seem more exotic.

2.5 stars

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Coming this week

They're not screening "Year One," the comedy starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, until Thursday night. Studios intentionally set late screenings so reviews can't make print deadlines, which is usually an indication that the movie's a stinker.

Strange -- the previews for the prehistoric buddy comedy are hilarious.

I will have reviews of "The Proposal," the new romcom starring Sandra Bullock, as well as "Easy Virtue," an adaptation of the Noel Coward play set in the Roaring '20s.

There will be a DVD review of either "Madea Goes to Jail" or "Friday the 13th," depending on what arrives first in the mail.

I'll have classic film reviews of "Fury" starring Spencer Tracy and "Catlow," a Yul Brynner Western.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Pumping Iron"

It is more interesting to talk about "Pumping Iron" than watch the movie, although as documentaries go, it's not bad. Make that "docu-drama," for in subsequent revelations about the 1977 movie that propelled the fortunes of Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular and weight lifting in general, its participants cheerfully admit that most of the film is fake.

Well, the intense training is real, as is the competition, such as it is. Although I must confess I am one of those people with a very narrow definition of what constitutes a sport. Basically, my rules are that a game must be won by objective criteria only -- most points scored, fastest time, etc. Anything where you go out and do your thing, and then after you're done some judges tell you how well you did, is by definition subjective and therefore not a sport. That knocks out about half the Olympic events.

But anyway, what I mean is that the 1975 Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe contests were not rigged, and therefore are real as depicted in "Pumping Iron." But virtually all the drama about Schwarzenegger as the playful, egotistic champion vying against the humble upstart, Lou Ferrigno, was brazenly manufactured in order to make the story more interesting, and therefore garner enough attention from financial backers to complete filming.

In the making-of documentary included with the film's 25th anniversary DVD, Schwarzenegger confesses that he was never worried about Ferrigno, who didn't even come in second. Schwarzenegger won his sixth consecutive Mr. Olympia title, and promptly retired from professional bodybuilding to pursue a career in Hollywood. Ferrigno went on to his own slice of fame as TV's Incredible Hulk.

Schwarzenegger also reveals that he lied about skipping his own father's funeral to train for a competition, and myriad other things he says or does in "Pumping Iron," simply to build up his persona. It's even revealed that Schwarzenegger intended to retire after his fifth Mr. Olympia title, and only went for a sixth so he could star in the movie.

Similarly, a lot of the other little conflicts in the movie were engineered by filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore, including the theft of a contestant's T-shirt by a competitor in order to psyche him out. Although how these hulking giants, who must go through shirts like dental floss, could be so upset about a missing T-shirt as to throw off their performance is beyond me.

I don't necessarily blame Butler and Fiore. The film is only about 84 minutes long, and as Schwarzenegger himself says, if all you had was footage of them lifting weights and posing, it would get very boring rather quickly.

Still, "Pumping Iron" is a watershed in filmmaking because it not only shined a spotlight on the weird little subculture of bodybuilding, but actually made it acceptable for mainstream society. Suddenly, action movie stars all had to be bulging with inflated muscles.

Now to bodybuilding itself.

I have always considered bodybuilding ridiculous, puzzling, and harmful. Watching the movie, we are presented with a group of men whose most ardent passion is watching themselves in the mirror. They lift weights not to grow stronger, but to look stronger. Take a look at the bodies of Olympic weightlifters, and you'll see they bear little resemblance to the tanned, swollen limbs and torsos popping with veins of the bodybuilders.

Then there's the posing. They practice for endless hours in the mirror, smearing oil on their bodies and tanning in the sun. Then they gather together for a flex-off.

A sport? This is narcissism organized into competitiveness -- two of the worst traits of masculinity.

3 stars

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New podcast: Moldy remakes

Our new podcast is now up and ready for your listening pleasure over at The Film Yap.

This week's topic is moldy remakes -- when they take a movie or TV show from 20, 30 or more years ago and decide to breathe new life into it.

You can listen here, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Review: "Pelham 1 2 3"

The remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" manages a curious thing: A hostage standoff in which the audiences identifies with both the criminal and the representative of order whose job it is to take him down.

John Travolta plays the subway terrorist, who icily executes hostages while spewing some wild babble about getting revenge on the city of New York. Decked out in a handlebar mustache and neck tattoo, Travolta de-glams with a vengeance for this role, even eschewing the hair pieces he's been wearing in recent years for a thin patch of scruff.

And yet, there's something about the dude, who calls himself Ryder, that makes you want him to succeed -- or at least keep his game going a little longer. Perhaps it's his don't-give-a-flip puckishness, and his stated ambivalence about whether he lives or dies. Yes, he's doing this to get rich, demanding $10 million in one hour before he starts killing innocents.

But Travolta's impish performance stresses Ryder's perverse sense of pride. He feels like he was persecuted for the sort of corruption that is a matter of course in the city's corridors of power, and before his own wick burns out he wants New York's lords of power to know he knows they're all the same.

Denzel Washington plays Garber, a dispatcher for the city's rail department. In the 1974 original, Garber, played by Walter Matthau, was a transit cop who had to negotiate the byzantine bureaucracy of municipal government to prevent people from dying. Here Garber is a nondescript worker drone, who gets tangled in the mess only because he's the one who answers the radio when Ryder calls in with his demands.

Garber is immediately likeable. He's highly competant at his job, unlike the political flunky who runs the dispatch headquarters. And when Ryder offers to let all the hostages go in exchange for the mayor (played by James Gandolfini), it's Garber who ends up putting his own neck on the line. That earns the respect of Ryder, who calls him "the last friend I'll ever make."

Most of the movie is a verbal game of cat and mouse as Garber keeps talking to Ryder, while navigating the increasingly deep political web in which he gets tangled. At one point, we learn some information about Garber that would cause us to lose respect for him. But the way in which this tidbit is drawn out only makes us root more for him.

There's a great scene where they're trying to rush the $10 million to the subway before the deadline, and there's some intense cross-cutting of Ryder issuing threats over the radio with the police car carrying the money careening through city traffic, getting into increasingly serious mishaps along the way. Suddenly the mayor turns to his aide: "Why didn't we put the money in a helicopter?" It's the sort of thing smarter audiences demand of dramatic thrillers, so we feel good that someone onscreen saw fit to ask the question -- even though it is never adequately answered.

"Pelham" was directed by Tony Scott from a script by Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River"), and manages to be a better-than-average potboiler, while offering a tantalizing first-time pairing of two veteran actors. Travolta and Washington skillfully play off each other, even though we don't see them together till near the end. The wait, and the ride, is worth it.

3 stars

Buy tix for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen!

Review: "Imagine That"

It's hard to even remember now when Eddie Murphy was the most cutting-edge comedian on the planet. In his stand-up bits and early film roles, he pulled out daring riffs that brazenly touched the third rails of race, gender and social divisions, and paved the way for guys like Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle.

I don't mind that Murphy has morphed into the king of family comedies. He's nearly 50 now -- though he barely looks different from his "48 Hours" days -- and even the hippest prankster must give way to daddy roles. But sometimes, as in his new film "Imagine That," it frankly seems like he's not trying very hard.

"Imagine" is the sort of film that's aimed squarely at children, but will leave most children bored for long stretches. As for the parents, they'll appreciate some of the tender moments where Murphy, playing a bad dad who works all the time, learns to bond with his daughter and live life a little.

But that probably leaves 80 of the movie's 105 minutes that don't seem to be made for anyone.

The movie's saving grace is Yara Shahidi, who plays Murphy's daughter, Olivia. She's cute as can be, of course, but also manages to project some pretty complex emotions for a tyke.

Olivia's problem is that she's living in a fantasy world, and doesn't want to come out. With the aid of a special blanket called a Goo-ga, she communicates with a trio of princesses and a queen. This causes big problems at school, and between daughter and father. It doesn't help that Evan (Murphy) is a financial investor who lives, breathes and eats his work.

When his ex-wife Trish (Nicole Ari Parker) asks him why he even agreed to become a parent, he mumbles that "I didn't think I'd be so bad at it."

Lo and behold, it turns out the Goo-ga really does have magical powers, and can help Evan pick the right companies to invest in. He needs the help, because his workplace rival is Danny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), an American Indian who works some hokum about "dream sparrows" and mystic waterfalls into his pitches, and wows the clients.

So soon Evan is doing things like dancing in public and singing ridiculous songs to appease some invisible fairies with names like Sapata and Kupata, and delighting his daughter in the process.

Little kids will likely giggle at the notion of a grown-up acting the fool, but often these scenes devolve into moments that are just plain uncomfortable -- such as when Evan sneaks into a neighbor's house where Olivia is at a sleep-over so he can steal the Goo-ga for a big presentation he has the next morning.

It's hard to imagine that we used to look forward to a new Eddie Murphy movie, instead of wondering if it'll be tolerable. "Imagine That" manages to meet our shrunken expectations.

2 stars

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Stars with scars

I've been thinking lately about stars with scars.

Hollywood being as obsessed about looks at is, you'd think that having a noticeable facial scar would be an impediment to stardom. In fact, a number of very famous film actors have survived and thrived in the movie biz despite having damaged features.

For the purpose of this discussion, I'm limiting the topic to stars with scars on their face. Elizabeth Taylor had a tracheotomy scar on her neck, but that's easy to hide with jewelry and makeup.

In modern times, no scar is probably more famous than the one on Harrison Ford's chin. The actor got it in the 1960s during a car accident, and it's become such a part of his onscreen persona that they've actually written it in to several of his characters. In "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," a young Indiana (played by River Phoenix) is shown getting the scar while trying to handle a bullwhip for the first time.

Similarly, Humphrey Bogart's mouth was probably the most distinctive thing about him. His scarred lip and slight lisp are the result of an altercation with a prisoner while he was in the military police (according to the most prevalent version of its story). Coupled with his strained, gravelly voice, his damaged mouth gave his speech a slightly indistinct character.

Van Johnson's career nearly ended, along with his life, when he was in a serious car crash while shooting "A Guy Named Joe," which was to be his big breakthrough role. Co-stars Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne reportedly insisted that Johnson not be kicked off the film, and he was absent for a long time while a metal plate was put in his forehead. The scarring smoothed out considerably as the years went by, and in photos taken in the 1950s and beyond you can hardly make it out, but it's extremely noticeable in "Joe" and "The Caine Mutiny."

I've read various accounts of the deep vertical mark on Joaquin Phoenix's upper lip. Seeing as how it runs from his nostril to the opening of his mouth, it would seem to be a harelip, otherwise known as a cleft palate. Phoenix himself has claimed it is merely a birthmark. My guess is it's the resulting scar from corrective surgery performed when he was a small child. If you Google cleft palate surgeries and look at photos of how people with this condition looked before and after surgery, you'll see features that greatly resemble Phoenix's.

In male actors, scars like these are usually seen as distinguishing marks that make them stand out from the thousands of other handsome actors trying to make it big. Some women have found success despite facial scars, although they tend to be small and less noticeable than the men's.

I have to admit that I didn't even know Tina Fey had a scar until several years after she was on "Saturday Night Live." The scar on her left cheek is the result of a random knife attack that happened when she was a child. With Hollywood makeup and lighting, it's barely noticeable, and Fey apparently does not like to talk about it.

Sandra Bullock has a small but rather deep scar beside her left eye. It reportedly was the result of normal childhood rambunctiousness when she fell into a creek.

Diane Lane has a scar very similar to Bullock's, but near her right eye. I haven't been able to find anything about how she got it.

I've always thought Queen Latifah is a very attractive woman, despite not conforming to mainstream standards of beauty. She has a rather large vertical scar on her forehead, the result of tripping over a phone cord while playing with her brother at the age of three, gashing her head open.

UPDATE: I made this little collage of star photos myself, and in retrospect should have made it much larger. In the photos I selected, their scars are quite visible. But it was a big pain in the keister, and frankly I'm too tired to redo it.

Review: "Anvil! The Story of Anvil"

The act of watching "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" lies somewhere between schadenfraude and sob story. At times you feel guilty pleasure at watching the pathetic story of a pair of heavy metal rockers who are somehow both has-beens and wannabes. The next moment, you feel sympathy as their hopes of fame and fortune keep getting raised and then dashed.

Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner had a dream when they were teenagers, one millions of teens have had: To become rock 'n' roll stars. Now it's more than 30 years later, they never made it, and brutal truth be told, this real-life "Spinal Tap" is not good enough to make it. Except they're still pursuing the dream with all the vitality and self-delusion of a 15-year-old shredding chords in a garage somewhere.

The doc is directed by Sacha Gervasi ("The Terminal"), who used to be a roadie for Anvil back when they were on the cusp of fame.

He opens in 1984 at a huge metal concert in Japan featuring bands that would all (except one) go on to sell millions of records. Figures like Lars Ulrich from Metallica and Slash from Guns N' Roses talk about how Anvil influenced them, and put on live shows that made them envious.

Cut to today: Kudlow, known to everyone as Lips, is trudging through the Canadian snow delivering meals to schools. Working for a catering service doesn't pay much, but it's a steadier gig than playing music in tiny bars in front of a couple dozen fans.

The film really belongs to Lips, even though Robb is supposed to be an equal partner in their boyhood fantasy. But Lips is such a compelling figure, so utterly guileless and naked in his desire to make it big, that at first one thinks the whole movie is a put-on.

Soon it becomes clear, though, that he really has sacrificed everything for the gods of rock, and truly believes that someday they'll smile on him.

Others, including Robb, are not convinced. Robb's sister puts it flatly: "It's over. It's been over for a long time." Even Lips' wife, while completely supportive of his dreams, seems to recognize his chance was blown.

The film follows the band through one disappointment after another. Their manager, the girlfriend of one of the temporary band members, books them on a disastrous European tour. She barely speaks English and can't even arrange adequate transportation. When Lips stands on a metro station, staring forlornly at the empty tracks and says, "We missed our train," his yearning hits the audience like a power chord.

The absolute low point comes when they arrive two hours late for a gig, put on a show for the handful of people who remain, and Lips nearly gets into a fight with the club owner who refuses to pay them.

They start work on a new album -- their 13th -- by borrowing money from a relative. The pressure drives a wedge between Robb and Lips; but we sense it is fleeting, because there have been a hundred such quarrels like this before.

"Anvil! The Story of Anvil" is sad, funny, touching, and loud.

3 stars

Monday, June 8, 2009

New on DVD for 6/9

Here's my weekly roundup of new video releases, with quick links to buy:

Reeling Backward: "Battleground"

I just can't believe "Battleground" was made in 1949, a mere five years after the actual Battle of the Bulge, which it depicts.

I admit I'd never heard of this movie until recently; it's one of those lost classics that gets overlooked over the march of time. Perhaps you'd be as surprised as I was to learn that it was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and won two, for screenwriting and cinematography.

What's surprising about it is how gritty it is, and how realistically bitter the soldiers are portrayed. It's really, really raw stuff -- if it were not for the black-and-white cinematography and the presence of a few name actors of the era, like Van Johnson, James Whitmore and Ricardo Montalban, one would swear it was made during the peacenik '60s.

The head sergeant, played by Whitmore, gets frostbitten feet but can't get a medical evac because Army regulations say your feet have to change color first. Another soldier named Pops gets a discharge due to family hardship, but he can't get out because he needs one final letter from HQ, and it gets lost in the mail before the Bulge squeeze starts.

One of the most touching bits has to do with Van Johnson's character, Holley. He gets some eggs from a nice French woman's barn, but they're ordered to ship out before he has a chance to eat them. For the next few days, he carefully cradles the eggs in a cloth, even under gunfire. He starts to cook the eggs in his helmet over an open fire, but again the call comes to move out, so he pours the batter into his meal tin and carries that around for a couple more days. At one point he's ordered out on patrol, and gives the eggs to another soldier to guard, with the offer to split them. Finally, the eggs are blown up in a mortar blast.

I love stuff like that because it has such verisimilitude -- a fancy word I learned in college that I translate as "more real than real." You can just imagine real G.I.'s behaving this way, carefully hording little things like eggs or a letter from home that reminds of the sane life that awaits them across the seas.

"Battleground" was directed by William A. Wellman, who also helmed "The Story of G.I. Joe," from a script by Robert Pirosh, who mostly was a TV guy. The cinematography was by Paul Vogel, and is truly a watershed in American cinema. The stark black-and-white of soldiers fighting in the snow, with images that just seem to pop off the screen, makes the film seem timeless.

The tone of the movie reminded me very much of "Willie and Joe," the iconic cartoon strip penned by Bill Mauldin in Stars and Stripes during the war. Mauldin drew the regular soldiers, or "dogfaces" as they called themselves, as unshaven, surly and tough regular guys who loved to poke fun at the insanity of Army rules and bureaucracy. In one of my favorite strips, Willie says to Joe that because he saved his life, Willie was giving him his most prized possession: His last pair of dry socks. "Battleground" exactly captures the mindset of guys in the foxholes like Willie and Joe.

One of the other main characters is Jarvess, played by John Hodiak. Jarvess was a newspaperman who kept writing columns about how important it was for every American to get into the fight against the Axis, so he felt compelled to volunteer himself. He eagerly awaits copies of his newspaper sent by his wife, who is filling in as columnist. Jarvess is ostracized from the other grunts, partly of choice, because of his intellectual bent.

Marshall Thompson plays Jim Layton, the fresh-faced kid who just joined the outfit. At first he's unbelievably green, but in short time he becomes a grizzled veteran, and one of the most cynical at that. At one point he surprises the platoon with an acerbic monologue degrading the Army and even the existence of God.

There's a great moment where the soldiers are pinned down, and Holley suddenly breaks away and runs to the rear. Layton follows him, assuming he's going AWOL. Holley does indeed start to sprint toward the rear, but when he sees the rookie following him, he quickly turns and runs toward the enemy line, outflanking them and forcing their surrender.

In showing the gray line between heroism and cowardice, and its stark realism in peering at the face of war, "Battleground" stands out as one of the best World War II dramas I've seen.

4 stars

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Hangover" destroys "Land of the Lost" at the box office?

I just can't get over this.

"Land of the Lost," which was supposed to be the big movie of the week, eked out about $19 million this past weekend. For one of the biggest comedies of the summer, starring Will Farrell, that's just pathetic.

Meanwhile, "The Hangover" is on course to gross something like $43 million -- without a single name star to its credit.

I should point out that "Up," in its second week of release, beat both movies with about $44 million.

New this week

Not quite as insane as last week, but still quite a lot of new reviews and views coming here.

I'll have reviews of "Imagine That," the new comedy from Eddie Murphy, plus the hostage drama "The Taking of Pelham 123" with Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Also the documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" about a heavy metal band made up of has-beens who never were.

I'll also have a DVD review of "Gran Torino" and possibly "The International."

And this week's classic movie reviews will be "Battleground" and "Pumping Iron."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"Funemployment" a little whack

I suppose someone had to write it: The story about how great it is to be unemployed. Read it here.

I thought I'd offer my $0.02. It's a good time to do so, as this week marked six months since I was laid off.

It's difficult to even comprehend that it's been that long. There's not a day that goes by that I don't wake up and think to myself, "If I can get moving, I can make it to the office by 8 a.m." Then I remember there's no office to go to -- at least that wants me.

My first month of unemployment, I thought about money nearly all the time. After a couple of months, and the checks from the state started rolling in and we got Jean's house rented out, it became clear that we would be OK financially, as long as we tightened our belts and cut back on a few things.

Although now I have to worry about unemployment benefits running out. It's sobering to think that if I'd been taking the maximum every week, I'd have run out by now. Because I've been doing some freelancing, that gets deducted from my benefit and, as a result, essentially makes it last longer. I understand the federal bailout includes a provision for an additional term of benefit, but frankly I'm not the sort of person who is content to remain on the public dole indefinitely. I don't feel ashamed about being in this position -- especially in a state where 10 percent of the people are in the same boat -- but it doesn't make you feel great about yourself, either.

"Funemployment?" That sounds a little perverse to me. I have not used this situation to lay out at the beach, take up golfing or wallow in other leisure activities. I'm watching a lot more movies, but I try to write about everything I see for my web sites. Yes, I often enjoy doing it, but I see it as keeping my writing skills sharp, and hopefully building an audience for my work.

When I was a kid I complained that I was bored all the time, but as an adult the concept of boredom eludes me. There are always things to do, books to be read, new skills to sharpen.

I think about what I've done in the past week that I never could have done before. I recorded, edited and posted a podcast. I worked with html code, edited photos. I even arranged advertising -- something I thought I'd never do.

So even though I think I've been using my time productively, and I'm happy about the new skills I've picked up, I would still have rather been working my job and drawing a check all this time. And if a reporter came to me and asked me if I'd been having lots of fun since I lost my job, I would politely ask her if she was from another planet.

OK, I'll fess up to one fringe benefit. Just last night, I was saying to my wife that for probably the first time in my life, I'm consistently getting eight hours of sleep a night. As a result, my energy level is through the roof -- I pretty much have to force myself to go to bed, because I'm not really tired.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Review: "Land of the Lost"

Two words: Sleestak porn.

Yes, in case you were wondering how the film version of "Land of the Lost" would go, it's full-out Will Farrell bumpkinness coupled with gross-out humor perfectly pitched to the mentality of a 14-year-old.

Thus, there's a scene where Farrell and his gang witness a pair of the slow-moving reptile man knocking boots ... er, claws. Mercifully, it's more implied than seen, since this is a PG-13 flick.

Look, it was obvious to all concerned that the only way to translate this phenomenally cheesy time-traveling kids' show from the 1970s to the big screen was to go the parody route. I mean, would you rather have seen a super-serious version with a lantern-jawed hero and a ton of CGI stunts?

Well, there's still plenty of computer-aided action, mostly due to a grumpy T-rex that chases around Ferrell, Danny McBride, girl scientist Anna Friel and Chak-Ka -- a prince among the ape-men. That's pretty much the whole movie -- big action scene interrupted by goofy one-liners from Ferrell and McBride.

A few jokes hit the mark. There's one bit where Ferrell gets bitten by a prehistoric mosquito, which proceeds to suck out enough blood to supply a small blood bank. And in another genuinely funny scene, Ferrell instructs his team to douse themselves from a large jug of dinosaur urine in order to hide their scent, which turns into an inquisition about how exactly he acquired said urine.

But the rest of it is pretty dreary stuff, and there are long stretches where the movie drags almost to a dead halt.

I don't mind the idea of making fun of kitschy old TV shows. But if you're going to do that, it should at least be ... fun.

Reminder: Catch the Captain on WFYI

Just a reminder that I'll be hosting the "Film Soceyology" show at 5 p.m. today on WFYI 90.1 HD2. Joining me will be Joe Shearer, my partner from The Film Yap.

If you don't have satellite radio, fret not: You can listen to the feed live by clicking here.

Review: "Tyson"

The idea of spending 90 minutes alone with Mike Tyson probably scares most people half to death. But "Tyson," the new documentary by James Toback about the infamous boxer, surprises with its fascinating portrait of a compelling and unexpectedly sympathetic figure.

The movie is essentially the audience alone with Tyson, looking directly into the camera and talking about his life. There is some archival footage, old photographs and home movies. But for the most part it's just the man, talking unblinkingly about the rage inside him, and how he's struggled -- usually unsuccessfully -- to master it.

Toback (who last directed the tidy erotic thriller "When Will I Be Loved" starring Neve Campbell) employs overlapping split-screens as he weaves together more than 30 hours of footage of the ex-champ. Even though Toback has known Tyson since he was 19, the director wisely does not impose himself in the picture. Rather than appearing as interlocutor, Toback provides the answers while eschewing the questions.

That's why the film has such a confessional feel to it -- a man trying to make a new start in life by unburdening himself of his grotesque past.

The Tyson we see before us barely resembles the 20-year-old who became the youngest heavyweight champ in 1986. Gone are the gold teeth, '80s fade haircut and playful public persona. Tyson is older, lumpier, and with the Maori facial tattoo he got an a whim, he resembles a grizzled junkyard dog with a jigsaw face. The brutal physique that earned the label "Iron Mike" is gone; when he pulls up his shirt to reveal another tat he got while in prison, his belly lops over his belt.

Right away, he startles us by revealing that he was a shy kid who was bullied and robbed in his rough neighborhood. He took to boxing, and later to street thuggery, as a way to protect himself, psychologically as much as physically.

The relationship with elderly trainer Cus D'Amato, who died right before Tyson won his first belt, is fleshed out satisfyingly, despite being a familiar story. Many have wondered, as Tyson himself does, if he still would have wallowed in the excesses of sudden fame and fortune if his mentor were around a little longer.

Tyson also touches on his short-lived marriage to actress Robin Givens, a public spectacle that he takes responsibility for, while deflecting some of the more outrageous claims.

The infamous ear-biting of Evander Holyfield is explored in full. While not in any way excusing himself, Tyson's account shows how some foul tactics by his opponent, coupled with Tyson's feelings of persecution, drove him to "just want to inflict pain" -- simultaneously degrading himself and his sport.

Interestingly, the one misstep Tyson refuses to acknowledge is his rape of a Miss Black America contestant in Indianapolis, for which he served three years in prison. He refers to the victim as "that wretched swine of a woman." Why he would freely admit to all the other shameful things he's done in his life, from robbery to drug abuse, without confronting this one, is perplexing.

But that's the often mesmerizing portrait we see in "Tyson," a contradictory figure who went as high and low as one can go in his sport, and in life.

3.5 stars