Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: "Funny People"

"Funny People" should come with a warning announcement: "And now folks, a serious moment with Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow."

Yes, this is the movie where the dudes behind "The Waterboy" and "Knocked Up" team up and get all weepie.

Sandler plays a thinly-disguised version of himself, a massively successful star of mainstream comedy films, who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. He hires a young wannabe comedian, played by Seth Rogen, to be his assistant/friend, and sets about to learn him some life lessons.

This formula actually works for awhile, as the big star and the young schlub bond. George Simmons (Sandler) teaches Ira how to hold his own doing stand-up, and Ira helps George see that there's more to life than his opulent mansion and anonymous hook-ups with female admirers.

There's also some pleasant byplay with Ira's roommates, who are both much more successful than him. Jonah Hill plays another comedian, and Jason Schwartzman has become the star of a horrible television comedy called "Yo, Teach!" Oh, and there's a girl comedian (Aubrey Plaza) for whom Ira is laying out a three-month seduction plan, but the Schwartzman character gives him 10 days to make a move before he turns on the star charm.

So the movie is humming along quite nicely, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, a little bit of serious stuff with George's illness, and then Ira and George take a trip to Marin County to look up an old girlfriend of George's, and the movie flushes itself right down the toilet.

The visit to see the girlfriend just goes on, and on, and on, until you realize it's taken up almost an hour of the film's ungodly 145-minute run time. The old saw about Judd Apatow movies is that they go on 20 minutes too long, but "Funny People" qualifies for a multiplier.

I hate to say this, but I think this section is only in the movie because the old girlfriend is played by Leslie Mann, who is Apatow's wife in real life. And although she's a talented performer, the whole concept of the girlfriend trip just kills the movie. She's married (to an Aussie played by Eric Bana) and has two daughters, and because of George's illness she convinces herself they're still in love.

This happens right after George learns that his disease has gone into remission. I'm not giving anything away here; this twist is in the trailer. I just find it ironic that it's only after George learns that he's going to live that "Funny People" becomes a death march.

The one truly interesting thing about this movie is that it seems to be making fun of Adam Sandler, or at least his movies. There are numerous clips from made-up flicks like "Merman," in which he's a half-fish, and "Re-do," where he has the body of a baby but his regular head. It's made clear that no one actually thinks these are funny, and yet they are essentially barely-disguised take-offs of Sandler's actual movies.

Since Sandler and Apatow were roommates when they were first breaking in, it raises the question of what the former roomies really think of each other's work. Based on "Funny People," they should have ditched the reunion.

2 stars

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where are all the Metromix boxes?

I work out at the Cardinal Fitness in Broad Ripple, so it's usually a pretty easy affair to swing by any of the 6,792 banks of newspaper boxes where the free papers are distributed. My gym also keeps a rack of Metromix, the Indy Star's weekly "youth" tabloid, inside the main door -- although not, for some reason, the city's alternative weekly, NUVO.

(For those who can't keep up with all the changes, INtake begat the Magazine, which begat Metromix Indy. And despite the Star's insistence that it's aimed at young readers, every reader survey I ever saw showed the average reader was in their late 40s.)

But last week, I picked up my usual copy of NUVO, and noticed that the red Metromix box was gone from its usual spot on the corner of College and Guilford. So I started walking around to another one of the collection of boxes -- same thing, no Metromix. They still had the Metromix rack inside my gym, but it only had last week's edition.

Finally, after searching around I eventually found a Metromix box with a current edition in it. But that still doesn't explain where the rest of them went. Without exageration, there used to be at least a couple dozen of the red boxes spread throughout Broad Ripple. I can only find two now.

Have they been stolen? Pulled by the Star? I'm wondering if the Star is intentionally cutting back on distribution of Metromix as a cost-saving measure. Interestingly, they had an humorous item in the paper a few weeks ago saying that their box by Jimmy John's had been swiped, and asking for its return. Did the rest follow suit? Is this happening in other areas, too?

If anyone hears about what's going on, please leave a comment.

Reeling Backward: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp"

First of all, he never dies in the movie, so I don't know what's up with the title. Second, he's not a colonel -- when we first meet him he's a lieutenant, and then a brigadier general, and then a major general. Presumably he was a colonel at some point in between. Finally, no one ever refers to him as Blimp.

"The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" may have a head-scratching title, but it's a fine movie nonetheless. It turns out co-screenwriters/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- who made many films together under the name "The Archers" -- picked up the name of a popular comic strip by David Low. It's an original story, though, with little relation to the cartoon character other than a physical resemblance.

The character's name is actually Clive Candy, although it later becomes Clive Wynn-Candy after he marries. The movie plays out in a flashback structure, with a framing device set in the present (that is 1943, when the film was made). Major General Wynn-Candy, commander of the British Home Guard, is captured at a Turkish bath by an unscrupulous young lieutenant, who has begun a training exercise six hours prior to the command of, "War begins at midnight." The young officer's reasoning is that in order to win this war, the British military must leave behind its gentlemanly rules for the underhanded tactics of their German foes.

Wynn-Candy objects -- his creed is that "right is might," and that winning without honor is worse than losing -- and he tussles with the much younger man. The time then shifts to follow Wynn-Candy's career over the last 40 years.

These flashbacks are divided into three sections, set in 1902, 1918 and 1940. Montage sequences separate them to show the passage of time, marked by increasing number of animal head trophies appearing on the walls of the avid hunter.

The first, and longest, sequence is also the best. As a young lieutenant just returned from the Boer War, Candy (Roger Livesey) is shocked to hear that a German mercenary is spreading unsavory propaganda about the British. He travels to Berlin and meets with an English duchess (Deborah Kerr) working in Berlin. He confronts the mercenary and manages to insult the entire German army, which causes more than 80 German soldiers to draw lots for the honor of dueling him.

As it happens, the German chosen to duel him is Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Both end up rehabilitating from their wounds in the same hospital, and become great friends. Candy nearly has his upper lip sliced off in the duel, and to conceal the scar he grows a long mustache, which becomes his trademark. Both men find themselves in love with the duchess, but Candy withdraws gallantly so that they can marry.

Only later in life does he learn how much he regrets this decision. Moving into the 1918 section, Candy is now a brigadier general in World War I, and happens across a young nurse (also played by Deborah Kerr) who bears a striking resemblance to his former love. He arranges to meet after the war, and they marry despite a 20-year age difference. Now named Wynn-Candy, he goes to a prisoner of war camp to reunite with Theo, who has been captured. Their meeting is stilted, as Theo believes Germany will now be humiliated and subjugated by the conquering British.

In the final sequence, Theo has fled the Nazis in Germany. With his wife now dead, he considers England the closest thing he has to a home. He meets again with Wynn-Candy, who has a young female driver (Deborah Kerr, again) who looks just like both their dead wives. Wynn-Candy is set to give a speech on the radio about the fall of Dunkirk, but political influence causes it to be cancelled and the general forcibly retires.

Interestingly, this somewhat mirrors the real political tensions caused by the making of the film. Winston Churchill, who may have thought Colonel Blimp was a thinly-veiled caricature of himself, reportedly tried to have the movie canceled during production.

The physical transformation from 30-year-old lieutenant to 70-year-old general is totally convincing, especially for a film made in 1943. Livesey was actually 37 at the time of the film, but gets the manner and movements of an older man down to a T.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Colonel Blimp," although at the end of the film I'm not really sure it has added up to much of anything other than a lively tale. Livesey gives an engaging performance, but we never really get to know Wynn-Candy beneath his officious facade.

3 stars

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Review: "Food, Inc."

You probably could guess this from the title, but if you're thinking of doing the dinner-and-a-movie thing with "Food, Inc.", don't make the mistake of scheduling the meal after the entertainment.

And this new documentary by Robert Kenner is entertaining, though also very sobering in its exploration of how the American food industry has moved from a farm-based endeavor to a corporatized near-monopoly that values speed and low cost over healthfulness.

It's also a film that makes it very clear from the outset that it has a point of view -- pro-organic food, pro-independent farmer, anti-corporation, anti-industrialization. The opening narration, after all, claims that we've reached a situation where "both the animals and the workers are being abused."

Kenner's tendency to lecture rather than explore occasionally bogs down his argument, as is the near-total absence of perspective from the big food companies (who, unsurprisingly, decline to talk). Even if one swallows his perspective, as I do, the unrelenting one-sidedness of "Food, Inc." adds an unpleasant tang to an otherwise intellectually satisfying meal.

Divided into sections with titles like "Fast Food to All Food" and "Shocks to the System," the documentary talks to farmers, food safety advocates, industry representatives and notable pundits like Eric Schlosser, writer of "Fast Food Nation," and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan.

There are images from inside the massive food-processing plants, including some surreptitiously recorded by employees, that demonstrate what a nasty, impersonal and often unsafe place it is through which our food passes. This is contrasted with an organic farmer who slaughters and cleans chickens behind his house while delivering a pointed critique of industrial methods.

Statistics are let fly that frighten and enlighten: In 1972, the FDA performed about 52,000 food safety inspections; today, that number is around 9,000. It's no surprise that cases of food contamination like E. coli are on the rise, as testified to by a mother-turned-advocate whose 2-year-old was dead 12 days after eating tainted hamburger.

There are also sections explaining what goes into delivering that 99-cent burger to your local fast-food chain, and the prevalence of corn-based products in nearly everything we eat.

One of the most jaw-dropping stories is that of Moe Parr. A chemical company named Monsanto holds patents on genetically-modified seed of crops like corn and soybean, and threatens litigation against any farmer who dares to save any of his seed corn for re-planting -- as has been done for generations. Parr is a 70-something who tows around an 1800s contraption that cleans seeds, so the company is suing him, even though his customers are the holdouts who refuse to use the altered seed. Still, his legal bills mount to the point he is forced to settle.

Kenner ends the film with a litany of exhortations against a black screen, urging viewers to buy food locally, use organic products, etc. "You can change the world with every bite" is the final message. It's a powerful one, although it would be more palatable if it didn't sometimes feel like it was being shoved down our throats.

3 stars

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Catching up with "The Hurt Locker"

"The Hurt Locker" is possibly the best-reviewed film of 2009, and it finally opened in Indianapolis last Friday. Alas, no screening was made available to local critics.

I caught it today and it's a fine, fine film, though perhaps some reviewers have overinflated their opinions a bit. It happens all the time -- a few early influential critics in New York and LA rave about a film, it slowly creeps out to the marketplace, and more and more people feel compelled to pile on the bandwagon.

I'll certainly add it to my watch list for Top 10 movies of the year (if you're interested, the others currently on that list are "The Soloist," "Adventureland," "Moon," "Watchmen" and "Up"). But I wouldn't say it's at the top.

Perhaps the reason people are reacting to it with such enthusiasm is that "The Hurt Locker" is the first movie about the war in Iraq that doesn't seem to be playing politics or simply using the conflict as a backdrop to make a larger point. It's the "Platoon" for this generation -- a film about this war, these soldiers, their particular life-and-death challenges.

The story is set in 2004, the height of the insurgency and when sober minds on all sides of the political spectrum thought the whole thing might devolve into chaos. Into this blend of paranoia and fear steps Will James (Jeremy Renner, in a terrific performance), a bomb specialist who lives on the edge of insanity, and thrives on the adrenalin rush of risking his life every day to prevent things from blowing up.

Under his bed at barracks he keeps a large crate of electronic gizmos -- everyday stuff you could buy at Radio Shack, is how a fellow soldier puts it. These are parts of bombs that James has defused, ones that were especially challenging. He hates these contraptions designed to take life, but he also admires cleverly-designed bombs.

James is assigned to a bomb squad after their last specialist was killed in the film's opening sequence. (The dead bomb expert is played by Guy Pearce, one of several prominent actors who appear in small roles, including Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Evangaline Lilly.) Anthony Mackie plays Sanborn, whose job is keep James safe, and is put off by his reckless ways. Some people would call the risks James constantly takes bravery, but Sanborn is the careful, seasoned soldier who knows they're just foolhardy.

The third member of the team is Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a young soldier who's worried about whether he has the mettle to do what it takes in the field. Eldridge blames himself for his former bomb expert's death -- he saw the bomber waiting to set off the explosion with a cell phone, but failed to act -- and is receiving counseling from an Army psychiatrist. Eldridge challenges the doctor to come out in the field and witness what they have to put up with every day, which leads to tragic results.

The scenes that stick out most in audiences' minds will probably be the sequences that take place with James working in a special suit designed to protect him from a bomb blast. With its layers of Kevlar and helmet, it resembles an astronaut's gear. As James walks alone down dusty streets, checking piles of junk for bombs, it seems like he is traveling through an almost alien landscape. Director Kathryn Bigelow, a master of kinetic action scenes, keeps the audience on edge, expecting an attack or explosion from any angle.

For me, though, the scene that will stay with me is a firefight the bomb team gets into out in the middle of the desert. They meet up with some British intelligence officers and get pinned down by sniper fire. There's a long stretch where James and Sanborn are waiting to see if all the enemies are dead, with Sanborn manning a massive scoped rifle and James acting as his spotter. It's a reversal of their normal roles, where James is the showboat and Sanborn is there to back him up. James, choking on the heat and dust, asks for the last juice pack. Slowly and methodically, he opens it up and punctures the juice with a straw, then leans over and puts it to Sanborn's lips so he can drink without taking his eyes off the scope. These two soldiers have been at odds up till now, even exchanged blows, but it's in this moment that they truly become comrades.

"The Hurt Locker" is a tough, unsparing and brutally honest portrait of the war in Iraq. Let's hope there are more to come.

3.5 stars

DVD review: "Fast and Furious'

The "Fast and Furious" franchise comes full circle with the fourth film, which reunites original cast members Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez as gearheads driving tricked-out cars through an improbable and seemingly endless series of chases.

Justin Lin, who also directed the third movie, "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," delivers an aggressively stupid action film in which all the women are hoochies with ample cleavage and booty shorts, and all the men are so overpumped with machismo that every exchange of dialogue becomes a duel of glares and snorts.

The cars are the real stars of the movie. Both Diesel, as criminal Dom Toretto, and Walker, as undercover fed agent Brian O'Conner, drive a variety of cool vehicles during the course of the movie, nearly all of which end up in a pile of twisted debris. Toretto's black Charger makes a return from the first film, along with a number of American muscle cars and tuner imports.

The plot involves Dom and Brian infiltrating a Mexican heroin-smuggling ring. There's a big race to determine who will get to join the faceless drug lord's crew of drivers. Dom wins, but then Brian inexplicably is allowed to come along too, which kind of renders the race pointless. It's undoubtedly galling to the drivers who crashed during that race, at speeds that must have left them in the hospital, or mortuary.

"Fast and Furious" comes in single- and two-disc versions. Both include a gag reel and director's commentary by Lin, which tends to stick to pedantic shot-by-shot descriptions.

The two-disc version also includes a digital copy of the film, a short movie called "Los Bandoleros" about Central American crime, and a variety of making-of featurettes. One shows Vin Diesel attending stunt driving school in preparation for the shoot, will another is a breakdown of how they shot the opening heist of a big rig towing five fuel tankers.

Movie: 1.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, July 27, 2009

Reeling Backward: "On the Waterfront"

Everyone's personal filmography contains some holes, and "On the Waterfront" was one of the biggest in mine. I'm glad I plugged it.

Some movies fade with time, or their setting or stories become antiquated. Right before I started watching "Waterfront" I put on another Marlon Brando movie, "Teahouse of the August Moon," and didn't get 10 minutes in before I turned it off. I'm sure it's a fine film, but I was too put off by Brando portraying a Japanese man, complete with eye prosthetics and pidgin English ("Sank you velly much.")

"On the Waterfront" has an immediacy and punch that renders it timeless. Even the setting of New York dock workers intimidated by mobsters feels like it could have jumped out of a New York Post headline in 2009.

Nowadays the film is remembered for one thing: Brando's performance, captured in the famous "I coulda been a contender" speech in the back of a taxi. It is indeed a knockout, and Brando embodied an entire new way of embracing film acting. Up until him and his ilk, movie performances were essentially seen as stage acting that is recorded. So everything is big and broad. Brando's more naturalistic approach makes you believe that Terry Malloy is just another street hood who shrugged his way into our lives.

The contender dialogue is great, but the moment of the film that floored me is when Father Barry, the priest played by Karl Malden, stands at the bottom of ship's cargo hull and gives a sermon over the body of a dead worker who's just been killed by a falling load of whiskey. It was made to look like an accident, but everyone knows he was offed for daring to testify against the corrupt union bosses. Malden stands there, his speech slowly building from a benediction to a call to arms, even as mob chief Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) stands at the top and glowers. Some of his flunkies throw vegetables and even bottles at Father Barry, but he keeps on thundering away. Terry decks one of the mobsters for throwing stuff at the brave priest, and this is the real turning point for his character, the moment of truth when he decides to defy the bosses.

Johnny Friendly looks upon Terry as something of an amusing pet. A former boxer, Terry took a dive at the orders of Friendly, who had fixed the betting, and became just another palooka with a bent nose and swollen eye sockets. Friendly tosses him cush jobs like a master turning over his scraps to a dog. Terry isn't really a member of the inner circle, but his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly's right-hand man. So they get nervous when Terry falls for Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a guy he unwittingly set up to take the fall for Friendly's enforcers.

You want to talk about a great cast? "On the Waterfront" had three Oscar nominations for best supporting actor -- Malden, Steiger and Cobb. Brando won for Best Actor, and Eva Marie Saint won in the supporting actress category. Not to mention Academy Awards for best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and art direction.

Director Elia Kazan had one of the truly great careers, although his heyday only lasted from the late 1940s until the early '60s. He's reviled in some circles for testifying against fellow filmmakers in the McCarthy hearings. But his influence as a filmmaker is undeniable. Just watch -- and listen -- to any of the outdoor scenes, where the churn of machinery in the background seems almost timed to the rhythms of the dialogue, like another musical score beneath Leonard Bernstein's (also nominated for an Oscar).

"On the Waterfront" deserves its reputation as one of the greatest American films, ever.

4 stars

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Obligatory "Coolest Wedding Procession Ever" clip

Yeah, I know this is getting linked all over the place, but still I want those who haven't seen it to experience the coolest wedding entrance ever.

If you google around you'll find that the whole thing was the bride's idea, which somehow makes it even better.

I think I like it even more that the participants are obviously normal gals and guys who aren't the most beautiful people in the world or the best dancers. It just lends it a note of authenticity.

Jean and I went the traditional route when we got married last year, but I'd love to think I had the stones to pull something like this off. Probably not.

New this week

Look for reviews of "Funny People," the Adam Sandler comedy directed by Judd Apatow, and "Food, Inc.", a documentary about the U.S. food industry.

The DVD review will be "Fast and Furious."

For classic film reviews, I will have "On the Waterfront" -- a movie I had never seen -- and "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp."

In a programming note, I'm trying to imbed preview videos of all movies I review right here on the site. I'd love some feedback on whether you think that's a helpful feature.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Indy Film Fest: Prince of Broadway

As you may know, Joe Shearer and I were each jurors for the Indianapolis International Film Festival. As such, we felt it was best that we not review the feature films for the category in which we were judging. (I did American Spectrum; Joe was on the feature documentary panel.) I had already written reviews of two of the movies in my category. Now that the festival has given out its awards, I felt it was OK to publish them here.

A street hustler, his boss, his ex-girlfriend and the baby she unceremoniously dumps on him -- that's the extended family spotlighted in "Prince of Broadway," which explores the underbelly of the Big Apple, finding both harshness and tenderness.

Lucky (Prince Adu) is an illegal immigrant from Jamaica who works the street. His stock in trade is not drugs, but cheap knock-offs of designer purses, coats and shoes. A natural charmer, Lucky entices clients off the streets into the shop run by Levon (Karren Karagulian), himself an immigrant from Lebanon. Hidden in the back is a special room with the loot. Levon watches the streets for police while Lucky works the customers.

Lucky's relationship to Levon is more older/younger brothers than father/son. Levon is even willing to slip some money into Lucky's pocket and give him the day off when trouble comes his way.

That trouble arrives in the form of a toddler, whose mother shows up one day and informs Lucky that he is the father, and he must watch the boy for a couple of weeks while she's busy. This happens right in the middle of a transaction between Lucky and two middle-aged white women, who doubtless will have a story to tell when they get back to the suburbs.

Lucky is stuck. He doesn't believe the child is his -- the boy, who he eventually dubs Prince, is light-skinned while Lucky himself is dark as a moonless night. And he can't call the authorities since he's in the country illegally. So the only solution is to continue his street hustling with a baby in tow, which puts a bit of a damper in his business. It also throws a wrench into his relationship with his current girlfriend, who is educated and uncomfortable with his life of petty crime.

He's infuriated and frustrated with the situation he's in, but Lucky isn't a bad guy. He tells Prince that he knows he is just an innocent, and will stick by him.

In a parallel storyline, we observe the deterioration of Levon's marriage to his wife. She's a dancer and much younger than he, and it's clear that she views her marriage as one of convenience, and whose benefits have become decidedly one-sided.

Director Sean Baker, who co-wrote the script with Darren Dean, has a sharp ear for street dialogue -- much of which was improvised in coordination with his cast. The saga of Prince and Lucky is a compelling one, but the Levon segment feels stitched on. The film probably would have been better served by centering on Lucky's story, with a few hints about his boss' personal life.

Still, "Prince of Broadway" is a sharp and emotionally rich look people getting by on the fringe of society, eager for an easy score but still willing to do the right thing.

3 stars

Indy Film Fest: Sita Sings the Blues

As you may know, Joe Shearer and I were each jurors for the Indianapolis International Film Festival. As such, we felt it was best that we not review the feature films for the category in which we were judging. (I did American Spectrum; Joe was on the feature documentary panel.) I had already written reviews of two of the movies in my category. Now that the festival has given out its awards, I felt it was OK to publish them here.

Following in the wake of "Persepolis" and "Waltz with Bashir," "Sita Sings the Blues" continues a promising trend of animated films telling international stories that aren't intended for just little children. This breezy conconction of Indian folklore, 1920s American torch songs and filmmaker Nina Paley's personal life, all told in a vibrant and varied hand-drawn style, is an unlikely combination that somehow seems like a perfect blend of diverse ingredients.

This movie is a sheer delight from beginning to end.

The story is based on The Ramayan, a piece of Indian mythology by the ancient poet Valmiki. It is the story of the great hero-king Rama, who goes through a series of arduous hardships, but told from the perspective of his wife Sita. From the feminine side of things, Sita displays an astonishing amount of patience and unconditional love. After being kidnapped by an evil king, she refuses his advances and his eventually rescued by Rama and an army of monkey warriors. But Rama sees Sita as tainted by her association with another man -- even after she faces a ritual trial of fire to prove her purity.

Paley uses a wonderfully original method to tell the story. She has three modern Indians, represented as silhouettes, setting up each segment of the story and commenting on it, often hilariously. Then it switches to a musical interlude depicting the action to the tune of bluesy songs such as "Who's That Knocking at My Door" and "Am I Blue?" by the great jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. It's amazing how the lyrics of the various tunes jibe so well with the Indian epic.

Intercut with all of this is Paley's story of her own love gone sour. Told in a minimalist style, her own heartbreak parallels that of Sita, as well as providing the inspiration for this mash-up of Indian and American iconography.

Paley -- who wrote, directed, animated, produced, edited and did pretty much everything else but provide the music and voices -- employs a variety of animation styles. Each of them is distinct, and yet we immediately recognize the major characters at first glance. There's one style for the songs, another for the narration, and a distinctly different one for the New York sequences.

I can't begin to describe how vibrant and innovative this film is. Nina Paley has given us a major triumph. "Sita Sings the Blues" will knock your socks off.

4 stars

Friday, July 24, 2009

Johnny Got His Gun

It's been said that every war movie is an anti-war movie, but I'm not sure that's true. "The Green Berets" is an overtly pro-war movie, with John Wayne making the case for American involvement in Vietnam. Even "Saving Private Ryan" and other films that extol the tremendous human cost of war do so through thrilling action scenes that are often as attractive as they are repulsive.

Dalton Trumbo's 1971 film "Johnny Got His Gun" is the epitome of a truly anti-war movie. Made during Vietnam but set during World War I, it looks contemptuously upon not only those two wars but all armed conflict between men. Old men are meant to sit at home and send young men to war to die, is the explicit message. Even the defense of democracy is something to be sneered at.

The protagonist is the ultimate figure of sympathy: An injured American G.I. Not only that, but he's injured so badly that almost no one would want to continue to live in his condition. But the Army doctors keep him alive as a way to help scientific research of traumatic injuries.

Joe -- played by Timothy Bottoms, in his very first film role -- has lost both his arms and both his legs, and even his face has been obliterated -- "scooped out" by an artillery blast, to use his words. He cannot talk, eat, smell, see or hear. In essence, he is a stump of flesh attached to a brain, but one which cannot communicate with the outside world. All he can do is move his head a little, and feel vibrations when someone walks into his room.

The thought of living like this is abhorrent to most people, including me. Unable to connect with the real world, Joe spends most of his time remembering his life, or dreaming, or a hallucinatory combination of the two. Joe has long conversations with his father (Jason Robards), who offers him some advice on his current predicament. He also gets some help from Jesus (Donald Sutherland), who chats with Joe and some of his fellow soldiers, who all seem to know how and when they will die.

Trumbo, who had one of the great screenwriting careers, also directed this film -- his only stint behind the camera. It's too bad, because he showed himself to be an able and imaginative director.

For instance, he makes the bold choice to portray all the present scenes in gauzy black-and-white, which lends them a somewhat dreamlike feel, while Joe's hallucinations are crisp and colorful.

The film plays out as something like a parable, with Joe as the pure and innocent who has been used shoddily by an uncaring world devoted to war and power. It would make a wonderful play, with Joe never emerging from beneath his mysterious tent of white hospital sheets and mask to hide his destroyed face.

(UPDATE: After writing this, I find that actor Ben McKenzie has done a stage version which is also being turned into a film.)

The military doctors keep Joe carefully locked away from the rest of the population, surmising that his condition would shock and anger other wounded soldiers. One nurse is sympathetic, though, and opens the shutters and strokes his forehead and unmarred chest tenderly.

"Johnny Got His Gun" isn't a film for everyone. It's not overtly violent or gruesome, but the horrid existence of this unfortunate young man is in some ways more disturbing than the goriest horror film. Such is war.

3 stars

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: "G-Force"

It's hard to play nice with a movie like "G-Force." Yes, I know films like this areCheck Spelling designed for audiences that are only a small fraction of my age. It features cute computer-generated critters who act out, dance to hip-hop music and engage in noisome bodily functions that are eternally delightful to those who measure their years in single digits.

But is it too much to ask for a kiddie flick that's at least passably endurable for parents and other grown-ups? I know not every children's movie can be "Finding Nemo," but is "The Rescuers Down Under" too high to aim?

"G-Force" is about a group of guinea pigs who are trained as secret agents for the government. Oh, there's also a mole who hangs out underground and handles the computers.

The rodents' voices are done by Tracy Morgan, Penelope Cruz, Sam Rockwell, Steve Buscemi and Jon Favreau, so you know exactly what kind of character each is doing. Morgan does an Ebonix-spewing dude named Blaster; Cruz is the saucy Latina Juarez; Rockwell is the heroic team leader Darwin; Buscemi is a nervous guinea pig accused of ferret ancestry; and Favreau is the chubby non-spy pig with delusions of awesomeness.

The actors appear to have recorded their scripted lines, and then spent some studio time reeling off non-sequitar exclamations that are then animated into the action scenes. So you'll see CG guinea pigs flying through the air or running from explosions, and they'll say something that doesn't even fit the moment.

Anyway, the plot: A scheming industrialist (Bill Nighy) has cooked up some plan named Clusterstorm that will activate the computer chips he has secretly embedded in his vast array of consumer electronics. They set a 30-hour countdown, at which point he will activate the plot and all the gizmos will do something ... well, we don't know what, but really nasty.

Problem: After at least a dozen references to the ever-dwindling time count, Nighy finally sets things in motion by pushing a button. At one point he even shows off the button he's going to press. Question: If you have a button that can do what you want right now, why do you need a countdown? Why wouldn't you just push the button immediately?

I should mention that the human leader of G-Force is played by Zach Galifianakis, who played the man-child in this summer's biggest sleeper hit, the raunchfest "The Hangover." I can only hope there's no crossover audience.

1 star

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

New trailer for "Thirst"

Here's a trailer for a new vampire flick called "Thirst." I guess the nosferatu are the object of our affections these days.

Review: "(500) Days of Summer"

"(500) Days of Summer" is a thoroughly charming romantic comedy that's not built like a standard romantic comedy.

There is no contrived meet-cute moment. There is no long and arduous delay before they realize they are in love, with unlikely obstacles preventing the recognition of their passion. There is a big stumbling block that comes along to drive them apart, but it does not play out like a Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock vehicle.

The stars are Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two twentysomething Gen-Yers with quirky personas and indie film cred. We believe them as a couple, and we believe them when they're threatening to split up. Their connection and the dissolution of it are both convincing, and entertaining.

Gordon-Levitt plays Tom, trained as an architect but working at a greeting-card company as a writer. I liked how even though this occupation is supposed to represent a dead end in Tom's life, it's still presented as a pleasant to work filled with people who get more fulfillment out of writing pithy sayings for cards than Tom does. Clark Gregg plays the boss, and when Tom is going through a rough patch with Summer he politely inquires about his employee's black mood, and switches him over to funeral and sympathy cards. In today's labor environment, this man qualifies as a saint.

Tom's life changes when Summer starts working at the company. He's totally smitten with her, but tries to hide it behind a veil of nonchalance. His dude-friends (Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler) and precocious preteen sister (Chloe Moretz) urge him to go for it. Tom would probably keep on dithering, until Summer corners him in the office copy room and plants a kiss on him.

Marc Webb directs from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. All are relative newcomers (this is Webb's first feature film, and the second for the writers, who also paired up on this spring's "Pink Panther 2"), and bring a fresh voice and breezy tone to this genre.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with the title referring to how many days since Summer and Tom first met. It switches all around, though, so early on we know that they break up, at least temporarily, somewhere in the low 300s. Days 50-100 or so are the magic time, when they're in that "stupid love" phase, trying out the beds at the IKEA store while people are watching them.

Summer is upfront with Tom, explaining that she doesn't want a relationship right now. But he's a bit of a romantic, believing that the minute he laid on Summer he knew she was the one for him.

There's a magical scene where Tom is overjoyed after his first night with Summer, which builds into a big musical number in the park that bears a suspicious resemblance to the one in "Enchanted." I nearly fell over laughing when he checks his reflection in a window, and he's feeling so great he sees Han Solo staring back at him.

I won't say anything about how "(500) Days of Summer" ends, other than it's probably not what most people are expecting -- but it feels right. This delightful, smart and funny flick just fits.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

DVD review: "Coraline"

"Coraline" is a delightful movie, and it's always a delight to see a film get a first-class video release right out of the gate.

The two-disc collector's edition DVD has almost everything a fan of this stop-motion animation gem could desire. To start with, it includes both 2-D and 3-D versions of the film. (Four sets of cardboard 3-D glasses are included with the DVD, though they're a bit flimsy. Far be it from me to suggest swiping sturdier plastic ones from a current showing of "Up.")

It also includes a digital copy of the film for legal downloading to your portable video device -- something that should be standard issue with DVDs, as far as I'm concerned. Luckily, studios seem to feel the same way and are including it with more DVD releases, and on most Blu-ray discs.

A 35-minute making-of documentary details the painstaking way in which animators move puppets frame-by-frame to lend the illusion of motion. There's also a featurette on casting the voice actors -- I hadn't even realized that John Hodgman (the "I'm a PC" guy from those TV commercials) supplied the graceful voice of the father -- and several deleted scenes.

A commentary track by writer/director Henry Selick and composer Bruno Coulais provides plenty of behind-the-scenes details. Selick says he was pressured to do the film in a half computer-generated/half stop-motion format, but successfully resisted. And he reveals that Dakota Fanning was nine years old when she was cast as Coraline, but was 14 by the time they finished.

The story, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is about a girl who moves with her two workaholic parents to a dreary boarding house. She discovers a passageway to an alternate world where her "Other Mother," "Other Father" and all their neighbors are much friendly versions of themselves -- except for their creepy button eyes, which portend sinister developments.

In the mold of Selick's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Coraline" relies on gloomy imagery to weave a joyous tale of visual splendor.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 4 stars

Monday, July 20, 2009

No more weekly video blast

I've decided to stop doing the weekly roundup of new video releases, for two reasons: 1) It was time-consuming, and 2) I never made any money off of it.

Fear not, I've still got a source for weekly DVD releases for you videophiles out there!

We've added a new feature to The Film Yap that we're calling Couch Potato Cinema. In it, our amazing intern Amanda provides a brief summary of what's new this week.

You can access the weekly video list here.

Reeling Backward: "Harold and Maude"

"Harold and Maude" is short, simple and perfect.

I first saw this wonderful movie in college, when I was about the age of Harold, the death-obsessed protagonist who falls in love with an 80-year-old woman. I figured it would be an absurdist comedy -- a 20-year-old boning a woman four times his age?!? -- but instead discovered a joyous movie about living life to its fullest, and in your own way.

I got to thinking about it again while reviewing "Adam's Rib," which Ruth Gordon co-wrote. It's astonishing to think that she was such a talented screenwriter -- thrice nominated for an Oscar -- and then transitioned into an onscreen performer. She'd made bit appearances here and there, but really launched her acting career in 1965, just shy of her 70th birthday.

Think about that. It sounds like a parlor joke: "Well, I got too old to be a writer so they made me an actress instead."

She went onto two more Oscar nominations for acting, including a win for "Rosemary's Baby." She was not nominated for her performance in "Harold and Maude," though, which is a travesty since it's the performance of her career.

Maude is a force of nature, but never feels like a cinematic contrivance. This vivacious, impish oldster meets Harold, who like her enjoys anonymously attending the funerals of strangers. She steals cars as a way of shaking people out of the comfort of their normal lives.

There's a great scene where Harold makes her a button at the carnival that says, "Harold loves Maude." She calls it the best present she's received in years, then immediately flings it into the harbor. He looks at her with astonishment: "Now I'll always know where it is."

The humor in the film comes from the tension between Harold and his mother, who wants to marry him off, or see him join the Army, or do anything besides mope around and pretend to kill himself. The scene where she invites a blind date for Harold, who arrives at their mansion only to see Harold apparently immolate himself, is a comedy classic.

People tend to think of "Harold and Maude" as a Hal Ashby film, but he merely directed it. It was dreamed up by Colin Higgins as an original screenplay -- his first feature film. He also wrote "Silver Streak," "Foul Play" and "Nine to Five" before dying young in 1988.

The final topping on the cake for this film is the soundtrack, comprised mostly of Cat Stevens songs. They just seem to capture the essence of the movie, in much the way the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack did for "The Graduate" a few years earlier.

"Harold and Maude" is a movie about love, and hope. Even though the two main characters seem obsessed with dying -- one as an escape, the other as a release -- it is only because they found so much in life that made it worthwhile.

4 stars

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New this week

Things are (thankfully) slowing down a bit here. Good thing, because I'm a bit fried -- OK, I'm complete toast -- after all our Indy Film Fest coverage. Please keep heading back to The Film Yap as we continue our coverage through the end of this week.

For new reviews, I'll have "(500) Days of Summer," a nonconventional romantic comedy. I should also have a review of "G-Force," a G-rated hamster action flick. For the DVD review, it will be the stop-motion animation flick "Coraline."

(By the way, we're giving away 11 -- count them, 11 -- DVDs of "Coraline" over at the Film Yap.)

For classic film reviews, I'll have "Johnny Got His Gun" and "Harold and Maude."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hilarious Bruno recording

I saw this and had to link/embed it. As one observer put it, more hilarious than anything in the movie itself.

Back in the day as an assistant manager at a movie theater, I recorded plenty of these messages myself -- although I never had as much leeway as this guy's bosses gave him.

My little bit of news

I innocently made a post on Facebook last week, saying I'd just gotten a very pleasant phone call. I got somewhat swarmed with inquiries about whether I'd gotten a new job, or at least a job interview, or whether Jean and I were pregnant. The answer is no to all of the above.

Apologies for ratcheting expectations up so high. So here's the real news. It's not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it still made me very happy.

I won first place for A&E Commentary in the annual American Association of Sunday and Features Editors contest. This was for a series of film reviews that appeared in The Herald-Tribune of Sarasota, my chief freelance client. I believe it was for reviews of "The Tale of Despereaux," "Speed Racer" and "Nights in Rodanthe."

Your average news consumer probably doesn't give a hoot, but in journalism circles it's a fairly big award. The AASFE are the biggest, most prestigious awards geared specifically to features journalism.

I'm very pleased, of course. In the current situation, every little bit of spackling to the facade of my professional dignity is most welcome.

You can read my winning reviews here, here and here.

Another video clip from "9"

I've posted about this forthcoming movie before, which I'm eagerly looking forward to. It's an animated film based on an Oscar-winning short from a few years ago. Check it out.

The film, appropriately enough, is being released on 9/9/09.

Reeling Backward: "Panic in Year Zero"

The early 1960s were the height of the Cold War, when the possibility of nuclear annihilation was a very real thing. We tend to look back on that era with a bashful nostalgia -- duck 'n' cover and all that. But to the people who lived in that time, the idea was pervasive that even if they survived a nuclear war, they'd have to struggle to survive in the chaotic aftermath.

"Panic in Year Zero" exists as a perfect document of those fears and mindset. It has a fairly mild message to it, personified by a typical middle-aged dad who finds himself doing all sorts of terrible and callous things in order to ensure his family's survival. "I went looking for the worst in others, and instead I found it in myself," he realizes near the end.

The father is portrayed by Ray Milland, who also directed the film. Nearing 60, paunchy and with a not very convincing hairpiece, Milland was in 1962 nobody's idea of a matinee idol. But he had a lengthy career, first as an able leading man -- he won the Best Actor Oscar for 1946's "The Lost Weekend" portraying a chronic alcoholic -- and then segueing into roles in cheap, schlocky films, and finally a third act on television. In all, he worked steadily for more than 55 years. Few could say as much.

I haven't been able to find any information on the budget for "Panic," but it's rather obvious that it was a cheapie. The entire cast probably doesn't number even a couple dozen, and most of it was shot outdoors as the family roughs it after the nuclear blast destroys their home in Los Angeles.

I have to admit to a certain affinity for stories like this, where people wander the wasteland after society's rules have broken down, and they must impose a new order of their own making. Stephen King's "The Stand" remains one of my favorite books, and "The Road Warrior" is a film I return to year after year, always finding something new.

The Baldwins were on their way to a weekend getaway when the mushroom cloud appears behind them. The father quickly surmises that they've got to find a safe place to hole up. After dodging insane traffic on the highways, the father takes increasingly desperate steps to protect his wife and teenage son and daughter.

First they buy a ton of groceries. When the hardware store owner won't let the father purchase handguns without a waiting period, he robs him. When a price-gouging gas station owner attempts to charge him $3 per gallon of gas -- how outrageous! -- he punches him out and takes off without paying. Later, he even lights the highway on fire so they can stop traffic and get across. At least one innocent motorist is consumed in the flames.

They finally find a cave, and set about building a stable camp life. Even when radio broadcasts announce that the military has set up refugee camps, Mr. Baldwin refuses to budge. It's more than about safety. The father has seen his world turned upside down, and his own vision of himself as a civilized man, too. At least out here I have some measure of control, he says, even though there are looters and rapists about.

"Panic in Year Zero" isn't a particularly good or bad movie, but the enjoyment in watching it today comes from the peek it gives us into Cold War mindsets of that era. The way people thought probably closely resembles how we all felt in the days after Sept. 11. It's been almost eight years without another large-scale attack on American soil, and it's amazing how fast complacency has crept up on us again. Somewhere in between paranoia and ignorance lies wisdom.

2.5 stars

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New podcast now up at The Film Yap

This week's podcast is about the state of the Harry Potter saga. How does "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" fit into the grand scheme? Is it wizardly or Muggle-born?

Listen to it here, or subscribe on iTunes by searching for "thefilmyap."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The day Michael Jackson caught fire

I was never a slobbering Michael Jackson fan, and all the coverage over his death got old for me on about day two.

But here's an amazing, never-before-seen video of a little-remembered incident from 1984 when some pyrotechnics set Jackson's hair on fire. It's really scary stuff, and quite graphic.

You can see him still dancing even after flames are leaping off his head, which is disturbing. And there's a clear shot of his now partially bald head and singed scalp after the incident.

UPDATE: Sorry, but I took the video down. It was set to auto-play upon opening the page, and the laundry bleach ad got a little annoying for my taste.

If you want to see the vid, you can just click here.

Indy Film Fest starts today!

The Indianapolis International Film Festival kicks off today with a screening of "(500) Days of Summer." Things really kick into high gear tomorrow, when a full slate of movies starts showing.

The biggest change this year is that it has changed locations to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. There are only two theaters, but with a single consolidated venue there will be as many screenings this year as last.

We have been working our butts off over at The Film Yap to provide extensive coverage with reviews and interviews. Keep coming back every day of the festival, as we'll be highlighting different material as we go, and adding more.

Make sure to head over to the festival's Web site to check out movies and showtimes. Then come back to The Film Yap for news and views!

Review: "Rudo y Cursi"

I'm not sure if I can remember a movie that started out so strong and took such a misguided turn as "Rudo y Cursi." This saga about two brothers who are picked literally off a dirt field to become national soccer stars begins as an insightful and vivacious portrait of rural Mexican life. Once they become rich and famous, though, it quickly devolves into a predictable and tiresome morality play that feels like a close cousin of those trashy telenovellas.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna became international stars when they starred in "Y Tu Mama Tambien" eight years ago as lusty graduates out for a wild spin. "Rudo y Cursi" reteams them along with Carlos Cuaron (brother of Alfonso), who wrote the screenplay for "Mama" and this film, and also picks up directing duties.

Beto (Luna) and Tato (Bernal) are brothers -- or possibly half-brothers; it's not entirely clear -- who work collecting bananas in an outlying Mexican province. They're considered the best soccer (or football, as it's known everywhere in the world except the U.S.) players around, with Tato a flamboyant and prolific scorer and Beto (nicknamed "Rudo") a pugnacious goalie.

One day a recruiter named Baton shows up. While waiting for his flashy sports car to get fixed, he catches their game and immediately offers a pro contract -- but only to one of them. He already has too many clients and can only handle one more. The brothers agree to a penalty kick to decide, with the headstrong Beto instructing the somewhat dimwitted Tato to kick to his right. Alas, they get the my right/your right thing screwed up, and Tato gets the shot at the pros.

This infuriates Beto, since playing pro soccer has always been his greatest ambition, while Tato dreams of becoming a famous singer. Beto has his own problems, since he keeps gambling away the meager earnings his wife puts away for their two small children.

For awhile Tato rides the bench on his team, and Beto stews back at home. But then Baton calls up Beto for his own shot at fame, and Tato finally gets on the field and makes an immediate impact. Nicknamed "Cursi" by the media, soon he's got a swank house, a big SUV, a music video in rotation, and his girlfriend is the TV celebrity he used to slobber over back at his little village.

It's right around this time that the whole movie heads south. Given Tato's misplaced conception about both his musical abilities and the devotion of his lady, and Beto's inability to stay away from the poker table, the rest of the movie sets itself up exactly the way you would think. The last 45 minutes or is just waiting around for the inevitable to dominoes to fall where they must. Frankly, I was just waiting impatiently for the movie to end.

It's too bad, because the first half of "Rudo y Cursi" is as interesting and viscerally engaging as any film I've seen this year.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

The Harry Potter saga is wrapping up, so one should think the next-to-last film would feel like it's building toward something monumental. (Well, next-to-next-to-last. They're splitting up the seventh and final book into two movies.)

Instead, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is disjointed and rambling. It finally gathers itself up for a powerful and tragic final act. But it dawdles excruciatingly along the way.

For a story in which this universe's version of the dark lord, Voldemort, is closing his black fist around the magical world, "Prince" seems awfully concerned with kissy-face. I realize Harry, Hermione and Ron are nearly grown now, and the various romantic entanglements hold a great deal of charm for the legions of fans. Still, it's hard to build a forbidding mood with so much snogging going on.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the gang seem to be a in a good place as their sixth year at Hogwarts begins. They fought off a usurpation of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic that Voldemort was secretly behind. Harry's relationship with headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is stronger than ever, and the elder wizard enlists Harry's aid in dealing with Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), the newest Hogwarts professor.

It seems the doddering Slughorn has an important memory regarding Voldemort, who used to be a student of his, but refuses to share it. Harry's assignment is to get him to spill the beans -- or, in this case, the misty magic memories they can pull out of their heads.

Meanwhile, romance blooms unhindered among the student body. I won't belabor all the details -- mostly because I can't grasp them all myself. Suffice to say that Hermione (Emma Watson) loves Ron (Rupert Grint), who's too busy dealing with an overly aggressive admirer to notice. Harry in turn fancies Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), but doesn't want to rock the boat with his best friend.

The villainous work is left to Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who seems more foul-tempered around Harry than ever, and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Harry's schoolyard nemesis since the day he arrived at Hogwarts. For the first time, Felton is given more to do than sneer and bully, and reveals Draco as a more layered character than we've seen before. It's clear that he's doing Voldemort's bidding, and keeps tinkering with a magical contraption in the Hogwarts attic, but his true motives are unclear.

The film's title comes from a mysterious potions textbook Harry acquires early in the school year. Its former owner, who calls himself the half-blood prince, has scribbled all sorts of helpful notes in the book that allow Harry to excel at brewing magic, thereby impressing Slughorn.
Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, both Potter veterans, work their magic as best they can, but this chapter of the saga written by J.K. Rowling simply lacks cohesion. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is the spell that fizzled.

2.5 stars

DVD review: "Watchmen Director's Cut"

A quick programming note: I'm moving this review a week early; "Watchmen" hits stores on July 21.

"Watchmen," based on perhaps the greatest comic book ever, was bound to polarize audiences.

Ardent fans (like me) of the 1985 graphic novel loved director Zach Snyder's obsessively faithful adaptation of a morally ambiguous world in which super-heroes are more psychologically twisted than the villains they pursue. The rest of the cinema-going public was more or less indifferent.

Its video release is bound to cause more folks to take sides.

On July 21, it will be offered in a single-disc version that presents the theatrical version of the film. The simultaneous two-disc "Director's Cut" includes 25 minutes of additional footage, which push the run time past three hours.

That may be too much for casual audiences. But hardcore fans may want to wait until December, when an even longer "Ultimate Collector's Edition" will be released.

This will include a commentary track (absent here), a "motion comic" version of the graphic novel (already available), and "Tales of the Black Freighter," a pirate story that parallels the action in the original comic, which will be woven into the director's cut.

The extras with the director's cut are decent, but not overwhelming. There are 11 short featurettes that cover various topics on the making of the film, including how actor Billy Crudup wore a suit of glowing blue lights to portray nude superman Dr. Manhattan.

There's also a 30-minute documentary on the impact of the original comic, which includes the participation of illustrator Dave Gibbons but not writer Alan Moore, who has consistently refused to allow his name to be attached to this or any movie version of his work. And there's a music video by My Chemical Romance.

The additional 25 minutes only add to the film's richness, expanding some scenes and adding a few others that build up several main characters, especially Rorschach, the masked vigilante portrayed in a mesmerizing performance by Jackie Earle Haley. Most new scenes are integrated seamlessly, but one that stands out is the murder of Hollis Mason, aka the original Nite Owl. It packs one powerful punch.

Movie (theatrical version): 3.5 stars
Movie (director's cut): 4 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, July 13, 2009

14 days, 29 movies

Was just doing some adding and thought I'd share the results with you. I've been dropping hints about how much work I've been putting into preparing for the Indianapolis International Film Festival, in addition to my normal work load of reviews and commentary for my freelance newspapers and Web sites.

Anyway, here it is: Between June 30 and the end of tonight, I will have watched 29 movies. In addition, I will have written reviews for all but one of them. If you figure a conservative estimate of three hours to watch a movie and write the review ... well, you do the math.

Sunday was a typical day for me during this period. I woke up and went to the gym, came home, watched a movie and wrote the review. Then I did some household chores, then popped in another DVD, watched it. Then I cooked dinner, after which we took a walk with the dog, then back to write the second review. By this time it was 8 p.m. or so. I told Jean, "Guess what I'm going to do tonight? Not watch a movie!" But I lied. After playing some video games, I watched the first half of a classic film I'll be reviewing later this week.

So I guess I should call it 29½ movies.

By the way, for anyone who's considering the life of a freelance movie critic, here's how much I got paid for all this work: $100.

New on DVD for 7/14

Here's this week's list of new video releases, with handy-dandy links to buy:

Reeling Backward: "Sullivan's Travels"

"Sullivan's Travels" is a strange and wonderful movie. It's a film about filmmaking, and has been cited by numerous directors and screenwriters as one of their favorite films, among them Joel and Ethan Coen, who named their movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" after the name of the film that the protagonist in "Sullivan's Travels" wanted to make.

John Sullivan is a big-shot Hollywood director known for making light comedies that rake in money. This, of course, is an apt description of Preston Sturges, an successful writer and director of comedies who used this movie to comment on his own career.

Sullivan wants to give up comedies to make a big, important film, and by the end of his journey he learns that there's nothing more important than making people laugh. Sturges made a movie filled with slapstick and quite a bit of silliness, but also with a harsh eye toward the state of America at the tail end of the Great Depression and before Pearl Harbor.

Sully decides that he hasn't suffered enough to make a tragic picture, so he resolves to go out on the road as a tramp with only a dime in his pocket so he can experience the hardships of the common man. His heart is in the right place, but the execution is sloppy: He has a small pack of journalists, assistants and even a cook following him around in a recreational vehicle to make sure things don't get too hairy.

He runs into a failed actress played by Veronica Lake, in her first major film role. She's only credited as "The Girl." I was surprised to see that she was already wearing the iconic wavy haircut that became her trademark; somehow I would have thought that would come later. She's absolutely lovely, of course, and when she dresses up as a boy to accompany Sully on his travels manages to become even more adorable. Even better, she proves to be a crackerjack at comedy, tossing zingers with star Joel McCrea with some real crackle.

McCrea was known in 1941 as a poor man's Gary Cooper -- anything Cooper turned down, he got. So he was shocked to learn that Sturges wrote this role especially for him.

After recovering at Sully's mansion for a few days, they set out again and this time manage to encounter some genuine hard times. They sleep on a crowded floor, and Sully has his shoes stolen. Things really take a dark turn when the shoe thief later encounters Sully and knocks him cold and stuffs him into a train car. Then a trainyard bull beats him senseless, and when Sully recovers he bloodies the bull and gets sent to prison.

The swampyard jail sequence, despite taking up only a fairly short amount of screen time, packs a wallop of an impact. It seems to have inspired a whole generation of jail-themed movies, from "Cool Hand Luke" on down. The brutal chief guard, the toadying trusty, and the soul-draining work in the hot sun just leap off the screen.

I have to admit I warmed slowly to "Sullivan's Travels." It starts out very light and slapsticky, but gets darker and better the further it goes on. How ironic that Preston Sturges had to make a dramatic masterpiece to prove the value of laughter.

3.5 stars

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Coming this week

Another very busy week for the Captain.

I'm trying to keep up with my regular load of reviews and postings, despite having to spend much of my time preparing for the Indianapolis International Film Festival, which starts on Wednesday. In addition to planning some ambitious coverage over at The Film Yap, I'm also a festival juror.

Make sure to check out for reviews and news on the festival.

I'll have reviews of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and "Rudo y Cursi."

The DVD review will be the director's cut of "Watchmen."

For classic film reviews, I'll have "Sullivan's Travels" and "Panic in Year Zero."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Review: "Brüno"

"Brüno" is fun and outrageous, but like its predecessor "Borat" -- they are so similar that it's best to consider this new one a sequel -- it outstays its welcome. Although barely cracking the 80-minute mark, there are parts that are painfully funny and others that are just painful.

This mockumentary's trademark is embarrassment. Sacha Baron Cohen unleashes an outrageous character on everyday unsuspecting folks to see how they'll react. The joke is supposed to be on the victims, but often it's Baron Cohen who bears the brunt.

Brüno is an Austrian male model and television host so outrageously gay as to make stage queens wish he would tone it done a bit. He wears skin-tight outfits of ridiculous hues and construction -- including one that is made entirely out of Velcro. This is at a huge fashion show, and of course he gets stuck to all the various bits of clothes and pushed out on stage.

This is delicate material. In trying to get a reaction out of peopleto such an absurd figure, Baron Cohen has to indulge in every caricature of homosexuality imaginable -- the lisping speech, an insatiable need to hit on straight men, an infatuation with trivialities likes clothes and sex toys. There's a scene where Brüno attempts to marry his assistant-cum-boyfriend, but it's played for yuks rather than making a statement.

All this is not to dismiss the funny parts of the film, which are many. The culmination is a scene where Brüno enters himself as a contestant in a cage-fighting event attended entirely by bloodthirsty hillbilly skinheads, and then proceeds to perform a make-out session with his opponent. The look on the audience's face is one of total shock and awe. They're so flabbergasted they don't even remember to be angry (for a while -- soon the emotions, and some fold-up chairs, get sent flying).

I very much enjoyed a section where Brüno gets invited to a swingers' party. He tries to act straight -- getting attacked by a female dominatrix is part of the mix -- but keeps gravitating back to the guys, even as they're in mid-coitus with women. They get very upset, and the idea of someone who regularly engages in group sex feeling shocked is pretty hilarious.

Another great bit is self-defense lessons from a gruff karate master. Brüno says he wants help in defending himself from a homosexual, and eventually the whole session devolves into a big smackdown fight with dildos.

Other parts, though, just fall flat. In one bit Brüno, in his never-ending quest to become famous, resolves to make a celebrity sex tape. Unfortunately, his choice of a target is then-presidential candidate Ron Paul. When Brüno drops trou on the unsuspecting congressman, the results are nails-on-chalkboard excruciating rather than funny.

Similarly, a hunting expedition with some good ole boys, with Brüno making a nude overture in the middle of the night, manages to make us feel sorry for the rednecks.

If you liked "Borat," I expect you'll like this new movie, since it's another helping from the same pot, with merely a different character running the show.

2.5 stars

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Indy Star layoffs again decimate features

The word is trickling in here and there about the mass layoffs being conducted at the Indy Star. Apparently they are again disproportionately affecting the features department.

Here are confirmed names:

Zach Dunkin, travel reporter
John Hawn, features copy desk chief
Channon Seifert, features art director
Chris Jordan, features page designer
Marisol Gouveia, copy editor/page designer
Jacqueline Thomas, senior editor/features
Konrad Marshall, arts reporter

I should note Konrad gave his notice that he was leaving, but is being included as part of these layoffs at his request to spare someone else their job. Very stand-up move, my friend.

My heart goes out to all these folks. If it wasn't apparent already, "soft" news is not something that's valued at the Star. As someone who grew up reading newspapers primarily for the lifestyle and arts coverage, it pains me to think about what these losses will mean for local features reporting. Not to mention the impact on these people's lives.

Once again, it appears management has decided to completely ignore the contract regarding doing layoffs by seniority. But I'll leave that to the Guild to address.

Reeling Backward: "Exodus"

"Exodus" is a big, sprawling (209 minutes) epic about the birth of Israel. It uses fictional characters, but infuses the production with enough historical fact to lend it a certain sense of verisimilitude.

Paul Newman plays Ari Ben Canaan, a Jewish commando responsible for transporting 611 Jewish refugees from a British internment camp on Cyprus to the land of Palestine, as it was then known. Eva Marie Saint plays Kitty Fremont, an American nurse who gets caught up in the exodus and eventually falls for Ari, in one of the most unconvincing cinematic romances I've ever seen.

The film was directed to Otto Preminger, one of the most active directors of the 1950s and '60s. It was notable that Dalton Trumbo was credited as screenwriter, since he had been blacklisted. He continued working steadily through the '50s, using other writers as fronts. "Exodus" marked the first major film in which he was given an official credit, and doing so effectively ended the blacklist. In 1960, besides "Exodus" Trumbo also wrote "Spartacus," another huge-scale epic. Not a bad year.

"Exodus" is a decent film, but its first half is stronger than its second. That deals with the actual exodus, which includes a neat bit where Ben Canaan impersonates a British officer and fools them into supplying their own trucks and crew to carry the refugees to a ship. The ship is promptly blockaded, but a hunger strike by the Jews draws world-wide attention, and eventually they are allowed to go on to Palestine.

From there, the middle section is taken up by a prison break to spring Ben Canaan's uncle, who's the leader of the Jewish terrorist organization. The last third or so deals with the United Nations vote to partition the land for a Jewish state, followed by the violent aftermath.

I should mention the strong performance by Sal Mineo as Dov Landau, a hotheaded young Jewish revolutionary. Mineo is one of those wonderful supporting actors who sometimes get forgotten with the passage of time. He was nominated for an Oscar for this film, as he was five years earlier for "Rebel Without a Cause," when he was just 16 years old. He was stabbed to death in 1976.

I have to admit that it's only in recent years that I've learned much about the founding of Israel. So "Exodus" acts as interesting document (somewhat fictionalized) of recent history that many people know little about. As a work of cinematic fiction, it's somewhat weak, but certainly an enjoyable spectacle.

2.5 stars

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Review: "Moon"

"Moon" is fully aware of the tradition of movies like "2001: A Space Odyssey" where people venture out into space and go totally off their gourd. The existential angst-in-space thing has been done well, and been done poorly (see "Solaris" ... or rather, don't). With "Moon," director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker take us to familiar territory, and yet make it seem fresh and vibrant by playing against our expectations.

Sam Rockwell, a character actor who tackles leading-man roles in smaller films like this, plays Sam Bell. He's an astronaut in the near future who's living on the moon, collecting energy from the lunar rocks that is used to power nearly the entire Earth.

It's a one-man gig, and needless to say Sam is crushingly lonely as he nears the end of his three-year hitch. He's looking forward to getting back to his wife and the daughter he's never met. Because of persistent satellite problems, he can only communicate with them through prerecorded videos.

Sam's only company aboard the space station is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a robot caretaker very much in the tradition of HAL from "2001." Gerty moves around the base via system of track embedded in the ceiling, has a single camera eye and emotes via a screen that displays smiley (or not) faces.

There really isn't that much work to do other than occasionally driving out to the collectors to pick up a canister of condensed gas, which are returned to Earth via rocket probes. So Sam bides his time exercising, tending to his plants and working on a tiny model city.

One day on a routine trip, Sam is distracted and crashes his moon truck into the collector. He wakes up back at the base, with Gerty telling him he was injured in the accident. Gerty tries to lock him up in the base, but Sam manages to talk his way out and makes it back to the crash site, where he finds an injured astronaut who looks just like him.

This is merely the beginning of the story, but it's impossible for me to say more without ruining the film.

If you're like me, I thought I had the entire movie figured out at this point. Jones and Parker know what the audience is thinking, though, and use it to their advantage, dropping hints and possibilities.

For awhile, the two Sams steer clear of each other, and we wonder about them. Are they two sides of the same personality? Is one a clone of the other? Hallucinations of a dying Sam, still stuck out on the barren moonscape?

The answer is teased out, and when it arrives it lands with the impact of a giant asteroid. Rockwell plays the two Sams as similar yet distinctly different, like twin brothers raised in separate circumstances. The "old" Sam is peevish and sarcastic, while "new" Sam is more of a hothead.

Gerty's role in the scheme of things is somewhat in limbo. He was programmed by the corporation that owns the base, but seems to have a genuine desire to help Sam in any way he can.

"Moon" is a hard movie to review, since to tell you how wonderful it is I have to give everything away, which I will not do. But here's this: Now that the Oscars have expanded the roster of Best Picture nominees to 10, hopefully it will allow outstanding smaller films like this to make the list.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

News flash: Newspapers still profitable

Alan Mutter has the scoop over at his Newsosaur site: Despite all the whining about newspapers representing the about-to-expire dinosaur of media, on average they remain one of the most profitable bets of any industry.

For 2008, the average newspaper showed just a hair under a 13 percent profit margin. That's way down from the historic highs for the industry -- profits in the 20s and 30s were not unusual in boomtimes. But contrasted with virtually every other major form of business around, it's very good. Many companies lost money last year, and even ones that were considered very successful -- such as oil companies -- had margins about half of what newspapers had.

So even though advertising revenue has plummeted with the economic downturn, and some of it has permanently migrated to the Web, the old ink-on-dead-trees model remains strong.

The problem is not cash flow, but debt. Most newspapers are owned by corporations, which have racked up huge volumes of debt in order to acquire papers or expand into online ventures that have yet to become significant revenue streams. Take the Tribune company, long considered one of the strongest chains. When Sam Zell took over in late 2007, he expanded the company's $5 billion debt load to nearly $13 billion. That was sustainable as long as the newspapers remained the cash cows they had been. But when the current recession descended, bankruptcy became inevitable.

Even Gannett, which has not been leveraged as heavily as some other chains, is now facing huge debt repayments in the next couple of years. So they're forced to cut and cut.

The Indianapolis Star has been through a buyout and (by my count) three rounds of layoffs in the last three years, and is doing another major cutback this week. Word flying around is that the Star is going to take a 100-person hit, with probably 30 to 40 percent of that coming from the newsroom. That would leave the news gathering force at around 140-150 people, down from around 260 when I joined the paper in June 2005. This despite a recent estimate published in the Indianapolis Business Journal that the Star is still pulling in around a 15 percent profit margin.

Newsroom employees are like Boxer, the loyal and hard-working horse from George Orwell's "Animal Farm." They pull more than their fair load, but it's never enough for the indifferent and/or self-serving bureaucrats who run the show. Then they're sent off to the slaughterhouse -- or rather the unemployment line, which in this economy is nearly the same thing.