Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review: "Zombieland"

Zombies have become a powerhouse franchise. Movies starring the walking dead, already popular for decades, have seen a resurgence, and zombie literature is on the rise with books like "World War Z" and even classic literary spoofs like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

The next logical step was zombie comedy films. "Shaun of the Dead" got the ball rolling, but "Zombieland" immediately leaps to the front spot of an admittedly nascent genre.

Hip, ironic and often raucously funny, "Zombieland" will have you holding in your guts with laughter almost as often as the zombies try to rip the viscera out of their onscreen prey.

I mean, what other zombie flick would pair two of indie film's young rising stars, Jesse Eisenberg ("The Squid and the Whale") and Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), both known for their shy, introspective roles, as post-apocalyptic ass-kickers?

Well, not quite: Eisenberg's still pretty dorky as Columbus, a lonely dweeb who spent most of his days playing "World of Warcraft" before the undead outbreak. He's come up with a list of rules for surviving what he calls Zombieland.

The first one is "Cardio" -- as in, maintain your ability to run fast. As the droll prologue narration notes to a scene of an obese guy getting run down and feasted upon, the fatties were the first to die.

Other rules include the "Double Tap," which instructs that even when you think a zombie is dead, put another bullet in its brain just to be sure. When the world is infested with creatures that want to eat you, now's not the time to get stingy with the ammunition.

Columbus soon happens upon a guy writing his own rules, which all boil down to kicking walking corpse butt in as many inventive ways as possible -- baseball bats, chainsaws, even a banjo. Tallahassee (all the characters go by the name of the city they're from) figures that everyone was put on earth to be really good at one thing, and his just happens to be killing zombies. It's Woody Harrelson's best roles in years.

This intrepid pair meets up with a pair of sisters, Wichita and Little Rock (Emma Stone and Breslin), who pull a con on them and steal their guns and ride. Soon enough, though, they've joined forces, with a love struck Columbus making plans to invade Kansas.

Director Ruben Fleisher, in addition to showing a good eye for the action scenes, keeps the tone goofy and light. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick seem to have watched every zombie movie ever made, and joke around with the conventions while clearly reveling in them.

So when the boys stumble across a Hummer loaded up with assault weapons, Tallahassee shouts to the heavens, "Thank God for rednecks!"

The movie reaches its full stride of daffiness when the foursome arrives in Hollywood, and they decide to crash in a celebrity mansion, only to find the one belonging to Bill Murray still occupied by its owner. In a short but rich stretch of screen time, Murray plays "Ghostbusters" with his guests and even delivers an apology of sorts for those awful "Garfield" flicks. (Stick around after the end credits for some more fun.)

Based on "Zombieland," I'd say the undead comedy genre deserves to rise again.

3 stars

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Catch the Current

If you live in the north Indianapolis suburbs and receive one of the weekly Current free papers -- the Current in Carmel, Current in Westfield, etc. -- then you'll notice a new item starting today: A DVD review by yours truly.

Yes, this is the new newspaper client I alluded to in a Facebook post. I'm very pleased to add another client, especially one in Indiana. It was rather strange being a freelance film critic whose stuff was only printed in Florida papers.

It's a small operation, and they're only running a truncated version of my regular video review. But still, a good addition to my little media empire.

Ironically, since we live in Broad Ripple we can't receive any of the papers, since they're only distributed in those Hamilton County towns. It's unclear as yet if my piece will make it to their Web version, which is still pretty basic.

Interview: Keke Palmer

She's thrown footballs with Ice Cube. Practiced spelling with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. Been Samuel L. Jackson's daughter -- and Queen Latifah's niece. Acted as protector for William H. Macy. Done guest spots on television powerhouses like "E.R.," "Law and Order" and "Cold Case." Been directed by Tyler Perry, twice. Sang a song on the "Night at the Museum" soundtrack.

Oh, and also released an album on a major label, been on "The Tonight Show" and currently stars in her own television series.

At 16, Keke Palmer is just gearing up.

Her latest effort is the ensemble drama "Shrink," which debuts Sept. 29 on video. The film co-stars Kevin Spacey, who plays a slovenly Hollywood psychiatrist with a wicked pot habit. As a troubled teen who ditches school to go watch old movies, Palmer is assigned to therapy sessions with the shrink, and they discover an unlikely connection.

Palmer sat down for a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. Fast-talking, smart and chirpy, Palmer gives her take on what it's like for someone from the Facebook/YouTube generation to grow up a star.

Christopher Lloyd: You had a lot of scenes with Kevin Spacey. How was it working with him?

Keke Palmer: Awesome. I didn't know much about him before I got the film, and my Mom was like, "You have to see some of his work." And then I saw all of his work, and said this guy is unbelievable. I was really excited .... That was such an honor for me. It was just a pleasure working with him. I acted off of him and watched him.
It was kind of crazy, because the whole time I was doing the movie I thought he really dressed like that! Then I realized he was just being the character. When I saw him at Sundance, he was dressing really nice.

CL: How'd you get involved in the movie, since this role of Jemma, a troubled teenager, is different from the roles you've done before.

KP: I did a movie, "Akeelah and the Bee" with Lionsgate, and after that they've been really fond of me, and we've always had a good relationship. When this movie came about, Michael Burns -- one of the producers of the film -- wanted to see me in it. He said, "I have this great role for you Keke, and I think you'll like it." And that's pretty much how it came about.

CL: Your character in the movie is an old movie nut, skipping school to go watch classic films. Have you ever done that?

KP: Never skipped school. By the time I left school (for private instruction) I was in 5th grade, I guess that's what, 10 years old, 11? So I never did any skipping of school. But I love movies, all type of movies from any time. I was just telling my mom the other day I want to see "Rosemary's Baby." So I love all types of movies. And I think it's a really cool idea (Jemma has) to put all her movie tickets on the ceiling! That was pretty awesome.

CL: What was it like playing this character that was very cut off and in her own world?

KP: I just kind of had to tap into her feelings, and somebody who had been through so much would have had that type of personality where they're kind of cut off from everything else and don't want to be close to anyone else. ... And I felt a little bit of teen energy coming in with her mother's death.

CL: Tell me about the relationship with the screenwriter character, Jeremy, played by Mark Webber. At one point he's kind of stalking you and it was a little creepy.

KP: You know as a viewer, what he's doing it for. He's just trying to get to know the person he's writing about and it's not necessarily a friendship that comes about. But Jemma being who she is -- her mother has just passed, she loves movies, she doesn't really have much to lose, she's kind of free but not stupid. So when he comes up to her and asks her to go to a coffee shop with him, she's like, "Ehhhh." But at the same time, she's like, "Sure, why not. It's not like I have anything going on, and here's someone actually taking an interest in me."

CL: Let's talk about "Akeelah and the Bee." You were the star of the film, and that's a pretty big responsibility when you're -- what, 13 when you made that movie?

KP: 11.

CL: So was that at all scary or daunting to be the star of this big Hollywood movie?

KP: I think the older you get, you realize that type of stuff. But when you're a kid it doesn't really matter. When you're 10 or 11, that's right about the time you realize what's going on around you. I hadn't completely got it yet. ... I was just myself and tried my best and hardest, not thinking about any negative things -- like, "This could be terrible" or "I could totally suck!" (Laughter.)
When you're a kid, you don't realize how big everything is. I was just thinking I was glad I got this part, and it's so cool, I get to work with these great actors and have a great time.

CL: You first got noticed singing in your church. So how did you get your first film role, in "Barbershop 2"?

KP: I was reading in the newspaper about auditions for "Lion King" (the stage musical) and that's how I first got hooked into acting. Then I got an agent, and my second audition was "Barbershop 2." At first I couldn't get an audition because I was a newcomer to the business. The casting director wanted somebody who knew what to do. So my mom sent her a tape of me singing and doing the lines, and the lady just really loved it. She asked me to come down and do the scene in front of her, and then in front of the director. And I got the part!

CL: So did you plan to be a singer, and acting is something that just happened?

KP: When I was a little, I never really thought about how I was going to go about it, but I always wanted to be a singer. That was the one thing I did that I knew I was good at. I sang at church and people liked it. When my parents told me about "Lion King" auditions, I had to think, and I had to act and sing and do dancing. That was how I discovered something that was different than just singing, but I liked it just as much. I didn't know if I was good or bad at it, but I had gotten pretty far in the auditions. That's when I said, "Mom, I want to do more of this, whatever it is."

CL: You've worked with some amazing actors, people who have been nominated for Oscars, or won Oscars -- Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, William H. Macy. Were you ever intimidated by these actors?

KP: My mother always told me in this business you have to listen and pay attention and to take direction. So I always would be ready to learn, and always listen when they told me stuff. Even if it was just something that would help me in life, I've always been very inquisitive, asking questions. ... But I never was really intimidated because I didn't realize how big everything was. Now looking back, I'm thinking, "What was going through my head?" (Laughs.)

CL: You have a lot of other things going on, too. You've got "True Jackson V.P." on Nickelodeon entering its second season, and I saw your first album, "So Uncool," was released in 2007, and a second one is in the works. You're pretty busy!

KP: Yeah. I've been doing a lot of work, and I'm just going to keep pushing it out there. I'm just doing the best work I can, whether it's in singing, or in comedy or in drama.

CL: Do I have it right that your parents left their jobs to move out to California for your career?

KP: Yes. Now that I think about it, it's like, "What were my parents thinking?" (Laughter.) They must have really believed in me. Everything is going so good, and they have never stopped believing in me, ever. Even when I have dry spells and there's nothing going on, they have worked with me. I don't know many parents there are that would do that!

CL: Do you think about moving out on your own?

KP: I'll definitely keep my parents around for guidance. They'll help guide my career forever. But I'm moving out when I'm 18. I gotta get outta the house! They know that -- I've told them every day of my life! "I'm moving out of here, y'all!"

DVD review: "Away We Go"

Director Sam Mendes' first film, "American Beauty," won a slew of Oscars, and he's had his ups and downs since then. Last fall's "Revolutionary Road," pairing Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in a disintegrating marriage, was a major disappointment. But Mendes redeems himself somewhat with "Away We Go," a funny and quirky take on relationships.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play Burt and Verona, an unmarried but committed couple expecting a baby. They're in their early 30s, a bit scatterbrained and irresponsible, but basically good people.

When Burt's parents -- whom they'd hoped to rely upon for child care help -- suddenly decide to move away, Verona and Burt begin a cross-country trip to find a new home.

They visit a variety of friends and relations, played by wonderful actors like Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels and Allison Janney. The hosts grow increasingly kooky, and as enjoyable as these visits are, we come to realize that such characters exist only in the movies.

But still, I was never bored and the laugh-out-loud moments, while spread fairly far apart by screenwriters Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers, earn their chuckles.

Maggie Gyllenhall has a particularly hilarious turn as Burt's cousin, who takes the whole earth-mother routine to such an extreme that she angrily rejects their gift of a baby stroller: "Why would I want to push my child away from me?!?"

DVD extras are decent in scope, but less than impressive. A 16-minute making-of documentary contains more hype than insight, and a featurette about how they endeavored to keep the production environmentally friendly is just self-congratulatory fluff.

Mendes, Eggers and Vida team up for a feature-length commentary that consists mostly of moment-by-moment observations about the circumstances of how each scene was written and/or shot.

In addition to the DVD bonus material, the Blu-ray version contains a small amount of material available only online.

Movie: 3 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Bridge on the River Kwai"

When you are a film critic, the one question you dread getting in social situations is, "So what's your favorite movie?"

People are invariably disappointed when I give vague, wishy-washy answers like, "Well, I love so many!" or "It's just impossible to choose." I suspect that chefs can readily tell you their favorite dish, and sports columnists don't hesitate to name the athlete they most admire. People don't like it when those who are supposed to be experts fudge on a pretty fundamental question.

The truth is my tastes have evolved over time. If you'd asked me the "favorite film" question when I was 14 or 15, I think I would have said "Blade Runner" without much pause. That one's still near the top of my list, although the themes of alienation and dehumanization that seem so important when you're a teen are less forceful now.

But I think I can say that however my list of favorites has shuffled over the years, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" has consistently remained very high. At this particular moment in time, I'd probably call it the film I most admire.

"Bridge" was directed by the great David Lean from a screenplay (by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman) based on the novel by Pierre Boulle. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards for 1957, and won seven, including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing, Musical Score and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. It also won Best Screenplay, but as Wilson and Foreman were blacklisted at the time, they received no onscreen credit. Their Oscars arrived posthumously in 1984, and their names are listed in the restored edition of the film.

It's a rousing prisoner-of-war picture, with the usual heroic Allies showing terrific resolve in the face of their dastardly captors. But I think why the film stands up for me is that it's really about self-delusion. All of the main characters are in some way compromised, a combination of good and evil tendencies. I would go so far as to argue that Col. Nicholson, the British commander of the Allied prisoners, is the real villain of the piece.

Think about it: Nicholson is prepared to have himself and all of his other officers shot dead rather than perform manual labor at the insistence of Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, who was the only Oscar nominee from the film who failed to take home a statue). Later, after winning his contest of wills with Saito -- by nearly suffocating to death in a tin "hot box" -- Nicholson undertakes the task of building a railway bridge for the Japanese with such misguided enthusiasm that he becomes a collaborator with the enemy.

As the bridge approaches its deadline and it's clear they will not finish in time, Nicholson orders his officers to do manual labor -- the same principle he was willing to die over. He even cajoles the sick men to hobble away from the hospital and lend a hand, too.

In his final act, Nicholson nearly upsets a plan by British commandos to blow up the bridge right as the first train steams over it. So invested has Nicholson become in the bridge, in what it represents to his ideals, that he alerts the Japanese soldiers and even struggles with one of the commandos. The bridge demolition still goes through -- in a spectacular cinematic display, in which Lean actually destroyed a real bridge and train -- but three of the four commandos are killed, including Maj. Shears (played by William Holden), who had previously escaped from the same prison camp.

Through it all, Nicholson is convinced that he's doing the right thing. He sees the bridge construction as a way to restore order and pride to his soldiers, who have become a rabble. Later, he sees it as a symbol of defiance against the enemy, to build a better bridge than they could themselves. The film is a lesson in how a series of decisions, each of which seems sound, can add up to calamity. I think our country's involvement in Iraq is a modern example.

A few other thoughts on the film:

I must have seen it a half-dozen times before I caught on to the subtle portrayal of Saito. A proud man, he is utterly crushed when Nicholson succeeds in building the bridge that he could not. There's also a bit near the end where Saito is shown cutting off his Bushido topknot, and slipping a dagger into his uniform right before the bridge's dedication. It seems clear now that Saito intended to kill Nicholson, or himself, or possibly one and then the other. Only the complication of Nicholson spotting the demolition wiring prevents this.

Shears, the ostensible American protagonist of the film, is a fraud, liar, impersonator and suck-up. He bribes the Japanese guards for favorable treatment, treats the arrival of Nicholson with great cynicism, and seems bent on doing anything to save his own skin. He only agrees to join the commandos when faced with court-martial and imprisonment for impersonating an officer. If he's supposed to represent the Yanks, we don't come off too great.

The use of the "Colonel Bogey March" musical theme throughout the film is interesting. It's an act of defiance by the British prisoners, but also illustrative of Nicholson's delusion. During the opening scene, where they're marching into camp for the first time, the men are whistling the tune. Slowly, the musical score takes up the melody until it sounds like a grand marching band booming away. This coincides with the shift to Nicholson's perspective. Despite the sorry state of his men, many of them marching barefoot, he still views them as British soldiers, brave and true.

(The tune really was used by Allied soldiers during WWII, who came up with some vulgar lyrics, including the revamped title, "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball." The film's soldiers were to sing these lines -- which continue, "Goring has two but very small; Himmler is somewhat sim'lar, and poor Goebbels has no balls at all!" -- but producer Sam Spiegel felt they were too vulgar, so they came up with the whistling instead.)

The film ends with the British doctor, having just watched the train wreck and the deaths of Nicholson and the commandos, shouting "Madness, madness" into the jungle air. To those who think war is great, it's an apt indictment.

4 stars

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New this week

A pretty busy week, although not as busy as I'd hoped: I went to the wrong place for the screening of Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," so I won't have a review. Bummer. Love him or hate him, you have to appreciate the fact that a provocateur like Moore could only have had the career he's had in America.

I will have reviews of "Zombieland," the new undead comedy with Woody Harrelson, and "Whip It," the roller derby flick starring Ellen Page from "Juno" and directed by Drew Barrymore, her first film behind the camera.

The DVD review will be "Away We Go." I'll have Reeling Backward articles on "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and a twofer about "The Man Between" and "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Manhattan"

When it comes to Woody Allen movies, I'm with Ned Flanders.

The do-gooder neighbor on "The Simpsons," who's sort of a caricature of middle-America suburbanites, once opined that "I like his films except for that nervous fella that's always in them."

I've seen nearly all of Allen's movies, liked most of them, loved a handful, been indifferent to a few, never outright hated any of them. But when I think about it, I tend to like his movies in which he, Woody Allen, is not the main character -- "Hannah and Her Sisters" is probably my favorite.

The Woody persona of the nerdy, high-strung New York intellectual may bear little relation to Woody the Manhattan filmmaker, but I find that a small dose of it goes a long way in his movies.

So it's strange that 1979's "Manhattan" is also among my favorite Woody Allen movies, since he's in almost every scene, and is at the very center of the story.

He also narrates it, as he did in "Annie Hall," but I really feel that movie was about the Diane Keaton character, with Woody acting as the lens through which we viewed her. In grammatical terms, she was the subject and he was the object. In "Manhattan," Woody is the object, subject and all the adjectives, too.

There's a scene near the end where Isaac Davis, Woody's cinematic alter-ego, muses that people like him are so self-obsessed and tie themselves into all sorts of psychological knots in order to prevent themselves from thinking about the really big, scary stuff: Life, death, God, love. If this constitutes his attempt to justify the narcissism that is a hallmark of his characters, then he fails miserably.

The main plot of the movie is a love triangle -- or rather, a love quadrangle. Isaac falls for the mistress of his best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), who is married. Mary (Diane Keaton) is a self-doubting writer and feminist who can't believe she's fooling around with a married guy. She turns to Isaac, almost as a way to ween herself off Yale. But eventually she changes her mind, dumps Isaac and runs back to Yale's arms.

The other notable thing about "Manhattan" 30 years later is its resemblance to controversial parts of Woody Allen's real life. In the movie, Isaac (who is 42) is dating a 17-year-old girl, Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway (nominated for an Oscar). Allen, of course, was involved in a long-term relationship with Mia Farrow that ended when she learned that he had been carrying on a dalliance with one of her adopted daughters, Soon-Yi Previn. He was 56 and she 22 when this came to light, and they eventually married and remain so to this day.

The film ends with Isaac, who had pushed Tracy to forget about him and take up a scholarship to study acting in Europe, arriving just before her taxi leaves to take her to the airport. In a grand gesture, her begs her to stay and take him back. Tracy, who despite her youth is perhaps the most centered and mature character in the film, asks him to wait for her and to trust her. The film ends on that ambiguous note.

There is much to say about a romantic relationship between a 42-year-old man and a girl in high school, the most important of which is that this is a crime. Isaac even lightly jokes about being arrested once or twice during the movie. I cannot for the life of me imagine what sort of parents have so slight a yoke on their teenage daughter's life that allow her to wander New York at all hours of the night, even sleeping over at someone else's apartment, without objection. I hope that such parents exist only in the movies.

Meryl Streep, who was just launching her film career three decades ago, has a small but interesting turn as Isaac's ex-wife, who is now a lesbian and has written a tell-all book about their sordid marriage. It's an underwritten role -- as most of Allen's non-lead female roles tend to be -- but she makes quite an impression.

Perhaps the thing most remembered now about "Manhattan" is the black-and-white cinematography by the great Gordon Willis, which somehow was not nominated for an Oscar that year. The film is an unapologetic love song to the Big Apple, with its loving portraits of majestic skylines and many shots of Central Park. The shot of Mary and Isaac looking at the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun comes up is perhaps the most famous image of Woody Allens long and storied film career. I lived in Manhattan for nearly two years while attending school, and the city never looked as good as it does in this movie.

3.5 stars

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Check out this week's podcast

We've got a special guest star: My old friend Ben Rock, who has just directed his first feature film, "Alien Raiders."

Our topic is about movies -- like "Alien Raiders" -- that are mean to go straight to video. It's been a growing part of the video market, and believe it or not you can find some good movies here.

Listen in here.

No "Fame"

I won't be reviewing "Fame" after all. It turns out there were multiple screenings last night, and I chose to go to one for a movie that's coming out in a few weeks. This way I'll be able to get a print review in.

I also like to encourage studios that give us early screenings by attending as many of them as I can -- as opposed to ones that happen a night or two before the film opens, which is a deliberate strategy to shut out print critics.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fake PSAs and irony

So a lot of people are linking to this video from the "Funny or Die" site with a sarcastic take on the health care debate. Humorous stuff, to be sure.

But has anyone else stumbled across the gobsmacking irony of Hollywood actors poking fun at insurance company executives for being overpaid?

I mean, hello?!?

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a fan of most insurance companies. The one I use for my property and car coverage is a non-profit, and my take is that health insurance should not be an area of the economy where profit is a driving factor.

But I'm sorry, if a bunch of millionaire showbiz types are going to gang up to mock others for raking in the big bucks, then the ones who should be shame-faced is them.

I looked it up, and for 2008 the compensation of the CEOs at the top seven insurance company averaged $9.5 million. (It would have been a lot less, but the Aetna guy got $24 million, so he brought the average way up.)

Now, $9.5 million is a lot of money. But has anybody asked Will Ferrell how much he banked for making the craptastic "Land of the Lost"?

Review: "The September Issue"

I must confess that a documentary about the clothing industry faces a high hurdle with this critic. I am so clueless and colossally indifferent to the world of high fashion, as epitomized by Vogue magazine, that 90 minutes of screen time filled with references to things like "color blocking" might as well be alien warp drive schematics.

For example, before seeing "The September Issue," I could not have even told you that the September issue of Vogue is a big deal. But apparently this is the signature annual edition of the trend-setting fashion glossy, in which the new fall clothing lines are made or broken.

It's easy to see where director R.J. Cutler found the idea to make this movie, which takes place in the months leading up to the September 2007 issue, the biggest in Vogue's history. The year before, "The Devil Wears Prada" became a cinematic sensation, based on the novel written by the former assistant to Anna Wintour, Vogue's all-powerful editor. Meryl Streep memorably portrayed a version of Wintour as icy and inscrutable, a demanding boss who feels her job is unfinished unless her underlings are left demoralized.

All the parties involved reliably insist that "Devil" had nothing to do with Wintour, and if you believe this I have some nice Florida swampland to sell you. "The September Issue" was clearly launched as an opportunity to refurbish Wintour's image, otherwise she would not have given Cutler such amazing access to her inner sanctum.

If her goal was to distance herself from the Streep character, Wintour fails miserably. She is not as aggressively demeaning to others, but regards them as obstacles to be ridden over or ignored. Her opinions are the only ones that matter; her employees are merely there to assist in broadcasting them.

The demeanor of everyone who encounters Wintour, from the lowliest assistant to big-name fashion designers, is one of total subjugation. Everyone seems to wear the same bland expression, with downcast eyes and glum speech patterns.

Wintour deliberately makes herself hard to read: The mask she presents is of a bob hairdo resembling a helmet, and sunglasses that are nearly omnipresent in public. Thomas Florio, Vogue's publisher, sums up the wall she puts before most people: "She’s just not accessible to people she doesn’t need to be accessible to."

As a result, we end up learning very little about Wintour. Even a visit to her home and meeting her daughter produces little fruit: Her child seems as cut off from her as her employees.

Perhaps recognizing this, over time Cutler's camera shifts more and more to Wintour's number-two woman, Grace Coddington. A sixtysomething former model, Coddington is revealed as the real genius behind Vogue. The magazine's creative director dreams up the magazine's signature themed photo spreads.

One we get to see produced from start to finish is a 1920s shoot that includes some startlingly beautiful images. But Wintour dismissively cuts most of them out of the magazine, because they don't fit her personal aesthetics of the image she wants to project.

As the only person willing to stand up to the imperious Wintour, Coddington becomes the film's real heroine. She wants fashion to be fun and gorgeous, instead of the impersonal and cold business that Wintour epitomizes.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Precious" to play Heartland

"Precious," the hard-bitten drama about a teen urban girl that made a big splash at Sundance, will be featured at the Heartland Film Festival, which runs Oct. 15-24 in Indianapolis.

The annual fest, whose mission is to feature life-affirming movies, will play "Precious" as part of a special engagement of sneak peeks of upcoming mainstream films that have earned Heartland's "Truly Moving Picture" designation. "Bright Star," the newest film from Jane Campion ("The Piano") about the young romance of John Keats, will also play.

The opening night film for Heartland will be "Hachi," starring Richard Gere in a tale inspired by the true story of a dog who showed unbelievable loyalty to his master -- even after his death.

The closing night film will be a documentary -- a first for Heartland -- titled "The Horse Boy," about an American autistic boy who found help with a Mongolian tribe of horse masters.

A total of 17 Crystal Heart award winners will play in competition: five dramatic features, five documentaries and seven shorts. They will split a total of $200,000 in prize money, including a $100,000 check to the top award winner -- the highest cash award of any film festival in the world.

A complete schedule of films will be posted Wednesday, with tickets going on sale the same day.

Time to go hi-def

This is my syndicated DVD column for this week. (I feel comfortable calling it "syndicated," since more than one newspaper now runs it.) It's not a review of a new video release like usual, but a meditation suggesting it's a good time to adopt Blu-ray.

Regular readers of this blog will note its similarity to a post I made about three weeks ago, which inspired this column.

No DVD review today, folks. It's a slow week for video releases -- "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" is about it, and here's my three-word review: Rent, don't buy.

Instead, I thought I'd use this week's column to talk about high-definition video. I recently took the step of upgrading to a Blu-ray player, and that will be reflected in the video reviews from here on. I also want to suggest that if you've been holding off on making the jump to the next generation of home video, recent developments suggest it's safe to come out now.

I don't blame anyone for hesitating to adopt new video technology, after the death of such formats as Betamax, laser disc, Divx and now HD DVD -- the competitor to Blu-ray that folded in early 2008 after nearly a two-year war for hi-def dominance.

The first thing you need to know is that your old DVDs aren't headed to the junkpile: Blu-ray is backward compatible. So you can upgrade your favorite titles to hi-def if you want, and keep the rest of your DVD library intact on your shelf.

Lately, the price and availability of Blu-ray players and movies has improved significantly. Brand-name players that cost $500 and up in 2006 can now be found in the $200-$250 range, with some basic machines as low as $150. Blockbuster, Netflix and other major video rental outlets are stocking more and more Blu-ray selections (1,000+ at Netflix).

If you want to buy, Blu-ray discs cost a little more than regular DVDs, but you can find plenty for under $20. Recently, Amazon ran a sale on popular titles for around $11.

The biggest factor in whether to upgrade is your television. If you don't have a hi-def set capable of 1080p resolution, you're not going to see much of an on-screen difference between Blu-ray and DVD (which has a resolution of 480).

If you're adventurous, you can opt for a Sony PlayStation 3 game console, which includes a Blu-ray player. My new PS3 Slim cost $300, so for a small premium over regular Blu-ray, I got gaming, too.

Review: "Lorna's Silence"

"Lorna's Silence" starts out as a strong and probing examination of a woman caught up in a terrible plot. She's tortured by her decisions, tries to right some wrongs, and we are moved to empathize for her. Then the movie wanders off a cliff.

If ever one wanted a case study in how to tell European films apart from American ones, this movie would serve nicely. If the problem with a lot of our films is that they route themselves down obvious and unimaginative avenues, then theirs is that they so cherish being circumspect and oblique.

In "Silence," the movie shifts dramatically when something unexpected occurs. I can't tell you what it is, but suffice to say that it is the fulcrum around which the movie turns.

Unfortunately, filmmaking duo Luc and Jan-Pierre Dardenne -- brothers who co-write and co-direct their films, such as "L'enfant" -- underplay the moment to such a degree that we barely even realize something momentous has happened.

One moment, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is walking down the street, and the next she's folding clothes. It seems like a normal, everyday edit from one scene to the next. Except the movie has taken a detour into the wasteland.

Lorna is an Albanian immigrant involved in a sham marriage to a heroin junkie so she can get her Belgian citizenship. It's a prearranged deal, with both Lorna and Claudy (Jérémie Renier, in a twitchy and effective performance) set to get a big payday after she obtains her legal status and they divorce. Then, she will turn around and do the same thing with a powerful Russian mobster to make him a citizen.

For Lorna, it's just a job. Her real boyfriend is Sokol (Alban Ukaj), a countryman and thief. Their dream is a rather conventional one -- to open an eatery of their own. Meanwhile, Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) is the local crime boss who watches Lorna carefully to make sure nothing threatens the deal with the Russian.

Only it turns out Lorna's partners think it's safer to kill Claudy and stage it as a drug overdose rather than divorce him, which could arouse the suspicion of the authorities.

Lorna sets out on a dangerous path to fake domestic abuse by Claudy, which will ensure a quick divorce. But once Claudy goes through rehab and kicks his habit, it makes her choice harder.

The first hour or so is gripping stuff, with a strangely intense relationship between Lorna and her would-be husband. His craving for pity is a palpable thing, and the waves of compassion and disgust that wash across Dobroshi's face are wrenching to watch.

But then, "Lorna's Silence" makes its turn into increasingly mystifying territory.

2.5 stars

Monday, September 21, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Tess"

Nastassja Kinski was one of those foreign actresses who briefly invades American cinema, creating a stir with her exotic beauty and daring roles. For some, like Ingrid Bergman, it can turn into a major film career in the States. But for Kinski and many others, fame was fleeting. By the mid-1980s she was relegated to supporting roles in movies like "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "Paris, Texas." By 1985, her star -- at least in the U.S. -- had faded to dusk.

Some have said that the overt sexuality of many of her early roles doomed her from being accepted as a serious actress. That's possible; I still consider 1982's "Cat People" to be one of the most erotic American films ever made, and Kinski's performance as a young woman discovering her burgeoning sexuality made quite an impression on a youngster just hitting puberty -- not to mention her frequent, lengthy nude scenes. (I like to joke that the only major female star I've seen spend a larger percentage of a movie in the buff is Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Flesh + Blood.")

So I was interested to see how she fared in a straight dramatic role. "Tess," made in 1979 for recently exiled director Roman Polanski (a former lover of Kinski's), was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, and won three statues for art direction, cinematography and costumes. Kinski herself was not nominated, which must have been considered a major snub at the time. But she gives a solid, vibrant performance as a woman repeatedly wronged by the men in her life.

I have not read "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy. I was interested to learn that the little-used subtitle of the novel is "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented." In the film version, Tess' greatest obstacle to happiness is her own sense of guilt, which eventually takes on the form of self-loathing. She comes to believe that she does not deserve for good things to happen to her -- so of course she ends up preventing them from coming to pass.

In the novel, it is left deliberately unclear whether poverty-stricken Tess is seduced or coerced by rich fop Alec. But Polanski's film (which he also co-wrote) is unequivocal in its depiction of her being raped. She eventually bears a son, which is sickly and dies after only a week. The scene where Tess demands that the baby be allowed to be buried in the church cemetery, and is refused, is perhaps the film's most powerful. She buries the child herself just outside the cemetery walls -- an apt metaphor for Tess' place in society.

Tess Durbeyfield is sent to the home of the d'Urbervilles after discovering that they are scions of one of the oldest and most celebrated families in Europe. Her parents hope that the wealthy Mrs. d'Urberville will take pity on her poor relations. But it turns out they are not even related: the name and title were purchased by a wealthy family. Alec, smitten by Tess' beauty, arranges for her to have a job on the estate, and after his attempts at seduction are rebuffed, he assaults her in the forest.

Her troubles are just beginning. After the death of her baby, she thinks she's found a quiet respite working as a milk maid at the Crick farm, but the presence of Angel Clare (Peter Firth) leads to a dilemma. Angel and Tess fall deeply in love, and Tess faces a horrible choice about whether to tell her love about her notorious past.

She does (eventually, after some delay), and Angel's reaction is hard to fathom in these modern times, but is understandable for a pastor's son of the 1800s. Angel rejects Tess, refusing even to sleep with her on their wedding night. "You are not the woman I fell in love with," he tells her before departing for Brazil.

Things go on from there, with Tess eventually falling under the spell of Alec once again. It's a heartbreaking film, one in which tragedy triumphs over love again and again. One is tempted to relate this theme to Polanski's own life, which is a litany of pain where he has occupied the roles of both victim and victimizer.

I won't dwell there too much, although I must say it is an amazing and bold choice to make a film in which rape is a major component shortly after being convicted of sodomizing a 13-year-old girl. Polanski fled the U.S. before being sentenced, and is still considered a fugitive. He is cinema's dark genius, brilliant and contemptible.

3.5 stars

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Coming this week

A very busy week here in the Captain's chair.

I'll have reviews of "The September Issue," "Fame" and "Lorna's Silence."

My DVD column this week will not be a review, but a musing about whether it's time to adopt Blu-ray.

Reeling Backward reviews will be "Manhattan" and "Tess," both from 1979. I promise this is my last week of late '70s/early '80s flicks. Back to the old stuff next week.

I'll be gearing up for Heartland Film Festival, so things will be getting a bit crazy around here.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review: "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs"

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" falls into that spectrum of animation that makes no bones about the fact that it's aimed squarely at kids.

Yes, it's nice when a movie can appeal to both adults and tykes, such as "Kung Fu Panda" or pretty much any of the Pixar flicks. And I've been very pleased with the growing number of animated films that are best appreciated by adults -- "9," "Waltz with Bashir," "Persepolis," etc.

But let's give the kiddie flicks their due: Somebody's got to entertain the wee ones, and they might as well do it well.

So it's clear to me that "Meatballs" is a well-made film, even if I didn't like it all that much. I simply am not the target audience.

Co-writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller -- both rookies -- adapted the best-selling children's book by Judi and Ron Barrett. It's about a young scientist, Flint Lockwood, who invents a machine that can turn water into food. Through a series of unintended mishaps, his gizmo gets launched into the stratosphere over the island town of Chewsandswallows, resulting in a downpour of burgers, steak, pizza and candy whenever it rains.

Flint had been the town screw-up, with all his many backfiring inventions, but now he's hailed as a hero. The island had been stagnating because its main staple, sardines, had been discovered to be gross by the world population. (I love the newspaper headline: "Sardines are gross!") So everyone on the island is sick of eating sardines, with the possible exception of Flint, who runs the local bait and tackle shop.

The daily manna from heaven is a huge boon to Chewsandswallows, even attracting the attention of Sam Sparks, an intern at the Weather Channel who gets her big break when she's sent to cover the weird weather. Sam's a brainiac who is forced to hide behind a veneer of weather-girl dorkiness, but Flint sees through it and soon they're an item.

Trouble looms when Flint overloads the machine at the behest of the town's greedy mayor, and soon things start to go screwy. The food keeps getting bigger and bigger, until Buick-sized meatballs are raining down and causing havoc.

The movie has a terrific voice cast, with Bill Hader as Flint and Anna Faris as Sam. James Caan, as Flint's dad, manages to find an emotional center despite only uttering a few dozen words. The redoubtable Bruce Campbell is the mayor, Neil Patrick Harris is a hoot as Flint's best friend/pet monkey Steve, and Mr. T is a revelation as the town's overly enthusiastic police chief.

As we've come to expect, the computer animation is crisp and inventive. Watch people's hair, in particular -- you can almost feel it tickle. If you can, make sure to catch the movie in 3-D -- the filmmakers manage to achieve a multitude of layers in every scene, without too many obvious objects flinging themselves at the camera.

Although anyone over the age of 10 may find the movie a bit tedious at times, "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" is sure to leave young audiences hungry for more.

2.5 stars

Friday, September 18, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Clash of the Titans"

So they're remaking "Clash of the Titans," the 1981 mythology epic starring Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier and a whole lot of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion puppets. The new version comes out next spring, and is to star Sam Worthington (that guy's everywhere lately) and all computer-generated effects.

"Titans" is seen today as something of a cheese factory, mostly due to the relative crudity of the stop-motion visual effects in comparison with more modern ones. But I still think it's a wonderfully entertaining fantasia, a mash-up of Greek mythology that would probably mortify Edith Hamilton, but representing an exciting menagerie of amazing creatures and stories.

Granted, you don't see stop-motion used anymore to portray realistic creatures or things, because even the most meticulous puppet looks manufactured and fake, especially in close-up. And as groundbreaking as the achievements of Harryhausen ("Jason and the Argonauts") were, he never perfected stop-motion to the point where he was able to achieve seamless action. His skeletons, dragons and other critters always had a herky-jerk hitch to them.

Nowadays you only see stop-motion used for films like "Coraline," where the subjects are highly stylized and not intended to be an exact replica of reality.

As a kid watching "Titans" in the theater, I was really enthralled with the idea of Zeus (Olivier) and the other Greek gods reigning from Olympus, interfering with the lives of humans as a way to play out the conflicts between themselves. Interestingly, there's a subtle but distinct feminist subtext, with the goddesses Hera, Thetis and Athena (Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith and Susan Fleetwood, respectively) ganging up to thwart the will of Zeus. Zeus, as portrayed in the film, is the ultimate male pig, sleeping around with various humans that strike his fancy, resulting in a number of mortal offspring.

One of them is Perseus (Hamlin), and Zeus intervenes again and again to aid his son. The gods use tiny clay sculptures to represent their human pawns, moving them across the board like a chess piece. For example, Thetis plucks the figure of Perseus up and places him in an amphitheater in a faraway city, so the real Perseus wakes up hundreds of miles away from where he went to sleep. I just love that device.

The other thing that really stands out about the film is the villain Calibos, played by veteran TV actor Neil McCarthy in devil make-up that's still quite impressive. Calibos is the son of Thetis, and like Perseus was a favored child himself until he drew the wrath of Zeus for killing his herd of flying horses. Calibos was punished by being turned into a misshapen demon.

He's actually a rather sympathetic figure, since his betrothed Andromeda (Judi Bowker) spurned him after he was cursed. One wonders how she would have felt about Perseus if he, too, was struck down.

In vengeance, Calibos has placed his own curse on the city. Andromeda's spirit is transported to Calibos' lair in the swamp, where he provides her with a riddle for every suitor to her hand. Those who fail to solve it are burned at the stake. Perseus, of course, takes up the challenge of the riddle, although he only solves it by cheating.

At the direction of Zeus, Perseus is given three magical gifts: a shield, a sword and a helmet that turns the wearer invisible. He uses these to slay the Medusa, whose head he in turn uses to turn the Kraken into stone. The Kraken is the last of the titans, the powerful giants who ruled before Zeus and the other gods took over, and Poseidon releases him from his undersea cage when directed to smite whatever city of mortals has offended the gods.

If you know anything about Greek and Roman mythology, then you know that the movie mixes and matches the different legends and stories liberally. For example, Perseus is shown taming the winged horse Pegasus (which actually was accomplished by Bellarophon) prior to setting out on his journey that eventually leads him to Medusa. But in the relevant mythology, Pegasus actually springs forth from the body of Medusa when Perseus cuts off her head. Thetis was not even one of the major Greek gods, and Calibos was created out of whole cloth for this movie.

I'm interested in how the remake, due in March, will turn out; I'm intrigued by the casting of Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph Fiennes as Hades. In terms of which Greek legends they will distill for their story, it appears they're taking a completely new path. I'm excited to see the new version, although I'll miss Calibos.

3.5 stars

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New podcast up at The Film Yap

This week's show is kind of inside-baseball: Joe and I lament how more and more major films are getting released without being screened for local movie critics.

Case in point: "Jennifer's Body" this week.

You can listen in here.

Review: "The Informant!"

What an odd little duck of a movie this is. I ended up liking it, but it took me awhile to reach that conclusion.

"The Informant!" is based on a true story, but -- as is usual with Hollywood -- a lot of the characters and details are made up. It's about a man who did a brave and heroic thing, but is anything but a hero.

Mark Whitacre, played by Matt Damon in nerdy glasses, mustache and a feathered hairdo we suspect is store-bought, is a biochemist-turned-executive at Archer Daniel Midland, one of those giant agricultural corporations that make the weird-sounding ingredients, many of them based on corn, on the labels of the food we buy.

From 1992 to 1995, Whitacre was a voluntary informant for the FBI, recording hundreds of hours of tapes of meetings between ADM honchos and international competitors, in which they agreed to set a price on lysine, one of their key products. It was the biggest price-fixing bust in the history of law enforcement, with more than $1 billion in fines levied. It was also one of the rare occurrences in American jurisprudence in which top company executives involved in malfeasance actually went to jail.

But director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, working from the book by Kurt Eichenwald, are more concerned with Whitacre's foibles than the transgressions of ADM. Whitacre is an intriguing guy, a bundle of nervous contradictions packaged in a bland middle America veneer.

Damon also narrates, although it's not so much narration as a bunch of his character's random thoughts in the moment, contrasting what he's thinking with what he says or does. Example: "I like my hands. I think they are my favorite part of my body." Much of it has to do with consumerist lust for expensive cars, clothes and other aspirational objects. This should serve as the clue that Whitacre is not merely an altruistic do-gooder.

Whitacre is urged to come clean by his wife (Melanie Lynskey). The lead FBI agent, played by Scott Bakula in a ridiculous haircut, immediately senses he's onto something big. When he and his partner (Joel McHale) bring the case to the prosecutors at the Department of Justice, the lawyers immediately question Whitacre's motives.

Why would a young guy making $350,000 a year and clearly on the rise at ADM decide to play turncoat? The G-men admit there's no way they could have learned about the price-fixing unless a high-ranking insider like Whitacre served them the evidence on a platter.

We eventually learn the answer, though Soderbergh takes his time revealing the inner core of the main character, and the film itself. It sort of stumbles along for the first 45 minutes or so, mild amusement turning to vexation as we wonder who this strange guy is and why he seems so self-deluded. Whitacre even tells his wife he thinks he'll become CEO of ADM after all the bad guys are sent to jail.

The movie finds itself around the one hour mark, though, and from there through the finish it gains strength as well as satirical bite. I can't reveal more of what unfolds without tainting the experience, since it's the tease itself that makes "The Informant!" the strangely pleasing movie it is.

3 stars

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: "Love Happens"

"Love Happens" manages to incorporate all the clichés of the romantic comedy genre, and hits all those for the dramatic weepie, too.

This weird and disappointing movie tries unsuccessfully to tell the story of a truly and deeply depressed man, and dress it up in the clothes of a quirky/funny romcom. So there are scenes of frivolous, spontaneous courting, followed immediately by dour bits where you think the protagonist is going to jump off a building.

There's even -- God help us -- a slow-clap scene. You know the kind I'm talking about: A large group of people responds to an emotional moment with one guy clapping slowly, which is picked up by the rest of the crowd and builds in an enthusiastic crescendo. As a cinematic device, the slow clap became hackneyed in approximately 1987.

Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart) is a self-help guru who goes around the country giving emotional pep talks to people about how to deal with personal loss. He's on the verge of becoming the next Dr. Phil, with a deal for a talk show, DVD distribution, radio program and the whole kabob looming.

Burke seems sincere, despite a money-hungry manager (delightfully played by Dan Fogler). After all, it was the loss of his own wife in a tragic accident three years ago that prompted him to write his best-selling book, "A-Okay!"
So, surely a run-in with a snarky flower-shop owner named Eloise (Jennifer Aniston) will brighten up his life. Eloise decorates the Seattle hotel where Burke's latest seminar is taking place -- and also surreptitiously scribbles obscure vocab words behind paintings in the hallways.
It's cute, but if someone really felt compelled to share terms like "quidnunc" with the world, why hide it?

By the way, a person who intentionally uses long, obscure words is called a sesquipedalianist, so you just know that one's going to turn up eventually.

Eloise and Burke don't exactly hit it off. In fact, she even pretends to be deaf in order to avoid his initial come-on. This leads to their next meeting, in which Burke gives her the finger. I have to give it to co-writers Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson -- you don't see too many screen couples flipping each other off.

But Camp, who also directed, just can't make sense of all the different and often conflicting things zinging around his movie. You've got Judy Greer as Eloise's slam-poet shop assistant, Martin Sheen as Burke's P.O.'d ex-Marine father-in-law, and Frances Conroy badly misused in a tiny scene as Eloise's mom.

And that's on top of the overriding incongruency of a guy who still hasn't gotten over his dead wife doing meet-cutes and falling-in-love montages to guitar-heavy music cues.

Sometimes pairing unlikely elements or characters together makes for movie magic. And sometimes "Love Happens."

2 stars

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Google Fast Flip the wave of the future?

So I'm checking out Google's "shiny new toy," as David Carr of the NYT describes it. Google Fast Flip is beta version of a news hub that allows viewers to flip through images of Web pages in a layout that's very similar to a magazine. Clicking on those pages then takes you to the original content from the Web site it came from.

Viewers can organize the pages by subject, popularity, source, etc. You can check it out for yourself here.

Personally, I don't think Flip is as ground-breaking as people are making it out to be. After all, it's essentially just another version of a news aggregator, but more visually oriented and with more controls for the viewer. Neat, but not exactly reinventing the wheel.

The part about it that I find fascinating is that Google has agreed to share revenue with the content providers based on the advertising Google places around the Flip pages. This is pretty major, since the business model of aggregators like Google has been to link to/rewrite content while keeping ad revenue for themselves.

Perhaps Google has seen all the talk about news organizations banding together to charge for online content or even stop aggregator links. (Mark Cuban has said it can be accomplished with a few lines of code.) I welcome any move toward partnerships between traditional news organizations and those new media upstarts who know how to movie information across the Web, fast.

To take the argument analog, it's as if people were getting a book, making photocopies of it, then selling the copies as if they had published the book themselves. In many cases, aggregators gather more Web traffic (and thus more ad dollars) than the people who actually took the time and expense to produce original content.

In the old days, we would call the copiers "plagiarists" without much hesitation. But we have to recognize that in the information age, old standards and practices may have to go by the wayside.

Those distributing, and profiting, from disseminating other companies' work on the Web have to understand that it's a symbiotic relationship. If newspapers and other media go under, the aggregators won't have anything to link to. Google's step to share revenue is much more relevant than the actual new widget.

DVD review: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was doomed before they even started filming.

Not because audiences didn't want to see a spin-off about most popular character from the "X-Men" movies. Comic book fans were hungry for a story on the further adventures of the wayward mutant hero with metal claws and a healing ability that makes him unkillable -- preferably one they're already familiar with from the character's long history. (Japan, anyone?)

Instead, director Gavin Hood and his team delve into the character's origin story, which turns out to be one long Cain and Abel saga in which Wolverine and his similarly clawed brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) play out their sibling rivalry in a seemingly endless series of stabby tussles.

Face it: Wolverine was more intriguing as a mystery man. The minute they tried to burden him with a past, he diminished as a character.

The DVD comes with a good set of extras, including two separate feature commentaries, one by Hood and the other by producers Brian Winter and Lauren Shuler Donner. Each are entertaining without covering much new ground.

Wolverine's comic book creators, Stan Lee and Len Wein, trade amusing banter in a 16-minute featurette in which Lee reveals that he considered the X-Men the runt of his litter of other comic titles such as "Thor" and "The Fantastic Four."

In "Wolverine Unleashed," a 12-minute making-of doc, star Hugh Jackman says his disturbingly veiny physique -- which he spent months sculpting with a special diet and training regimen -- was intended to make the character appear "freaky." "I wanted it to look animal," he says.

There are also four deleted/alternate scenes, including a variation on a critical scene leading up to the final showdown with Victor, in which Wolverine agrees to have his memories erased.

While straining credulity, this explanation for his memory loss is superior to the laughable moment in the final film, in which Wolverine is shot in the head with bullets made from the same indestructible metal in his skeleton. At least they weren't silver.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, September 14, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Poltergeist"

For my money, "Poltergeist" is one of the scariest movies of the '80s, and certainly one of the most frightening PG-rated films of all time.

How in the world did this 1982 flick get a PG rating? My understanding is that it originally received an R from the MPAA, but it was changed to a PG during the appeals process, which usually involves editing out some of the more objectionable material. So how did the scene where the guy tears off his own face pass muster?

Whatever. I'm glad it did. Otherwise my parents probably wouldn't have taken me to see it when it came out. This film from director Tobe Hooper ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre") became an instant classic in its depiction of a suburban family whose daughter is sucked into a netherworld of lost spirits.

Everyone remembers the scene where blond-haired pixie Carol Anne puts her tiny hands on the television screen, and creepily intones, "They're heeerrre!!" The forces she refers to as "the TV people" are in fact the spirits of the dead buried beneath their tract housing development in California. Mom (JoBeth Williams) will later get a first-hand encounter with them in the half-dug backyard swimming pool.

For me, the film really gets rolling when the paranormal investigators are called in to check out the home of the Freeling family. I love the scene where one of the science stooges explains to the father (Craig T. Nelson) about the amazing video he once recorded of a toy truck moving from one side of a room to another over the course of seven hours. He's trying to impress Mr. Freeling with what he considers a solid piece of evidence of the existence of ghosts, and Freeling just nods his head nonchalantly. Then he opens the door to his children's bedroom, where toys are flying around the room like a mini-tornado has invaded.

The other scientist is, of course, the guy who later peels the flesh off his face, in one of the movie's most famous scenes. It looks a little dated now -- you can easily spot the moment when they switch over to a special-effects mannequin -- but still horrifying enough to force my wife to look away. Personally, I prefer the bit a moment earlier when a steak crawls across the kitchen counter, then turns itself inside-out. (Although, who keeps an unwrapped steak on a plate inside their fridge?)

The moment that really sends a thrill up my leg is when the dwarf psychic Tangina (memorably played by Zelda Rubinstein) explains to Mr. and Mrs. Freeling exactly what has happened to their daughter. A powerful and nefarious force keeps her trapped in the netherworld between this plane of existence and the next. When Tangina says, "It lies to her," the hairs on my nape always stand on end.

On a side note, many people remember the tragic death of Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne, at the age of 12 from complications related to Crohn's Disease. But they forget that her screen sister, Dominique Dunne, also suffered a terrible fate, being strangled to death by an ex-boyfriend a few months after "Poltergeist" came out. She was 22. He brother is actor Griffin Dunne.

She apparently had long been a victim of domestic violence; she made a guest appearance on "Hill Street Blues" as an abuse victim, and didn't have to wear bruise make-up because she really had been beaten up by her boyfriend the day before. Horrible.

Perhaps inevitably, "Poltergeist" went on to have two sequels, both of which were pale reflections of the original. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson wisely bowed out after the second film, leaving it to O'Rourke -- by then typecast as "the Poltergeist girl" -- to go visit her aunt and uncle for her newest haunting.

The other notable thing about the movie is the controversy over whether Tobe Hooper really directed the film. Steven Spielberg, who produced and co-wrote the screenplay, was reportedly on set most of the time and may have felt Hooper was not up to the task. Nelson and Williams have both claimed that Spielberg was the one who said "action" and "cut" during most of filming, and even coached the cast on their performances, until veteran actress Beatrice Straight (who plays the head of the paranormal scientists) objected.

Whether directed by Hooper or Spielberg or some bastard combination thereof, "Poltergeist" is one of the all-time great horror films.

4 stars

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New this week

I'll have reviews of "The Informant!" starring Matt Damon and "Love Happens" with Jennifer Aniston.

No review of "Jennifer's Body," unfortunately -- the studio scheduled one, but then later rescinded it. Never a good indication.

The DVD review will be "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."

And I'll have Reeling Backward columns on "Poltergeist" and "Clash of the Titans." I've been on a bit of a late 1970s/early '80s kick lately, which will continue through next week.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Asphalt Jungle"

Was there ever a film noir as dour and cynical as "The Asphalt Jungle"? Was there ever an anti-hero as hard-boiled as Sterling Hayden's Dix Handley?

I think the answer to both questions is a resounding "no."

Director John Huston's 1950 masterpiece is a vision of grime and human depravity. The main character is a hooligan who kills quickly and without remorse, and seems indifferent to the girl who is clearly in love with him. And yet, he's the closest thing to a redeemable character in the picture.

What's most striking about the film is how criminals are portrayed as professionals with a job to do, not necessarily evil people who enjoy inflicting hurt. Made during a time when the Production Code decreed that criminals always had to be shown getting their comeuppance, Huston's depiction of cops and crooks caught in the same shadowy underworld ot temptation was practically an open rebellion.

No one in "Jungle" is shown as being purely evil. Sure, Dix is a Kentucky farmboy-turned street muscle, but his dream is to buy back the family horse farm they had to give up in the Depression. "Doc" Erwin Riedenschneider (Same Jaffe, in an Oscar-nominated performance) is the criminal mastermind who goes about his work with utter professionalism and respect for his peers. Doc is a jewel thief with the demeanor of a lab scientist.

His scheme for a big jewel heist is funded by a respectable lawyer, Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern). Except for one problem -- Emmerich is broke himself, the price of leading a double life with a high-cost girlfriend who must be kept in gin and furs. She's played by Marilyn Monroe in one of her first substantial screen roles, already displaying the legendary sex appeal that would propel her to fame, and limit her career.

Marc Lawrence has an effective turn as Cobby, the small-time bookie who'd like to break into the big time, and acts as go-between for Emmerich. The attorney's plan is to use Cobby's dough to finance the heist, then make off with the goods himself, with the help of a lowlife private investigator played by Brad Dexter.

Rounding out the cast are James Whitmore as Gus, Dix's hunchback friend and an occasional wheel man, when he's not running the local greasy spoon diner. And Jean Hagen plays the dame, whose name is literally Doll. (At first, I thought that was just what Dix was calling her, but no, that's her actual name.) Doll's had some hard luck herself, and is crashing at Dix's place when he gets the call to join Doc's crew.

As Dix, Hayden is a pastiche of icy glares and jawboned dialogue that tumbles out of his mouth like he has contempt for every word. Hayden was an interesting Hollywood iconoclast: He began his life as a sailor, and fell into acting because he thought it was easy, and paid well. He made little attempt to conceal his contempt for the acting craft, which cost him jobs later on in his career. I read somewhere that Hayden was supposed to play the role of Captain Quint in "Jaws," but Robert Shaw took over because of Hayden's tax trouble.

The robbery goes well at first, but an increasing number of complications keep cropping up. After Emmerich's double-cross fails, Doc and Dix are on the run with a bag full of jewels and no fence to pay them.

Doc's capture by the police is one of the all-time great scenes in crime movies. Doc has a weakness for girls, and had planned to use the money to retire to Mexico in luxury. He makes it out of the city -- the film is set in an unnamed Midwest metropolis, possibly Cincinnati, where it was partially shot -- and seems to have gotten away. While resting in a roadside diner, he spies a teen girl who's upset that the two boys she's with have run out of nickels for the jukebox. He offers her a couple dollars worth so he can sit awhile and watch her provocative dancing. Meanwhile, some cops spy him through the window and arrest him when he comes out.

Doc's questioning of one of the police men about how long they had been waiting for him is poignant, since it's clear that if he hadn't delayed to satisfy his lust, he could have gotten away.

Every man has a weakness, the message of the film seems to be, and the jungle of the modern city acts as a pressure cooker to bring out their worst instincts. Dix says he can't wait to get back to Kentucky so he can wash the dirt of the city off of him.

Huston wrote the script with Ben Maddow, based on the book by W.R. Burnett. There's a great line of dialogue where Emmerich is talking about how people treat criminals as a lower form of humanity than "respectable" people like himself. "They're not so different. After all, crime is merely a left-handed form of human endeavor."

The irony that the lowly professional criminals hold up their end of the bargain, and the eminent lawyer is the one who louses things up with his dirty scheming, is tasty indeed.

4 stars

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bonus DVD review: "Deadgirl"

Just when you think horror films have violated every taboo known to mankind, along comes "Deadgirl" to shatter one we (hopefully) hadn't even considered: Zombie rape.

Yes, really.

The tagline for this stylish low-budget indie says it all: "You never forget your first time."

Here's the set-up: Two slacker teens ditch class to go drink some beers at the local abandoned insane asylum. Deep in the bowels of the musty building, they come across the body of a dead girl, chained up and covered in plastic, hidden in a room behind a door that rusted shut years ago. How did she get there?

Their questions will have to wait, because it turns out the girl is still breathing! She won't talk and behaves like a feral animal, snapping at them with her teeth.

Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez, a dead ringer for a young Joaquin Phoenix) wants to set her free, but his best friend J.T. (Noah Segan) has a more sinister thought: What if they just kept her? After all, it's doubtful anyone even knows she's here. They could use her as their sex slave.

Rickie is horrified, and they fight and argue, until J.T. discovers a terrible secret: The girl (Jenny Spain, who spends the entire movie naked) seems impervious to injury. J.T. "kills" her three times, but she keeps moving and twitching, even after being shot three times.

Rickie, who's got a thing for a rich girl at school (Candice Accola), determines to sneak in and free the girl, but discovers that J.T. has brought in their friend Wheeler (Eric Podnar) to take part in the debauchery.

Things really get hairy when a couple of jock bullies invade the zombie sex sanctum, and one of them takes up a dare to have the girl perform fellatio on him. Living dead+genitals=not good.

Despite its premise, "Deadgirl" really isn't a schlocky spoof, but a well-made and superbly acted (for a horror flick) film from directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, and screenwriter Treng Haaga.

Still, there are plenty of gross-out moments, including a severed limb, an upper lip that's bitten off, and a memorable scene in the school bathroom with some exploding guts splatting against the tile. The unrated DVD, which hits stores Sept. 15, includes some sections that are worth watching in slo-mo for the bloody special effects aficionado.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New podcast at The Film Yap

We've got our new podcast up at The Film Yap!

This week's show is about animated movies that are made for adults, like "9," "Wizards" and "Persepolis."

What I did with my settlement check

KARMA UPDATE: A few hours after I made this video, I received a letter in the mail from my mortgage company. It said my escrow was in overpayment, so I would be receiving a refund check that was nearly the same amount as the settlement check I donated.

I now believe in karma.

UPDATE, PART DEUX: A couple of other sources have linked to my post or given their own take, which you can read yourself:

Ruth's blog
Indy SPJ

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review: "9"

"9" is a cyberpunk fantasia disguised as an animated children's movie. It's also one of the boldest and most original films of 2009.

And along with "District 9," it's the second movie to come out in the last month based on a short film by an unknown director that was expanded to feature length with the support of an established filmmaker (and with the numeral 9 in the title, to boot). In this case, Tim Burton liked the 2005 Oscar-nominated short film by Shane Acker so much, he signed on as a producer for a full-size "9."

The world Acker has created -- along with screenwriter Pamela Pettler and an army of computer animators -- is a dystopian apocalypse, in which all of mankind has been wiped out by war. The only critters moving about are these funny-looking puppet creatures with big, mechanical eyes and a slapdash of zippers and buttons holding their burlap torsos together.

These are stitchpunks (though they're never named as such), the last remnant of humanity, created by a dying scientist with a terrible burden to bear.

Even though we're used to being dazzled by each new CG animation feature, the textures and tactile quality of "9" really jump out at you. Despite having no names, only numbers, the stitchpunks are readily distinguished from one another due to the animators' minute attention to detail.

As the story opens, 9 (voice of Elijah Wood), the newest of his kind, awakens in the dead scientist's laboratory. He finds a strange device, and takes it with him as he ventures out into the urban wasteland. (The setting seems to be WWII-era London, or what's left of it.)

There he encounters 2 (Martin Landau), an old tinkerer who fixes 9's voice transmitter so he can talk. But they're attacked by a fearsome mechanical feline that makes off with 2 and the scientist's totem.

In short order, 9 encounters the rest of his kind. 5 (John C. Reilly) is one-eyed and friendly, while 8 is a lumbering bully who barely speaks. There's also 6 (Crispin Glover, who also sings a song for the soundtrack), the half-crazed oracle; 3 and 4, the symbiotic twins who compile lost human knowledge; and 7 (Jennifer Connelly), the heroic knight-errant of the bunch.

Leading them, ostensibly, is 1 (Christopher Plummer), though he seems more interested in hiding from the threatening machines than challenging them.

I don't want to reveal more, since part of the film's delight is discovering the frightening implications of the movie's themes, and what they say about humanity.

If there's a criticism to be leveled, it's that the opening 20 minutes or so feels rushed, as if it was edited to introduce the action scenes as quickly as possible so younger audience members wouldn't grow bored. Although "9" is perfectly appropriate for older children (say, 7 and up), I am certain adults will find it most satisfying as a film-going experience.

After watching this movie, I was astonished to learn that it has been given a PG-13 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. The mild depictions of violence are wholly undeserving of anything harsher than a PG.

Perhaps it's the dark tone and post-apocalyptic setting that negatively affected the ratings board. But these are also integral parts of what makes "9" the best animated film so far this year.

3.5 stars