Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: "It Might Get Loud"

Even if you're not a guitar junkie, there's enough cool riffs and insight into the musical lives of three legendary players in "It Might Get Loud" to interest even the nonfan.

Well, two and a half legends -- Jack White hasn't really been around long enough to cement his greatness like the other two axe-men, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and The Edge of U2. But give him time.

The three meet, for the first substantial time in their careers, at the behest of documentary director Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth." (This is the same Academy Award people keep mistakenly assigning to Al Gore.)

Of course, the film builds to an extended jam session featuring the trio. But most of their stories unfold separately, as Guggenheim accompanies them back to their musical roots, quite literally -- filming them as they visit the schools or houses or clubs where they first began to stroke chords.

(The Edge's real name is David Howell Evans, and I'm glad I never met him because I would not be able to control the impertinent urge to ask him if we became buddies, could I call him "The." But then, Jack White also uses a fake name and refers to his White Stripes bandmate, Meg White, as his sister when in fact she is his ex-wife.)

Page, White and The Edge are all considered rock-n-rollers, but their styles and tastes are rather dissimilar. Page is the old-school pro, who started out as a session player and then expanded his repertoire as his need for expression felt stifled. The Edge uses the newest computers, software and hardware to tweak his instruments' sound to match the notes in his head -- Page hits the bulls-eye when he calls him a "sonic architect."

White stands apart more from the other two, with his obsession with old-timey blues wails coupled with punk-era screeds of feedback and distortion. He prefers to use cheap, even damaged guitars because he relishes the authenticity of their imperfect sounds.

The movie starts with White constructing an ad-hoc guitar with some baling wire, bits of wood, nails and a Coca-Cola bottle. But when he hooks an amplifier up to it, its screaming siren is not unpleasant.

All three men make for entertaining guides into the ethos of the electric guitar. (They also play some acoustic, but it's clear they were born to amp.) White talks about growing up in 1980s Detroit where all the kids were into rap. The Edge laments rock's middle-age years of the late 1970s and early '80s, when the emphasis was on big hair and big, dumb chords.

"'Spinal Tap' was a movie I watched," he says. "I didn't laugh, I wept. It was too close to the truth."

In one of the more thrilling moments, The Edge uncovers some ancient cassette tapes and plays them, and discovers the iconic arpeggio that became U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name."

In addition to the solo interviews and group discussion/jam, Guggenheim also incorporates extensive concert footage of the three players -- a clip of White playing until his fingers literally bleed is unforgettable -- and of bands who influenced them. There are even some animated sections, and one loopy bit where White jams with a child actor portraying his 9-year-old self.

"It Might Get Loud" isn't a definitive history of the electric guitar, but a brisk and occasionally mesmerizing exploration of how these three players have used it to interpret their respective worlds.

3 stars

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: "This Is It"

Michael Jackson had moved away from us.

With each passing year his musical hits grew more remote, his dazzling dance moves fading into the remoteness of iconography. "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" are to us now what "Hound Dog" was when they came out; the Moonwalk became the Charleston.

Instead, our memories of being entertained and moved were replaced with newer, more unpleasant ones: The allegations of sexually abusing children, the increasingly strange behavior, the withdrawal and reclusion.

Even the King of Pop's physical appearance -- garishly thin and wasted, ineluctably altered by surgeries and skin lightening -- became more and more ephemeral, as if he were gradually turning into a phantasm as his star dimmed.

Strangely, surprisingly, the concert movie "This Is It" brings him back to us. It's a bracing and thrilling celebration of Jackson's remarkable talent.

I admit I was skeptical of this film going in. It seemed like a cynical attempt to cash in on Jackson's legacy after his untimely death at age 50 just four months ago. Jackson was rehearsing for a 50-concert tour, his first in nearly a dozen years and reputed to be his last.

The footage that comprises the movie was never intended to be shown to audiences, except perhaps for outtakes incorporated into a slicker production to be shot during the actual concerts. What we're left with is not really a concert movie, but a document of a concert that never was.

Director Kenny Ortega weaves together shots of Jackson rehearsing, with segments built around individual songs. Some are shown in nearly finished form, with a troupe of highly choreographed dancers, lighting and costumes. Others were still at the conceptual stage, so the footage consists essentially of Jackson alone on the stage, singing and gyrating.

There's also some backstage material, including shots from some films that were being made specifically for the giant screen that enveloped the stage. Ortega uses these scenes to demonstrate how the finished concert would have looked. One, which intercuts old film stock to create a gun battle between Jackson and Humphrey Bogart, is visually delicious.

Less well integrated are interviews with musicians and dancers, who basically gush about how great it is to work with Michael Jackson. These are the only parts where the movie's commercial genesis is brought glaringly to the fore.

The heart and soul of the film is the songs, of course, with nearly all of his major hits presented, and a few lesser-known ones as well.

The most important thing that needs to be said about this rehearsal material is how incredibly vibrant and healthy Jackson appears. He had not lost a lick of his agility or grace, easily keeping up with dancers half his age. The only hint of mortality is the bandages that repeatedly appear on his hands.

As impressive as Jackson's dance moves are, his singing is even more amazing, especially when one considers that he often was withholding his full vocal power to preserve his voice. He occasionally can't help himself from letting go, though, such as a thrilling duet with a backup singer on "The Way You Make Me Feel."

"Thriller" gets a sumptuous update with zombie dancers busting amazing moves, and other hits such as "Human Nature," "Beat It" and many more are performed.

At the screening I went to, many audience members sang along with the hits, feet tapping and shoulders popping in rhythm. It was magical enough to almost make you forget that most of Jackson's biggest hits are at least 20 years old.

"This Is It" brings us back to Michael Jackson's heyday.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Video review: "Whatever Works"

Here's my take on "Whatever Works": Woody Allen got too old to play Woody Allen, so he hired Larry David to do it for him.

The 73-year-old auteur is getting a mite long in the tooth to do his neurotic New York misanthrope shtick, so other actors have had to take over. Larry David, co-creator of "Seinfeld" and star of his own show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," makes for a decent stand-in.

Actually, David is a double stand-in: Allen wrote the screenplay in the 1970s for the late, great Zero Mostel, who unfortunately left this mortal coil before the movie could be made.

David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a brilliant but unlikeable guy who gave up physics to teach chess to children. Boris is in perpetual holler mode, shouting at his students, people who annoy him -- which is just about everybody -- and at the world in general.

A 21-year-old Southern belle runaway (Evan Rachel Wood) shows up on his doorstep begging for food, and soon she's living with him, and eventually marries him. She's dumb as a doorstop, but her presence keeps Boris' jangled nerves relatively calm.

It's mostly rehashed Woody Allen jokes, occasionally funny and occasionally annoying.

Things really get screwy when first the girl's mother (Patricia Clarkson) and then her father (Ed Begley Jr.) come traipsing along in search of her. Both are Bible-thumping caricatures, and to these Southern ears, both their accents and portrayal are ludicrous, bordering on the offensive.

Seeing how Woody is one of the highest-profile defenders of Roman Polanski in his bid to avoid extradition for raping a 13-year-old girl, it's uncomfortable to ponder how often these romances between crusty old men and impressionable young girls crop up in Allen's movies -- and his own life.

If you're looking for video extras, you won't have to search long: Both the DVD and Blu-ray versions contain only the theatrical trailer.

But I guess if Woody is content to dust off hum-drum 30-year-old scripts, it's obvious he wasn't interested in putting in an extra effort. "Whatever Works" mostly doesn't.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 1 star

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Pit and the Pendulum"

Roger Corman and Vincent Price had long careers doing low-budget horror flicks, often together. "Pit and the Pendulum" was one of their first big hits together, and the 1961 film remains an atmospheric and engaging milestone in their work nearly a half-century later.

The film is of course based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe, whose dreary and dark-themed work in many ways was a progenitors of the modern horror movie. The story is set in the 1500s, after the Spanish Inquisition, when torture and mayhem were considered a religious duty of the holy men wielding horrible instruments of pain.

Price plays Sebastian Medina, the lord of a dank castle on the shores of the ocean that once belonged to his father, one of the chief Inquisitors. As the story opens his wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) has recently died under mysterious circumstances, and her brother Francis (John Kerr) has come to investigate her demise.

He finds Don Medina to be in a state of shock and grief, and the tang of guilt hangs on him, flavoring all of his skittish behavior -- which only causes Francis to suspect foul play.

The other players are Launa Anders as Catherine, Sebastian's sister, and Antony Carbone as Doctor Leon, the family physician and Sebastian's best friend.

The film unspools more or less as a murder mystery, with various parties coming under suspicion at different times. For awhile it seems that the servants are echoing Elizabeth's voice, and playing the harpsichord in the dead of night, and other teasing reminders of the deceased lady of the house. Sebastian himself is suggested to be insanely recreating his wife's activity himself, especially after Francis discovers a secret passage between his bedroom and Elizabeth's.

Director Corman's films were notorious for their tiny budgets, but "Pit" has a pretty decent look to it, with some nicely creepy dungeons and detailed costumes. The matte paintings of the castle against a crashing ocean is kind of hokey to eyes in 2009, but likely looked convincing in 1961.

The acting, however, wavers widely in quality. Kerr seems to have exactly two expressions, and they each grow tiring rather quickly.

Price was known for his wild expressions, which bordered on the comedic, which contributed to the schlocky nature of many of his films. He appears to be playing it straight in "Pit and the Pendulum," and the movie contains not a trace of a smirk.

3 stars

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Thoughts on Central Florida newspapers

I spent most of my life and my journalism career in Florida, working for small- and mid-sized papers and dreaming of making it to the "big leagues" -- the St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel or my hometown paper, The Orlando Sentinel.

Never broke in with any of them. I interviewed at the Post, but it happened to be on the same day one of the biggest stories in recent history broke (troubled student shot a teacher in his classroom), and I kind of got lost in the shuffle -- the last two editors who were supposed to talk to me had to cancel. Had a few sniffs from the Times, but nothing solid. Was in the running for film critic at the Sun-Sentinel, but didn't make the finalist list. I was all set to be hired by the Sentinel back in '01 -- they were bringing me down for a drug test, which is code for "you got the job" -- when a hiring freeze came down like an anvil.

Eventually I made it to a major metro paper, but I had to move to Indianapolis to do it.

So it's been interesting to me to come home for the first time in a year or so and read the Orlando Sentinel, St. Pete Times and Tampa Trib. All three have struggled in the downturn that's hurt virtually every newspaper. So I was curious to see how their print products are faring. So what follows is the assessment of a Florida boy who read the papers for years, after a long hiatus during which the world was turned upside-down.

Short version: The Sentinel and Times seem to be holding up pretty well -- certainly much better than the Indy Star, and certainly when it comes to features coverage, the thing I care most about. The Trib ... not so much.

Orlando is part of the Chicago Tribune chain, bought up by Sam Zell and now in bankruptcy despite massive redesigns dictated by the new bosses. Redesigns are, in my humble opinion, both the first and last refuge of the unimaginative newspaper boss. A new editor or publisher comes in, or a new owner takes over, and invariably they want to remake the product to fit their bold and innovative ideas. Or, the same old crew looks at some numbers and decide they need to "freshen" things up. In the latter case, expensive consultants are invariably brought in to tell the people who have been doing their jobs for years how they would be doing them if they were stupid enough to work there, instead of being high-paid consultants.

That said, the Sentinel's redesign -- the first of the big Trib papers -- isn't awful. I like some touches, like starting columns such as political writer Scott Maxwell's above the section banner (Metro, Sports, etc.). But I can't stand it when they start regular stories in that spot. You can only fit in two or three inches of text, so it's hard to get even a small bite of the story before the jump.

As the former entertainment editor for the Indy Star, it made me envious to see the Sentinel's Friday entertainment section so fat with faces and copy. Yes, it's shrunk a lot, and there were a lot of quick-hit items I would have like to read more about. But it's still a pretty damn comprehensive A&E guide. My friend and colleague Roger Moore, one of the few remaining full-time movie critics in the Sunshine State, is still cranking out copy like a machine.

Despite having something like 40,000 less daily circulation than the Indy Star, the Sentinel still boasts a movie critic, TV critic, pop music writer, theater critic, performing arts critic, etc. They've even still got the "Commander Coconut" column I enjoyed for so many years.

The restaurant critic got the axe, but they still have restaurant reviews courtesy of the dining editor. Although her review for this past Friday was of Qdoba's -- the Mexican chain that's just a half-step up from fast food. What's next, a critique of Burger King? Puzzling choice.

Orlando's metro section was a bit thin, but the sports page was still quite robust. They have an amazing number of sports columnists despite the fact that the number of pro and college sports franchises in town is ... well, two: the Orlando Magic and UCF Knights.

Verdict: Although noticeably skimpier, the Sentinel is a good-looking paper that still boasts a lot of depth.

While we were in the Tampa Bay area for my sister's wedding, my parents got the Tampa Trib at their hotel while we received the St. Pete Times at ours. My dad howled at the injustice, particularly when it came to the sports sections. On Saturday, the Trib's sports section consisted of eight pages, three of which were full-page ads.

The Times has long been regarded as the best paper in Florida, and I'd say it's still got a good shot at keeping the title. Both days I saw it, St. Pete was thick and rich with a lot of day-to-day stories, but also some more ambitious stuff mixed in.

They had a running series where they looked at the public schedules of the state's top officials, starting with Gov. Charlie Crist, and figured out how many days off that worked out to -- something like a few months off every year. That's good old-fashioned shoe-leather gotcha journalism -- or in this case, poring through computerized records instead of wearing out shoes. If I was a top editor at another major metro paper anywhere in the country, I would immediately steal this idea.

In comparison, the Trib's coverage looked like what it is: The weak paper in one of the few remaining two-newspaper towns, and one that's barely holding on by its fingernails. From features to metro to sports and the front pages, the Tampa Tribune reads like it's just going through the motions.

One thing that I found interesting, and disturbing, was how much the two papers' Saturday editions copied each other.

The Tampa Bay Bucs were playing a game in London, and both papers had stories about an English fellow who had been worshipping the NFL team since he was a teen-ager. I mean, what are the chances of them both finding the same guy? The only thing I can think of is that he must promote himself pretty heavily on the Web or something. But still, at some point one paper must have realized the other was profiling the same guy. Wouldn't you have switched gears at that point? Although I suppose if they come out on the same day, there's no way to pick who was the copycat.

Both the Trib and Times have Saturday themed features sections that were tabloids devoted to health, dining and beauty. It's bizarre to me that competing papers would put out sections that were essentially Xeroxes of each other -- especially since these elements are not a natural combination. Who wants to read dining coverage next to stories about 69-year-old skinny super athletes? I think one of them, or maybe both, even had a little travel coverage in there, too. Both sections read like the feature department's leftovers -- things that maybe once had its own section and have been squeezed to fit together in this tabloid.

I found it hilarious and astonishing that both papers have automobile reviews (one staff writer, one a syndicated piece, as I recall) and they were both reviewing the 2010 Porsche Cayenne SUV. Again, what are the chances?!? Having done a little auto writing myself, I know it's probably a matter of the new models being made available to the press around the same time. But again, if I knew my competition was writing about the same subject as me, I'd be tempted to find a really good original take on it, or look for something else to write about that week.

Metro sections: The St. Pete Times was full of local bylined stories about a variety of topics. The Trib was a ghostown.

Verdict: The St. Petersburg Times has to rank as one of the best regional newspapers in the country, and the Tampa Tribune's days are numbered. I hope that's not the case, but based on my two-day assessment of their print product, they're not giving me much reason to hope.

It should not go without mentioning that the Times is owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute, so it hasn't felt the squeeze that for-profit operations like the Trib and Sentinel have. But still, they've had their own staff reductions and newshole squeezes.

So that's my take of Central Florida's three major newspapers, from a native and newspaper junkie after a long spell away. Perhaps we'll get down to South Florida sometime soon, and I'll assess the Herald, Post and Sun-Sentinel.

Coming this week

My sister is successfully married, my big freelance job is finished and turned in, Heartland Film Festival has wrapped, so I can finally get back to something resembling a normal routine.

I can't begin to express how busy the last couple of weeks have been. Jean has often commented that it seemed like I was working way more hours since I got laid off, which probably isn't too far from the truth. Lately, it's been almost like having two full-time jobs -- days of 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. were not unusual.

Well, it's back to the new normal now.

I'll have reviews of Michael Jackson's "This Is It" and the guitar documentary "It Might Get Loud" with Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White.

The video review will be Woody Allen's "Whatever Works."

I'll have classic film reviews of "Pit and the Pendulum" and one other TBA.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: "Astro Boy"

We are so spoiled.

When it comes to animated feature films, audiences have been enjoying a renaissance for so long now that we've come to look upon the extraordinary as the ordinary, the amazing as ho-hum.

With great-looking, smart and affecting flicks like "Up," "Coraline" and "Kung Fu Panda" seem to be falling out of the sky -- or at least dropping into local cinemas -- every few weeks, it soon becomes the new standard.

That's why "Astro Boy" feels like such an also-ran. The storytelling is aimed strictly at small children -- those over age 8 need not apply. As for the animation, if the film had arrived five years ago, it would be considered spectacular. But now, the somewhat flat surfaces and fake-looking hair practically announce its second-rate status.

Of course, the coiffure on Astro Boy's head is supposed to look artificial. The comic character's signature swoopy 'do that converges in a pair of points that resemble horns -- though as Astro protests, it's actually just hair gel.

The set-up is somewhat similar to that of "Wall·E" -- humans have junked up the Earth, so they leave it. In this case, it's not into space but just a few thousand feet up, as the denizens of Metro City float on an island hovering over the surface, which is where they throw all their trash.

A great deal of this refuse is broken-down robots, who are the city's iron-plated indentured servants -- cooking all the meals, driving the cars, etc. The two greatest scientists are Dr. Elefun (voice of Bill Nighy) and Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), who have created two new limitless power sources: Blue energy and Red. The Blue is stable and safe, while any robot powered by the Red is likely to go off on a killing spree.

If you're wondering if this is a non-too-subtle riff on Red State/Blue State animosity, you'd be right. Of course, most of the jokes -- the power-mad president (Donald Sutherland) has a campaign sign urging "It's not time for change" -- will sail right over the heads of the target audience.

Tenma's son Toby (Freddie Highmore) is killed during an experiment, so Tenma recreates him as a Blue-powered robot, using some of Toby's DNA to implant him with the boy's memory. But Tenma rejects the creation, who can fly and perform other super-feats.

Faux Toby is exiled to the surface, where he discovers a troupe of children rummaging among the scrap for their benefactor, a kooky inventor named Hamegg (Nathan Lane). They dub him Astro, but the robot boy is afraid to reveal his nature to his new friends -- especially after discovering that Hamegg is only fixing up the old robots so he can fight them gladiator-style.

"Astro Boy" was directed by David Bowers, who also helmed "Flushed Away" from a few years ago. He also co-wrote the script with Timothy Harris.

As entertainment for wee ones, it's not poor fare, and the mix of bloodless action and cute/doofy robots will keep them mostly in their seats. Compared to other animated offerings, though, it lacks special powers.

2 stars

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Video review: "Not Quite Hollywood"

I'd been dying to see this documentary about Australian exploitation films since I saw a preview for it on the Web last year. If it ever actually came to theaters in the U.S., I never knew about it. It recently came out on video, and I managed to catch it.

"Not Quite Hollywood" focuses on a very specific era of movies made in the 1970s and '80s. I call them exploitation flicks, although most of the Australian filmmakers and stars interviewed for the doc -- and there are dozens of them -- call them "genre pictures." I'm not really sure that's an accurate description, since these brash, fly-by-night movies took off from the American horror and action movies and really forged their own identity.

I mean, it wasn't until Aussies made movies about bikers roaming the countryside looking to pillage rape that anyone would've called that a genre.

Quentin Tarantino, who's a huge fan of these movies and offers extensive commentary (and helped secure financing for the documentary), perhaps said it best when he dubbed them "Ozploitation." That is, in fact, the movie's subtitle: "The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!"

Writer/director Mark Hartley is clearly a big fan of Ozploitation, and loads up with clips of dozens, if not hundreds of Aussie flicks. Many of them are replete with the gore, campy humor and unbridled nudity that were hallmarks of the movement.

But there's also some serious insight into these ultra low-budget flicks and their effect on Australian cinema.

Prior to the 1970s, there basically was no film industry Down Under. With the help of some government backing and the encouragement of some politicians, it finally got rolling. In the mid- to late 1970s, American audiences became aware of what was called the Australian New Wave, with high-profile prestige pictures like "Breaker Morant" and "Gallipoli."

But underneath these respectable films, there was a swirling, writhing mass of exploitation movies. Even some of the prestige guys, like Fred Schepisi, acknowledge that if it weren't for the commercial success of the Ozploitation movies, their films probably would never have been made.

Many of today's internationally-known filmmakers and stars came out of this movement, including Peter Weir, George Miller, Schepisi, Phillip Noyce, Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman (the star of a flick with the unmatched title of "BMX Bandits") and Sam Neill.

Perhaps the highest profile film to come out of the Ozploitation wave was 1979's "Mad Max," which made Gibson a star. It spawned the sequels "The Road Warrior" -- one of my all-time favorite films -- and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." People perhaps don't realize what a low-budget affair the original movie was. The dialogue of Gibson and the rest of the cast was re-recorded with American actors for the U.S. release, because producers were afraid American audiences wouldn't understand the Aussie accents.

People who dislike movies with a lot of sex, blood and violence probably wouldn't enjoy "Not Quite Hollywood," but I quite liked it. Though I admit I was not familiar with most of the movies, this only gives me an excuse to go rent them and discover more of Ozploitation for myself.

3 stars

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: "Good Hair"

"Good Hair" is a funny and breezy movie with a deep undertow.

Host Chris Rock examines black women's obsession with hair, which has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. He interviews a lot of famous African-American actresses who admit they use expensive weaves, and even follows this river of hair back to its wellspring in India.

The surface of the documentary, directed by Jeff Stilson and co-written by him, Rock and a few others, is all fun 'n' games. Rock interviews famous people about their hair, from actress Nia Long to the Rev. Al Sharpton, but he also goes into numerous salons in black neighborhoods to talk to everyday women who are putting painful, dangerous chemicals into their hair to straighten it, or shelling out $1,000 (and up) for weaves of other people's hair.

Things really get rolling when Rock then goes into some barbershops to talk to black men about the love triangle between them, their romantic partners and their ladies' hair.

The mens' sheepish, embarrassed looks soon give way to same really hilarious commentary, which basically boils down to "keep your hands off the hair."

But as fun as these scenes are, Rock deftly probes into the underbelly of an industry that's siphoning off a king's ransom from black communities, and putting it mostly into the hands of corporations controlled by whites and Asians.

For a brief time in the 1970s, natural kinky black hair was worn with pride. But African-American women (some men, too) were sold an image that straight, flowing hair -- basically, white hair -- was what they needed to look good, and to get ahead in society.

"The lighter, the brighter, the better," Long says.

One of the most heart-breaking scenes in the movie comes when Rock is interviewing a group of girls about to graduate from high school. They're young, gifted and black, and the potential practically glows off them. Then the girls with straightened hair one by one tell their Afroed friend that if they were interviewing her for a job, they wouldn't hire her because of her nappy head.

Weaves are the newest thing to push the limits, both stylistically and financially. Long cascades of real human hair are braided into a woman's existing hair -- sometimes even glued in. The effect is pretty convincing, but as TV actress Raven-Symoné demonstrates when she pulls on either end of her flowing locks, not quite foolproof.

The film goes into investigative mode when Rock travels to India to find out where all this hair is coming from. It turns out that much of it comes from a religious ceremony called tonsure, in which most Indian women have their heads shaved at least a couple of times during their lives.

We get see the dingy shops where the hair is cleaned, processed and delivered to upscale Beverly Hills boutiques, where it's woven onto the heads of the rich and famous.

Rock got the idea for the movie when one of his two little girls came up to him and asked, "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?"

That's the sort of question that could provoke a loving father to travel the globe in search of a sufficient answer. Lucky for us Chris Rock did, and why "Good Hair" is so good, and shows us how meaningful something as seemingly trivial as hair can be.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Video review: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

Director Michael Bay is the king of the big, dumb summer action movie, and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is as big and dumb as they come.

Surprisingly, though, it actually manages to improve on 2007's "Transformers" by stirring up a dramatic moment or two centered around robot hero Optimus Prime. In a summer wasteland of disappointing movies, Optimus (emphatically voiced by Peter Cullens) was the best cinematic hero of the season.

The action scenes are still an exercise in migraine-inducing computer-generated special effects, as heroic Autobots and villainous Decepticons tangle in a blur of metal pieces and widgets. Since both can transform into other things, it's virtually impossible to tell where one robot begins and another ends.

The story is a mishmash of gobbledygook about a secret Decepticon overlord named the Fallen who wants to set off an ancient weapon hidden long ago on Earth, but first he needs a special key.

Human protagonist Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is somehow involved once again, mainly as an excuse for him to do a lot of running from the bad guys, with Megan Fox tagging along as the obligatory -- and totally unnecessary -- eye candy.

The movie attempts to make up for its lack of sense with an inundation of extra material.

Both DVD and Blu-ray versions come with a feature-length commentary by Bay and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman; an extensive making-of documentary; a featurette accompanying Bay to the film's Tokyo premiere; a look at the "Transformer" franchise's 25-year history; extended scenes; pre-visualization renderings of robots and action sequences; and the "New Divide" music video by Linkin Park.

The Blu-ray also comes with an interactive "Allspark" game; data files on individual robots including personal timeline; and featurettes on the marketing of the movie.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, October 19, 2009

No "Bright Star" review

The press screening for "Bright Star" got screwed up, TWICE. Went downtown Thursday for the screening, nobody from the theater bothered to show up.

Rescheduled for this morning, theater people there, but no print. They said maybe they'd try to get one.

At 2:40 p.m. I got a voicemail on my phone saying they'd rescheduled the screening for 2:30.


I may substitute in a DVD review instead.

Reeling Backward: "Once Upon A Time in the West"

Over the years, I have heard several people point to the moment near the beginning of "Once Upon a Time in the West" where Henry Fonda guns down a small boy as one of the watershed moments in their cinematic lives.

Here was an actor who had played presidents, generals, fathers, everyday decent men. If there was anything close to a movie star who personified everything that was good and true about American circa 1968, Fonda was it.

And then he shows up dressed all in black and blows away a kid -- and smiles leeringly while he's doing it, too.

Sergio Leone had wanted to make a movie with Fonda for years, and by '68 his "spaghetti Westerns" -- Italian in origin, shot largely in Spain -- had gained enough international respect and box office clout to finally interest Fonda. The actor was getting older (63), his star was fading, so it must have seemed like a good time to flip his career on its head by tackling a sinister, even vile character.

I've also read that Charles Bronson was Leone's first choice to play the "Man with No Name" role in his "Fistful" trilogy that made Clint Eastwood a star. Bronson and Eastwood have much the same onscreen persona in the Leone films -- taciturn, hard-hearted but basically good men who say very little, and let their six-shooters do most of the talking.

Ennio Morricone was, in my opinion, one of the greatest film composers of all time. (I say "was," incorrectly -- in his early 80s, he's still going strong with TV and film scores, including 2007's wonderful and underrated "The Weatherman.") He used all sorts of props and human voices in his scores in addition to orchestral instruments -- think of the signature "ayi-ayi-yah" singing that opens the iconic theme for "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

In "Once Upon a Time in the West," each of the four main characters has their own musical cue. For Cheyenne, the cagey bandit played by Jason Robards, it's a sad and sweet ditty with banjos and the sound of horse clops. The melody is done sometimes with a whistle, sometimes a banjo, and sometimes a banjo combined with a tinny piano. I just love how that sound captures the essence of the character. Cheyenne is a hard man who's very protective of his badass image -- mainly so people stay out of the way of his robbing and pillaging. But, as he says himself, even he wouldn't shoot a 6-year-old boy.

For Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), the New Orleans prostitute who arrives in the dusty town of Flagstone to join her new husband, only to find him and his three children shot dead, the music takes on a syrupy tone with lots of strings. Jill is acknowledged by all three of the men whose stories revolve around her to be an extraordinary woman -- in some ways, she's tougher than all of them. But still, as in many Westerns the female characters represent society, stability and comfort, and Jill's musical theme reflects that.

The last two characters' music overlaps to a certain extent, and the reason becomes apparent at the very end when their story arcs converge in their quickdraw showdown in the sun.

Bronson's character is called simply Harmonica, and I don't think I have to explain what instrument dominates his music cue. It's not really a melody, though, but a plaintive wail consisting of just a few repeated notes. They echo across the plains in the film's opening scene, where three assassins await his arrival at a train station. We hear Harmonica's theme before we see him, playing the tiny instrument that is his name, his signature expression, his history and his inevitable destiny.

Morricone's score uses mostly just a few chords underneath the harmonica notes to give it some depth and a haunting lingering aspect. But when combined with some harsh electric guitar chords, later dissolving into swelling strings, the harmonica becomes a part of Frank's (Fonda) theme.

Frank is perhaps the most black-hearted villain ever to appear in a Western. With him, there's no prevarication or facade of civilization. He is a killer, who does what he does not only because there's money to be made at it, but because he genuinely enjoys it. Frank is not bothered by his nature; from Fonda's steely-eyed performance, I doubt he even gives it much thought.

Frank despises weakness, which is why he never shows any himself, and immediately preys upon others who do. Frank has spent the last few years working for Morton, a train magnate who dreams of completing the great East-West railroad line, even as his body is crippled by disease.

Morton hobbles around with crutches and a back brace, and uses a special drop-down set of hand bars to navigate the custom train car that serves as his mobile home and office. Frank calls Morton's condition "dry rot," and says any reasonable man would've put a bullet in his own brain long ago. For now, Frank is content to rub out any homesteaders who get in the way of Morton's railroad -- such as the McBains -- but it's clear he has ambitions to push the boss aside.

The story is an interesting and convoluted mix of divergent motivations and alliances. Jill believes Cheyenne and his men were responsible for killing her husband, since the murderers wore the long dusters that are his gang's trademark. But it actually was Frank and his men, looking to throw suspicion off themselves.

Cheyenne visits Jill to try to convince her he had nothing to do with it. Harmonica, seeming to have no allies or motivation, shows up and inserts himself into this vortex, protecting Jill when some of Frank's men return to finish the job. Harmonica and Cheyenne end up helping each other out of convenience, and at one point Harmonica actually protects Frank from his own men, who have been bribed by Barton to turn traitor.

Frank, meanwhile, is irritated by Harmonica's repeated intrusions, and his refusal to give his real name -- only reeling off names of men Frank has killed.

One could write a whole treatise about the sexual politics of this movie. In this worldview, men are all rapacious opportunists who revel in using their physical power to subjugate women. Harmonica, despite being the ostensible hero of the film, holds Jill down and rips her dress. Frank takes her prisoner and forcibly has sex with her. She goes along with it, but Frank correctly surmises that she'd do anything to save her own skin, even accept on her body the hands of the man who killed her spouse. Only Cheyenne maintains something resembling a respectful difference.

"Once Upon a Time in the West" is a great and strange Western, the apex of Sergio Leone's spaghetti movies.

3.5 stars

Sunday, October 18, 2009

New this week

Insanely busy, but I'm endeavoring to keep up with a full load of movie stuff!

I'll have reviews of "Bright Star," "Astro Boy" and "Good Hair."

The video review will be "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

I'll have classic film commentaries on "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Pit and the Pendulum."

Friday, October 16, 2009

IFJA announces award rules and categories

The Indiana Film Journalists Association is pleased to announce its rules and categories for its first-ever film achievement awards.

The IFJA was founded at the beginning of this year to promote quality film criticism in the Hoosier State. As such, we will be recognizing the best and brightest of film, much as other critic groups do. We currently have nine members.

The IFJA Awards will be announced on or around Dec. 14. We will name a winner in each of 12 categories (listed below) as well as one runner-up in 11 categories. In the Best Film category only, we will recognize nine finalists in addition to the winner.

In order to be eligible, a film must have played in Indiana during the calendar year, or screened for our critics in advance of a 2010 wide release date. Movies that played in a major Hoosier State film festival -- such as Heartland Film Festival or Indianapolis International Film Festival -- will also be considered.

Here are the categories:
· Best Film of the Year
· Best Animated Film
· Best Foreign Language Film
· Best Documentary
· Best Screenplay
· Best Director
· Best Actress
· Best Supporting Actress
· Best Actor
· Best Supporting Actor
· The Hoosier Award
· Original Vision Award

The Hoosier Award is meant to recognize a significant cinematic contribution by a person with roots in the Hoosier State. This can be a director, screenwriter, actor, cinematographer, etc. To be eligible, the person must have been born in Indiana or spent a significant portion of their life here (attended college, etc.).

The Original Vision Award is meant to recognize a film that is especially innovative or original.

Reeling Backward: "I Walked with a Zombie"

All of the attention to zombies lately -- "Zombieland" being the most obvious example -- got me to thinking about the cinematic roots of the walking undead.

I remember in some review or article in the past year or so, I referenced George A. Romero's 1968 "Night of the Living Dead," and wrote that Romero more or less created the zombie flick. Some fans of old-school zombie flicks from the 1940s, and even earlier, wrote in to set me straight.

I still stand by my description of Romero as the granddaddy of zombie movie makers, since he was the first to portray mass hordes of them feasting upon the living, and threatening to take over the world. Prior incarnations tended to only feature one or two zombies, and they certainly didn't stumble around with a craving for human brains.

"I Walked with a Zombie" from 1943 is a perfect example. There are exactly two zombies in the movie: A beautiful white woman and an African man. The man is super-skinny and has memorably bugged-out eyes, but the woman doesn't look any different from you or me -- other than the fact that she doesn't talk, or even seem to think.

The backdrop of the story is voodoo, as is often the case with these early zombie flicks. A young nurse named Betsy (Frances Dee) is employed to care for a plantation owner's catatonic wife in the West Indies. On the ship journey from Canada, she meets the owner himself -- a tall, handsome gentleman with a dark mood. Paul Holland (Tom Conway) advises Betsy not to fall in love with the rustic beauty of the islands: "Everything good dies here -- even the stars," he says.

The movie, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is viewed now mostly for its campiness, which cheesy dialogue like that which I just quoted does little to dispel. Another howler is when the cheeky younger brother Wesley (James Ellison) describes his big bro as "quite the Byronic character" -- doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? And I laughed out loud when Betsy tells one of the maids, "You have to turn away from a horse to lead him," and the servant responds that men are very much the same.

Still, the film is not as schlocky as you might expect. Tourneur shows a great eye for composition, and uses the black-and-white contrasts to great effect. The cinematography was by J. Roy Hunt, who had quite a prolific B-movie career, including the original "Mighty Joe Young."

The story is a fairly preposterous love triangle. Betsy learns that Paul's wife, Jessica, became catatonic after a huge confrontation in which Wesley, who had fallen in love with her, planned to run away with her. Jessica came down with a fever, and never truly awoke. Edith Barrett also pops up as Wesley and Paul's mother, who is a physician practicing to help the indigenous island people, and has more insight into the voodoo ways than she lets on.

Betsy and Paul soon fall in love, but Betsy cannot bring herself to break up a marriage -- even one between a man and a woman sleepwalking through life. She secretly takes Jessica to the voodoo ritual, where the natives are suspicious of the woman. A sword dancer pierces her arm with his weapon, and they are shocked when she does not bleed. It turns out Jessica has been turned into a zombie.

Things get a little confusing here. Despite abhorring Jessica's state, the voodoo folks apparently have their own zombie, Carrefour (Darby Jones), whom they send to the plantation to abscond with Jessica. For what reason, I can't imagine -- do they want to have zombie mate for Carrefour? In any case, things end tragically.

"I Walked with a Zombie" is barely more than an hour in length, and despite its camp-worthy dialogue and hammy acting, I actually enjoyed it as an early progenitor of the modern zombie flick.

3 stars

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: "Law Abiding Citizen"

"Law Abiding Citizen" plays out like a comic book version of "Seven."

Gerard Butler plays a suburban daddy version of Kevin Spacey's detail-oriented serial killer, whose real game is to taunt the authorities while he continues to kill -- even after being sent to prison.

Clyde Shelton is an inventor whose life was destroyed when two thugs broke into his wife, raping his wife and killing her and their daughter. The culprits were caught and one was sent to death row, but assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cut a deal with the other assailant, who got a sentence of just three years.

Clyde was not, shall we say, very pleased about this, and uses his gizmo skills to off all the people involved in the travesty of justice in as many uniquely gruesome ways as possible. For instance, one character gets it just from picking up a phone.

However, he does not start his killing spree until 10 years later, for reasons that are never fully explained. It doesn't help that the movie doesn't even attempt to age any of the characters one bit -- not a gray hair or expanded waistline in sight. A little chin scruff appears on Foxx's jaw, but that's it.

I suppose Clyde needed the time to set up his scheme -- and without giving anything away, from the incredibly intricate methods he uses to kill, it's obvious the guy has given it some deep thought.

The first to go are the killers themselves. The one on death row undergoes an execution with a few ... complications, shall we say. The other one gets a particularly gooey treatment that's just this side of those awful "Hostel" movies.

Soon, though, Clyde moves on to targeting the law enforcement and judicial agents who were complicit in what he sees as a corrupt system.

Director F. Gary Gray and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer never quite decide whether they want the audience to see Clyde as a homicidal deviant or a sympathetic figure. Butler's performance is similarly ambivalent.

Foxx does what he can with an underwritten role that invariably leads to a lot of blustering machismo and "If you even touch my family..." histrionics.

The movie's certainly never boring, and as a piece of potboiler fiction it moves things along adeptly.

It does occasionally wallow in its own silliness, as when Clyde paralyzes one of his victims with some mysterious serum and then informs him, "It's isolated from the liver of Peruvian puffer fish." The way Butler delivers these lines, though, makes him sound like a waiter describing the special du jour.

And competently made as it is, there's just nothing special about "Law Abiding Citizen."

2 stars

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Where the Wild Things Are"

"Where the Wild Things Are" is one of the best movies I've seen at evoking what it's like to be a small child: the anger, the stubbornness, the neediness and the absolute, unlimited joy. Whether it's actually a movie for kids is another matter.

In adapting the iconic 1963 children's book by Maurice Sendak, director Spike Jonze undertakes his greatest flight of fancy -- and that's saying something for the filmmaker behind the loopy, distorted realities of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation."

In adapting the story for film (along with fellow screenwriter Dave Eggers), Jonze necessarily had to use Sendak's book, which measures just a few dozen words, as a mere jumping-off point.

The book had the barest sketch of a plot: A boy Max is put to bed without supper for misbehaving, and his room turns into a jungle with an ocean that he sails across to an island filled with scary "wild things." He declares himself king of the beasts, and after a night filled with a "wild rumpus," he grows homesick and returns from whence he came.

In Jonze's version, the island of monsters becomes a playground where Max (a smashing Max Records) can hash out his problems, like anger (mostly at his parents' separation) and loneliness. The wild things -- visually distinctive but nameless in the book -- take on separate aspects of the boy's personality or emotions.

The monsters are a revelation, closely mirroring Sendak's illustrations while boasting an earthy, grubby immediacy. They were created by puppeteers from Jim Henson's company wearing giant suits. The faces were supposed to be mechanical, but Jonze replaced them with computer-generated animation after principal photography -- a wise move, based on how incredibly expressive the results are.

At first glance, it might seem that Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and KW (Lauren Ambrose) are supposed to represent Max's parents, with an unspoken hostility lying between them, fueled by KW's leaving the group to hang out with other island denizens.

But the wild things are just children, or at least behave like one. They represent the way children think and feel. At first hesitant around the strange boy in the wolf suit who claims to have special powers, they embrace him as their king. But soon, hostility and animosity creep in, and some cliques are formed.

I would not have thought Gandolfini, with his gravelly tough guy rasp, would make a very good voice actor, but he turns Carol into an intriguing figure, at times petulant and resentful, and other times gregarious and generous of spirit.

When Carol tells the boy, "You are the owner of this world," we feel his heart leap at the paternal tone. But after a terrible act of violence -- which may frighten younger audience members -- KW likens Carol's misbehavior to Max's: "He only makes it harder ... and it's hard enough already."

I could go on and on about this movie. "Where the Wild Things Are" is a very personal experience, less about an audience than a one-on-one connection between the film and each viewer. Because the wild things, partly good and partly bad, are inside every one of us. The child must discover them in order to grow up enough to master them.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

DVD review: "Drag Me To Hell"

Your average popcorn-munching movie-goer probably only knows Sam Raimi as the director of the "Spider-Man" blockbusters. Hardcore horror fans realize that Raimi honed his filmmaking skills doing "wet work" with cheapie gross-out flicks like the "Evil Dead" series.

For this neglected latter group, his newest movie, "Drag Me to Hell," is like love letter and a bouquet of roses -- dripping in blood, that is.

Alison Lohman (who's 30 but looks 16) plays Christine Brown, a bank loan officer who gets hit with a nasty gypsy curse when she refuses to grant an extension on the foreclosure of a one-eyed old crone's (Lorna Raver) house.

Soon Christine is being haunted by shadowy tormenters who bust up her home and smack her around. In one nasty bit, a fly forces its way down her throat while she's asleep, only to reemerge at an inopportune time (still buzzing around) while she's lunching with her beau's (Justin Long) snooty parents.

Raimi (who also co-wrote the script with brother Ivan) blends the humorous and the horrendous to generally enjoyable effect, although there are times -- such as a big séance scene -- when the movie takes itself so seriously, you keep expecting hysterics to break out that never arrive.

Video extras are pretty skimpy. The DVD and Blu-ray both come with the theatrical and unrated version (which amps up the goo in several key scenes) and a 30-minute series of video diaries that touch on various elements of production. The most entertaining is learning how stunt coordinators rigged Lohman with a special nose tube for the scene where she spews blood all over her boss. (Who among us hasn't had that dream?)

The Blu-ray version also comes with a digital copy of the film for uploading to a portable video device.

I'll say this for "Drag Me to Hell": It has one of the coolest endings of any movie I've seen this year.

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, October 12, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Kagemusha"

In addition to being one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Akira Kurosawa was also an accomplished painter.

While he was trying to get financing for his 1980 film "Kagemusha" -- one of only a handful he made in color -- he painted a number of landscapes and portraits to help convince studios what the final product would look like. Kurosawa eventually got half the dough from an American studio at the urging of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who were admirers of the great Japanese director of "Rashomon," "The Seven Samurai" and many other iconic films.

It may be blasphemous to say, but I believe the influence of Kurosawa the painter had a deleterious effect on Kurosawa the filmmaker. His films had been noted for their immediacy and focus on the actors' faces -- whether it was a samurai tale or a modern one, Kurosawa put you in the middle of the human interaction.

With "Kagemusha" -- which means "shadow warrior" -- I think Kurosawa fell in love with painting with film, filling his frame with colors and images that could be frozen and hung on a wall. The centerpiece of "Kagemusha" is a dream sequence in which a thief who has been chosen to impersonate a great warlord, even after his death, is chased by the warrior after he rises from his grave. It takes place on an imaginary beach of rainbows hues with candy-colored clouds in the background.

You can also see this effect in the film's many languid battle scenes. Kurosawa shows very little actual fighting, being more concerned with the images of soldiers and horses moving about in rigid patterns of color and pageantry. Some of these scenes will go on for 10 minutes or more. Kurosawa continued this self-indulgence with "Ran" in 1985, which many consider his masterpiece.

The warlord, Shingen, and the thief are both played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who replaced the original actor chosen after he and Kurosawa didn't see eye-to-eye. Shingen is 53 years old and the greatest of the warring clan heads, but dreams of taking Kyoto and becoming emperor. For years he has used his brother Nobukado as his double, to confuse his enemies and protect him from harm. But then his sibling finds the thief, who has been condemned to die, and realizes that he could truly pass for Shingen, even up close and with people who have known him for years.

While attempting to take an enemy castle, Shingen decides to listen in to the flute performance one of the soldiers inside the keep puts on every night, beguiling the men both inside and without. A sniper's bullet mortally wounds him, and before his death Shingen instructs his chief vassals to conceal his death for three years by using the double in his place. He is convinced that his many enemies will join forces to destroy his clan if they suspect he is dead.

The thief is haunted by the spirit of the warlord, even as he makes his best effort to impersonate him -- eventually even winning over his grandson and heir and his mistresses, all of whom had expressed some initial doubt. Over time the thief becomes overconfident, and comes to believe that he really can carry on the mantle of Shingen. He also becomes enamored with the young grandson. So when the ruse is invariably found out, the thief is cast out like a vagabond.

I do like "Kagemusha," as I have enjoyed all of Kurosawa's films -- "High and Low" remains one of my favorites -- but I do feel that at three hours or so, it is simply too long. The battle scenes, while glorious in their beauty and commentary about the follies of men, just go on and on. The worst thing that can happen to a great director is that they come to believe their own legend.

3 stars

Friday, October 9, 2009

Huge scoop: Obama sweeps the Oscars!

Hang onto your pants, gang, I've got a huge, exclusive scoop that will shock the world.

President Barack Obama has swept the 2009 Academy Awards, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Musical Score, Art Direction, Costumes and Cinematography.

The nine statuettes is an unprecedented haul by a single individual, and the first time a sitting U.S. president has garnered the film industry's must illustrious prize.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Tom Sherak praised Obama's skills, gushing about his "amazing charisma" and "ability to reach into an audience's heart and still it with moments of quiet yet powerful emotion."

Friday's announcement was somewhat controversial, though, in that the Oscars were given out four months earlier than usual, and before the end of the calender year. Many Oscar hopefuls -- including "Amelia," "Up in the Air" and "The Lovely Bones" -- have yet to even open.

Sherak brushed aside claims that other films were unfairly excluded from the normal nominating and voting procedures, which were set aside by a special unanimous vote of the Academy's board of directors.

"I find that claim to be highly racist," Sherak said. "Criticism of the Academy's well-deserved honoring of our country's greatest president ever is more evidence of the Republican Party's hate machine."

He also sidestepped a question from a Variety reporter pointing out that Obama did not actually star in, produce, write, direct or otherwise contribute to any film in 2009, or ever.

"Based on the president's silky smooth voice, magnetic charm and intellectual firepower, it's only a matter of time before he turns his attention to filmmaking. These awards are meant to recognize the unparalleled achievements yet to come," Sherak said.

My newest freelance gig: The Indy Star

If you subscribe to the Indy Star or look at the links of my published work, you'll note a piece I have today in The Indianapolis Star. It's the cover story of GO (the Friday entertainment section) on the Heartland Film Festival.

I thought I'd point it out, and offer my thoughts on why I took the freelance job.

Given how much has gone on with the whole layoff/arbitration thing, I'm sure there are folks who consider me a massive hypocrite for accepting work from the newspaper that cut me loose. Given all the (unwarranted) attention to my donation of my settlement check from Gannett, it may seem strange to take money from the same institution.

"You haughtily refused to take their money on principle, but now you'll cash their freelance check?" is likely what some may say.

The truth is I bear no ill will against the Star as an institution. I may dislike, even detest some of the decisions they've made, particularly related to how they treat their labor force. But I still take the newspaper, I still care about the product and I have a great deal of affection and respect for the people who toil to put out a quality product.

If I can do anything to help them do that, I'm thrilled to contribute -- particularly to the "soft news" side of lifestyle and arts coverage.

As I said in my web video about the settlement check: The legal process is done. It's time to move on.

This was a high-profile freelance job on a subject in which I like to think I'm an expert. I gave no second thought to taking it, and now that I do, the feeling remains the same.

You can read the main article here and the sidebar here.

Reeling Backward: "All About Eve"

I was somewhat worried that I wouldn't care for "All About Eve," despite its status as one of the greatest mid-century films. Forgive me, but I thought it might be a little too chick-flickie.

Don't get me wrong -- I love a good flick as much as anyone. But the problem is that even a bad action flick will usually have something to appeal to my masculine instincts. When a chick flick founders, it often has nothing going for it.

Of course, I discovered a wonderful movie with perhaps Bette Davis' finest performance in her amazing career.

An Oscar pedigree isn't a sure sign of greatness -- after all, "Around the World in 80 Days" is supposedly the best picture of 1956 -- but "Eve" deserves the Academy's accolades. The film was nominated for 14 Oscars, including an astonishing five in the acting categories -- a feat I'm not sure has ever been equaled.

It won six of them, including best picture, director, screenplay and the supporting actor statue for George Sanders, whose portrayal of venomous theater critic Addison DeWitt set a standard that inspired many subsequent cinematic portrayals of critics, including Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole) in "Ratatouille."

What most surprised me about the movie was that I'd always thought it was Bette Davis' picture, when really it's much more of an ensemble cast. Davis' iconic line -- "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" -- is what people remember, but Anne Baxter's role is at least the equal of hers in terms of size and scope.

The two main themes of the movie are aging and stardom, and how they intertwine. Davis plays Margo Channing, the queen of Broadway who has recently turned 40. Her best friend and co-star is Karen (Celeste Holm), who's the sunny ying to Margo's narcissistic yang.

Despite unchallenged prominence in the theater, a young handsome director (Gary Merrill) for a boyfriend and the adoration of the crowds, Margo sees threats to her status all around her. She thinks that Karen's playwright husband (Hugh Marlowe) keeps writing roles for her that make her seem too old for the part.

Ironically, Margo greets the one true threat to her with open arms: Eve (Baxter), an obsessed young fan who has watched her every performance in her current show, "Aged Wood." Karen takes pity on the girl and invites her to meet her idol Margo, who's swayed by Eve's sympathetic tale of heartbreak and a husband killed in the war.

Soon Eve is living with Margo as her assistant -- despite the fact that she already has one, Birdie. Birdie is an acerbic former actress herself, now relegated to waiting on the current queen and occasionally referencing her own former status on the stage.

Thelma Ritter was also nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Birdie -- Davis and Baxter got leading actress nominations, and Holm for supporting. It's ironic that in a movie with so many meaty female roles (even Marilyn Monroe had a small part as an aspiring actress), only a male actor won an award for his work.

Eve's doe-eyed manner is eventually revealed to be a put-on by an aggressive and conniving climber who not only wants to copy her idol, but actually supplant her. Eve becomes Margo's understudy, and with the unwitting help of Karen replaces her for a single performance that is praised by DeWitt, who writes a biting column in which he laments so many older actresses portraying 20-year-olds.

Rather than getting slapped down as an upstart, Eve's plan actually works. The film opens with her receiving the most prestigious award on Broadway, with Margo and Karen relegated to also-rans. In a clever coda Eve, having now become everything she ever wanted, encounters her own young admirer who quickly moves to assimilate herself into the big star's life.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote and directed, offers up an acerbic portrayal of showbiz as a dog-eat-dog world in which everyone has an angle to play. Even friendship and love are treated as channels through which power flows or is withdrawn.

I also enjoyed the many sarcastic references to Hollywood and movies, which is treated by the theater folk as the ultimate sellout. Of course, in 1950 the majority of the cast and crew, including Davis, got their start on the stage.

3.5 stars

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Review: "The Boys Are Back"

The thing I liked about "The Boys Are Back" is the same thing that ultimately limits it as a film: Its unstructured nature.

This drama about a single father struggling to raise two sons, each from a different marriage, unfolds organically, without the conventional three-act structure. Some notable events happen in their lives, but the bulk of the movie is spent with the threesome hanging out in their ramshackle home, getting into arguments and having some boyish fun.

It's a good movie, with a powerful performance by Clive Owen as the father, and Nicholas McAnulty and George MacKay are knockouts as the sons.

Joe Warr is an English guy and sportswriter at a major Australian newspaper. His job has him gone a lot, so when his wife (Laura Fraser) passes away fairly suddenly, Joe realizes that he's become something of a stranger to their 6-year-old son Artie (McAnulty). He confides to a friend that his boy views him as a guy who visits them every few weeks and brings him presents.

Joe and Artie set out on a road trip to connect, and this morphs into a laid-back approach to parenting that eventually becomes a creed: "Just say yes." Instead of burdening his child with a lot of rules and chores, he allows the house to become a shabby playroom where they can throw water balloons, jump into full bathtubs, or do anything else they want that's irresponsible (but not unsafe).

This draws the tut-tutting of the mothers of the community, which only encourages Joe more.

The dynamic changes when Harry (MacKay), who's about 14, comes to live with them. Harry's the offspring of Joe's first family, which he abandoned when he got Artie's mother pregnant. Harry quickly adapts to the free-for-all, but as you might expect he's got some deeper-seated issues to resolve with Dad.

Director Scott Hicks ("Shine") and screenwriter Allan Cubitt, adapting the autobiographical novel by Simon Carr, adopt the boys-will-be-boys attitude of the protagonist into their storytelling style. As a result, the interactions between father and sons feel authentic, while some of the things transpiring outside their little clan can feel contrived.

For example, Joe faces increasing pressure from his boss to go back out in the field, which builds to a crisis where he may lose his job. But this subplot is dropped suddenly, without resolution. A potential romance between Joe and a single mother (Emma Booth) likewise gets the short shrift.

I also didn't care for the device of Joe's dead wife appearing to him to have conversations about their son. It dredges up too many other movies with dead lovers who return as ghosts.

The movie is at its best when it's just the father and his sons, trying to engage them in a way that's nurturing but masculine. Despite societal changes that's still freewheeling, uncharted territory, and "The Boys Are Back" explores it with gusto and heart.

3 stars

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: "Couples Retreat"

If "Couples Retreat" looks a bit familiar, you are not imagining things: It's a passably funny comedy assembled from spare parts of other movies.

You've got the couples-on-vacation shtick crossed with the aging horndogs routine, with a little bit of water sports thrown in. Kristen Bell, who got to see some wildly inappropriate tropical yoga in last year's forgettable "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," participates in an encore in this movie.

Heck, the yoga guy even recycles Leslie Nielsen's "let me slip into something more comfortable" joke from the first "Naked Gun" flick. I prefer Nielsen's version, in which he changed from one business suit into another, than the yoga guy's swapping out an unnervingly small Speedo for a shinier one.

The movie stars Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, who launched their careers together with "Swingers" and co-wrote this script (along with Dana Fox). Vaughn does his usual motor-mouth charmer thing, while Favreau perpetually looks like he's bottling up something inside him that will eventually require an emotional catharsis, or at least a trip to the bathroom.

The set-up is that four couples take a trip to a resort called Eden expecting a vacation paradise, but instead get stuck with a lot of tedious relationship counseling and New Age bonding exercises.

The trip was initiated by Cynthia and Jason (Bell and Jason Bateman), an overly analytical duo who like to present everything in PowerPoint presentation -- even the fact that they're considering getting a divorce. They implore their friends to accompany them to the relationship resort so they can get the group discount.

Dave and Ronnie (Vaughn and Malin Akerman) seem to have the strongest relationship, but turmoil lies beneath a placid domestic surface filled with children and kitchen tile crises. Meanwhile, Joey and Lucy (Favreau and Kristin Davis) are phoning in their marriage until their daughter goes to college so they can split up.

Shane (Faizon Love), the big-bellied and big-hearted dude, has just split up from his wife and has brought along a chirpy 20-year-old party girl (Kali Hawk) he just met two weeks ago.

The island is run by Marcel (Jean Reno), a spiritual healer-slash-marketing genius, who built an identical resort next door to the one for married couples, except this one is for singles and consists of one long sex party.

Joey is anxious to get to the singles side for some action, while Lucy is aching for some downward dog time with the ripped yoga instructor.

The rest plays out pretty predictably: Shane realizes he shouldn't try to relive his youth, Dave and Ronnie discover some cracks beneath their seemingly stable foundation, and Cynthia and Jason learn to chase their inner libido.

The movie is directed by Peter Billingsley -- forever Ralphie from "A Christmas Story," who's gotten into the producing game ("Iron Man") and now steps behind the camera. He handles the cast nicely, and there are some good laughs here and there. Too bad so much of "Couples Retreat" seems plucked out of comedy's recycling bin.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

New podcast up at The Film Yap

This week's show is about movies that are on vacation -- figuratively, if not literally.

You can listen in here.

Video review: "My Life in Ruins"

If "My Life in Ruins" looks thematically similar to Nia Vardalos' breakout hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," that's because it is.

Once again the order of the day is corny but heartfelt humor, unlikely romance and learning to appreciate the little things in life.

Vardalos, looking utterly gorgeous, plays Georgia, an American scholar who moved to Greece to study the ancient ruins, but lost her job and is now consigned to giving tours for a crappy tourist company.

She always gets stuck with the lousy group, the broke-down bus and the surly driver. But things change with the help of a kooky tour group consisting of a crotchety old jokester (Richard Dreyfuss), a kleptomaniac grandmother, some horny Spanish divorcees and a doofus Florida Gator, amongst others.

It doesn't hurt that her driver, Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis), grows less hairy and more dreamy as the movie goes on.

The movie doesn't have a lot of brains -- for instance, we never learn what it was that made Georgia decamp from the States -- but it does have plenty of heart.

Extras are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray: Eight deleted/alternate scenes with director's commentary, a gag reel, and three separate commentary tracks by Vardalos, director Donald Petrie and screenwriter Mike Reiss.

Commentaries are nearly always better when two or more people team up to do them, so why the threesome didn't join forces rather than each doing their own thing is puzzling. Especially since Vardalos' track contains many long pauses.

Still, she is just naturally funny, as in this comment about an onscreen joke about Greek women having mustaches: "Now, that's a silly joke, because as a Greek girl I don't have a mustache ... because I had laser done."

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, October 5, 2009

IFJA welcomes Nick Rogers

The Indiana Film Journalists Association is pleased to announce the induction of our newest member, Nick Rogers of Lafayette.

Nick writes for and has also agreed to start contributing to The Film Yap. Prior to that, he wrote reviews for the Springfield, Ill., newspaper and was a member of the St. Louis area film critics' group.

This brings our membership tally to nine.

The IFJA was formed in early 2009 to promote quality film criticism in the Hoosier State. Our primary goals are to lobby for additional screenings, and give out annual awards for the best movies and filmmakers at the end of the year, much as other critic groups do.

You can read some of Nick's work by clicking here.

Welcome Nick!

Reeling Backward: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

I was actually slightly disappointed by "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Yes, it features Charles Laughton in the title role of Quasimodo, and he's an actor I knew only through his later roles and am relishing discovering his vibrant work as a young man. And yes, the production values, particularly for 1939, are simply astonishing. The crowd scenes in the square involve hundreds of extras, costumes, stunts and huge, intricate sets. It also features Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda in her first starring role, absolutely ravishing even at age 19.

Still, the movie contains too much of the stilted, overly theatrical style of acting that dominated many early films. The majority of thespians still got their start on the stage in those days, and the tendency to over-emote and over-enunciate dialogue makes you feel like you're sitting in the back row, and the actor is straining to make himself heard by you.

In particular, the performance of Edmond O'Brien as the poet Gringoire irked me whenever he came on the screen. Alan Marshal as Phoebus, the captain of the guard, also falls into this trap, although with much less screen time, he has fewer opportunities to annoy.

Cedric Hardwicke also makes for a less-than-daunting Frollo, the twisted chief justice who is the hunchback's protector as well as tormentor. When Frollo falls for the gypsy girl Esmeralda, despite the fact that she represents everything he hates about freedom and tolerance, it should burn him from the inside out. But I found Hardwicke rather passive and dour, and certainly not frightening.

Of course, Laughton is a revelation as the hunchback. The special make-up is passable even by modern standards, and must've looked quite convincing 70 years ago. There's a short bit where Quasimodo, perhaps unintentionally, covers up the deformed parts of his face with his hands, and we see the handsome and gregarious man he could have been.

Interesting aside -- I've always heard the character's name pronounced as "quah-zee-mo-do," but in this movie the call him "kaz-ee-modo," with the first syllable rhyming with "spaz." Curious to know what is correct.

Victor Hugo's novel has seen many film versions. Laughton was reportedly daunted at the task of playing the character Lon Chaney made famous in the 1923 silent version. Anthony Quinn also tackled the role in a 1956 Italian version, Anthony Hopkins did so in a 1982 TV special, and of course Disney made an animated musical in 1996 with a terrific Frollo voiced by Tony Jay. And there have been numerous other versions here and there.

When one steps back and examines the story from a post-feminist perspective, it begins to look rather discomfiting. Basically, every major male character in the movie falls in love with Esmeralda, and is in some way changed and even damaged by his ardor.

Phoebus sees her as a figure of conquest, and pays for it with his life. Gringoire the poet sees her as the literary counterpart to complete his own romanticized image of himself, and is crushed when she rejects him as a lover. Frollo, of course, hates her for dredging up feelings of desire he thought did not exist in him. He ends up at the conclusion of many a cinematic villain, "If I can't have her, then no man shall!"

Even Quasimodo's affection for Esmeralda is not pure. Although he clearly believes that there can be no romance between them, he still dotes on her like a friendly puppy. The man has hope.

At one point, Quasimodo kills scores of rogues attacking the Cathedral of Notre Dame by pitching stones and pouring molten metal from the high spires. He does so not out of any ideal about the right of sanctuary, one suspects, but simply to prevent others from taking the girl away from him. In his rage he also slays Clopin, the beggar king played by Thomas Mitchell, one of the great character actors of mid-20th century film.

I'd been meaning to see "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" for years, which perhaps raised my expectations to an unachievable level. It's a fine film, of course, completely worthy of a rental or catching on TV. Alas, for great expectations that fall short.

3 stars