Monday, November 30, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Fat City"

There's a certain type of movie that had its heyday in the late 1960s and '70s, in which story and plot were subservient to character and mood. The film really isn't interested in going anywhere in the traditional sense; it just wants to explore a certain setting and group of people.

Sometimes the results are wonderful, such as "Five Easy Pieces" with Jack Nicholson, but just as often these character-driven flicks can be self-indulgent and exasperating. Scenes will just ramble on and on, and it feels like the movie was made for the satisfaction of the actors appearing in it than any audience paying to watch it.

"Fat City" falls toward the former end of the scale. This boxing tale drags at times, but it's still a worthwhile exploration of how men behave in the ring, compared to how they act outside -- most importantly, in their relationships to women.

Director John Huston had one of those careers that is still talked about: Director, writer, even a late turn into acting that made him as iconic onscreen as the work he did behind the camera. His first film was "The Maltese Falcon," and he was still making vibrant movies right up until his death.

The 1972 movie is based on a book by Leonard Gardner, which he adapted for the screen himself. It's essentially about two boxers, one just starting out and the other past his prime, whose lives intersect but whose stories run mostly parallel.

Stacy Keach is Billy Tully, who's been out of boxing for two years and is looking to get back in. Billy is only 29 years old, but the cuts and the blows have whittled him down. He drinks a lot, not quite enough to call him a drunk, but he's on his way.

One day sparring in the gym he runs across Ernie Munger, an 18-year-old whom Billy immediately recognizes as a natural. He sends the kid to his old manager Ruben, played by Nicholas Colasanto, who would go on to be best known as "Coach" on the TV show "Cheers."

Ernie is played by Jeff Bridges, who himself is quietly having one of the great film acting careers. He plays Ernie as an earnest kid who's physically tough as nails, but is "soft in the center," as Billy drunkenly labels him.

Ernie lets other people choose his path for him. If it weren't for Billy's encouragement, he probably would never have walked into a boxing ring. When his girlfriend gets pregnant (Candy Clark), there's a great scene in his car where she steers him into marrying her, without it ever seeming like it was her idea. She also forces him to quit boxing for awhile, although he gets back into it by the film's end.

While basically a decent guy, Ernie is very much like Billy describes him: Tough on the outside, but with no core convictions, goals or even an identity beyond what other people provide for him.

Billy, meanwhile, just wants something solid to hold onto in this world. His wife dumped him when his boxing career petered out, and he's left to taking menial day jobs picking farm crops to get by. At a bar he runs into a woman who continually mouths off to her boyfriend, a black man who abides her verbal abuse stoically. This is Oma, played by Susan Tyrrell, who would earn an Oscar nomination for her abrasive performance.

One of the notable things about "Fat City" is the way people of different races mingle without any seeming static about it. The town of Stockton, California, where the film takes places, is a cornucopia of whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. But no one looks askance at Oma dating a black man.

When Oma's man is sent to jail, Billy gloms onto her, even though it's clear this is a person whose ambitions end at getting out of bed for a cream sherry. "You can count on me," he tells her repeatedly, and it's obvious that Billy is attracted to the idea of being important to someone, rather than any real connection between them.

Keach and Tyrrell's scenes do tend to ramble a bit. There's one bit where he's cooking her dinner, which she refuses to eat, and then when she does decide to eat he won't allow her to have any, etc. I'm sure this is the sort of scene that actors live for, with an organic texture and lots of big emotions to fling around. As a viewer, I kept waiting for the editor to assert himself.

There's only a few boxing scenes in "Fat City," since as I say I don't think that's where the movie's real heart lies. They're pretty convincing, in that they look real boxing matches where there are a flurry of punches, few of which land cleanly. Billy's big comeback bout is interesting, because it's against a Mexican puncher whom Ruben fears is too good for Billy's first match in two years.

The opponent, Lucero, quietly arrives in town with his hat and small suitcase, and seems to be nursing some kind of serious stomach ailment. Billy immediately senses this in the ring, but Ruben advises him to fight conservatively. After the match -- which Billy wins, barely -- Lucero quietly collects his money and leaves the arena as the lights go out. It's a sad, almost wordless portrait of the journeyman professional athlete, whose body is his currency, carefully rationed and leveraged.

"Fat City" may meander like a lazy river, and sometimes gets stuck in eddies of its own making. But for the most part I enjoyed swirling around with these characters for awhile.

3 stars

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Coming this week

Ironically, posting of new reviews and such will be light this week. In actuality, it's one of my busiest screening weeks ever.

I see two movies on Wednesday, two more on Friday, another Saturday, and another Monday. If only every week were as busy, and as many movies were shown to local critics.

Most of these, though, are advance screenings of movies hoping to get a raft of Oscar nods -- "The Lovely Bones," "Up in the Air," "Nine," etc. Some of them won't open wide for quite some time.

I will have a review of "Everybody's Fine," a new drama/comedy starring Robert De Niro.

The video review will be "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian."

I'll have look-back movie reviews of "Fat City" and "Angela's Ashes."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Village of the Damned"

So here's my rule on film remakes: Unless you've got a really original new take on the material, or technology has advanced significantly enough to do amazing things they couldn't do in the first movie, best to leave it alone.

If your goal is something like, "I want to bring this amazing story to today's audiences, who were too young to see the first film" -- well, then spring for some NetFlix accounts so people can watch the original.

Case in point: John Carpenter's 1995 remake of the 1960 horror cult classic, "Village of the Damned." You know the one -- creepy blonde-haired kids with psychic powers wreak havoc upon the townsfolk. It's basically one big kiddie fantasy, where they get to boss around the grown-ups, and do away with them messily if they try to stand up for themselves.

Other than adding color and a few low-rent special effects that aren't that much of a leap over what they could do 35 years earlier, Carpenter's "Village" doesn't do anything the first film didn't. If it had come out first, it would be remembered as a cheesy classic. Instead, it's just cheese.

When the opening credits first came on, I have to confess I looked at the cast and snickered to myself, "What a gang of has-beens!" The film stars Christopher Reeve (in his last movie role before his tragic paralysis), Kirstie Alley (already plumping up and forced to hide behind a lot of long coats and black turtlenecks), Mark Hamill, Linda Kozlowski (Mrs. Crocodile Dundee) and Michael Paré (who mercifully dies a few minutes in).

It's like a parade of aging stars whose careers have petered out, desperately begging the audience, "Hey, remember me from the '80s?!?"

Anyway, the plot is pretty much the same as the original film. A strange phenomenon descends on the tiny town of Midwich, causing everyone to faint for six hours. Anyone who crosses over the town border falls under the same spell. There's only a few casualties -- including a guy working the barbecue grill at a school picnic, who toasts himself to a nice charred brown. But a bunch of women turn up pregnant, all giving birth on the same night.

Alley plays a mysterious government scientist who's charged with watching over the development of the children, and Reeve is the town doctor and the father of the leader of the killer albinos, who murders his wife while still an infant.

Kozlowski plays the school principal and the mother of the one strange child who seems to feel compassion for others.

There are some creepy moods as the nine white-haired ones traipse around in perfect unison, with each girl paired with a boy. Except for Kozlowski's son, David, whose mate was stillborn and kept in a tube by Alley.

Of course, it's not too much of a leap to say that the children are actually aliens implanted into a group of human mothers, with the goal of reproducing and taking over the world. They can read minds and twist people to their collective will, with their eyes glowing whenever they exert their influence.

I guess it's scary the first time the killer kids force some grown-up to off themselves, but after the fifth or sixth time someone goes into a trance and proceeds to drive his truck into a gas tank or point his gun barrel at his own chin, it gets to be downright boring.

"Village of the Damned" is not a terrible movie, but it just doesn't have any purpose for being. If I had psychic powers, I'd have used them to convince John Carpenter not to do this remake.

2 stars

Thursday, November 26, 2009

New podcast at The Film Yap

We've got a new show up at The Film Yap, just in time for Thanksgiving.

This week we rap on Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey for being good comedians who often star in bad movies.

Listen in here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review: "Old Dogs"

"Old Dogs" is a veritable Travoltafest.

John Travolta stars in the family-friendly comedy, playing Robin Williams' best pal and business partner. And his wife Kelly Preston and their daughter Ella Bleu Travolta both have leading roles in the flick.

Maybe this is the real meaning of "family film."

The movie is in some ways a sequel to "Wild Hogs," a similar movie from a couple of years ago that was a surprise box office hit, which like this one was directed by Walt Becker (the screenplay is by David Diamond and David Weissman).

It's an opportunity for Travolta to poke fun at his sex symbol status, playing a middle-aged guy who mixes up his medications and gets mistaken for a grandpa. I can't think of too many big stars willing to be the happy target of jokes about aging.

In an interesting twist, Preston and Ella Bleu don't play Travolta's significant other and daughter, but Williams'.

Williams and Travolta are Dan and Charlie, two lifelong chums and partners in a sports marketing firm. Charlie is the outgoing lothario, while Dan is the straitlaced business guy. They're about to land the deal of a lifetime with a huge Japanese company, when Dan gets a bolt from the blue.

Seven years earlier, Charlie took Dan to Miami for a night of whirlwind partying to help him get over his divorce, during which he met and married Vicki (Preston). They soon parted ways, but after looking to spark the embers of romance, Dan learns that there was a pair of complications from their brief nuptials: Fraternal twins Zach (Conner Rayburn) and Emily (Ella Bleu).

Vicki has to serve a two-week prison term resulting from some activist protesting, so Dan gets stuck with the kids. Of course, he insists that Charlie share in the fun since it was his meddling that got him stuck in this situation.

The movie is geared toward children, so the humor is rather broad and doofy. Parents may grow a little restless, but the kids will likely enjoy the antics -- such as Charlie's incessantly urinating dog, and junior partner Seth Green getting nuzzled by a giant gorilla.

The most enjoyable parts are the riffs on getting old, such as when the two men get their pills mixed up, with some wacky side effects that would tend to alarm the folks at the FDA. Travolta even subjects himself to an incontinence joke that scores some laughs.

"Old Dogs" is nothing new, but as family comedies go -- both intended for families and starring one -- it's a reasonably good time.

2.5 stars

Review: "Ninja Assassin"

With a title like "Ninja Assassin," what more really needs to be said?

Actually, I love that name. It seems purposefully designed to sound like badly-translated Japanese. The phrase is redundant and silly, like "Bandit Robbers!" or "Dr. Science."

The effect is to disguise the fact that this is not an authentic Far East martial arts flick, but an American/German production backed by the likes of schlockmeister Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers of "Matrix" fame.

At least credit the Hollywood suits for believing in truth in advertising. This movie is exactly what you'd expect from its title and promotional campaign: A slickly-made, viscerally stimulating action film with a grim hero battling faceless foes with enough resulting gore to make the computer-assisted bloodletting in "300" seem restrained.

Director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") and his screenwriters Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski positively revel in the spurting, splashing and splatter of blood.

The film opens with a scene where invisible ninja take out some Japanese yakuza criminals, with the first guy getting his skull sliced in half horizontally, so there's just a bleeding stump with a tongue sticking up, veritably waving at the audience.

Talk about a red flag.

Rain, a Korean singer, plays Raizo, the greatest student of the ultra-secret ninja clans. For 1,000 years they've been assassins serving anyone willing to pony up 100 pounds of gold. They can blur into shadows and kill without being seen. The stern old master (Shô Kosugi) can even heal wounds with a little grunting meditation that sounds suspiciously like he needs to visit the latrine.

But Raizo refuses to play by the hard-hearted rules. When a girl ninja he was sweet on (Anna Sawai) is killed for desertion, he rebels and becomes a rogue ninja. Or maybe the proper term is ronin ... but then, I think that only applies to samurai. Whatever.

Rain may be talented at singing and dancing, and he certainly looks impressive wielding a ninja sword, not to mention a neat weapon that's like a knife on a chain that he whirls about, slicing his foes to bits. Of course, it's hard to tell where his martial arts skills end and the computer-generated mayhem begins.

But Rain is charmless as a movie hero. Granted, as written Raizo is supposed to be the typical brooding man of action who lets his lethal skills do the talking. Still, he has little screen presence beyond some carved abs and steely gaze.

The plot is driven by a young European law enforcement bureaucrat (Naomie Harris) stumbling across the secret of the ninja, which invariably heralds the arrival of some of them to silence her. Raizo shows up to foil their plans, because ... well, it's really unclear exactly why he protects her, other than she reminds him of dead ninja girl.

(By the way, I'm trademarking Dead Ninja Girl for the name of a forthcoming punk/ska band.)

I suppose the action scenes are well-staged, in addition to being extremely wet. But really, all you need to know about this movie is encapsulated in the fact that two different characters have a "special heart" -- i.e., on the right side of the chest, so when they're stabbed through the left breast, they survive.

Even dumb, cynical action movies should know the heart is actually pretty much dead center. But if "Ninja Assassin" can't put its hearts in the right place, what can you expect of the brains?

1.5 stars

Review: "Fantastic Mr. Fox"

Imagine if a group of ironic hipster movie-makers decided to do their own version of a beloved children's book, and in stop-motion animation to boot. It retained the basic story, but layered in a lot of dry humor that appealed to adults -- basically, a kiddie tale tailored for grown-ups.

You can stop imagining, because "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is that movie.

Director/co-writer Wes Anderson brings along many of the actors and all of the sensibilities of "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Rushmore" to this adaptation of Roald Dahl's book about a fox who can't give up his chicken-hunting ways.

Dahl has been a virtual one-man fount for children's flicks: "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach," "Matilda" and more. Meanwhile, Anderson's movies are marked by their detached quality and wry characters, punctuated by quirky/folksy music.

The combination may not seem obvious, but they mesh together deliciously. "Fox" is one of the funniest movies of the year, though in a deadpan sort of way.

Mr. Fox is voiced by George Clooney, doing his debonair rogue thing. After nearly being captured by a farmer while stealing chickens, his wife (Meryl Streep) makes him promise to give up his life of danger.

Flash forward a few years, and they're a happily domesticated couple with a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman, whose vocal performance is top-notch). Ash is undersized and resentful, a state that only grows when his athletic cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them.

Meanwhile, Mr. Fox decides that his life as a newspaper columnist is too dull, so he enlists his opossum friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) to take aim at the mega-farms of Boggus, Bunce and Bean -- the three meanest farmers around. He draws up elaborate master plans to make off with their chickens, ducks and apple cider.

Unfortunately, the farmers hatch their revenge by lying in ambush outside Fox's tree home, shooting his tail off in the process. They're led by the lean Mr. Bean, scarily voiced by Michael Gambon. They even bring in big earth-movers to uproot the whole hill, with throws Badger (Bill Murray) and a lot of the other members of the animal community out of their homes, too.

One of the most delightful things about the movie is how the animals outwardly behave liked civilized humans -- Mr. Fox wears a suit, Mrs. Fox is a watercolorist, Badger is a lawyer, etc. But Mr. Fox believes they're really wild animals inside, and have wandered too far from their feral instincts.

Still, it's fun to watch Fox and Bean square off as equal adversaries, rather than hunter/prey -- they even exchange threatening letters. Fox also has an old nemesis, Rat (Willem Dafoe), who wields a switchblade and has been hired by Bean.

I really enjoyed Whack Bat, the game the animal children play at school, which is like a Rube Goldberg version of cricket.

Oh, and it's witty how instead of swearing, the critters just substitute the word "cuss" wherever the naughty one would be: "What the cuss?!?"

The stop-motion animation is amazing, hitting that sweet spot between reality and stylized embellishments.

The title of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" comes from Fox's neurotic need to be the best at whatever he does so others to like him. Based on his movie -- which should give "Up" a run for the Academy Award for best animated film -- he has no need for worry.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Video review: "Angels & Demons"

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

"Angels & Demons" is the sequel to "The Da Vinci Code," which managed to be both controversial and lackluster. Hanks, as symbologist Robert Langdon, wore a silly, swoopy hairdo and a perpetually glum expression as he uncovered nefarious plots by the Catholic Church.

"Angels" was actually written by author Dan Brown before "Da Vinci" and takes place earlier, too, but director Ron Howard and his screenwriters neatly sidestep that issue, rejiggering the timeline so Langdon is ostracized by the church for airing their dirty laundry.

This time, though, they need his help. The ancient order of Illuminati, a group of scientists persecuted by the church, has vowed to destroy Vatican City. Most of the cardinals are in conclave to elect a new pope, but four have been kidnapped. One will die each hour, publicly, until a device containing antimatter detonates at midnight, killing thousands.

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

Despite the lack of a commentary track, video extras are fairly broad in scope, and include the participation of all major cast and crew. However, they tend to be a little more geared toward hype than illumination.

The DVD comes with seven featurettes totaling nearly 90 minutes of material on such topics as special effects, props and the writing process (Brown himself chimes in). There's even a bit about the guy who created the upside-down ambigrams used in the book and movie, who lent his name to the Langdon character.

Especially interesting is how the filmmakers recreated Vatican sites such as the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Square using a combination of real footage, sets and computer-generated images.

In addition, the Blu-ray version comes with an unrated extended version of the film that adds eight minutes to the run time, and "The Path of Illumination," an interactive guide through Rome with additional information and interviews tied to key locations. And, a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 3 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Julius Caesar"

At the risk of sounding foolish, I have never really cared for William Shakespeare.

When I say that, I'm talking about actual performances of his plays, as opposed to reading them. The Bard's work is really best experienced textually, where you can look at the words, repeat them to yourself, study them and -- as is often necessary -- research them to figure out just what the heck ol' Will was saying.

It's not just the half a millennium that has passed between us, with a changing set of historical reference points and the understandable migration of the English language over that time.

Shakespeare was writing for an extremely literate audience -- one that lived in a city large enough to support a playhouse, and populated by people rich enough to afford to go. So he wrote long, beautiful prose that no living person, now or then, could possibly conjure to their lips on the spur of the moment.

I guess that's the thing I've never been able to get past with Shakespeare: It just doesn't sound anything like real people talking. Even the very best orators are not off-the-cuff eloquent and cohesive in their speech -- just listen to the difference when President Obama doesn't have a teleprompter in front of him.

Or, to get the fully glory of "ums," "y'knows" and the general disorderliness of regular people talking, just tune in to any of the podcasts we do over at The Film Yap.

All this is a rather long wind-up to saying that although I appreciated the wonderful acting performances and production values of Joseph L. Mankiewicz' 1953 production of "Julius Caesar," I simply had too hard a time piercing the dense fog of beautiful but confounding dialogue to really appreciate the film.

The cast is magnificent. John Gielgud plays Cassius, the main instigator of the uprising against Julius Caesar, who had defeated all his enemies and been declared Rome's dictator for life. James Mason is Brutus, Caesar's good friend and "the noblest man of Rome," who leads the assassins because he feels Caesar has usurped too much power.

Caesar -- a relatively minor character in the play and film that bears his name -- is played by Louis Calhern. And Marlon Brando is Mark Antony, his best friend and right-hand man. Edmund O'Brien is Casca, Greer Garson is Caesar's wife Calpurnia, and Deborah Kerr is Brutus' wife Portia.

The story is well known, so I won't belabor describing the plot. The film's high point is Marc Antony's address to the Roman throng on the stairs of the Senate shortly after Caesar's murder, where he slyly indicts Brutus and his co-conspirators without ever coming right out and saying it.

But really, the most compelling figure of the film is Brutus, who is played by Mason as a man of pure heart struggling with inner conflict. Even Mark Antony honors Brutus, even as he maneuvers to oust him and capture power for himself.

The depiction of Caesar's murder is particularly bloody for a 1953 film, but since the play had scenes with his murderers dipping their hands in his blood and so forth, it would be hard to film a family-friendly version.

The costumes, sets and other production values are top-notch -- this film won the Academy Award for art direction.

Although I must say those Caesar haircuts are distracting -- you know the ones, where the hair is parted a the crown of the head and combed forward. No matter how handsome the actor, he always looks like he's wearing linguine with that style.

I also couldn't help but notice that both Mason and Gielgud wear Roman-style sandals, but with a high heel that adds a few inches to their height. Both actors were tallish, just under 6 feet, so the effect is to make them loom over most of the rest of the cast. I didn't notice any other actors wearing lift shoes, and if you glance at their feet when they're visible in a few scenes, it's rather comical.

I hope you won't think ill of me that I just can't get into Shakespeare -- at least rote recitations of his plays. I think the best way to experience his timeless works is with movies that recast his language and setting in modern idioms, like Baz Luhrmann's 1996 "Romeo + Juliet" or the 1995 version of "Richard III" starring Ian McKellan.

Or just under a good lamp, with reading glasses, if necessary.

2.5 stars

Sunday, November 22, 2009

New this week

Several big movies opening for Thanksgiving, and I should have reviews of most of them.

I'll have reviews Wednesday of "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Old Dogs" and "Ninja Assassin."

The video review will be "Angels & Demons."

I'll also have lookback film reviews of "Julius Caesar" and John Carpenter's "Village of the Damned."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Prince of Darkness"

It's Week 3 of my John Carpenter retrospective, and I'm very happy to say that "Prince of Darkness" was a huge leap for the better over "They Live." Last up for next week is his remake of "Village of the Damned."

(Incidentally, all four films are collected in a new DVD, "John Carpenter: Master of Fear" that's now out. Zero extras, but for a suggested retail of a mere $16, it's a great buy.)

As you might guess from the title, "Prince" is about the end of the world and the return of Satan to rule over the Earth. It's a quite entertaining bit of sci-fi/horror apocalyptic claptrap, with Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong leading a group of scientists trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together before Old Scratch takes over.

Deep in the bowels of an old church, a mysterious canister is filled with swirling green goo. It was only discovered after an old priest died clutching the key to the chamber. Pleasance, a mainstay of Carpenter's movies, plays an unnamed priest who attempts to pierce the mystery. He enlists the aid of Professor Birack (Wong), a brilliant if esoteric scientist whose work straddles the line between physics and metaphysics.

Birack brings along a small army of students to camp out at the church and study the canister, where they are slowly converted one by one into Satan's zombies. The evil spell is passed by vomiting the green goo from a zombie's mouth into a human's. It's unclear if they're actually dead, although two reanimate after they died as humans -- one memorably so by slitting his own throat with a piece of broken banister.

For grad students, they're a suspiciously old-looking bunch. Jameson Parker, best remembered as the blonde guy from TV's "Simon & Simon," was 40 when this movie came out in 1987. I guess this bunch took a rather laissez-faire approach to their studies. At the rate they're going, they'll be collecting Social Security by the time they make the adjunct faculty list.

Pleasance always seems to have at least one great speech in every movie he's in, and he delivers a whopper here. After being confronted with a 2,000-year-old book that states that Jesus and Satan were extra-terrestrials and the dark one was merely banished, not defeated, the old priest does not engage in a delusional defense of his faith. Rather, he sagely takes thousands of years of religious doctrine, including his own life's calling, and pitches it in the ditch:

"Apparently a decision was made to characterize pure evil as a spiritual force -- evil within the darkness of the hearts of men. That was more convenient. And that way Man remained at the center of things -- a stupid lie. We were salesmen, that's all. We sold our product to those who didn't have it: A new life, reward ourselves, punish our enemies. So we can live without truth, substance, malevolence. That was the truth: Asleep, until now."

One of the female scientists is branded as the chosen one to be the receptacle of Satan's will. She's transformed into a gooey creature covered with sores. At first her belly swells, and we think it's going to be a nasty demon-birth thing, but then it subsides and she rises, bent on finding a mirror so she can reach through the portal to bring the horned one through to this plane of existence.

The image of her gnarly, bloody fingers peeking through the reverse side of the mirror pane is quite striking. Another very brief but haunting image is that of a pigeon that has been caught and crucified on a tiny cross.

In one great scene, one of their colleagues who has been killed speaks to the survivors in a strange quavering voice. He opens his coat to reveal a chest of beetles, and indeed his entire body has been eaten away from the inside out by a plague of insects. Just before he collapses into a heap of empty clothes, he tells them, "Pray for death." Cool stuff.

"Prince of Darkness" was not well reviewed when it came out, but it's grown in stature during the ensuing years. It's notable for the presence of rocker Alice Cooper as the leader of the zombie horde gathering outside the church. When a computer dweeb tries to escape, Cooper takes half an old bicycle frame and runs him through with it. Cooper even appears on the cover of the DVD reissue, despite not having any lines and a total screen time of perhaps three minutes.

If the film has a weakness, it's the romance between Parker's character and a colleague played by Lisa Blount. Their relationships is given very short shrift by the screenplay -- they have one conversation and soon after they're in bed -- so it doesn't carry much weight when Blount's character sacrifices herself at the end to save him (and the rest of the world).

3 stars

Review: "The Twilight Saga: New Moon"

What's more stressful than dating a vampire? Being dumped by one.

That's the premise of the sequel to "Twilight," the movie about a girl who falls in love with a nosferatu.

In "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is abandoned by undead love Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who leaves with his family of fellow vampires because they decide that the tiny town of Forks, Washington has become too dangerous for them.

Bella predictably pouts and even wakes up screaming in the night, the pain from having lost Edward is so bad. Fortunately, there's a hunky new man-child around to offer comfort and a very broad shoulder to cry on.

In the first movie, Jacob Black was a slightly nerdy 15-year-old American Indian who helped clue Bella in to the fact that Edward and the other Cullens are vampires (although the "vegetarian" kind that only dines on animals, not humans). Now he returns as a heavily-muscled hunk who woos Bella persistently. He also has a habit of turning into a wolf, part of the vampire-hunting tradition of his tribe.

At the "New Moon" screening I attended, the audience was filled with lots of teen-age girls but also plenty of their middle-aged moms, who cooed appreciatively whenever Lautner's frequently shirtless, chiseled torso appeared onscreen.

Lautner himself said he put on 30 pounds of muscle in just eight weeks before the filming of "New Moon" started. Call me a steroid conspiracist, but such things simply do not happen naturally. Lautner's transformation is equivalent to a starlet pressured into getting oversized breast implants so she can land better roles.

The acting of Stewart and Lautner hasn't improved since the first movie, and Pattinson is absent from most of the movie, except for some visions that appear in Bella's head. New director Chris Weitz (taking over for Catherine Hardwicke) has a better flair for the action scenes, which are more frequent, too.

Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg hasn't gotten any better at fixing author Stephanie Meyer's clunky dialogue, such as: "Carlisle told me how you feel about your soul."

Still, all things considered "New Moon" is an improvement over the original film, which was draggy and dreary. The werewolf plot is pretty interesting, especially Jacob's ambivalent feelings about his newfound powers.

If you're expecting a huge throw-down between Edward and Jacob, you're apt to be disappointed. Yes, Edward reappears near the end of the film, which leaves the love triangle slightly unresolved: Bella's heart is with the vampire, but she clearly has feelings for the wolf-boy.

2.5 stars

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: "The Blind Side"

I suspect that "The Blind Side" has been Hollywooded up. But the result is such a genuinely touching and sincere movie, audiences won't mind.

The film is based on a football book by Michael Lewis that mostly concerned itself with the evolution of the left tackle into one of the key player positions in the modern NFL. Writer/director John Lee Hancock -- who made the excellent baseball movie "The Rookie" -- uses Lewis' source material for sentiment rather than smash mouth action.

"Blind Side" tells the true story (with a few details changed) of Michael Oher, a black street kid who was taken in by a well-to-do white Memphis family. Through their help and his own perseverance, he gets his life in order, starts to make decent grades at school, and draws national attention for his raw prowess on the football field.

The Touhy clan is one of those Southern families where the mother hen, Leigh Anne, rules the roost. She's played with spit and verve by Sandra Bullock. When she spots her son's gargantuan schoolmate walking in the freezing night rain, she insists that her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) pull over and they put him up for the night on their couch.

As sure as sunshine, the boy everyone calls "Big Mike" is soon living with them, and eventually becomes part of the family. Michael -- who speaks few words, but says enough to convey that he doesn't like being called "Big Mike" -- is played by Quinton Aaron in an understated but emotionally rich performance.

Michael has been abandoned by virtually every person he's ever known; his father was murdered, and his mother is a vagabond drug addict. So when he's brought into this supportive environment where the worst misbehavior consists of eating Thanksgiving dinner in front of the TV, it seems strange and disquieting to him.

Michael's relationship with young S.J. Touhy is a hoot, with Jae Head stealing scenes left and right as the tiny brother.

At one point the Touhys hire a tutor named Miss Sue (Kathy Bates) to help Michael with his grades, and she confesses to them that she's a Democrat. "Who'd have thought we'd have a black son before we knew a Democrat?" Sean ponders. It's a humorous comment on how people, even good ones, reflexively insulate themselves from those who are different from them.

The football stuff comes fairly late in the movie's game. Although the coach of the school -- which is private, Christian and lily-white -- had pushed to enroll Michael, he must work until his grades are good enough to play.

Despite Michael's mammoth size and natural athletic ability, he struggles at first on the gridiron. The coach (Ray McKinnon) dubs him a marshmallow. But Leigh Anne knows that the man-child's instincts are protective rather than aggressive. When Michael is moved to left tackle, whose job is to guard the quarterback's blind side, he soon becomes an unstoppable force that draws the attention of college coaches across the nation.

We know the story turns out happily, since the real Michael Oher was drafted in the NFL's first round this past summer and can be seen starting for the Baltimore Ravens on any given Sunday.

But knowing the outcome doesn't diminish the emotional punch. Like drawing up a football play, it's the execution that really matters, and "The Blind Side" snaps to smartly.

3 stars

Review: "Precious"

Clareece "Precious" Jones is one of the greatest cinematic heroes of all time.
In the movie that bears her name, she may not seem like such an admirable figure at first blush. She's 16 years old and illiterate, pregnant with her second child, morbidly obese and barely skating by in school.

But her life is such a crucible of pain, a never-ceasing litany of abuse and degradation, that just surviving makes her admirable. Persevering, and refusing to give in, make her braver than a hundred action stars.

"Precious" is everything you've heard, and more.

Technically, the full title is "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." It's burdensome, but at least it will be interesting to see how they fit it on the title cards at next March's Academy Awards telecast, where this film is destined to be well-represented.

Gabourey Sidibe, in her first acting role, plays Precious. Outwardly, she is unexpressive, barely ever speaking and hardly allowing a flicker of emotion to visit upon her broad face. Inside her mind, though, is a flight of dreams and thoughts she uses to transport herself out of the hellhole that is her life -- fantasies about fame and fortune, and a "light-skinned boyfriend with good hair."

The source of her pain is her mother, who hurls epithets, blows and acidic vitriol at her only child. Played by Mo'Nique in a brave performance without an ounce of vanity, Precious' mother is a woman who lacks a life of her own -- she has no job, no romantic partner and no love to give. She feeds off Precious like a leech, forcing her to cook and clean while she sits all day in the house watching idiot TV.

Other women offer rays of hope into the girl's life, though. There is the social worker, played by Mariah Carey, who has the well-practiced indifference of a bureaucrat, but whose heart is touched by this poor, sad girl.

And there is Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), the teacher at the alternative school where Precious is placed after getting thrown out of her own institution. Ms. Rain is pretty, well-educated and represents a world that is alien to Precious. When she is invited to stay in her teacher's home to get away from her mother, Precious listens to Ms. Rain and her partner converse and thinks, "They talk like TV channels I don't watch."

I will not lie: "Precious" is a tough, tough film to watch. I've held off telling you some of the most terrible deeds portrayed in the movie, in hopes of not scaring you off. But you need to know.

Precious was raped by her own father, who sired both her expected baby and her first child -- who has Down's Syndrome and is referred to as "Mongo," short for mongoloid. Her mother did nothing to prevent this, and indeed her metastasizing hatred for Precious is based on her belief that her daughter stole her man away from her.
These acts are unspeakable. Even the bravest souls would want to wither and die from being touched by them.

But Precious keeps going. She has struggles, experiences setbacks and moments of despair. But with the help of Ms. Rain and a handful of fellow troubled students, Precious never quits.

This extraordinary film was directed by Lee Daniels from a screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher. It is a portrait of human ugliness that is nearly unbearable to watch. But it's a movie that cries out to be seen, wept over, discussed -- and cherished.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: "Planet 51"

As animated films go, "Planet 51" is like the food purchased at the theater concession stand: Empty calories, consumed by people barely aware of what they're stuffing in their faces, and soon forgotten.

The set-up is a comedic take on the old alien invasion theme, but with the little green men as the natives and humans as the evil invaders. It's a neat twist ... except it was already done earlier this year in "Battle for Terra," a superior animated flick that few people saw.

"Planet 51" has some nice ideas, but it never really escapes orbit. The humor is aimed at very small children, who may enjoy the slapstick physical comedy and goofy critters. If you count your age in double digits, though, you're apt to find it quite tedious at times.

The in-joke is that the aliens of the town of Glipforg are stuck in the equivalent of our 1950s, with ducktail hairdos, rock 'n' roll and plenty of paranoia about an invasion from beyond the stars. The most popular film franchise is the "Humaniacs," which features creatures with a single giant eye turning people into mindless zombies.

Of course, there are a few differences from Earth. The denizens have antennae and frond-like things for hair, no noses, four fingers, and an aversion to pants and shoes. They've got hovercraft instead of cars -- although they resemble '50s Chevys and Cadillacs -- and instead of dogs they've got little domesticated pets that look like the creatures from the "Alien" movies. One, joke-ily named Ripley, pees acid.

The hero is Lem (voiced by Justin Long), a teen with things starting to go his way: He just landed a job at the astronomy observatory, and summoned up the courage to ask out the girl of his dreams, Nera (Jessica Biel). His life gets thrown into turmoil when an American astronaut lands a spacecraft in his backyard, setting off a flurry of panic.

Turns out the spaceman is Charles T. Baker (Dwayne Johnson), a solitary explorer who thought the planet was uninhabited, "not full of giant sea monkeys dancing to the oldies," as he puts it.
Lem lends Charles a hand, which brings about the ire of the army general (Gary Oldman) determined to do the invader in before he melts their tanks or whatever.

Rounding out the cast are Seann William Scott as Lem's nerdy best friend, Alan Marriott as a proto-hippie who wants to give peace a chance, and John Cleese as the head scientist whose prescription for every problem is a brain-ectomy.

Directed by Jorge Blanco from a script by Joe Stillman, "Planet 51" has pretty impressive animation considering it didn't come out of either of the 'toon powerhouses, Disney and DreamWorks. Too bad these good looks are wasted on such a dull and derivative movie.

2 stars

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Video review: "Brüno"

It's best to think of "Brüno" as a sequel to "Borat," since it's the same basic comedy recipe: Sacha Baron Cohen goes around America posing as an outrageous character doing incredibly offensive things to see how people will react.

Instead of a woman-hating Kazakh, this time he plays Brüno, an Austrian male model and television host so flamboyantly gay, stage queens would find his behavior over the top.

Among his escapades, Brüno adopts an African baby and totes him around like a fashion accessory; drops his pants and attempts to seduce presidential candidate Ron Paul; gets into a dildo fight with a martial-arts instructor; gets evicted from a swingers' sex party; conducts an interview with Israeli and Palestinian officials in which he confuses the terms Hamas and hummus; and engages in a cage fighting match before a crowd of bloodthirsty hillbillies, and proceeds to make out with his opponent.

Sometimes the results are hilarious, but other times they're just cringe-inducing. Embarrassment is Baron Cohen's stock in trade, and sometimes he's the one who should feel ashamed.

The video extras are quite good, especially the commentary track with Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, which is actually funnier than the movie itself.

In both the Blu-ray and DVD versions, they stop the action to discuss the real-life backstory or consequences to a given scene, such as Baron Cohen's arrest after stumbling onto the runway of a fashion show. The Blu-ray commentary also includes pop-up video of the pair.

Favorite tidbit: The revelation that Harrison Ford, who delivers a two-word brush-off to Brüno, was the only subject filmed who was in on the joke.

There's also more than an hour of deleted, extended or alternate scenes. We get to see the LaToya Jackson scene where migrant workers are used as furniture -- and she actually eats the sushi served on a man's hairy bod! Pete Rose is less amiable in the same setting, though.

The Ron Paul trick is pulled on John Bolton, Tom Ridge and Gary Bauer -- and this time, it's actually funny.

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Steel Helmet"

I wonder what the cinematic heroes of most World War II movies would make of Sgt. Zack, the protagonist of 1951's "The Steel Helmet."

Zack has guts, but he's certainly not what you would call heroic. His biggest priority is making it out of combat alive. He's gruff, insulting and racially insensitive. When a South Korean boy saves his life, he calls him a "gook."

"Steel Helmet" was released just a few months into the fighting of the Korean War, and was the first Hollywood movie made about that conflict. Writer/director/producer Samuel Fuller shot it in just 10 days for a little over $100,000 -- peanuts, even in 1952. According to legend, Fuller wrote the script in one week.

The story opens with a static image of a soldier's helmet. Eventually, the helmet rises and we see the eyes and then the face of the man wearing it. Zack is bound by the hands and by all rights should be dead. After his unit surrendered, the GIs were tied up and shot. A bullet pierced Zack's helmet, but just grazed his head. His left leg was not so lucky, taking a direct hit. But he was left for dead, and after the Korean boy rescues him, Zack's only mission is to make it back to headquarters in one piece.

The boy is played by William Chun, and is quickly dubbed "Short Round" by the bearded, limping sergeant. It seems likely that Steven Spielberg borrowed the moniker for his sidekick in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Sgt. Zack is played by Gene Evans in one of his first film roles; he would go on to a long and healthy TV and movie career playing cops and tough guys.

I was astonished to learn that Evans was just 29 years old when he made this movie. His grizzled features and the world-weary slump of his shoulders bespeak a man decades older. But going to war ages a man, physically, mentally and in his soul. The scars he wears on the outside are just mild reflections of the ones inside.

Not that Zack doesn't have his external scars, too. When he first meets with a black medic named Thompson (James Edwards), the latter comments that he must have been injured in the mouth at some point. Zack nods and says he was hit by an "88" on D-Day. In his own inimical way, Zack indicates he had surgeries to repair his mug.

"Most of my back(side), I'm wearing on my face. When my face gets tired, I sit down."

The threesome meet up with a tattered platoon on their way to establish an O.P. -- observation post -- at a nearby Buddhist temple. One of the notable things about "Steel Helmet" is that the actors use real soldier lingo, and it's up to the audience to pick up on the meaning of various phrases.

The lieutenant (Steve Brodie) asks Zack to come along to help school his squad of greenhorns, but is refused. Zack makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the young officer, who lacks field experience. Zack himself is a "retread" -- a soldier who also served in WWII. Thompson is also a retread, as is the squad's bazooka man, a Japanese-American named Tanaka (Richard Loo).

After Zack and Tanaka bail out the group from a sniper attack, he agrees to see them as far as the temple in exchange for a box of cigars one of the men is toting.

In perhaps the film's most shocking scene, the soldier with the cigars discovers an American body, and is ordered by the lieutenant to search it. Zack, slurping his words around a rind of melon from a patch they'd stumbled upon, lazily discourages such an action. When the soldier does search the body, he's blown up by a booby trap. Zack shows absolutely no remorse for the death of the man, only asking if he had his pack on him when he died. When he learns the pack is still at camp, Zack brusquely rifles through it for his cigars.

Eventually they reach the temple, where a North Korean major is hiding out. After killing one of the men and trashing their radio, the enemy soldier is captured. Zack eagerly looks forward to marching the prisoner back to headquarters for interrogation, which he figures will earn him a furlough. But when Short Round is killed by a sniper and the major taunts him about his affection for the boy, Zack angrily shoots the unarmed prisoner, mortally wounding him.

At the center of Zack's ethos is maintaining composure under fire. When he was about to leave with his prisoner, the lieutenant asked to exchange helmets with Zack for his bullet-ridden one, figuring it will bring luck. The sergeant refuses, letting the "lou" know that he may be wearing stripes, but he hasn't earned them yet.

Of course, Zack himself loses his cool in the film's climactic firefight, dropping his weapon and hazily wandering around, muttering something about krauts. Here, at the height of battle, the "hero" of the movie suffers from a post-traumatic stress flashback.

It's not the sort of depiction you expect out of a war hero, but that's why "The Steel Helmet" stands apart from other war movies of its era. Like "Battleground," reviewed here a few months ago, this movie is more interested in seeing through a soldier's eyes than glorifying him.

3.5 stars

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Coming this week

Another very busy week in the captain's chair -- and like to continue to be so through the end of the year.

I'm pleased to say that the awards announced by the Indiana Film Journalists Association have drawn a good response from the studios. They've set up screenings of a number of contending films well before their release. Hopefully this good fortune will continue into the new year.

I'll have film reviews of "Precious," "Twilight: New Moon," "Planet 51" and "The Blind Side."

The video review will be "Bruno." It was going to be "Star Trek," but Paramount is being very stingy with their DVDs lately.

The classic film reviews will be "The Steel Helmet" and John Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Catching up with "A Serious Man"

So I've got a free weekend and I'm trying to catch up on some movies I missed, starting with "A Serious Man." I knew I had to see it at some point, because I simply must experience all things Coen Bros.

The "Variety" critic aptly described this as the sort of movie you get to make after you've won an Oscar. It's a loose retelling of the Book of Job, recast to the Midwest of the 1960s and with a distinctly Jewish point of few, starring a bunch of unknowns. It's a contemplative tale, darkly humorous and often vexing.

The protagonist is Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a youngish physics professor who's awaiting a chance for tenure when his whole life falls apart, bit by bit. One day his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she wants a divorce, and that she's in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, who has a voice like gold dipped in honey).

On top of that, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind, the only recognizable actor in the film) is crashing with them, spending his days nursing a nasty cyst in their bathroom and his nights using his math skills to win at gambling. Larry's daughter seems to care only about the state of her hair, and son Danny is about to have his bar mitzvah, in between pining for his transistor radio confiscated by the school principal, smoking dope and running from a bully whom he owes money for said dope.

And more: A Korean student who is failing Larry's class attempts to bribe him for a passing grade; his unbalanced neighbor is encroaching on his property line; the neighbor's wife is sunbathing nude; he can't get in to see the good elderly rabbi, only the unhelpful other two; and someone is sending anonymous letters to the tenure committee, urging his rejection.

The story of Job, for whose who don't know or remember, is about a man whom God punishes with all sorts of ill happenings and temptations to see if he will falter in his faith. With Larry, we're never really sure if it's his faith that's motivating him or just a generic desire to be a mensch, aka a good and serious man.

I generally enjoyed the movie, although Larry is such nudgenick, a man so utterly passive and unable to stand up for himself, that his act wears thin very soon. After an hour or so of nervous stuttering, sweaty lips and quavering questions, we're ready for Larry to grow a pair and take action -- for good or ill, but at least moving in some direction.

I get the sense that "A Serious Man" is a very personal film for Joel and Ethan Coen, and that they're using it to work out some of thoughts about their Jewish faith. That's well and good, but it also makes for a movie that never invites you in.

3 stars

Friday, November 13, 2009

Reeling Backward: "They Live"

I'm continuing my journey through the John Carpenter oeuvre with some films I hadn't seen before, starting with 1988's "They Live."

It's kind of a cheesy flick with low-rent special effects. It stars Roddy "Rowdy" Piper, which probably tells you more about the quality of the filmmaking than anything I could say. That same year, the wrestling star made his masterpiece, "Hell Comes to Frogtown." This movie isn't quite as schlocky ... but man, it ain't good.

That said, the story does have some interesting themes that are worth commenting on, about a race of hidden aliens who are subtly taking over the world.

Piper plays Nada, a wandering average Joe who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work. He lands a construction job and befriends Frank (Keith David again), who introduces him to a shantytown where he can live and eat.

Nada stumbles across strange activity at the church across the street, which is apparently the headquarters of a secret underground of humans fighting the aliens by broadcasting television signals with cryptic warnings. After the police brutally break up the place, Nada discovers a box full of sunglasses that allow one to see the world as it really is.

With the glasses on, the world turns a fuzzy black-and-white, and billboards and magazines are revealed to actually be Orwellian commands like "Obey," "Consume," "No independent thought" and "Marry and reproduce."

Even more alarmingly, a certain percentage of the human population are actually aliens with skull-like faces and spotted skin. Nada arms himself with an arsenal of guns and starts wiping out the aliens.

A few notable scenes: At one point Nada hides from the police in a bank. Wielding a shotgun, he announces to the stunned inhabits: "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum!" This, of course, has since became a very famous tough-guy line. Although Piper actually delivers it in a strangely stiff and robotic way.

And then there's the fight scene between Nada and Frank, which just goes on, and on, and on. And on. At one point you think they're done fighting, and the start it all up again. It gets to be a pretty nasty affair, with eye-gouging, hand-biting and crotch-pummeling. It's obviously in the movie to give Piper a chance to show off his 'rasslin' skills. The stated reason for the fight is that Nada wants Frank to try on the sunglasses, and he refuses. I don't know about you, but if somebody insisted that I try on some glasses, I might not like it, but it's not worth trading punches over. Of course, as soon as the fisticuffs are over, they're the best of chums again.

The title comes from a bit of graffiti scene in the movie, "They live, we sleep" -- which pretty much sums up the subtext of the whole movie. There's a distinctly anti-capitalistic streak in the movie, with a lot of talk about people fighting with each other over money and consumer items. A number of the humans have knowingly signed up to help the aliens, with riches as their reward. The basic theme is that American culture has devolved into a land of sheep lulled into a trance by television and advertising.

As heavy-handed as this stuff is, it's actually the most entertaining thing about "They Live."

1.5 stars

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: "2012"

There's a scene in Roland Emmerich's "2012" where earthquakes are ravaging the face of the planet, and holy men are praying in the Sistine Chapel when a crack grows in the dome, splitting God's outstretched fingers away from Adam's.

I suspect audiences, or at least critics, are going to be equally divided over this outsized disaster flick.

For me, it was a big, dumb, thoroughly fun movie. If you go into it looking for serious social allegory -- as Emmerich was trying to do with the global warming-themed "The Day After Tomorrow" -- then you're probably going to regard this new film as a travesty that treats human lives with as much dignity as blips on a video game.

But poking fun at this movie is inane, since it exists as a parody of itself -- or at least its genre.

"2012" is essentially a special-effects smorgasbord of nearly every disaster movie ever made: Earthquakes! Volcanic eruptions! Titanic-like drownings! Explosions that must be outrun! Tsunamis! Buildings collapsing! Plane crashes! Car crashes! Jumping over chasms in a limo! Jumping over chasms in a Winnebago! Meteors! Puppies in peril!

We get to see Los Angeles slide into the ocean, the White House wiped out (a habit for Emmerich), and Las Vegas collapse into the burning maw of hell (which is probably where it was headed anyway).

About the only thing missing is for a certain lizard, 1,000 feet tall and seriously P.O.'d, to poke his head out of the ocean.

John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a failed writer and divorced dad, who stumbles across the mother of all government conspiracies: The American president (Danny Glover) and other world leaders have known for years that the Earth is on the brink of destruction. It seems some neutrinos or something from the sun are warming the planet's core, which will eventually cause the continental plates to start slip-sliding around and slamming into each other.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the conscientious scientist advising the heads of state on how the human race is going to survive -- well, a small percentage of it, anyway. Oliver Platt is his bean-counting boss, only too happy to determine who gets to live and who must die. Of course, the ultra-rich are guaranteed a spot.

Jackson gathers up his clan, including ex-wife (Amanda Peet), estranged kids and even his competition, the smarmy stepdad (Thomas McCarthy). They must race through one ridiculous set of challenges after another (see Explosions! Eruptions! Drownings! etc.) to survive.

Plot? OK, here's the plot: Emmerich, who co-wrote the script with Harald Kloser, piles on huge computer-generated action sequences, then switches to a weepy humanist moment where somebody tries to reach their long-lost son/daughter/wife/colleague to whisper encouraging words, before the huge tidal waves and explosions roll in to snuff them out. Rinse and repeat.

I lost count of how many times a phone line went dead as the apocalyptic destruction overran somebody. Of course, one might wonder how the phones are still working when most of the planet's surface looks like it's been through a shredder.

But these sorts of ruminations are anathema to the pure cinematic roller-coaster ride that is "2012." The best of such rides have a sign saying you must be so tall in order to be allowed onboard. For this movie, the measurement is snobbishness: Those who insist on taking it seriously will be left behind.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: "An Education"

I had never heard of Carey Mulligan before seeing "An Education." But I'm quite sure many people will know her name after her breakthrough performance in this film, one of the finest onscreen portrayals of 2009.

Mulligan has been in a few things, most notably one of the younger sisters in 2005's "Pride & Prejudice." But in her role as Jenny, a British teen girl who finds herself unexpectedly romanced by an older man, Mulligan blooms like a flower opening its petals to newfound light.

It's like watching Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," or Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted" -- you know you're witnessing the arrival of a major new acting talent.

I'm not quite over the moon about the movie as a whole, however.

It's based on the autobiographical novel by Lynn Barber, adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby and directed by Danish director Lone Sherfig. It's the sort of movie that's enjoyable for the excellent execution by the cast and filmmakers, and not because of the freshness of an innovative story.

As much as I was thrilled by Mulligan's performance, the film suffers for the predictability of its conclusion. Think of it as a well-worn path, expertly navigated.

It's 1961, and Jenny is a hard-working, smart girl of working-class origins whose entire life is ordered around getting into Oxford to study English. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) follow her grades and extracurricular activities as if they have no other interests in life.

One rainy day she bumps into David (Peter Sarsgaard), a suave man about 20 years older who drives a sleek sports car and gives her a ride. He's intrigued by the witty girl so eager to discover the world -- especially France -- and arranges to bump into her again. Soon they're dating.

It's really interesting how David slyly ingratiates himself with Jenny's parents. If you just presented them with the idea of their beloved girl dating a man twice her years (and a Jew to boot), they would probably react with horror. But because David presents himself as smart, well-connected, affluent -- in other words, the epitome of their aspirations for Jenny -- they practically glom onto him.

The teachers (notably Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson) at Jenny's school assail her with warnings about throwing away her future, but she's enraptured by the opportunity to travel, wear fancy dresses and hobnob with David's chic friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike).

There's a great scene where Jenny demands her instructors tell why she must spend the next few years doing something "hard and boring," if her only reward is a job like theirs that continues the drudgery. It's a rebel yell in lilting British tones, an outcry against Jenny's own situation and the societal limitations placed on mid-century women with brains and gumption.

Inevitably, Jenny's fling with David replaces her textbooks as her crucible of learning. She gets a hint of dark tidings when he and his pal steal a painting, revealing themselves as rogues who appreciate art for its monetary rather than spiritual value.

And without overtly giving away the ending ... well, think of the most obvious outcome possible, and you've got it.

Still, "An Education" is a worthwhile film because it will be remembered as Carey Mulligan's coming-out party. Audiences, like teachers, always revel when a star pupil announces herself.

3 stars

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Video review: "Up"

Only Pixar, the animation studio behind "Finding Nemo" and "Wall·E," could produce a movie about a cranky, lonely old man and make it both an artistic and commercial hit.

Carl Fredricksen (voice by Ed Asner), the protagonist of "Up," has the world's sourest attitude. His beloved wife Ellie passed away some years ago, and all he really cares about in the world is the ramshackle home they shared for decades -- which is about to bulldozed for some high-rise construction.

So Carl hooks a million balloons to his house and floats it away. His goal is to navigate to Paradise Falls, the mysterious land where Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) -- the famous explorer who was his and Ellie's childhood hero -- disappeared long ago.

But it turns out that Carl has a stowaway: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer (think Cub Scout) obsessed with getting his last merit badge. Soon after landing in Paradise Falls, Carl and Russell are joined by Dug, a hyper dog with a gizmo collar that allows him to talk.

Director and co-writer Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc.") layers the goofy antics in with some genuinely touching melodramatic moments. Like many Pixar films, "Up" is best appreciated by grown-ups.

Extra features are pretty good for the DVD version, but really take off in the Blu-ray edition (a combo DVD/Blu-ray pack is available).

The DVD comes with a commentary track by Docter and co-director Bob Peterson, alternate scenarios for the death of Muntz, a documentary on the filmmakers' journey to South America's Tepuis mountains for inspiration, and "Partly Cloudy," the short film that preceded "Up" in its theatrical release.

The Blu-ray has a host of features, including conceptual drawings of the major characters and canine companions, how the animators made Carl's house fly, and even how they carefully designed the interior and exterior of his house. Plus, a digital copy of the film for uploading to a portable device.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Gilda"

"Gilda" is one of the ugliest movies I have ever seen, starring the most beautiful woman ever to grace a Hollywood screen.

When I say "Gilda" is ugly, I mean that it contains some of the darkest, most unattractive portrayals of human emotions I've ever seen. A recurring theme is that the three main characters hold onto their hatred for each other lovingly, even speaking openly about how the heat of hatred is exciting and keeps them warm.

The beautiful part is easy -- I have long considered Rita Hayworth to be the most gorgeous woman ever to star in the movies.

In "Shawshank Redemption," Red (played by Morgan Freeman) is watching "Gilda" and comments about her famous first appearance, where she flips her head up, bringing a cascade of dark curls: "I love when she does that shit with her hair."

"Gilda" was her most famous role, and her greatest curse. Married five times, Hayworth famously said, "Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me."

The story is about a pair of ex-lovers, both schemers and con artists. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a gambler who uses dice for his grifts, while Gilda uses her feminine wiles. In the backstreets of Buenos Ares, Johnny is rescued from a robber by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a strange man in a suit and wielding a cane with a sword blade hidden inside. Johnny soon learns that Ballin owns the biggest casino in the city, and soon he has become Ballin's right-hand man.

They agreed at the outset of their partnership that women and gambling do not mix, but Ballin returns from a trip with Gilda in tow, having undergone a quickie marriage the day after he met her. Little does he know that Johnny and his new bride have a past together -- and not a pleasant one.

The two begin a game of one-upmanship, a low-simmering feud that is destined to boil over. Johnny is given the job of watching after Gilda, who's the original party girl. She gleefully takes up with other men for one-night stands, mostly to get Johnny's goat. In one scene, she answers a pretty boy's come-on with the line, "If I were a ranch, they'd call be the Bar Nothing."

Usually in these sorts of movies, the couple trading barbs are simply masking their confused love for one another. Things eventually work out that way, but not until the very end. The bile that is exchanged between Johnny and Gilda is truly venomous. At one point after Ballin's apparent death, Johnny marries her to get control of his boss' business ventures, and then proceeds to essentially lock her up in her apartment.

Frankly, the finale where they go off together doesn't feel very convincing, given all the terrible things that have gone on between them. It feels like a happy ending tacked on by Hollywood mandate.

"Gilda" was directed by Charles Vidor from a screenplay by Marion Parsonnett. The similarities to "Casablanca," which came out four years earlier, are pretty obvious.

The protagonist is a roguish but ultimately decent guy who works in a casino, has to deal with trouble from Germans, and can't stand that the woman who broke his heart has walked into his gin joint. His best friend also works in the casino, although in this movie Johnny and Ballin have traded the boss/employee roles of Rick and Sam. There's even a wise-cracking casino employee, Uncle Pio, who needles his superiors. Even the exotic international setting, and a local constable of indeterminate morality, are in the mix.

I liked "Gilda," but more for Hayworth than the movie around her. The knockout scene where she sings "Put the Blame on Mame" while doing a sultry semi-striptease is nearly at the end of the movie, but well worth the wait. It truly was a star-making role, the ultimate femme fatale. Gilda, who never touches a gun, is the most dangerous one of all.

3 stars

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Coming this week

I'll have new reviews of "An Education," a movie that's getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and "2012," the much-maligned new disaster epic from Roland Emmerich.

I'm not quite sure why "2012" is getting slammed so much -- it seems to be pretty much in the same vein of "Independence Day," "Godzilla" and "The Day After Tomorrow." People have assaulted the trailer for being all big-budget special effects ... well, so? That's like criticizing Michael Moore for making a movie with a lot of talking. This is what Emmerich does.

The video review will be Pixar's "Up." I'll have look-back film reviews of "Gilda" and "They Live."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Thing" (1982)

It would be fair to say that John Carpenter's 1982 remake of the sci-fi/horror classic "The Thing from Another World" was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Shortened to simply, "The Thing," Carpenter's film was a study in moody atmospherics and eye-popping gross-out special effects.

Unlike the 1951 original, there are no female characters, just a motley bunch manning an Antarctic science station. There's not even much characterization, other than a few broad strokes for each guy: There's Windows, the nervous one, and Doc Copper, and Blair the scientist, and Clark, who likes dogs, and so on. And yet each man is distinct and easily recognizable from one another. It sort of reminds me of the space Marines from "Aliens," where within 20 minutes you knew every soldier's name and identity.

The protagonist is MacReady, the helicopter pilot played by Kurt Russell. He's moody, and a loner, and a heavy drinker. But like a lot of Russell's action characters, he has that uncanny ability to stay icily calm in a crisis. So naturally the other men look to him for leadership, even though Garry is ostensibly in charge.

MacReady's main foil is Childs (Keith David), who's a hothead and the most logical choice to challenge MacReady's status as alpha dog.

Speaking of dogs, the movie begins with the image of a beautiful husky being chased across the snows by a helicopter, with a man aboard firing a hunting rifle at it. This launches us into the plot of the station being attacked by a creature from outer space. It had crash-landed here eons ago, was found and thawed out by some Norwegians who fell victim to it.

The creature is very different from the one in the original movie, which was some kind of plant-based blood-sucking vampire thing. Here the creature is more like a virus that attacks living things, assimilating them and copying them perfectly. In effect it is a changeling, although it absorbs whatever it copies, rather than destroying the body.

The special effects, which were simply amazing back in 1982, still hold up very well nearly 30 years later. The scenes I remember most are when the doctor is trying to shock one of the team members back to life, and the defibrillator pads crash right through his chest, revealing him as infected. Then sharp teeth from either side of the chest cavity snap down on the doctor's arms, severing them.

MacReady burns the body with a flamethrower, but the creature's head -- still wearing the outer guise of a the red-headed guy it had infected -- separates itself from the flaming corpse, crawling onto the floor and sprouting spider-like legs and eye stalks.

I still get a thrill watching this stuff. "The Thing" has lost none of its bite.

4 stars

Review: "A Christmas Carol"

"A Christmas Carol" is a technological marvel, an animated film that is absolutely breathtaking in its attention to detail, and in the depth and beauty of its images. Unfortunately, it also has little reason for existing beyond these technical aspects.

Do audiences really need an umpteenth cinematic version of Charles Dickens' classic story? This is, after all, a franchise that has been translated dozens of times on film and television, including multiple animated editions.

Heck, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Sesame Street, Flintstones, Mr. Magoo and even Barbie have tackled Dickens' novella.

Robert Zemeckis, the master filmmaker behind "Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future," adds nothing beyond fancy flourishes to the morality tale about a miser who learns the value of life, and thereby the true meaning of Christmas.

A few years ago, Zemeckis famously swore off live-action films to concentrate on photo-realistic computer-generated animation. His first two efforts, "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," were well-intentioned and often mesmerizing, but also contained bouts of silliness (think Angelina Jolie with a tail).

"Christmas Carol" doubles down on the silly, with the hyper Jim Carrey providing the voices (and motions) of Ebenezer Scrooge and all the ghosts.

And Zemeckis adds a heavy dollop of action sequences designed to make the movie more commercially viable to audiences with children.

It's very easy to say Charles Dickens might have dreamed up scenes where Ebenezer Scrooge is shot halfway to the moon on a rocket, or shrunk down to the size of a mouse and chased by a team of hellfire steeds, if only he had been alive during a time when such depictions were possible. It's also a cop-out.

"Scrooged" from 1988 already ably translated "Carol" to a modern setting, and used special effects to liven up the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Zemeckis retains the grubby antique 19th-century setting but uses cutting-edge animation and 3-D technology to achieve it.

The result is stale but annoyingly flashy, like musty architecture with ill-placed modern gilding.

It's also odd that Zemeckis retained a lot of the 1843-era stilted English, such as Scrooge's pronouncement upon seeing his childhood home, "I was bred here."

Now, to the ghosts. Conceptually, they're 1-for-3.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is depicted as a giant, bearded, laughing man, a Dionysian figure (who closely resembles the book's original drawing). The scene where the ghost ages and meets his demise -- since he lives in the present, his lifespan lasts only a day -- is both thrilling and creepy. (Although his strange pronouncement about men of the cloth left the audience scratching its collective head.)

The Ghost of Christmas Past, though, is a chirpy-voiced floating ball of flame. In my mind, I instantly dubbed, and dismissed, him as "Match-head." Ghost of Christmas Future is merely an inky wraith seen only in the shadows.

The supporting performances are a nice mix -- I particularly liked Gary Oldman as Scrooge's long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit, whom he gives a shy sort of grace. (Oldman also plays Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim.)

In the end, I'm not really sure who this new version of "A Christmas Carol" is for. Great-looking but uninspired, it's a shiny new toy that can only do old tricks.

2.5 stars