Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top 10 Films of 2009

To me, 2009 was filled with many very good movies but few great ones.

As I write this on the winter solstice, "Up in the Air" looks to be unstoppable in the Oscar race. It's on my list, and high up, but as I look over the films I don't see many seminal movies people are sure to still be talking about in 20 or 30 years.

Top 10 Lists are by definition arbitrary, and by definition a lot of fun to compose and argue about. If you ask me to make this list next week, it might look a little different. But today, here's my take on the year in film:

10. "Precious." A tough, hard movie to watch, but rewarding for those who do. Gabourey Sidibe stars in a break-out role as an impoverished girl, abused and ignored, who finds reason for hope.

9. "The Damned United." Consider this movie compared to "Invictus." I'm equally indifferent to soccer and rugby, but found this behind-the scenes portrait of Brian Clough's disastrous stint as manager of one of 1970s England's top football teams utterly riveting. With Timothy Spall in a great supporting role that deserves more attention.

8. "Avatar." Give it up for James Cameron; the auteur -- one of the few directors today who deserves that title -- shoots for the moon. This mostly computer-generated epic is blowing away even the most cynical audiences.

7. "The Young Victoria." If all period costume dramas were this full of verve, they'd become box-office darlings. Emily Blunt gives a career-changing performance as Queen Victoria during her ascension and early reign.

6. "The Road." I'm still trying to figure out why this movie based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel was shelved for a year. It's about a father and son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with cannibals. Yes, it's depressing as hell -- and as uplifting as any film I saw this year.

5. "Moon." This sly, little-seen science fiction drama plays with your expectations, so just when you think you've got it figured out, it surprises you again and again. Sam Rockwell plays a solitary worker manning a lunar station where strange events transpire.

4. "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Based on a children's book, but Wes Anderson's funny/quirky take on a fox who tries to ignore his essential nature is not just one of the best animated films, not just one of the best children's films, but one of the best films of the year. Period.

3. "Up in the Air." The movie that provides the most honest snapshot of our country and our time. George Clooney plays a seemingly soulless executive who flies around firing people for a living, but then faces his own obsolescence. Wry, pitch-perfect, spot-on dialogue, wonderfully acted.

2. "The Hurt Locker." Somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan right now, an American soldier is attempting to defuse a terrorist bomb. Jeremy Renner gives the performance of the year as a man who is constantly surrounded by insanity, until normal life becomes intolerable. Director Kathryn Bigelow's masterpiece.

1. "Julie & Julia." I think I can safely say I'm the only critic putting this movie at the top of his list. Yeah, I've heard the backlash: Meryl Streep's Julia Child sections are terrific, the modern stuff with Amy Adams a bore. Like cooking, certain flavors just appeal more to some people than others. I think Nora Ephron's combination is a recipe for cinematic bliss.

Best of the rest: Making a list of just 10 movies means there are many others you appreciated and adored, but just couldn't find a spot for them. Here's 13 more films 2009 was blessed to have (alphabetically):

"(500) Days of Summer," "9," "Adventureland," "District 9," "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," "The Princess and the Frog," "Shrink," "Sin Nombre," "A Single Man," "The Soloist," "Up," "Watchmen" and "Where the Wild Things Are."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Video review: "9"

"9" is one of the boldest, most original films to come out in 2009. It didn't get much of a box office reception, but now that it's hitting video, audiences have a chance to discover this animation gem.

Director Shane Acker based the feature film on an Oscar-nominated short he made about a dystopian world where all of mankind has perished. About the only living things around are tiny puppet-like creatures made out of burlap and bits of metal, with numbers for names.

The voice cast is especially good, with Elijah Wood as the title character, Christopher Plummer as 1, the authoritarian leader, Jennifer Connelly as the knight-errant 7, and Martin Landau as 2, an old tinkerer.

They must battle a faceless army of machines looking to dominate the post-apocalyptic word -- and capture the strange talisman 9 is carrying around.

The animation is just terrific, with inky pools of darkness and a wonderful tactile feel -- things you don't normally get from computerized animation.

Despite the PG-13 rating, which I feel is misplaced, this movie should be suitable for children above toddler age.

Extra features are good, not great. Neither the DVD or Blu-ray versions come with a digital copy of the film, which at this point should be standard fare.

Both versions come with original 10-minute short by Acker, and the commentary is especially interesting; he talks about working on his UCLA senior thesis film for more than four years while taking leaves of absence to do things like work on the last "Lord of the Rings" films.

There's a 16-minute making-of doc that includes all the principle talent, even producer Tim Burton, who lent his name (but not much hands-on participation, it appears) to the production. There are also two featurettes focusing on the design and animation process, and seven minutes worth of deleted scenes, still in storyboard format.

A commentary track by Acker and several key collaborators adds few new insights, but is still worth a listen.

In addition to these, the Blu-ray comes with a tour of the Starz animation studio hosted by Acker, and interactive features you can turn on and off during the movie.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, December 28, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Across the Pacific"

Lord knows I have been called a persnickety purveyor of film. One of the reasons I didn't care for "Inglourious Basterds," beyond its astonishing unevenness, is the fact that the group of soldiers whose name the title bears appear onscreen for less than 20 minutes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't like it when movies double-cross their audience by purporting to be something that they aren't.

What, then, am I to make of a movie called "Across the Pacific" in which the Pacific Ocean is never glimpsed, let alone reached, forget about being crossed?

Actually, I quite liked it. It's a perfectly serviceable example of war propaganda film, made in 1942 and set in the days before Pearl Harbor. Humphrey Bogart plays a disgraced Army captain traveling aboard a Japanese ship who falls into also sorts of Nipponese intrigue.

It was directed by the great John Huston... well, partially. He had to leave during filming for his own military stint. Vincent Sherman finished things up. Mary Astor plays the mysterious woman whom Bogie bumps into on the ship and pitches woo.

I'm not really sure why they titled it "Across the Pacific," other than "Journey to Panama" probably was less likely to stir up American audiences to patriotically fork over their money for an admission ticket to see the evil Japanese get their comeuppance. But, in point of fact, Bogart boards a ship in the eastern seaboard, and only makes it as far as Colon -- the eastern side of the Panama Canal -- before the film reaches its conclusion.

Seen today, the movie is mostly interesting for its depiction of the Japanese during the war. Considering the movie was made only months after the sneak attack on Pearl, about a nation and people at which the country was actively engaged in warfare, it's fairly even-handed stuff.

Most of the Japanese crew and other characters are played by actual Japanese actors. Some of them speak in an offensive pigeon English accent, but others -- such as an amiable fellow passenger named Joe Totsuiko, speak it at least as well as Bogart. Although Joe wears coke-bottle-thick glasses, which was a common stereotype of the Japanese during that era.

There is one ship's concierge with a difficult-sounding name, whom Bogie immediately dubs Should Be.

Longtime Bogart nemesis Sydney Greenstreet plays Dr. Lorenz, a professor of sociology at a Philippine university and avowed admirer of Far East cultures. Turns out he's actually a spy for the Japanese, looking to find out about military defenses at the Canal, which his allies hope to take out at the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Bogart plays the patsy, Rick Leland, who has just been drummed out of the Army for embezzling. He was stationed at the Canal and knows the military set-up.

The audience is left to think Leland really is a rat for a while, but before long we're brought wise to the fact that he's a double-agent. His court martial was ginned up to ingratiate him with Lorenz.

Astor plays Alberta Marlow, a girl traveling the world for purposes that aren't made clear until the very end. I rather liked the Bogart-Astor pairing -- it's quite snippy in a charming way. They end up insulting each other most of the time, and she gives at least as good as she gets.

There's one really funny bit where Leland saves Lorenz from a would-be assassin, and the old doctor mentions that he carries a gun for protection, showing him a small automatic. Leland takes out his fat .45 (probably Army issue) and holds it next to Lorenz' weapon and says, "Hey, mine's bigger than yours."

Even in 1942, filmmakers loved a good dick joke.

3 stars

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Coming this week

Not much happening on the movie front this week -- everybody's on vacation, nothing new is coming out, and most people are still catching up on the raft of new flicks from last week.

But us hard-working unemployed film critics are still at it with a few offerings during the dull period.

I'll have a Reeling Backward essay on "Across the Pacific," a 1942 war propaganda film starring Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor.

The video review will be "9" -- the animated film, not the musical that came out a few days ago.

And Wednesday, get ready for the big one: My Top 10 List for 2009.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Review: "It's Complicated"

"It's Complicated" covers familiar ground, but this comedy about autumn romance is charming enough to entertain despite its slightly stale themes.

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin are a tremendous cinematic pairing as a long-divorced couple who unexpectedly re-stoke the dying embers. Since he's now married to the woman he left her for, she effectively switches places as the Other Woman.

To add to the mix, Steve Martin is cast very much against type as a straitlaced architect with the hots for Streep.

Writer/director Nancy Meyers has trod down the path of oldster canoodling before, most notably with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give." The idea of a woman nearing 60 having to fend off multiple suitors clearly appeals to the filmmaker, and probably a lot of audience members.

Streep plays Jane, who's sending her youngest daughter off to college, watching the middle son graduate, and helping her oldest daughter prepare for her wedding. She and Jake (Baldwin) were married for 20 years, divorced for 10, and after years of consternation have reached a comfortable sort of detente.

But by the way Jane glares at Jake's much-younger wife (Lake Bell), it's clear she has unresolved issues about the relationship ending -- not to mention that she's in a pretty long dry spell herself romantically.

A successful baker, Jane is looking to add an addition onto her house, and thus meets Adam (Martin). The architect is shy, a bit awkward, and just getting over his own divorce. It's kind of a flat role as written, and Martin doesn't really fill out the part satisfactorily.

Whenever the film wanders off into Adam territory, it loses steam. The Jane/Jake dynamic is what keeps things moving.

The scenes of them together are playful and sexy -- the twinkle in Baldwin's eyes speaks of a lifelong rogue who decides the homefires were the warmest. Streep's character is confused and reticent at first, but eventually decides she deserves a romp.

Jake points out that, by virtue of their age, they have simply aged out of all the problems they had while they were married. He's no longer obsessed with work, and she doesn't have to put family before herself anymore.

"We both grew into the people we wanted each other to be," he says.

There's several laugh-out-loud moments, including one where Streep tells a doctor something that you never expected to hear out of Hollywood's Oscar queen. Along with her fleshy, exuberant turn as Julia Child earlier this year, Streep is Tinseltown's latest-blooming sexpot.

Baldwin bares himself, too, though in a more literal sense. All I will say is it's the funniest use of a webcam since the first "American Pie."

"It's Complicated" isn't terribly original, but it's a generous and entertaining look at life and love while rounding third base.

3 stars

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review: "Sherlock Holmes"

"Sherlock Holmes" at least has the good manners to be honest about its intentions: It's an amped-up, action-packed take on the iconic British detective, with calm deductive reasoning and deerstalker hats jettisoned for lots of science nerd tech-talk, slo-mo explosions and knife fights.
It's "CSI: Victorian Age."

Guy Ritchie brings his distinctive feverish directing style to the Industrial Age crime procedural. Robert Downey Jr., as Holmes, likes to go about bare-chested and relishes getting into brawls, so he can map out his bone-crunching moves beforehand -- thus, we get to see his fights twice, first in slow time and then sped up.

This version of Holmes also possesses observational powers that border on superhuman; after a brief glance at a person, he can tell you everything about them from their occupation to their progeny. He can discern exact chemical compositions from odor or taste.

I don't necessarily object to this modernized version of Sherlock Holmes -- the conception of the sleuth as a charming gentleman, best exemplified by actor Basil Rathbone in a swath of midcentury films, had grown rather quaint. And Holmes' knowledge of martial arts and boxing are part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories.

But Ritchie, Downey and a slew of writers seem so intent on branding their Holmes a bold departure, they forget to assemble a believable character.

Downey plays the detective as an obsessive scoundrel, who when he's not solving crimes goes into extended periods of torpor and pharmacological experimentation. The actor uses a clipped delivery designed to mask a middling British accent.

Jude Law plays Dr. Watson, Holmes' right-hand man and best friend. As the story opens, Watson is leaving their shared house and partnership to settle down with an eligible lady (Kelly Reilly), so there's a bit of tension between them.

Holmes' own romantic entanglement arrives in the form of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the only criminal ever to give Holmes the slip -- twice. She and Holmes play a cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship, with Irene's exact loyalties in doubt.

The plot is an utterly forgettable mishmash of black magic and science, with the mysterious Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) as the bogeyman. The story opens with Holmes and Watson catching Blackwood in the act of a dark sacrificial ritual, but he somehow survives his hanging execution to wreak havoc on London.

His plan is to enlist the aid of the Temple of the Four Orders, a variation on the old Masonic legends, in taking over the world.

The action scenes are quite a lot of fun, if a bit hard to follow at times. I especially liked Holmes' facing off with a giant French thug who actually gets to spout better one-liners than the hero.
This new "Sherlock Holmes" strives desperately to be new and fresh, and the strain of the effort shows.

2.5 stars

Review: "The Young Victoria"

Many people consider period costume dramas to be stuffy and rigid. The wonderful, vibrant "The Young Victoria" should perforate those preconceptions.

This gripping tale of Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne of England is a full-blooded portrait of a young woman of passion and intellectual firepower, who held onto her authority despite myriad attempts by the existing patriarchy to wrest it away and make her a puppet.

Emily Blunt, who at age 26 has crackled in numerous supporting roles like "The Devil Wears Prada," leaps to the fore of her generation to join peers like Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway. Her performance as Victoria is subtle and layered -- not to mention quite passionate, belying the name of a queen that begat an adjective, Victorian, synonymous with repressed sexuality.

The story opens with Victoria age 17, heir-apparent of her uncle King William (Jim Broadbent) but living under the stern yoke of her mother the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her consort, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong, imposing and impressive).

The pair intentionally designed every aspect of her life since girlhood to render Victoria weak and dependent upon them, so they can establish a regency and rule in her stead. They even created a set of rules, the Kensington System, in which the princess was never left unattended, even forced to have an adult hold her hand while she ascended the palace stairs.

Inexperienced but willful, Victoria bides her time until her 18th birthday and the last sands run out on the ailing monarch's reign. It's fascinating to watch the various powers maneuver to align themselves this way and that in preparation for the coming transfer of royal authority.

For example, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), the leader of the current government, slyly ingratiates himself as Victoria's secretary, when his real ambitions are to secure power for his own political party. This extends even to the appointment of the new queen's ladies-in-waiting; she sets off a scandal early in her monarchy when she refuses to add a few members loyal to the opposing faction to her staff.

Things are especially delicate when it comes to marriage. Victoria's other uncle, King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann), has trained young Prince Albert to woo Victoria, in hopes of using that influence to get England to assist him in European affairs. Leopold at one point becomes frustrated that Albert hasn't yet infiltrated the young queen's bed.

"You are the next piece in the game," he tells Albert.

Despite being played like a pawn, Albert finds himself genuinely drawn to Victoria, even confiding in her at their first meeting the purpose for which he has been sent. Albert is played by Rupert Friend, another young actor (who bears an astonishing resemblance to Orlando Bloom) with a budding resume.

The film's primary delight is in watching Victoria and Albert, who were both raised to be creatures beholden to others, form a long-distance bond kept alive primarily through letters. Their partnership allowed them to shirk aside the manipulations of various selfish parties and set their own course.

Director Jean-Marc Valée and screenwriter Julian Fellowes take a few liberties with the historical record -- for example, using an assassination attempt on the queen for dramatic effect (in actuality, neither of them was hurt).

But in delivering such a deliciously hearty, fervent take on life beneath the crowns and powdered wigs, "The Young Victoria" can be forgiven for eschewing a dry recitation of history.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: "Up in the Air"

What a breath of fresh air. "Up in the Air" is brave and true and unexpected.

It starts with a premise -- about people losing their jobs -- that is dour and daring material for a Hollywood film; and it ends in a way that is not tragic or fake-happy but feels like it has concluded exactly the way it should, and yet confounds expectations.

The movie, one of the year's finest, was directed by Jason Reitman, who after "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno" and this movie should be considered the top young filmmaker working today. Reitman and Sheldon Turner have co-written (from the novel by Walter Kim) a finely-tuned script that is hard-wired into the central nervous system of a country fretful about economic ruin.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a seemingly soulless corporate flunky who spent 322 days last year flying around the country telling people they've been laid off -- and he resents the 43 he had to spend in his antiseptic little apartment in Omaha.

The tribulations of modern travel that are so vexing to us -- the endless lines and numbing connection waits and impersonal security checkpoints -- Ryan takes to these like duck to water. His wallet is filled with a kaleidoscope of elite member cards that he waves like magic wands, transporting him to the front of all lines and making hassles vanish.

When we first meet Ryan, he is doing the thing he does so well: Telling people their jobs no longer exist. He does this respectfully, but firmly; he is prepared for his "clients" to cry, or fume, or even threaten and insult him. His job is to fire workers whose bosses are too cowardly to do it themselves, and with a minimum of legal exposure.

"We're here to make limbo tolerable," Ryan instructs an associate.

The scenes where Ryan lets people go are wrenchingly authentic. Reitman directs dozens of real people who have lost their jobs -- plus a few recognizable actors, like J.K. Simmons -- through their paces without a single false note.

With one in six Americans unemployed or underemployed, these sequences will have a special resonance for many in the audience who have had that soul-crushing experience themselves.

(They certainly did for me; my newspaper job became "no longer available," to use the movie's parlance, almost exactly one year ago from the day I saw this film.)

Two developments arrive to throw Ryan's life for a loop: His own job is about to become obsolete, and he meets a female version of himself who inspires him to think about pitching his suitcase permanently.

First, the former. Anna Kendrick plays Natalie, a 23-year-old hotshot who wants to make the impersonal nature of job layoffs even more so. Her idea: Save the expensive travel costs for people like Ryan and do the terminations via computer teleconferencing.

Even Ryan, who in his spare time gives de-motivational speeches urging people to dump all their personal baggage, is appalled by the indignity. But his bottom-line boss (Jason Bateman) wants to try it out.

Natalie's ambitious, but not a bad egg, as Ryan discovers when he takes her along on one of his extended layoff trips. Kendrick gives a layered, deeply-felt performance as a young woman who has a lot technological know-how, but knows little about how people tick.

Vera Farmiga plays Alex, Ryan's fellow traveler, who has quickie hook-ups with him whenever their flight plans align. It's a wonderfully perfect arrangement for two people who shirk any emotional tie-downs. When Alex tells Ryan that she is "the girl you don't have to worry about," his face glows with bliss.

I've already written 600 words about this movie, and could easily go another thirty score. Suffice to say that Ryan's journey is just beginning. The scene where he asks his stranger of a sister permission to give her away at her wedding, and is refused, packs as much emotional punch as anything I've seen this year.

For a story about a guy who spends his life "Up in the Air," this movie carries a bundle of weight.

3.5 stars

Review: "Nine"

As a musical, "Nine" is fairly enjoyable. There's a lot of pageantry, dancing, gorgeous costumes and equally gorgeous women wearing them. The songs aren't really strong enough to make you want to rush out and buy the soundtrack, but the actors, mostly non-professional singers, carry them off fairly well.

As a story, though, this film version of the Broadway show -- which, in turn, was adapted from Federico Fellini's seminal autobiographical film "8½" -- "Nine" leaves much to be desired.

It's the tale of Guido Contini, a successful Italian movie director struggling to make his 9th film, though he doesn't have a script or even a notion of what it's about. Nonetheless, sets are being built and costumes being stitched, and the flurry of activity at the studio has an undercurrent of panic because his last two flicks were flops.

Meanwhile, his personal life is a shambles as he juggles his wife, mistress and lead actress, all vying for attention.

Now, let me get my biases right off my chest here: I'm not a big fan of movies about tortured artists. Whenever a film endeavors to convince us how much people who paint or write or direct have to suffer for their art, it makes me want to watch them dig sewage ditches or teach at an inner-city high school, just so they'd know what real hardship is.

Filmmakers using their art medium to contemplate their own role in creating it just strikes me as wretchedly narcissistic.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, who makes us like him a little bit by acknowledging in his opening song that he's a 10-year-old boy housed in the body of a man nearly 50. He knows he's headed for a cliff, creatively and romantically, but he just can't take his foot off the gas.

Day-Lewis nails the Italian accent, and makes for a striking figure with his head and shoulders perpetually hunched like he's expecting a blow. His singing is just so-so, though he only performs a couple of tunes.

The rest of the songs are sung by the various women in Guido's life, swirling through his imagined movie as they represent different aspects of his own fantasies and delusions.

The best song, and singer, is "Be Italian," sung by pop star Fergie (aka Stacy Ferguson) from the Black Eyed Peas. She plays Saraghina, a beach-dwelling prostitute who taught Guido a few things about love when he was a boy.

We already knew Marion Cotillard (who plays Guido's wife Luisa) could sing from her Oscar-winning performance in "La Vie En Rose." So it's no surprise that she pulls off her two songs quite well, particularly the raging emotions of "Take It All."

Nicole Kidman (as Guido's leading lady) also does well with "Unusual Way," as does Penelope Cruz (as Guido's desperately needy mistress) with the torch song "A Call From the Vatican."

Judi Dench, as Guido's longtime costume designer and confidant, is less impressive with her tune, and Sophia Loren's lullaby as Guido's mother is so short it seems tacked on just to give an excuse to include the Italian screen legend.

Kate Hudson, playing a nosy American journalist, has fun with the upbeat "Cinema Italiano," which was not in the stage version but was written exclusively for this film.

Director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") is a dazzling visualist, and the musical scenes hum along under their own energy and momentum. Whenever the music stops, though, "Nine" is revealed as a silly story in need of a chair.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Video review: "(500) Days of Summer"

One of the unexpected delights of the cinematic year, "(500) Days of Summer" was the sleeper hit that reminded us romantic comedies don't have to be formulaic and gooey.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel play the couple, who, unlike in most films of the genre, don't spend 80 minutes clashing with each other before suddenly realizing they're in love.

They hit it off right from the start -- mostly because Summer is a fearless gal who makes the first move on office drone Tom -- and spend the next 500 days riding the ups and downs of modern romance.

Director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber coyly shift the timeline back and forth, using numbered titles to let us know which day we are in the progression. So we know that Tom and Summer hit a rough patch somewhere around Day 320, while Days 50-100 are that love-stupid phase where everything seems magical.

Extras aren't exactly huge in scope, but are fairly substantive and engaging.

There's a little over 14 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. Most of it is the usual extraneous stuff that deserved to end up on the cutting room floor, except for a hilarious opposite-day version of the musical number set to Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams," with this time everything going awry -- the passer-by bumps Tom instead of smiling, the bird poops on his shoulder, etc.

Webb, Neustadter, Weber and Gordon-Levitt team up for a nicely bantering commentary track. Among the revelations is one of the writers confessing that "about 75 percent" of the fracturing relationship depicted in the movie actually happened to him. Talk about suffering for you art.

Told with original verve and hipster irony, "(500) Days of Summer" is funny, charming and smart filmmaking. It's a romantic comedy even the boyfriends will love.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, December 21, 2009

Reeling Backward: "8½"

Before I watched "Nine," the musical film based on the Broadway show based on Federico Fellini's 1963 film "8½," I figured I'd better watch the original.

After doing so, I have to admit I feel pretty much the same way about it as I did "Nine." Here's what I wrote in that review:

"I'm not a big fan of movies about tortured artists. Whenever a film endeavors to convince us how much people who paint or write or direct have to suffer for their art, it makes me want to watch them dig sewage ditches or teach at an inner-city high school, just so they'd know what real hardship is. Filmmakers using their art medium to contemplate their own role in creating it just strikes me as wretchedly narcissistic."

I still enjoyed Fellini's film, even though "8½" is the very essence of self-indulgence. This is a movie in which the filmmaker expresses his ambivalence and confusion about his role as a maker of movies, and his life in general.

Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido, a 43-year-old director just coming off his greatest success. It's time to start work on a new film, but his personal life is in a shambles. Meanwhile, his producer is pushing him to start production immediately on his most ambitious (and expensive) movie yet, while his writing collaborator wastes no opportunity to talk about how bad his new script is.

The story, such as it is, unspools as a collection of fantasies and memories, the one often bleeding into another. Mostly they're about the women in Guido's life, how they've influenced him and how he's mistreated them. At the center is his wife Luisa, played by the stunning Anouk Aimee. She's almost contented herself with his constant philandering, but cannot reconcile his lying about it.

As the story opens, Guido has fled to a remote spa to recover his health and sanity, but the production follows in his wake. He invites Luisa to join him, even though he's already set up his mistress in a nearby hotel.

The central fantasy sequence is one in which Guido imagines himself the lord and master of a household filled with a harem of women. They dote on him, wash him, even carry him around like a baby. But when one of the older women protests at being sent "upstairs," it sparks a revolt that forces Guido to fight off his female antagonists with a whip, like a lion tamer.

I have not seen a lot of Fellini -- my first experience was with the excellent "La Strada" from a few years earlier, before the director became fascinated with spectacle. I must say I found the march of numerous faces difficult to follow, particularly some of the women he sprinkles around the film.

"8½" is a very personal film, I think, about a man trying to sort out the demons inside his head and heart. It makes for an interesting journey into the filmmaker's soul, but I'm not sure I'd want to spend more than a brief vacation there.

3 stars

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Coming this week

Madness! Madness!

Those are the last words of perhaps my favorite film of all time, "The Bridge on the River Kwai." It also describes my life lately.

Believe it or not, it is possible for even a movie nut like me to get temporarily tired of going to the cinema. I'm about at that breaking point myself, even though the vast majority of end-of-year flicks I'm seeing have been good, and a number of them excellent.

I saw "The Young Victoria" the other day, and immediately said to myself, "I may have to rejigger my Top 10 List" -- which is coming next week, btw.

So, on that note:

For new movies, I'll have reviews of "Sherlock Holmes," "Up in the Air," "Nine," "It's Complicated" and the aformentioned "Victoria."

Probably just one Reeling Backward essay this week, on Fellini's "8½."

The video review will be "(500) Days of Summer."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Lust for Life"

One of the greatest piece of hooey ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public was the insistence that great artists are only made through great suffering.

Of course, when you consider that this claim is most vehemently championed by artists themselves, one realizes several things. First, that this precept has been employed over the years to justify any number of instances of damaging behavior in the name of art. Second, that it was often those around the artist who suffered even more than he did.

Lastly, it creates a bias to see the only legitimate art as that which casts a mournful attitude toward the human condition. After all, if all those great artists suffered horribly, they wouldn't be creating paintings and art works of joy and sunshine, would they?

"Lust for Life," the 1956 biopic on Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, is an enthusiastic adherent to this philosophy. Based on a historical novel by Irving Stone and directed by Vincente Minnelli -- who was best known for film musicals like "The Band Wagon" and "An American in Paris" -- the drama is a full-bore leap into the troubled life of the great artist.

Kirk Douglas, who was a prototypical Hollywood lantern-jawed hero type, gives a vibrant and unexpected performance as Van Gogh, portraying him as a mass of fears and obsessions. The painter seems not to possess an ounce of regard for anyone but himself, even pursuing marriage with an older cousin who labels his persistence "disgusting."

I liked the movie well enough, and the cinematography (by Freddie Young and Russell Harlan) of the landscapes and people who inspired Van Gogh is wonderful. I must confess that the continued wallowing in his misery got to be a bit tedious at times.

The central relationships in the film are between Vincent and his brother Theo (James Donald), an art dealer who supported him, and with Paul Gauguin, a French painter played by Anthony Quinn. Quinn won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his performance, despite a rather limited screen time.

The two are an interesting contrast. Gauguin declares that he wants no one to love him, because attachments distract from his painting. Van Gogh is the epitome of neediness, on the other hand. The sequence where they briefly share a house in the south of France is essentially one argument after another, until the showdown where Van Gogh cuts off his own ear.

Minnelli is sly to the point of squeamishness about portraying this infamous bit of Van Gogh lore. Douglas is shot almost entirely from his right side for the remainder of the film, although it appears they used some sort of make-up to portray the damaged ear. He also does not include anything about Van Gogh giving the severed ear to a prostitute, which is the gruesome detail that made the injury memorable in the first place.

Interestingly, some recent examinations of the circumstances of Van Gogh's injury have concluded that it was not self-inflicted. Gauguin was an expert swordsman, and -- consistent with Quinn's portrayal -- was quite a hothead. It seems likely, or at least possible, that Gauguin cut off the ear during a quarrel, and they concocted the story about Van Gogh slicing it off with a razor to save him from prosecution.

Since the screenplay (by Norman Corwin, also nominated for an Oscar) was based on a work of fiction about Van Gogh, it's hard to say how much the film reflects the real artist. Douglas, in a reddish-tinged crewcut and beard, certainly bears an astonishing resemblance to the painter's many self-portraits. But the film often seems more interested in his misery than his ingenuity.

Finally, I'd like to comment on the film's title. "Lust for Life" seems an almost comically incongruous name to describe the life of a man that was essentially a litany of failure, poverty, loneliness and poor health.

It's interesting that most people who encountered Vincent Van Gogh during his lifetime regarded him as strange or even dangerous -- they called him the "red madman" in the neighborhood around the Yellow House where he and Gauguin lived. I think if he lived today, he probably would have spent much of his life institutionalized, or munching on a regimen of mind-altering prescription drugs.

Which isn't to say that Van Gogh wasn't a great artist. It's just that people, and movies, that try to conflate artistry with suffering are generally misguided. It's a paint-by-numbers mentality.

3 stars

Thursday, December 17, 2009

New podcast on Hoosier critics awards

We've got a very special podcast this week over at The Film Yap. My co-conspiritor, Joe Shearer, and I are joined by nearly the entire roster of the Indiana Film Journalists Association -- Matthew Socey, Bob Bloom, Richard Propes, Lou Harry and Ed Johnson-Ott -- to talk about the awards we gave out earlier this week.

We were quite pleased with the attention our announcement received, which was printed or linked at many news outlets and movie fan sites.

Get the behind-the-scenes scoop of critics hashing out their annual awards!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: "The Road"

What a mystery: How can a movie so spare and bleak be so emotionally rich?

Watching the blasted, gray skies and ash-covered landscape of "The Road," you wonder how this film could be anything but a fatal downer. And yet the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel about a father and son navigating a post-apocalyptic wasteland is as joyous a cinematic experience I've had this year.

Director John Hillcoat, who helmed the hard-bitten Western "The Proposition" in 2005, masterfully translates McCarthy's austere prose into an understated epic of survival and human perseverance.

In detailing the quotidian journey of a Man and Boy, who are never even given names, McCarthy often eschewed even punctuation and capitalization. Hillcoat smartly mirrors this style by having his actors underplay, and letting the screenplay by Joe Penhall find its own emotional beats without garnishing them with unnecessary flourishes.

The plot, such as it is, is minimalist. Father and young son are traveling south through the desolation to escape the icy hand of coming winter. They do not have any specific destination or purpose in mind, other than continuing to live.

As in McCarthy's book, it is left unsaid what exactly turned the earth to a cinder -- although nuclear war seems probable. The results are starkly inescapable: There is no sunshine. There are no animals. Tinder-dry trees fall and the earth heaves. Nothing will grow. The only food to be had is the detritus of an orphaned mankind.

There is a way of surviving: Cannibalism. But the father refuses to even consider this, because they're the "good guys." The boy (Kodi Smith-McPhee) and his father repeat this phrase like a mantra, or a hymn.

For a good guy, the father must undertake some pretty horrific tasks. He carries a revolver with two bullets left, which he's saving in case they're caught by the roving gangs of murderers who view them as food. The scene where he shows his son how to use the gun to kill himself -- "Make sure you point up" -- is chilling.

Viggo Mortensen expertly plays the father, a man who forces himself to give up hope and the memory of his spouse in order to concentrate on keeping the boy alive. His wife (played in flashbacks by Charlie Theron) gave up her own life, literally walking away from them, because she couldn't stand the thought of life in the aftermath.

There's a spiritual element to the tale, as in the father's admonishment to his son to "keep the fire alive," pointing at his heart. In the man's sporadic narration, it's made even more plain.

"All I know is the child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke," the father says.

Their journey is episodic and compelling. At one point they lose all their meager possessions and have nothing to eat, but then stumble upon a treasure trove of wealth. They come across an ancient man (Robert Duvall) along the road who is nearly blind but sees much. They are hunted, and pursue their own quarry. Anger is unleashed; blood is shed.

And yet it's in the small moments that the film finds an aching tenderness, like when the father pulls a warm blanket off a shriveled corpse and lovingly wraps it around his shivering son. It's the understatement of "The Road" that speaks loudly.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Video review: "The Mel Brooks Collection"

If you've got a Mel Brooks fanatic among your friends or family, this new Blu-ray collection is prime holiday gift material.

"The Mel Brooks Collection" contains practically the entire oeuvre of the comedy legend, including eight of the 11 films he directed: "Blazing Saddles," "Spaceballs," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," "History of the World Part I," "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety," "The Twelve Chairs" and "Silent Movie." It also has "To Be or Not To Be," which Brooks merely starred in.

The nine-disc collection doesn't include his first (and perhaps funniest) movie, "The Producers," which hurts its value. But let's face it, the omission of "Life Stinks" and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" probably isn't going to disappoint anyone.

At a suggested retail of $140, the collection is pricey, though you shouldn't have to search too far to find it substantially discounted (it's listing on under a hundred smackers).

A similar collection (minus "Spaceballs") is already available on DVD (for around $75), but where else but Blu-ray could you see the president's oversized posterior from "Spaceballs" in hi-def, or hear the infamous farts from "Blazing Saddles" in crystal-clear audio?

The extras alone might make the asking price worth it for the die-hard Brooks fan.

The Blu-ray version comes with a special book celebrating his life and films.

"Spaceballs," "Frankenstein" and "Robin Hood" each boast feature-length commentary tracks by Brooks, and " Blazing Saddles" has some scene-specific commentary totaling nearly an hour.

Every movie -- with the exception of "Twelve Chairs" -- comes with some kind of additional material, such as documentaries, deleted scenes or trivia games.

For example, "Blazing Saddles" includes "Black Bart," a 1975 pilot episode of a television spin-off that never happened. "History of the World" has a featurette on the creation of the show-stopping musical number, "The Inquisition."

All together, "The Mel Brooks Collection" is a nice tribute to the 83-year-old comedy icon, who is set to receive a Kennedy Center Honor award on Dec. 29.

Movies: 3 stars (aggregate)
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, December 14, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House"

One of the things that drives me crazy about movies is how circumspect everyone always is about money.

Characters in films almost never mention exact dollar amounts, as if doing so would throw off the audience. Maybe it's because the orders of scale are so crazy in Hollywood, and filmmakers just don't have an idea how an average family making $50,000 or so gets by. Even on an inexpensive movie, that amount is probably less than the catering budget.

That's probably also why movie homes are so huge. Even in cinematic families that are presented as middle-class, the children will have bedrooms that are larger than most real homes' master suites. I guess they just can't fit the cameras into a 10' x 9' suburban bedroom.

So one of the things I really liked about "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" -- other than the fact it's a top-notch comedy -- is that it's very specific about money. Since it's the story of a New York family that gets in over their heads while trying to procure their ideal domicile, figures are quoted exactly and frequently. Watching Cary Grant as the put-upon title character, you can practically see the dollar figures flying before his eyes.

Compare that with "The Money Pit," a more modern film with a similar theme. My memory may be fuzzy, but I don't recall a dollar amount ever being stated in that movie. Wonder how you can characterize anything as a "pit" when you don't even know exactly how much money is being dumped into it.

Right off the start Mr. Blandings' lawyer/best friend/narrator, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) says that Blandings is an insurance executive who does pretty well, making $15,000 a year. Using the U.S. Labor Bureau's handy-dandy inflation calculator, I learn that equals nearly $135,000 in today's dollars. So Mr. Blandings is upper-middle class, but not what most people would call wealthy.

(Keep in mind that even in 1948, when the film was made, New York's cost of living was astronomical. By today's numbers, that $135,000 salary works out to only about $61,000 in Indianapolis.)

The film (directed by Henry Potter) opens with a neat scene in which the Blandings go about their normal morning routine. Jim Blandings is assaulted by boxes falling off the closet shelf when he goes to fetch his robe, and by bottles careening out of the medicine cabinet when he's trying to brush his teeth. That's after he's finished waiting for his daughters (Sharyn Moffett and Connie Marshall) to get finished in the bathroom. Then he must duck around the head of his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) to see in the mirror to shave. They can barely squeeze the whole family into the tiny dining room for breakfast. Clearly, the Blandings are boxed in.

However, they do have their own maid, Gussie, which begs a lot of questions. If Gussie cooks and cleans, and the Blandings girls (about age 12) can mostly take care of themselves, what exactly is it that Mrs. Blandings does all day?

After shooting down a proposal to redo their apartment for $7,000, Mr. Blandings hatches on a scheme to buy a Connecticut spread. His idea is to spend a few bucks more than they would have unloaded on the apartment to buy a whole big place with plenty of room for everyone. Of course, everything goes wrong from the get-go.

They spend $11,500 on a run-down old place that every engineer they talk to says must be torn down. They hire an architect (Reginald Denny) with the proviso not to spend more than $10K building a new place. But their dreams of the perfect place run amok, with demands for private baths for each bedroom, a study, flower room and so forth. The shocked look on Cary Grant's face when they get the final estimates -- the lowest is $21,000 -- is priceless.

The story continues with various snafus and foul-ups making the construction more frustrating and costly. The funniest bit is their hiring an old-timer to drill a well. He drills down 227 feet -- at $4.50 a foot -- before the construction crew discovers a natural spring six feet below the basement floor.

There's also some subplots about Mr. Blandings suspecting his wife of having an affair with Bill Cole, and Jim's unsuccessful attempt to come up with a new sales slogan for his biggest account, Wham, a meat-like product with a more than passing resemblance to Spam.

"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" is a thoroughly entertaining family comedy, with some riffs on the American dream/obsession about getting ahead. And when it comes to dollars and cents, it's right on the money.

3.5 stars

IFJA announces 2009 Film Awards

The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of journalists dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is pleased to announce its first-ever annual film awards.

Much like other regional critics groups, the IFJA Film Awards are meant to recognize the finest cinematic achievements of the year. Winners were declared in 12 categories, with a runner-up in 11 categories. In addition, a total of 10 movies (including the winner and runner-up) were recognized as Finalists for the top prize, Best Film of the Year.

"Up in the Air" took top honors, winning Best Film as well as Best Screenplay and Best Actor for George Clooney. "Where the Wild Things Are" received two awards, Best Director Spike Jonze and the Original Vision Award.

Carey Mulligan was named Best Actress for "An Education." "Fantastic Mr. Fox" was named Best Animated Film, "The Cove" Best Documentary and "Sin Nombre" Best Foreign Language Film.

Doug Jones, Morgan Mead and David Hamilton were honored with The Hoosier Award for their work on "My Name Is Jerry," a film shot in and around Muncie and partially funded by Ball State University.

To be eligible, a film must have played theatrically in Indiana during the 2009 calendar year, screened to state critics in advance of a 2010 general release date, or play in a Hoosier State film festival such as Indianapolis International Film Festival or Heartland Film Festival.

Below is a complete list of honored films. A word of explanation about the last two categories:

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

The Hoosier Award is meant to recognize a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with Indiana roots. As a special award, no runner-up is declared.

Best Film of the Year
Winner: "Up in the Air"
Runner-up: "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
Other Finalists: "(500) Days of Summer," "District 9," "The Hurt Locker," "Julie & Julia," "Moon," "Nine," "Up," "Where the Wild Things Are."

Best Animated Film
Winner: "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
Runner-up: "Up"

Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: "Sin Nombre"
Runner-up: "Welcome"

Best Documentary
Winner: "The Cove"
Runner-up: "Anvil! The Story of Anvil"

Best Screenplay
Winner: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, "Up in the Air"
Runner-up: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, "Where the Wild Things Are"

Best Director
Winner: Spike Jonze, "Where the Wild Things Are"
Runner-up: Wes Anderson, "Fantastic Mr. Fox"

Best Actress
Winner: Carey Mulligan, "An Education"
Runner-up: Meryl Streep, "Julie & Julia"

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Mo'Nique, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Runner-up: Vera Farmiga, "Up in the Air"

Best Actor
Winner: George Clooney, "Up in the Air"
Runner-up: Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds"
Runner-up: Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones" and "Julie & Julia"

Original Vision Award
Winner: "Where the Wild Things Are"
Runner-up: "District 9"

The Hoosier Award
Winner: Actor Doug Jones, director Morgan Mead and screenwriter David Hamilton for "My Name Is Jerry"

About IFJA: The Indiana Film Journalists Association was formed in February 2009 with six founding members, and has since expanded its roster to nine. Members must reside in the Hoosier State and produce consistent, quality film criticism or commentary in any medium.

Bob Bloom, Lafayette Journal & Courier
Caine Gardner, Greencastle Banner-Graphic, The Film
Lou Harry, Indianapolis Business Journal
Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
Christopher Lloyd, The Film, The Current
Richard Propes, The Independent
Nick Rogers,, The Film
Joe Shearer, The Film,
Matthew Socey, WFYI

Review: "Avatar"

A critic should endeavor to go into a movie without any preconceived notions or biases. When that is not possible, they at least owe it to the reader to be honest and forthright about it. So I am compelled to say that I expected "Avatar" to be underwhelming.

Alright, let's be blunt: I really thought this movie was going to suck.

Boy, was I wrong -- wonderfully, joyously wrong. Never have I been so happy to have my expectations shattered.

Like many, I watched the trailers for "Avatar" and cringed. This is what writer/director James Cameron spent $300 million on (and by some estimates, much more) for his return to feature filmmaking after 12 years away? Never has a movie been so ill-served by its previews.

"Avatar" is epic in scope and in ambition. Cameron uses computer-generated characters and imagery not as accompaniment to live actors and sets, but as his main instrument.

This movie is visionary, a word that gets bandied about but has real weight here: This is a vision like nothing you've ever seen.

The blue-skinned aliens called Na'vi who looked so cheap and cheesy in the trailers are fleshy and corporeal (and nearly nude) in the finished film, best viewed in eye-popping 3-D. The lush forests, floating mountains and waterfalls of the world of Pandora are like a National Geographic pictorial on hallucinogens.

The story is familiar -- by my count, the third film this year portraying humans as exploiters of an alien world -- but feels fresh. The depiction of corporations as mindless mechanisms destroying in the name of greed is a common theme in Cameron's films ("Aliens," "The Abyss," "The Terminator" and its sequel).

Giovanni Ribisi plays the company flunky in charge of extracting a rare and valuable ore under Pandora's surface, even if it means displacing and killing the Na'vi. (Cameron shows some of his penchant for goofiness in naming the ore Unobtainium.) His right-hand man is the scarred, scary former Marine colonel (a terrific Stephen Lang) now commanding an army of mercenaries to do the dirty work.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Hollywood's new It Boy for big-budget spectaculars) is a crippled ex-Marine whose murdered twin brother volunteered for the new Avatar program, which grows special human/Na'vi hybrid bodies controlled by humans. Since Jake has the same DNA as his sibling, he's enlisted to take over his brother's avatar.

Jake's stuck between competing interests of the colonel, who wants to use the avatars to infiltrate the Na'vi, and the chief scientist (Cameron fave Sigourney Weaver), who envisions a peaceful outreach mission.

In his avatar form, Jake meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na'vi warrior and daughter of the clan chief (Wes Studi). She saves his blue bacon from some jungle dogs, though she's resentful of his presence and bumbling ways. But she gets a sign from the earth spirits her people worship to trust him.

The months pass, and Jake is eventually accepted into the tribe. The human bulldozers grind ever closer, however, and soon he'll have to choose loyalties.

Cameron slides easily between live action and computer-animated sequences, and while I won't overstate their success by claiming the transitions are seamless, they aren't jarring.

Some of the movie's metaphysical constructions have a dollop of hokum -- the depiction of the Na'vi as an emblem for American Indians grows stronger, and more strained, as the film progresses.

I still don't quite know what to think of the Na'vi's ability to mind-meld with flying dragons and other creatures via tiny tentacles every critter seems to have. It's like an entire world of animals outfitted with USB ports.

But quibbles aside, "Avatar" is a spectacle not to be missed. The game has changed.

3.5 stars

Sunday, December 13, 2009

New this week

As the mercury plummets, things are really heating up on the movie front.

I already have seven movie reviews in the can, and have five more screenings lined up this week.

I'm really glad I undertook the trip to Chicago Thursday to catch "Avatar," since they were not screening in Indianapolis (or pretty much everywhere in the Midwest, except Chicago). Usually that's an indication a movie is a dog. But this time... well, you'll see.

I'll have reviews of "Up in the Air," "Avatar," "The Road" and possibly "Hachi," which may or may not be opening this week. "Have You Heard About the Morgans?" is a possibility, if I have the energy and the time.

I have a bonus video review today of the latest "Harry Potter" movie. On Tuesday, a review of the Blu-ray "Mel Brooks Collection" is primed to go.

For classic film fans, I have columns about "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and "Lust for Life."

Bonus video review: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's a considerable amount of DVD extras, although much of it has the tang of hype rather than enticing fans with behind-the-scenes insights.

I'm thinking mostly of the sneak peek at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a new theme park being built at Universal Orlando. It's basically 11 minutes of sales pitch. Same goes for a sneak preview of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the culmination of the film series.

There are about six minutes worth of deleted scenes, although nothing terribly compelling. And there are some quick-hit features where the actors are asked to describe their characters in a minute or less, or answer some asinine questions posed by cast member Tom Felton.

More substantive is a 28-minute making-of documentary. And there's a 50-minute feature called "J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life" that looks at the author over the period while she was writing "Deathly Hallows."

The two-disc DVD package also comes with a digital copy of the film.

In addition to all these materials, the Blu-ray version comes with a 98-minute "Movie Mode" with commentary by directory David Yates, the producers and all the principal cast members. Now that's a pretty special conjuration.

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Friday, December 11, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Meet John Doe"

It's always disappointing when you seek out a film that's considered a treasured classic, and you just don't care for it.

It's happened to me before, most notably with "Gone With the Wind" -- a movie I consider in need of a two-hour haircut from its running time. Now I've discovered that my appreciation for "Meet John Doe" is rather skimpier than most people.

I'm not one of those Frank Capra haters. I have happily consumed my share of "Capra corn," the term for his distinctive movies with their All-American values and morality lessons. I still watch "It's a Wonderful Life" every Christmas, and "It Happened One Night" is one of my all-time favorite Golden Age flicks.

But let's face it, sometimes the Capra corn shtick is, well, just plain corny. That's my take on "Meet John Doe."

The film opens with a scene that was all too familiar to me: A newspaper newsroom on the day they're laying off a good chunk of the staff. The Bulletin has just been taken over by an oil magnate, and the caustic new editor is abruptly bringing in groups of reporters and editors and telling them they're history.

Interestingly, this figure Henry Connell (played by James Gleason) will later be revealed as a heroic figure who stands up to his boss. It's a textured portrayal of a hard-bitten newsman who treats other people harshly, but whose core values are admirable.

Among those given the axe is Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), a hotshot female columnist. She begs Connell for her job, to no avail, so for her final column she dashes off a made-up letter from an anonymous man named John Doe who's so disgusted with the state of civilization, he's going to throw himself off the top of the city government building in New York on Christmas Eve.

It causes a sensation, which is a slight problem since it's fiction. Ann and her editor hatch a scheme to hire a bum to play the role of John Dole, and settle on "Long" John Willoughby, a Bush League pitcher with a banged-up arm. He's been hoboing around the country with an older bum he calls Colonel, played by character acting great Walter Brennan.

The Colonel is possibly the most interesting character in the film, a proudly cynical man who's happily checked out of polite society. He sees a job, home and family as methods of tying a man down. He rails against "Heelots" -- people who are me-first heels, and there's lots of 'em.

He's certainly more interesting than John Doe himself, which is Gary Cooper during his typical stuttering aw-shucks routine. Inevitably, of course, he and Ann fall in love with each other, and I have to say it's one of the more unconvincing cinematic romances I've seen in awhile. Ann is portrayed as a ruthless career gal -- a first-class heelot -- who'll do anything to get ahead. Her 10-to-midnight conversion to truth and goodness falls flat.

Another interesting figure is D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), the oil magnate who cynically funds the John Doe movement in order to springboard himself into politics. He pays for fan clubs all over the nation, culminating in a huge convention at which John Doe himself is supposed to endorse Norton for the presidency. Long John gets wind of this from Connell, but his attempt to broadcast the truth is undermined when Norton exposes him as a paid stooge.

There's a very brief scene near the end where Norton is shown giving a large donation of money to some Christmas carolers in what looks like a Scrooge-esque turn of heart, but I wonder if he really feels that way. He dashes to the top of the city building to prevent Long John from carrying out his never-made promise to commit suicide, but one senses Norton is still intent on playing the angles rather than truly altruistic.

I think "Meet John Doe" was hampered by coming out when it did in 1941. The strictures of the day prevented Capra et al from taking the film to its logical conclusion: With John Doe killing himself. As it is, it ends with him being talked back from the ledge by some of his fan club members, with one of them making a populist crack about trying to lick "the people" to Norton and his moneymen.

Since the film has an overt parallel with the story of Christ, John Doe's journey only reaches a satisfying conclusion if he sacrifices himself.

2.5 stars

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: "The Princess and the Frog"

"The Princess and the Frog" is a delightful throwback to old-school Disney animation, when hand-drawn art took precedence over computerized images, when animals always talked, when characters couldn't help bursting into song, and trained vocal actors were preferred over gimmicky celebrity casting.

OK, that last part isn't entirely true -- Oprah, Terrence Howard and John Goodman provide voices for some minor characters. But the heavy lifting is left to actors you may have never heard of, whose vocal work -- especially their singing of the jazz-inspired tunes by Randy Newman -- is top-notch.

"Princess" is a break from the past in one way: It's the first Disney animated film to feature an African-American princess.

True, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) starts out closer to scullery maid territory, and spends most of the movie voodooed into a slimy green frog. But our black heroine gets her tiara -- and her prince -- in the end.

The story is set in 1920s New Orleans, depicted in bold colors as a delightful gumbo of races and classes freely mixing. Young Tiana and her parents dream of opening their own restaurant, but dad is killed in the war and Tiana spends her youth working two waitress jobs.

The town's abuzz about the arrival of Prince Naveen of Meldonia (Bruno Campos), a charming rake who's looking to marry the daughter of the local titan of business because he's been cut off from the family fortune. Unfortunately, the snaky voodoo "shadow man," Dr. Facilier (Keith David), turns him into a frog in a bid to get the riches for himself.

Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him in order to change him back to human, but the spell backfires and turns her into a frog, too. They spend the rest of the movie having adventures in the swamp and the streets of New Orleans while striving to get changed back to normal -- falling for each other in the process, of course.

There's the usual Disney assort of colorful supporting characters, human and otherwise.

Louis (Michael Leon-Wooley) is a tubby alligator who yearns to play trumpet in a jazz band, while Raymond (Jim Cummings) is a snaggle-toothed Cajun firefly who pitches woo to the North Star, whom he calls Evangeline and imagines is another insect.

Then there's Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a swamp-dwelling blind old lady whose white magic counters Dr. Facilier's dark arts.

Newman's songs are a rainbow of styles, with several standout tunes audiences will be humming on the way home. There's "Almost There," Tiana's jouncy affirmation of aspiring dreams, and Mama Odie's "Dig a Little Deeper," a gospel-inspired call to concentrate on the important things in life.

I also enjoyed Raymond's waltz-like love song, "Ma Belle Evangeline." And Dr. Facilier boasts about his alliance with the voodoo spirits in "Friends on the Other Side," which is combined with imaginative, eye-popping visuals for a real show-stopper.

"The Princess and the Frog" comes from the writing/directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker (with a writing assist from Rob Edwards and several others), who previously helmed "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin."

They've been sidelined for the last seven years -- the under-appreciated "Treasure Planet" was their last project -- as animation ambitions shifted almost exclusively to computers. Hopefully, Disney's first-class return to its roots will signal that there's room enough in the future for some of the past.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: "Invictus"

"Invictus" is an inspirational sports movie, and not much more.

Director Clint Eastwood's newest effort clearly has grander ambitions, wanting to wrap up the story of the South African national rugby team's quest for the 1995 World Cup with that fractured nation's need for healing after decades of hateful apartheid.

Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, released and elected president of the nation that branded him a terrorist. Matt Damon is Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks rugby team, so identified with white Afrikaner rule that black South Africans habitually cheered for whatever team was playing against them.

The most interesting part of the movie is the calculation that Mandela takes in supporting the team, which has exactly one black member and has played so poorly they're considered laughingstocks by the international sports community. There's even a scene of the president interrupting state business to rush over to a meeting of the sports commission to urge them not to change the team's colors and nickname.

Mandela does this, he freely admits to his aides, for political purposes. If the nation, black and white, can set aside their animosity long enough to cheer for their rugby team, Mandela reckons it will do more for unity than any dozen speeches he could give.

And yet, he cannot prevent himself from getting caught up in the pure emotion of their plight, as they overcome powerhouse teams like Australia and New Zealand to grasp for the prize.

The movie's biggest problem is that it's about rugby. There's quite a bit of on-field action -- the climactic game runs 15 minutes -- and the stark truth is most Americans don't know the first thing about the sport, other than its brutal reputation.

To these eyes, it's a helter-skelter dash of beefy men colliding over a skinny oval ball. Sometimes a man with the ball is tackled and the play is dead, and sometimes another player just grabs the ball off the ground and keeps going with it. Even by the end of the movie, I was mystified as to what the rules are.

Eastwood endeavors mightily to make it compelling, but trying to accomplish that with an audience unfamiliar with the game is like telling a joke to a roomful of Englishmen in Swahili.

Damon gives a gutsy, physical performance, buffing up enough to be believable as a rugby hooligan, and mastering the Dutch-flavored Afrikaans accent so well I actually had difficulty understanding him at times. (I laughed early on when he urges his team to "Focus! Focus!" and it sounds like ... well, something else.)

Freeman is Freeman, meaning he invests every role with weight and wit, so even though he looks and sounds little like Nelson Mandela, we convince ourselves this is a behind-the-scenes portrait of the great man.

Anthony Peckham wrote the script based on a book by John Carlin, and it has some nice touches. I liked the subplot about the president's security team, led by a black nationalist who resents the experienced white officers brought in to bolster his ranks. As they gradually lay aside their enmity, it acts as a tidy microcosm of the nation.

The title, by the way, comes from a poem by William Ernest Henley, which Mandela gives a hand-written copy of to Pienaar to inspire him. It means "unconquered" in Latin, and the key lines are, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

I recommend "Invictus" because it's well-executed and engaging, even though the movie feels like a bundle of promising elements that never synch up.

3 stars

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Video review: "Julie & Julia"

It's strange to me that many of my acquaintances have felt rather lackluster about "Julie & Julia," which I consider my favorite film of 2009 (thus far).

Among those whose ardor does not match my own, the feeling is virtually universal: They loved the period section with Meryl Streep portraying Julia Child during her life in France while she was writing her masterpiece, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." But they found the modern section with Amy Adams as a New York worker drone who resolves to cook her way through Child's entire book rather drab.

I can't account for the difference in taste. To me, writer/director Nora Ephron's marriage of the stories of the two women was a masterstroke.

Julie and Julia were not similar as people: Child, with her iconic warbling speech and towering height, was adventurous and outgoing. Julie Powell was a self-described underachiever, even a bit of a loser.

But it's the twin stories of Julia and Julie finding themselves through their love of food that makes this film such a tasty cinematic meal.

Video extras are decent for the DVD, but the real frisson comes with the Blu-ray version.

Both formats include "Secret Ingredients," a 27-minute making-of documentary, and a commentary track by Ephron. The doc is interesting enough -- Streep reveals that she gained 15 pounds while shooting the film -- but tends to be a lot of everyone talking about how great everyone else was. Ephron's commentary is entertaining but rather sparse, going silent for long stretches.

Several more extras are exclusive to Blu-ray. There is a 47-minute featurette of family and friends reminiscing about Julia Childs, which includes tons of photographs and tidbits about her life. There are five video cooking lessons, including Julia herself poaching eggs and making Hollandaise sauce.

"Julia's Kitchen," a 22-minute doc about the process of transporting Child's entire home kitchen for display at the Smithsonian, is unexpectedly riveting, with its intimate trip through her personal cooking tools and tchochkes.

Movie: 4 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars