Sunday, January 31, 2010

Coming this week

Things are picking up a bit this week. I'll have movie reviews of "Dear John," "Red Cliffs" and possibly "From Paris with Love," the new John Travolta flick.

As you can see, I had a bonus video review today of "Amelia." You'll find another on Tuesday for "Zombieland."

The Oscar nominations come out Tuesday morning, so I'll have a column about that.

For Reeling Backward reviews, I'll have "Ninotchka" and "Roxanne."

Video review: "Amelia"

Most people missed "Amelia," the Hilary Swank biopic of Amelia Earhart, including me. The film wasn't screened for Indianapolis critics, and it fell into that category of movies I wanted to see and meant to see, but just didn't get around to.

I have quite a strong aviation streak in my family -- my mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law are all licensed pilots, my wife stopped training a little short of her own, my father was in the Air Force and worked at an airport most of his career, and my nephew is taking lessons toward his license. So movies about fliers tend to interest me greatly.

Structurally, "Amelia" is very similar to "The Spirit of St. Louis," the excellent movie starring Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. The fateful flight of their careers -- successful in Lindbergh's case, unsuccessful in Earhart's -- acts as the framing device, with flashbacks recounting the events of their life that led up to it.

Director Mira Nair ("The Namesake") and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (working from a couple of source books) are to be commended for an unflinching portrait of the hype behind the Amelia Earhart legend.

Although an accomplished pilot, she was hired by promoter George Putnam (Richard Gere) as a passenger for a publicity stunt. She sat in the back of a plane bought by a wealthy dilettante as two men piloted it across the Atlantic. She was called the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but even she admitted her function was essentially that of "a sack of potatoes."

Later on Earhart undertook the flight again, this time solo, but there's no denying her career, or at least her role as a media darling, started off with a bit of showbiz fraud.

Swank portrays Earhart as an ambitious, independent woman who was willing to engage in flimflam -- speaking engagements, photo shoots, even endorsing her own line of clothes and luggage -- as long as it enabled to continue her passion for flying. Earhart always labeled herself a social worker who flew for fun, even though she had an historic impact on not only the feminist movement, but aviation history.

The movie is simply gorgeous to gaze upon -- Nair's shots of airplanes and the landscape passing beneath are practically worth the price of admission itself.

But the movie falls flat in other areas, particularly the portrayal of her relationship with Putnam, who would later become her husband. Nair and her screenwriters cut corners to focus on the flying. So we're left with a lot of scenes of Putnam staring forlornly into a radio transmitter, waiting for word that his wife has arrived safely.

Earhart's affair with Gene Vidal, who set up some of the earliest commercial flights, is given even shorter shrift. We never get a chance to see what they meant to each other, and the impact on her marriage is given the brush-off in a single scene in the couple's rose garden. Perhaps that's an ironic comment, as in "I never promised you a..."

The extent of the short-cutting is evident in the DVD extras. A bundle of deleted scenes reveals the character of Putnam's first wife, played by Virginia Madsen, whose role was completely cut out of the movie. I can only surmise that the filmmakers made a cynical decision to omit the fact that Earhart broke up their marriage in order to make the character seem more likable.

And what a blow for Madsen -- unknown actors get left on the cutting room floor all the time, but Oscar nominees?

Similarly, we learn that Earhart herself had a fiance, who bowed out when her career in the air took off.

The DVD also has a rather ordinary making-of documentary, and a featurette looking at the enduring legacy of Earhart. A nice addition is a number of original MovieTone newsreels about Earhart and her exploits. They help us see the cues Swank took in molding her performance, particularly the distinctive Midwestern accent of the Kansas native.

It's such a shame that such an unconventional historical figure received such a conventional film about her life.

Film: 2.5 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars

Friday, January 29, 2010

Reeling Backward: "My Favorite Year"

I'd somehow missed this sentimental 1982 comedy starring Peter O'Toole as a washed-up movie star trying to stay sober long enough to appear on a 1954 television show. It's nothing spectacular, but I'm still glad I caught up with it.

"My Favorite Year" was directed by Richard Benjamin (a well-known actor marking his first stint behind the camera) from a screenplay by Dennis Palumbo. But the real inspiration was the life of executive producer Mel Brooks, who got his break as a young writer on Sid Caeser's "Your Show of Shows." The film is a much-fictionalized version of an appearance by Errol Flynn on the show.

O'Toole plays Alan Swann, a swashbuckling star of the 1930s and '40s whose career is in the toilet. A drunkard with many ex-wives and a reputation for carousing, Swann doesn't take anything seriously.

But Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, best known as one-half of "Perfect Strangers"), the stand-in for Brooks, wants to see his idol appear on the variety comedy show of King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). So he promises to keep Swann sober long enough for rehearsals and the show itself.

Back then, of course, shows were broadcast live, unbeknownst to Swann. Minutes before he's to appear, he learns this fact and has a nervous breakdown. In perhaps the movie's most memorable line, he roars at Benjy, "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!"

As written it's not that great a part, but O'Toole fleshes out the in-between spots, showing us the inner decay behind the physical one Swann so revels in. He has a 12-year-old daughter whom he rarely sees, and on a whim orders his limo driver to take her to her house in Connecticut. But he's too scared to even get out of the car, watching her riding her bicycle with longing. O'Toole earned an Oscar nomination for his turn.

There are a few other subplots and backstories going on. Benjy is infatuated with a young producer on his show, who seems very determined not to indulge him. But with a little Cyrano-like tutoring from Swann, he eventually wins her over.

Meanwhile, King Kaiser is facing threats from a mob boss who doesn't like a thinly-veiled caricature they've been doing on the show. Sets start getting held up for delivery, a heavy studio light nearly drops on King's head, and eventually some toughs arrive to beat some sense into him.

A completely unnecessary but thoroughly delightful detour occurs when Benjy takes Swann to his mother's apartment building in Brooklyn, which brings out a small army of colorful characters who want a glimpse at the big star. I liked the bit where Uncle Morty (the wonderful Lou Jacobi, who recently passed), after having just promised not to ask any personal questions, grills Swann about a recent paternity suit. "Did you shtupp her?"

"My Favorite Year" is not great movie-making. The characters are mostly caricatures, the humor is broad, and the set-ups seem very unlikely. But it's a sweet, amusing little film that's in love with old movies and old television.

2.5 stars

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: "Edge of Darkness"

"Edge of Darkness" is a strange, strange movie. Not a terrible one, though its good parts are scattered in a wilderness of discombobulated scenes and disjointed story elements.

Mel Gibson -- in his first starring role in eight years -- plays a familiar archetype, an old-school cop out for revenge after his child is kidnapped/murdered/raped. It's a forceful, effective performance; we believe Gibson as Craven, a Boston detective who becomes unhinged when his daughter Emma (Bojana Navakovic) is gunned down on the front steps of his house.

But unlike, say, last year's "Taken" with Liam Neeson in a similar movie, we never see Craven in any context other than revenge mode. He does not seem to exist as a person outside of roughing up suspects and hunting down clues.

We know he owns a nice house in Roslindale, because that's where the murder took place. Presumably he had a wife once, but she's never mentioned. Craven is a detective, and declines to take a leave of absence, but abandons his own duties (if he ever had any) to pursue his daughter's killers. No one in the chain of command ever questions why he's running around getting into knife fights and highway shoot-outs.

The investigation leads to the doorstep of a corporation called Northmoor, where his daughter worked, and then things really get weird.

In his interview with the Northmoor boss, Craven is immediately put off by the man's elusive answers and strange behavior. The boss is played by Danny Huston, who has been so typecast as the heavy that whenever he first appears onscreen in a film, the audience thinks to itself, "The villain has just arrived." Huston really should talk to his agent about doing a romantic comedy or something just to mix things up.

The strangeness deepens. Northmoor apparently is into some nasty business, with the government's tacit approval, and a spook named Jedburgh is dispatched to take care of things. Jedburgh (Ray Winstone) meets with Craven, talks to him, seems to like him -- while making it clear that he may be inclined to rub Craven out at some indeterminate point in the future.

Director Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale") and screenwriters William Monahan and Andrew Bovell based the film on an old British TV series that Campbell directed. Perhaps that explains the episodic flow of the action, with big events followed by weepy scenes where Craven imagines he's seeing his daughter, still a little girl.

The transitions are abrupt, and often arbitrary.

At one point Craven comes across a name associated with his daughter, goes to the man's house and starts beating the hell out of him. He stops hitting the guy, saying his daughter wouldn't approve, then remembers that she's dead and starts wailing away again.

The audience laughs, and our critical link to Craven's pain shatters in a moment of cheap humor. What's more, the guy he's beating up, who seems bewildered by this assault, then disappears with nary another reference to him.

For all we know, Craven had the wrong address and was pummeling a pharmacist.

As much as I was perplexed by the movie's strange fits, I was never bored by it. I enjoyed the running joke between Jedburgh and Craven that, "Everything's illegal in Massachusetts." Jedburgh, who for some reason is British, wryly suggests it's "payback for the Tea Party."

I doubt "Edge of Darkness" will herald Mel Gibson's return to stardom. He's still a convincing performer, in need of better material.

2 stars

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New podcast on Mel Gibson

In this week's show, Joe and Chris muse on Mel Gibson's return to the screen after many years in this week's "Edge of Darkness." Hollywood may not be ready to offer absolution, but will ticket buyers give him the blessing of the greenbacks?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Video review: "Whip It"

When you say "roller derby," a lot of people bring to mind an image of a cheesy sport on roller skates that briefly captured the public imagination back in the 1970s. It's been reborn in recent years as a sport for wheeled women who want to showcase their bruises and bad attitudes.

"Whip It" wants to be the anthem for a generation of derby girls, and it serves that role, if fitfully. Ellen Page plays Bliss, a small-town teen who gets caught up in the derby craze, much to the consternation of her mother, who thinks beauty pageants are more ladylike.

But after going to a local match, Bliss is enamored by the tough, fun-loving girls of the Hurl Scouts -- even if they're the league bottom-feeders. Drew Barrymore, who also directed the film, has a small role, and other players include Eve, Kristen Wiig and Juliette Lewis.

Soon Bliss -- renamed Babe Ruthless -- is winging her way around the oval, trading elbows and having the time of her life.

If the movie has a downside, it's the downbeat second act, in which Bliss struggles in romance with an older boy in a band, and squabbles with her family and best friend. It all seems like a cynical ploy whose only reason for existing is to set up the big match at the end, in which Bliss' uptight parents learn to embrace their daughters' newfound passion.

But there's no denying the brash energy of this movie, which taps into a more modern, punk-rock take on feminism.

Video extras for "Whip It" are rather miserly, although the Blu-ray has a little more to offer than the DVD.

Both include nine deleted/extended scenes totaling about 16 minutes worth of material. Only the alternate opening scene, in which Bliss and friend dumpster-dive from the roof of the tacky little restaurant where they work, is worthwhile.

The Blu-ray also has "Writer's Draft" feature with Cross, plus a digital copy of the film.
What a shame -- a commentary track by Page, Barrymore and Wiig could've been a grrrl-power hoot.

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, January 25, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Man Hunt"

Boy, what a great movie "Man Hunt" could have been.

This 1941 historical thriller had a great concept: A famous British hunter takes a shot at Adolf Hitler before the outbreak of war, and then is hunted down by German thugs who want to make a political spectacle out of him. And it's directed by the great German filmmaker Fritz Lang ("Metropolis"), who was a master of mood and shadow.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from a series of bad missteps.

Start with the terrible performance by Walter Pidgeon, whose Alan Thorndike is a puckish rogue one minute, then a mournful victim the next, and finally a stalwart hero. There's no anguish to the man, so that even when the Nazis are beating him mercilessly or tracking Thorndike through the streets of London, we don't really feel his peril. Pidgeon was certainly no hack, but I think he was badly miscast in this movie.

The romance portion of the film also brings it to a dead stop every time Joan Bennett is onscreen, playing a Cockney girl who lends Thorndike a hand. She falls in love with him almost instantly, and keeps stubbornly insisting that he bring her along while he flees the Germans. He protests, but keeps giving in to the pouty, pathetic masher.

The Nazis, being no fools, eventually catch up with and kill her. I silently cheered.

There are some other nice supporting performances. George Sanders is great as a Nazi (who just happens to speak with a perfect British accent), wears a monocle (didn't all Germans?) and fashions himself to be a hunter the equal of Thorndike. And a very young Roddy McDowall has a neat turn as a cabin boy who smuggles Thorndike aboard his ship during his escape.

What "Man Hunt" does have is the visual genius of Fritz Lang. The great director seemed to command shadows to bend to his will, pooling in inky depths or slitting across an alley scene in a way that subtly throws everything into a creepy off-kilter slant.

The film's signature scene is when Thorndike flees into a subway tunnel while being chased by a never-named villain, played by John Carradine in a nearly wordless role. Dressed all in black, his famously spare frame and skull-like face looming, Carradine stalks Thorndike with a sword-cane. The way the circular maw of the tunnel envelops the villain is signature Lang, who had a talent for making inanimate objects take on a life of their own.

The opening sequence is quite gripping. Thorndike, a great hunter who has grown bored with killing animals, decides to conduct a "sporting stalk" of the most challenging game in the world: Hitler himself. He stealthily makes his way to Hitler's Bavarian chateau, carefully lines up a shot through his telescopic rifle sights, pulls the trigger and... nothing but a click. He's doing it merely to prove to himself that he can, throwing a little mock salute at the Fuhrer before starting to depart.

But then there's a great moment where he pauses, returns to his sights and loads a cartridge into his rifle. He's just starting to line up a live shot when a German soldier spots him and pounces on him.

Would Thorndike really have assassinated Hitler? If screenwriter Dudley Nichols, working from the novel by Geoffrey Household, had had a little more imagination, he would have made this the central question of the film -- Thorndike, who considers himself a gentleman, tortured by the notion that he could be just as murderous as the men now pursuing him.

"Man Hunt" is still a worthwhile film, if only to adore Fritz Lang's gorgeous black-and-white compositions, and to consider what might have been.

2.5 stars

Sunday, January 24, 2010

SAG awards are Oscar harbinger

A week ago, I wrote in this space assessing how much the Golden Globes are an indicator of the Academy Awards. Short version: Not very much.

Last night's Screen Actors Guild Awards, though are different. Unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which is basically a phantom organization, the SAG is the powerful actors union. Like the Producers Guild, Directors Guild and Writers Guild, these groups' awards are notable because of the overlap with Academy voters.

People who are members of one of these guilds are often (though certainly not always) also voting members of the Academy. The SAG awards are especially notable because actors make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy.

So as the guild awards go, so often go the Oscars.

There wasn't too much surprise in last night's awards: Jeff Bridges won Best Actor for "Crazy Heart," Christoph Waltz took supporting actor for "Inglourious Basterds," Mo'Nique won supporting actress for "Precious."

At this point, those three should be considered heavy favorites to win the Oscar. Colin Firth didn't get a lot of traction for "A Single Man," mainly because few people saw it. And everyone loves George Clooney in "Up in the Air," but I think there's a sense floating around that he was playing a version of himself -- or at least his star persona.

Whereas Oscar voters love to award actors (actresses, not so much) lifetime achievement awards. So, often a respected actor will take home the statue for a movie most reasonable people would agree is not their best work. Thus, Paul Newman finally won for "The Color of Money" and Al Pacino for "Scent of a Woman" -- fine movies and fine performances, but hardly the pinnacle of their careers.

Essentially, there's a movement underway pushing the idea that it's Jeff Bridges' time. I don't mind, since in this case I think "Crazy Heart" does represent some of his finest work.

The real surprise was Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for "The Blind Side." Her SAG win is starting me to changing my mind that she can't win the Oscar.

Unlike the Globes, the SAG awards and Oscars don't split up the acting category into dramas and comedies/musicals. So the fact that Bullock won over award favorite Meryl Streep is an indication of genuine respect for Bullock's performance. I think we could dismiss her Globe win to her film's excellent box office performance -- the Globes are the epitome of favoring the most popular over the best films. Not SAG.

The other big contender, Carey Mulligan, appears to be sliding. Not very many people saw "An Education," which was a critical darling. And given Mulligan's youth and inexperience -- "An Education" represents her first starring role -- there may be a willingness to view an Oscar nomination as its own reward for a rising star. Even Hilary Swank, who seemed to come out of nowhere a decade ago to win for "Boys Don't Cry," had headlined a couple of small movies prior to that.

This is one occasion where it helps to be the established actress in her 40s rather than the ingenue in her early 20s.

Personally, I still think Streep gave the best performance of the year. But it's starting to look more and more like Bullock's turn in "The Blind Side" has come out of nowhere to take the lead.

Coming this week

I'll have a review of "Edge of Darkness," Mel Gibson's first starring role in quite a while. Possibly also "Leap Year," if I can make it to the screening.

The video review will be "Whip It," the roller derby movie starring Ellen Page.

I'll have classic film reviews of "Man Hunt" and "My Favorite Year."

I'm also planning to do a commentary on the Screen Actors Guild Awards later today.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Tender Mercies"

With the release today of "Crazy Heart," it got me to thinking about the 1983 classic "Tender Mercies," starring Robert Duvall in a film with very similar themes. Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a once-legendary country singer who has disappeared off the face of the globe in a trail of booze and debauchery.

Mac and Jeffrey Bridges' Bad Blake from "Crazy Heart" both were once big-time stars, but are now out in the music business wilderness. Well, Blake at least was still playing in bowling alleys and two-bit honkey-tonks. When we first meet Mac, he's coming off a bender at a tiny Texas motel/gas station. He apparently was traveling with a friend who left him high and dry, with just his old trailer to call his own.

I loved the plain language of the Horton Foote screenplay. Mac simply goes to the woman running the motel and says, "Lady, I'm broke. I'll be happy to work off what I owe you." The woman is Rosa Lee, a young Vietnam war widow with a small son, and she will become Mac's salvation.

Foote -- who gave Duvall his start in movies by pushing for him to be cast as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" 20 years earlier -- won an Academy Award for best original screenplay, to go with the gold statuette Duvall took home for Best Actor.

The time compression of the first 15 minutes or so of the film is amazing. In just a few quick edits, director Bruce Beresford lets us know that Mac stayed on as a hired hand, fell in love with Rosa Lee, gave up drinking, married Rosa Lee and bonded with Sonny, her boy. And yet this quick transition doesn't seem hurried or arbitrary.

Mac used to be one-half of country music royalty with his ex-wife Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley), whom he once tried to kill during one of his alcoholic binges. At one point Mac goes to see her perform in nearby Austin -- he wrote most of her songs himself -- and they have a short but bitter exchange in which she warns him not to attempt to see their daughter, Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin, age 29 and playing 18).

Mac gives a new song he has written to Dixie's manager, played by Wilford Brimley, but he returns it to him a few days later, saying it's no good because the country music game has changed. Mac is so enraged, he drives off in a huff, intending to get drunk, but he pours out the bottle he bought and returns to Rosa Lee.

A newspaper reporter turns up to write a story about Mac, but he refuses to answer questions. The story comes out anyway, mostly Dixie's tales of his terrible treatment of her, which generates some notoriety in the sleepy little town. The film's critical exchange comes when Mac is coming out of a feed store, and a woman asks him, "Were you really Mac Sledge?" He says, "Yes ma'am, I guess I was."

A young band turns up on Mac's doorstep looking for inspiration, and he eventually agrees to record the song he wrote for Dixie with them. Just when the record comes out and Rosa Lee tunes the song on the truck radio, Mac reaches his hand in and snaps it off. He has just received word that his daughter, who ran off with a much older man, has died in an accident.

This leads to perhaps the most important scene in the movie, with Mac tending a small garden he has planted across the street from the motel. Beresford shoots naturalistically, almost documentary style, in long shot with a long take with no cuts or close-ups. You can't even see Duvall's face underneath his wide-brimmed hat in the slanting sun. But the pain and power of the scene just spill out over that spare Texas landscape. "I don't trust happiness; never have, never will," Mac confesses.

Like Bridges, Duvall did all his own singing for the film, and even wrote two songs. When I first heard him, I told myself that couldn't be Duvall -- it sounded exactly like an old-school country singer, with a deep, baleful tone. Duvall reportedly spent weeks driving around Texas, listening to accents and small-town bands to get his sound just right.

I have to say that after seeing "Tender Mercies," "Crazy Heart" diminishes just a little bit in my eyes. Many of the themes of redemption and regret seem clearly inspired by the earlier film.

3.5 stars

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: "Extraordinary Measures"

Yes, "Extraordinary Measures" is exactly what first appearances suggest: A tearjerker about a heroic father who will stop at nothing to find a cure for the cruel, rare disease afflicting his children. He enlists the aid of a brilliant but crotchety scientist, and together they take on the pharmaceutical establishment.

And yes, this is absolutely TV Movie-of-the-Week material. The fact that it's produced by the movie arm of CBS does little to allay that perception.

And that awful title -- so bland, so interchangeable. It could easily swap places with "Edge of Darkness," the Mel Gibson revenge movie coming out next week, and no one would notice.

But you know what? This movie doesn't have a cynical bone in its body. It sheds genuine light on the twisted labyrinth through which new drug therapies must travel, and does so in a way that's undeniably melodramatic but also engaging.

And heck, "Lorenzo's Oil" tackled pretty much the same subject matter, and people hated it so much it was nominated for two Oscars. "Extraordinary Measures" isn't in that same league, but it's a commendable effort.

Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, a real guy who was a rising star at a big pharmaceutical company when he pitched it all to come up with a treatment for Pompe Disease, a degenerative muscle condition that claims most victims before they can measure their age in double digits.

Two of Crowley's three children -- Megan (Meredith Droeger) and Patrick (Diego Valezquez) -- were born with Pompe and are confined to wheelchairs. It's Megan's near-death from respiratory distress shortly after her eight birthday that convinces him to act boldly.

Keri Russell plays Crowley's wife Aileen, who does the best she can with the unrewarding role of the housewife who only appears from time to time to air complaints.

Harrison Ford, in an uncharacteristically stern role, plays Dr. Robert Stonehill, a researcher at the University of Nebraska whose theories on an enzyme treatment for Pompe are light-years ahead of the competition. On a whim, Crowley flies to Lincoln, corners the grumpy Stonehill in a bar and convinces him to go into business together.

What I liked most about the way director Tom Vaughan and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (based on the book by Geeta Anand) approached this story was to focus so much on the unsexy and often heartless process by which new medical breakthroughs are achieved.

People may not like it, but the truth is that few entities are willing to spend the gobs of money necessary to develop a new drug or treatment, and those that are want to profit from the research. Vaughan and Jacobs are careful to depict this frankly but without being too judgmental.

Jared Harris has a nice role as a bean-counter who butts heads with Crowley, but balances a sense of perspective with the dollars.

I'm guessing a lot of people will take a look at ads for "Extraordinary Measures" -- ugh, that title doesn't get any better with repetition -- and dismiss it as maudlin claptrap. But as feel-good cinematic medicine goes, this one goes down pretty smooth.

3 stars

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: "Crazy Heart"

Not long ago I was watching an old Jeff Bridges movie (1972's "Fat City") and blogged that he "is quietly having one of the great film acting careers."

And this was before I saw "Crazy Heart," perhaps the finest performance of that 50-year run.

Never winning, Bridges has been nominated four times for an Oscar -- for "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," "The Last Picture Show," "The Contender" and "Starman" -- and should have been nominated at least four other times -- "The Fisher King," "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," "Seabiscuit" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys." (Probably "Fearless," too.)

"Crazy Heart" will earn Bridges number five, and perhaps the elusive golden statuette.

He plays Bad Blake, a once-famous country singer who has reached the bottom of the barrel, and just kept burrowing downward. As we first meet him, he arrives to play a gig at a bowling alley, pouring out a jug of urine from the long drive in his battered '78 Suburban: Bad is literally pissing his life away.

He's 57, with a Dunlop belly spilling over his Texas-sized belt buckle, a scraggly beard and a face creased like aged leather. He smokes persistently, drinks whiskey prodigiously, and sings mournful songs about regret and loss to the few diehard fans who care to show up.

"I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else," goes one of his typical lyrics. A crowd favorite is, "It's funny how falling feels like flying ... for a little while."

Bridges embodies these songs (by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett) the way he does the role itself: With an easy, vanity-free grace that never feels like it's trying to impress for its own sake.

Bad is a man with no illusions about his has-been status, motoring from one tiny Southwestern town to another, taking any gig he can get, happily obliging any female fan who wants a roll in the sack with a once-legend -- even if the groupies are rougher-looking than they used to be.

In Santa Fe, he's surprised to find a good piano player to back him, and even more surprised by the pianist's niece, a newspaper reporter who wants an interview. Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal -- in a full-bodied turn worthy of its own nod come Oscar time -- Jean is a single mom with a 4-year-old, who's had a run of bad luck with men.

She convinces herself, against her better judgment, to green-light Bad's syrupy, well-worn come-on ("I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look") and eventually enter a relationship with a man whose notion of commitment is measured in the distance to his next town and the price of his next bottle of rattlesnake hooch.

"Crazy Heart" was directed by first-timer Scott Cooper, who also penned the screenplay from the novel by Thomas Cobb. I loved the authentic little details with which Cooper infuses his film -- like Bad, who treats his own body like a cesspool, polishing his guitar with reverence.

The supporting performances are similarly tidy, with Robert Duvall (also a producer on the film) as Bad's lone friend/bartender, and Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, a former protégé whose star has greatly eclipsed that of his mentor, much to both men's dismay.

But there's no mistaking who the frontman is of this ballad, so sad and so true. Jeff Bridges' masterful portrayal of a man who used to be somebody is pitch-perfect.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Video review: "Gamer"

"Gamer," the latest attempt to meld video games with movies, starts out with a cool, compelling premise. And then it devolves into a bunch of hyper-fast action scenes, maudlin emotions and exploitative imperatives.

The filmmakers, the same team behind the "Crank" movies, seem to have their own peculiar formula. It's like a marriage of 1970s exploitation movies and modern, ultra-hip music video style.

The set-up is that the world is slowly being taken over by video games -- literally. Gerard Butler stars as Kable, the star of a combat game that billions of people watch on pay-per-view. The only twist is that he's a real person, playing against other live would-be soldiers. They're being controlled by players, who can determine whether they live or die.

The heavy is Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), the gaming wizard who devised the system, and played by Hall as a Ted Turner spoof, only younger and crazier. He wants to use his nefarious code to turn the brains of everyone on the planet into easily-manipulated hardware.

The computer-animation-assisted action scenes have a nice kinetic feel. But whenever these video-game avatars try to emote like real humans, I wanted to hit the Off switch.

Extras cover a pretty wide range of material, although the ratio of substance to hype is pretty low.

The DVD has a 16-minute featurette that's essentially a commercial for Red, a new type of digital camera. Co-writers/directors Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine team up with supporting stars Amber Valletta, Alison Lohman and Terry Crews for a rambling commentary track of dubious value.

There's also a making-of documentary that's nearly as long as the movie itself, though not much more entertaining.

In addition to these features, the Blu-ray version also comes with Cheat Codes, additional scene-specific audio and video commentary, and I-Con Mode, an "interactive time-shifting multi-dimensional exploration" of "Gamer."

It's notable that star Butler is almost totally absent from these extras -- although he does moon the camera at the end of the making-of feature. I'd say that's about how much regard this movie has for its audience.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, January 18, 2010

Golden Globe=Oscar? Not!

"Avatar" will not win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Write it down, set it in stone. It. Will. Not. Happen.

I say this with confidence despite the blockbuster film -- which is nearly at $500 million domestic, and $1.6 billion worldwide -- winning the Golden Globe for best drama last night.

Why? Because historically, the Golden Globes have been a poor predictor when it comes to the top award.

For Best Picture, I still say "Up in the Air" is unstoppable. And while the Globes may respect boffo box office, the Oscar voters still have enough self-respect to vote for the better film over the popular choice (most of the time).

Although I will say the supporting acting winners from last night -- Mo'Nique for "Precious" and Christoph Waltz for "Inglourious Basterds" -- will likely mirror who wins the Oscar on March 7.

Jeff Bridges winning for "Crazy Heart" is also a good bet for the Oscar. He's got some strong competition in the Best Actor category -- Colin Firth in "A Single Man" and George Clooney in "Up in the Air" -- but momentum for the four-time nominee seems to be building.

But I believe the other acting category winners in the Golden Globes won't take home the Oscar. In Robert Downey Jr.'s case, I don't think he should get a nomination for "Sherlock Holmes," which is a piece of puffery that he's not even all that good in.

Meryl Streep will get her 1,078th nomination for "Julie & Julia," and Sandra Bullock may squeak in with a nomination for "The Blind Side." But despite each winning a Golden Globe -- Streep for comedy, Bullock for drama -- Carey Mulligan from "An Education" remains the front-runner.

I also doubt James Cameron will take home the Best Director statuette. I think it's a race between Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker" and "Up in the Air" man Jason Reitman.

"Up" winning the Golden Globe is probably an indication that it will prevail over "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

Among serious cinephiles, the Golden Globes are something of a joke. They're given out by an organization of dubious journalistic reputation that seems to exist solely for the purpose of staging the big red-carpet affair once a year.

I won't totally discount the influence of the Globes, though.

The nomination ballots for the Oscars close this Saturday, meaning there's a chance Academy voters could be influenced by Globe winners. It would be a shame if some of yesterday's winners -- I'm thinking of Bullock and Downey -- push out a more deserving nominee from the top acting categories.

But I just don't think Globe mojo will result in Oscar gold. If for no other reason, the Academy couldn't bear another spectacle of James Cameron labeling himself king of the world.

Reeling Backward: "Waterworld"

Watching "The Book of Eli," it got me to thinking about other spectacularly dumb post-apocalyptic films. "Waterworld" has very similar themes, even though in "Eli" people constantly fight over water, whereas in the 1995 Kevin Costner movie there's far too much of it.

I hadn't seen "Waterworld" since it came out in theaters nearly 15 years ago, and it was actually a better movie than I remembered. Yes, it is at times a silly, stupid experience. But it seems to recognize itself for what it is, and has a bit of fun with it. Unlike "Eli," which I'm less forgiving toward because it's so self-serious.

As is often the case, Roger Ebert said it best: "'Waterworld' is a decent futuristic action picture with some great sets, some intriguing ideas, and a few images that will stay with me. It could have been more, it could have been better, and it could have made me care about the characters. It's one of those marginal pictures you're not unhappy to have seen, but can't quite recommend."

There was much ridiculing of Costner's get-up in the movie. He plays the Mariner, a mysterious loner who travels a world completely covered in water (or so everyone thinks). He wears a strange array of leather vest, striped pants, long hair pulled back in a high knot, and various dangly bits and weapons.

The Mariner cruises around in a fancy trimaran that he's outfitted with all sorts of contraptions so he can pilot her alone, raising the sails and doing slick maneuvers and such. Like the classic loner of this type of films he's a man of violence but not a bad heart, who wants to be left alone but finds himself caring for some townsfolk he stumbles across.

Since there's no towns, an atoll will have to do. The Mariner puts in there to do some trading, but gets assaulted when he's found to be a mutant. He has gills behind his ears, webbed toes and can swim and breathe underwater. He's about to be executed when the Smokers attack.

The equivalent of the roving gangs of marauders from "The Road Warrior," the Smokers kill and destroy in the pursuit of the few remaining natural resources: Fresh water, dirt, food, etc. They're led by Deacon, the bald-headed villain played by Dennis Hopper.

Deacon gets his eye blown out by the Mariner during the attack on the atoll, and spends the rest of the movie wearing a jury-rigged patch over it -- but not before a hilariously creepy scene in which the Smoker doctor tries to implant a huge fake-looking prosthetic eye into the gaping socket. Hopper is a real hoot in the movie, seeming to realize what a big joke it all is.

The civilians are Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a comely lass, and Enola (Tina Majorino), a young girl with a strange tattoo on her back that turns out to be a map to the last dry land. Deacon wants the map, so he sends out his goons after the Mariner and his passengers.

Like the MacGuffin of the Bible in "The Book of Eli," Enola's tattoo isn't well thought out as a plot device. It's a very simple map, with a big globe and some latitude and longitude numbers, that could easily be copied down after a brief glance. There's no need to actually have the girl in your possession to use the knowledge.

Also, it's made explicit that Enola originally came from dry land, and must have been sent out by her parents/protectors into the watery void. Why? Two bodies are found when they finally reach dry land, peacefully nestled side by side, and somebody says something to the effect that they must have known they were going to die. From what, illness? Both at the same time? Seems unlikely. And even so, if you're going to give your tiny daughter a tattoo so she can find her way back, it's not very helpful to put it on her back where she can't see it.

Director Kevin Reynolds, who previously teamed with Costner on "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," stages some nice action sequences in the days before CGI. The film went massively over budget, and various stories even claim that Reynolds walked off the set, or was fired, due to conflicts with his star, who directed the final scenes himself. Whatever the case, their friendship and professional relationship ended with "Waterworld."

2 stars

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Coming this week

Things are about to slow down for awhile after this week. In the build-up to the Oscars, Hollywood often pushes out a very light schedule. And many of these films are being held up for very late screenings on Wednesday or Thursday nights -- times the studio chooses specifically because they know that's too late for most print reviews.

Included on that list is "Shutter Island," the new movie by Martin Scorsese and starring Leo DiCaprio. Not a good sign.

This week I'll have reviews of "Crazy Heart," an Oscar hopeful, and "Extraordinary Measures."

The video review will be "Gamer."

For the Reeling Backward column, this week I've selected two movies that seem to have greatly influenced current new releases: "Waterworld" and "Tender Mercies." The similarities of those films will be discussed in relation to "The Book of Eli" and "Crazy Heart," respectively.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: "The Book of Eli"

"The Book of Eli" may just be the best-looking dumb movie ever made.

I mean it: The Hughes Brothers (Albert and Allen) deliver a post-apocalyptic landscape that's bleak and gritty and so washed out of color, the movie is practically in black-and-white. Cinematographer Don Burgess, an Oscar nominee for "Forrest Gump," delivers a masterfully crafted visual banquet; its spareness is practically sumptuous.

I also mean it about the stupidity -- the Hughes boys and rookie screenwriter Gary Whitta pair these wonderful visuals with a story so nonsensical and silly, it's at least 20 I.Q. points slower than Forrest.

The setup is part "Mad Max," part "Waterworld" (sans water), part "Fallout" video game, and 100 percent bone-headed.

Denzel Washington plays the title character, a wandering badass who's been walking westward ever since nuclear war annihilated most of humanity 30 years ago. (I feel compelled to point out he must be the slowest walker ever -- even if he only hiked 10 miles a day, he could have traversed all of America dozens of times in that span.)

He carries many weapons, including firearms and a bow, but favors a freaky-looking sword that he uses to cut off the hand of a highway bandit who dares touch him in the film's opening minutes. After the rest of his gang has been messily killed, the ruffian reaches for his severed appendage, which Eli kicks out of reach. "I told you you weren't going to get that back," he says.

Clearly a bad dude, right? So perhaps it comes as a shock to learn that Eli is, in fact, a holy man. He's carrying the last Holy Bible on Earth, he says (how does he know that?). He reads it every night, and likes to quote scripture as he's filleting his enemies. But he doesn't seem to live by its precepts very much -- certainly not the turn the other cheek stuff.

Still, it's a pretty cool world that's been painted for us. I'm a sucker for stories about mankind squabbling over the flotsam of their dead society. "We threw things away that people kill each other over now," Eli observes.

But then things get screwy.

Eli wanders into a town run by a boss named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who's been sending his road gangs out to search for a Bible. It seems in the aftermath of the war, there was a concerted effort (by whom, it's never stated) to burn all the Bibles. Carnegie, a schemer who rules through his wits rather than his muscle, figures to use the holy words as a "weapon" with which he can gather people to him and thereby gain power.

Now, if Carnegie is smart enough to realize religion can be used for nefarious purposes, why does he need a Bible? He could just dream up his own religion, inventing whatever rules and commandments he wanted to suit his purposes, and achieve exactly the same effect. Since Eli has the only Bible, who's to contest Carnegie's version of scripture?

But no, once Carnegie learns that Eli has a Bible, he sends hordes of men with guns after him to procure it.

Eli himself is a little more circumspect about his purposes. All he will say is that he's walking westward until he finds a place where the book is needed. Even Solara, a town girl who tags along with Eli, can't get much more information out of him than that, although he does teach her to say grace before meals. Solara is played by Mila Kunis, who has a knack for comedy but should step away from dramatic material -- she's just this side of awful in this movie.

I don't want to give away too much about the plot, other than to say when Eli's final destination is revealed, one realizes that all of Carnegie's sacrifices have been for naught. He could have just waited in his town until the Bible came back to him.

The film's other idiocies are multitudinous. For example, there's a little ritual the people in town do to prove they're not cannibals: Making others hold up their hands to see if they shake. Eating too much human meat, you see, causes one to have tremors. Eli and Solara learn this for certain when they stumble upon a seemingly nice old couple in the wasteland who have lots of guns and lots of shakes. I guess it sounds neat, until one wonders what biophysical effect one could possibly have from eating human flesh, other than anorexia.

Speaking of which -- for a setting in which everyone is constantly scrapping for food and water, Denzel Washington and the rest of the cast look suspiciously well-fed. I would think double-chins and bellies would be a rarity in the after-apocalypse. Only Oldman looks sufficiently gaunt and withered to belong to the wasteland.

And that's not even getting into the film's metaphysical posturing. The Hughes boys seem to suggest that there is actually something supernatural at work here, particularly with Eli's preternaturally fast combat moves. At one point he takes out a whole gang of men with rifles using only a pistol, which seems to hold an infinite amount of bullets.

But don't be fooled by its great looks: "The Book of Eli" is so stupid, it's almost unholy.

1.5 stars

Reeling Backward: "In Which We Serve"

"In Which We Serve" starts off as an annoyingly British bit of World War II propaganda. You know the type -- lots of really fast talking, airy upper-crust accents, and stiff upper lip type of bravery.

In the first scene the H.M.S. Torrin is fatally crippled by a German dive bomber. After the captain -- played by Noel Coward, who also wrote the screenplay, co-directed, produced, wrote the musical score and, I think, personally provided all the catering -- gives the order to abandon ship, he and the other survivors give the sinking vessel three cheers.

The first half of the film is also filled with many cutaway scenes of the sailors' personal lives back home -- saying hello and goodbye to their wives, meeting soon-to-be wives, etc. They happen so rapidly that there's more smoochy time than fighting for a good long while, a when you're expecting a good ripping war movie, one feels like quoting the little kid from "The Princess Bride": "They're kissing again!"

But as the picture wore on I found myself liking it more and more. As the captain and his crew cling to a life raft awaiting rescue as German fighter planes strafe them, picking off more and more of them, they reflect on their lives aboard the Torrin, how it shaped them, and how they struggled to maintain that famously imperturbable English facade.

This was the only movie that Coward directed, reportedly at the behest of Winston Churchill himself, who was friend of the prolific playwright/composer. Coward decided he needed an able assistant to lean on, and chose a fellow named David Lean, who'd done some assistant directing and gained a reputation as a top-notch editor. Lean insisted on being listed as co-director, so "In Which We Serve" marks the first time Lean was credited as a director.

A number of young British actors have small roles in this picture, including James Donald and a very young Richard Attenborough, making his screen debut as a sailor who loses his nerve during a fight and deserts his post. Despite not receiving a screen credit, Attenborough has a considerable amount of screen time, including a great scene where the captain addresses his cowardice in front of the entire crew without naming him.

The battle scenes are a bit hammy -- there wasn't a lot of resources to put into a war picture in 1942, as one might imagine. So Coward/Lean rely upon a lot of stock footage that is only haphazardly woven together.

As I say, the second half of the film contains many very moving moments. The biggest impact is the scene in which Shorty Blake (John Mills), a low-ranking seaman, receives a letter from his wife.

She had been staying at the house of the chief petty officer when it was bombed, killing the officer's wife and mother. Blake goes up to the mess to let the chief, Hardy (Bernard Miles), know that the only members of his family were killed. His own wife was unhurt, and successfully gave birth to a baby boy. So the chief, in the midst of his own grief, congratulates the seaman for becoming a father.

What a moment -- and just one reason why I left "In Which We Serve" much more impressed than when I started.

3.5 stars

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: "Broken Embraces"

Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish auteur who loves to play around with film genres, takes a stab at film noir in his newest, "Broken Embraces" -- with a little flavor of Federico Fellini's "8½" thrown in for good measure.

It's the story of a filmmaker (Lluis Homar), blind and lonely, who goes by the name Harry Caine. His name used to be Mateo Blanco, before he lost his sight and the love of his life, played by Penelope Cruz. (Both names, incidentally, are writing aliases Almodovar has himself used.)

Harry/Mateo is content to lead a quiet life writing movie scripts, with the help of his longtime friend Judit (Blanca Portilla) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas). Then he gets a visit from a slimy fellow calling himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) who wants Harry to write a screenplay for him to direct.

This sets off a shifting timeline in which the Harry of today attempts to puzzle out the mystery of what happened to Mateo 14 years ago.

It turns out Ray X is really the son of a wealthy businessman, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), who financed Harry/Mateo's film back in the 1990s starring Ernesto's mistress, Lena (Cruz).

Mateo and Lena soon became lovers, which prompted the jealous financier to have his son videotape all the behind-the-scenes action -- ostensibly for a documentary about the making of the film, but really to spy on his mistress.

Writer/director Almodovar weaves together the intersecting storylines of the characters, both past and present, in a sort of murder/mystery potboiler.

Homar and Cruz are a scorching-hot film couple. Unlike most such portrayals of filmmakers and their muse, he is not an egotistical narcissist and she is not a dimwitted twit easily manipulated.

Similarly, the portrayal of her businessman sugar daddy is not a black-and-white depiction of evil. Ernesto helped her ailing father get proper medical treatment, and seems to generally care about her well-being -- a bit too much, as it were.

A few aspects of the plot are puzzling. For example, why Ray X seeks out Harry/Mateo after so many years. And the film plays around with the notion that the writer's blindness is a ruse, but then just drops the idea.

"Broken Embraces" isn't among Almodovar's finest work, but it's a diverting jaunt through familiar cinematic tropes, as well as the filmmaker's distinctive psyche.

3 stars

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: "A Single Man"

I had just been ruminating with some colleagues over the dearth of strong contenders for this year's Best Actor Oscar. And along comes Colin Firth.

Firth's performance as a detached, closeted gay English professor in early 1960s Los Angeles is a revelation, his best in years. It stands out as a departure for Firth, who has been somewhat pigeonholed in recent roles as the affable, eligible English bachelor always with a witty quip at the ready.

George, who is British but has spent the last 25 years teaching at a small L.A. college, certainly is a sharp fellow. But he's mourning the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, and has decided to blow his brains out.

The movie is based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, one of the first serious literary portraits of modern homosexual characters. It was adapted for the screen by David Scearce and Tom Ford, both screenwriting novices, and was directed by Ford, a famous fashion designer marking his first stint behind the camera. What an assured debut.

The story plays out as a single day in George's life, what he reckons to be his last. In his typical fastidious, detail-oriented way, he has arranged all his effects for whoever will find his body: Insurance papers, car keys, some money for his maid, even laying out his funeral suit with instructions for a Windsor knot in his tie.

But a series of encounters keep piercing through his grief and force him to ruminate on the loveliness of the life he is determined to extinguish.

The chief of these is dinner with Charlotte, an old college chum and once-lover. Julianne Moore plays Charly, divorced and boozy, and their extended scene could be a master course in film performance, except you never catch them acting. Firth and Moore's characters feel lived-in and naturalistic, two lonely people whose lives could have been entirely different, except for the fact that George is gay.

There's a revealing moment where Charly offhandedly says about George's life with Jim, "No, I mean a real relationship." George, who carefully conceals his nature from his colleagues and students, is nonetheless furious that she thinks Jim was merely a replacement for the love of a woman -- with Charly clearly picturing herself as the leading candidate.

Even though these two middle-aged people share a deep and abiding love, there's a sense that don't really know each other.

The other major event is a running conversation with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a young student of his who keeps crossing George's path. From the way his dreamy blue eyes stare and his cupid-bow lips purse, one senses Kenny is angling for more than a good grade.

Kenny cheerfully accuses George of not telling his students everything he knows, which George acknowledges but defends as the wise thing to do. It's obvious they're not just talking about Aldous Huxley.

If the film has a weakness, it's that we don't get to see enough of George and Jim's relationship, so we understand that George is devastated by the loss without really grasping what it is that has been lost.

One scene near the beginning of the film will endure with me for a long time. George, quietly reading at home, gets a call from Jim's cousin informing him of the fatal car accident. The cousin is doing this against Jim's parents' wishes, who did not even wish to inform George that the most important person in his life has died.

The exchange where George remarks that he had better get on a plane for the funeral and is told that he is not welcome at the service is one of the most lacerating moments ever filmed. And I couldn't imagine any actor other than Colin Firth filling that role.

3.5 stars

Review: "The Lovely Bones"

I haven't read "The Lovely Bones," Alice Sebold's much-praised novel about a 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon who is brutally murdered and watches from heaven as events transpire on Earth after her death. So I can't say how faithful an adaptation the team from "The Lord of the Rings" has given us.

As a movie, "Bones" has fits and starts. But the good ultimately outweighs the not-so-good.

Director Peter Jackson, who co-wrote the script with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, adroitly handles the dream-like sequences of Susie's existence in the "in-between" of heaven and earth, a landscape that shifts and swirls with her imagination via computer-generated effects. This is dangerous material -- handled poorly, and you get "What Dreams May Come" -- and Jackson deftly keeps the fantasy from overwhelming the film.

But much of the earthbound action feels discombobulated. From what I've gathered, the movie shortens the time span of the book and dumps a lot of subplots (such as Susie's mother having an affair with the detective investigating her case).

So the way Jackson et al present it, "Bones" unspools as an otherworldly murder-mystery, with the audience knowing the killer's identity up front and waiting for the people in the movie to catch up.

That brings us to the one unqualified success of this film, Stanley Tucci as the Salmon's neighbor and secretive serial killer, Mr. Harvey. This is the one of the creepiest screen villains since Hannibal Lecter. Tucci's Mr. Harvey, in a floppy blonde comb-over and almost colorless contact lenses, is like a photo negative of normality.

Mr. Harvey's placid exterior hides a man with a hunger for inflicting pain, and a meticulous craftiness for carrying out his murders while hiding in plain sight. The way Tucci rolls his jaw and sighs while watching his victims-to-be, he suggests an odd, ancient bird of prey pretending not to notice the helpless critters scampering nearby.

Saorise Ronen, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in "Atonement" two years ago, gives an assured performance as Susie, a normal middle-class kid in 1973 Pennsylvania. She takes pictures and dreams of being a photographer, has minor conflicts with friends, and has a crush on a dreamy older boy named Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie).

But when Mr. Harvey lures her into an underground den he's built in a cornfield, she's caught and killed. Jackson depicts this obliquely, never showing the actual rape, throat-slitting and dismemberment.

Susie initially thinks she got away, but quickly discovers she's caught in a netherworld where she can watch the living, but cannot communicate with them. (Except for ... well, wait and see.)

Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz play Susie's parents, and Rose McIver is her younger sister. The father becomes obsessed with the search for the killer, investigating his neighbors and constantly badgering the police detective (Michael Imperioli) about her case.

Mrs. Salmon soon wigs out and leaves the family, while her boozy mother (Susan Sarandon) moves in to take up the slack.

At two-and-a-quarter hours, "The Lovely Bones" is either too long or too short. The dynamics of the family feel like they should be at the center of the story, but the movie never quite coalesces around them. I still recommend it for Tucci's performance if nothing else -- it's that strong.

3 stars

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Video review: "Moon"

Snooty cinephiles like to proclaim themselves indifferent to box office grosses, but I admit I pay pretty close attention to them. The reasoning is simple: Movies I like, I want to do well, so studios will have an incentive to make more like them.

"Moon," a tiny independent sci-fi film, made something like $5 million in theaters, which was probably less than the soda-and-snacks budget for "Avatar." Here's hoping "Moon" does well on video, because Hollywood needs more clever, imaginative movies like this one from first-time director Duncan Jones.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the solitary worker living aboard a lunar base responsible for collecting energy from moon rocks that powers much of Earth. His only companion is Gerty, a one-eyed robot (splendidly voiced by Kevin Spacey) very much in the tradition of Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Nearing the end of his three-year contract, Sam is anxious to get back planetside to his family. But after an accident, he wakes up to find there are now two Sams aboard the station.

Are they clones of each other? Hallucinations of a dying mind? Split personality a la "Fight Club"?

Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker shrewdly play with the audiences' expectations to keep us constantly, and grippingly, guessing.

Extras are the same for both Blu-ray and DVD versions. They encompass a pretty wide scope of features, although they aren't the most compelling stuff I've seen.

Jones contributes to two separate commentary tracks; one paired with producer Stuart Fenegan, and the other teamed up with the cinematographer and designers. Both tend to be a lot of rambling shot-by-shot descriptions, without much depth or context.

There's a 16-minute making-of documentary, and an 11-minute featurette on the film's low-budget special effects, including the challenges of getting two Sam Rockwells to interact -- and even fight -- onscreen.

There is also over 30 minutes of Q&A with Jones, Rockwell and others at Sundance Film Festival and at Space Center Houston.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, January 11, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Yankee Doodle Dandy"

James Cagney was a terrific dancer, but he was one of the earliest and perhaps most (in)famous practitioner of the dubious art of talk-singing.

Like other film actors who carried on the tradition such as Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady," Cagney couldn't hold a sustained note. (Or, on the rare occasions when he tries to, like with the title song, his voice is noticeably weak.)

The solution was to have him do a sort of melodic form of speaking that emulates the rhythm and tone of singing, but without any sort of musical lilt.

I suppose that's an acceptable solution if he just had a song or two in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," but it's a biopic of one of the greatest song-and-dance men Broadway ever saw. So to have him constantly standing there doing that strange vocal cadence while everyone else in the movie is singing their hearts out gets a little old after awhile.

The obvious alternative would have been to have another actor dub Cagney's singing. But he had such a distinctive voice -- a hard, close-throated moan with elongated vowels -- that it was likely impossible to find someone who could sing while still sounding like Jimmy Cagney.

This doesn't detract from his dancing, which is spectacular. My favorite bit is when he is playing an old man on stage, and a fan (who would later become his wife) thinks he really is old, and is surprised when he does a frenetic tap number that would have left a man of half of his presumed years in a puddle.

Cagney plays George M. Cohan, one of the early giants of Broadway, who wrote a number of songs that still linger today: "Over There," "Give My Regards to Broadway," "The Yankee Doodle Boy," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Mary Is a Grand Old Name."

The movie starts with him as a child star in the family act, The Four Cohans, with his parents (Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp) and sister Rosie (Cagney's real-life sibling Jeanne). Through spunk and grit, he manages to get his own show staged along with longtime partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) and eventually becomes the biggest name on Broadway.

The framing story is rather cutesy: After opening his big return act portraying Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cohan is summoned by the president to a night meeting at the White House. Figuring he's going to get chewed out by the chief executive, he instead tells FDR his life story. At the end he's given the Medal of Honor by a special act of Congress. (It's unclear if the film meant the Congressional Gold Medal; the Medal of Honor is strictly for military heroism.)

The story is built around the various songs and shows that highlighted Cohan's life, along with his courting and marriage of Mary (Joan Leslie). It's a rousing good time, with Cagney giving a memorable (when not talk-singing) performance as the cocky but good-hearted Irishman. Cohan's shows were noted for their comedy and unabashed patriotism

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" was directed by Michael Curtiz, one of the great Golden Age directors who doesn't get the recognition of other giants of that era. In that same year, 1942, he also directed Cagney as a fighter pilot in "Captains of the Clouds," and a little picture called "Casablanca."

In this era, when filmmakers like James Cameron or Terrence Malick can go a decade or more between feature films, the prolificacy and quality of work by someone like Curtiz is astonishing.

3 stars

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Coming this week

Pretty busy week, but mostly because of a bunch of holdovers of Oscar-contending movies that I saw last month and are just now getting an Indianapolis release.

I'll have reviews of "A Single Man," "Broken Embraces," "The Lovely Bones" and "The Book of Eli."

The video review will be "Moon."

I'll have Reeling Backward columns on "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "In Which We Serve."

Friday, January 8, 2010

Reeling Backward: "All That Jazz"

Thematically and structurally, "All That Jazz" is pretty similar to "Nine," the new movie musical that underwhelmed me. So how come I liked this 1979 film waaaay more?

"Jazz" is director/choreographer Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical take on his crazy life in the mid-1970s, when he was staging the Broadway musical "Chicago" while simultaneously editing his film "Lenny." It's a narcissistic, self-absorbed portrait of the tortured artist -- but an often thrilling one.

Much of the film's enjoyment is derived, of course, from the wonderful dancing. Ann Reinking in particular is a revelation as Kate Jagger, the girlfriend of Joe Gideon, the Fosse stand-in. Reinking embodies the long-limbed, sensual style of dance that Fosse epitomized, and all her dance scenes are knockouts.

My favorite bit is the somewhat impromptu show Kate and Joe's daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi, in her only screen role) put on for him in his apartment to "Everything Old Is New Again." Click the link to watch it on YouTube; it's a playful, wondrous delight.

Joe Gideon is played by Roy Scheider in perhaps his greatest role. It's not what you'd expect, since Scheider was the ultimate cinematic man's man in movies like "Jaws," "Marathon Man" and "The French Connection."

He's cast against type as the flamboyant Gideon, who is a workaholic, drug addict and rogue who sleeps around haphazardly, but is enraged when Kate does the same thing to him.

One of the film's signature bits is a quick montage of Joe's morning ritual -- Vivaldi music on tape deck, Visine for reddened eyes, popping pills, shower and a cynical declaration to his mirrored reflection, "It's showtime, folks!"

Perhaps the most memorable sequence from the film is the opening scene, a six-minute open casting call for Joe's new show. Hundreds of dancers go through their routines in unison, trying desperately to stand out and catch the famed choreographer's eye. Joe personally informs every dancer he rejects, which lets you know that even though he's a prick, he's not a heartless one.

Interspersed throughout the film are hallucinatory encounters with Joe's muse/angel/interlocutor, played by Jessica Lange in white raiment. She asks him about his life, needles him and flirts with him.

Another favorite scene was the one where Joe presents his choreography of the show to his financial backers. The first sequence is a sexy romp that pleases them mightily, but then it segues into a darkened mass of naked bodies and writhing limbs. It's brilliant -- Joe's ex-wife, Audrey (Leland Palmer), dubs it his best work ever -- but it scares the bejeezus out of the producers, who worry about losing the family crowd.

Joe gets sick halfway through production, and the show goes on hiatus while he recovers. The final long sequence is a showstopper performance with Joe as the star, Ben Vereen as MC, and Audrey and Kate as the principle dancers. It's sung to "Bye Bye Love," in a mournful and prophetic rendition that I'm sure the Every Brothers never imagined.

I'm not sure if "All That Jazz" really amounts to anything. As autobiography, it rings false since it's about a guy who comes to accept death, and obviously Bob Fosse kept on living, since he directed the movie. But it's a weird and wonderful celebration of the Fosse style.

3.5 stars

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: "Youth in Revolt"

Michael Cera has become an unlikely but bonafide movie star by essentially playing the same role over and over. (Don't knock it; John Wayne lasted 40 years that way.)

In Cera's case, he's always the smart, verbose kid of ironic disposition and dubious social skills who's desperate to win the attention of a particular girl, or just one in general.

"Youth in Revolt" is a refreshing turn for him because he plays the prototypical Cera character, Nick Twisp, but also Francois Dillinger, the "supplementary persona" Nick creates to lend him the bad-boy courage he needs to land the girl of his dreams.

This comes about from Nick's accurate observation, "In movies, the good guy gets the girl. In real life, it's usually the (jerk)."

Francois looks just like Nick, though a bit older, more sallow, with a faint mustache and facial peach fuzz. He's perpetually smoking a cigarette, staring at Nick with disquieting blue eyes while suggesting he do all sorts of unpleasant and usually illegal things.

Nick is naturally so nice and meek that Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), the smart, French-loving girl he meets while staying at the Restless Axles Trailer Park in Ukiah, Calif., has to hurry along their dawdling courtship with the instruction, "Kiss me, you weenie!"

Alas, events keep conspiring to keep them apart. Soon Nick has to move back to his home in Oakland with his mom (Jean Smart) and her ignoramus boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis).

With Francois' help, Nick arranges to get thrown out of his mother's home and move in with his dad (an ill-used Steve Buscemi), whom he finds a job for in Ukiah. But then Sheeni's overly religious parents send her to a private school in Santa Cruz.

Even worse, Sheeni's longtime suitor, the poet/athlete Trent -- who's heard of but not seen -- just happens to be transferred to the same school.

The film was adapted from C.D. Payne's novel (actually, a series) by Gustin Nash and directed by Miguel Arteta, who's mostly been doing TV lately but got his start with similarly quirky indie fare like "Chuck & Buck" and "The Good Girl."

It's funny in an urbane way, and I enjoyed the characters and spending time with them.
A few things don't quite add up. Sheeni remains something of a mystery -- she's more a collection of a traits a geekboy would imagine his perfect mate to have rather than a believable character.

The movie also has a habit of discovering and discarding interesting minor characters that we wish would stick around a little longer. There's Lefty, Nick's ostensible best friend, who's in the first couple of scenes, goes away for an hour, comes back and then disappears permanently.

Fred Willard has the beginnings of a nice turn as a kooky neighbor with a thing for helping illegal aliens, but again, by the time he turns up again we'd mostly forgotten about him.

Sheeni's brother (Justin Long) shows up just long enough to get everyone stoned and then leave. Vijay, a fellow sex-addled student at Nick's new school, accompanies him on an excursion to Sheeni's school that seems like it was lifted entirely from an '80s T&A flick.

But the good traits of "Youth in Revolt" outweigh its detractions. Francois steals every scene he's in, which is appropriate for a movie that celebrates, or at least recognizes the usefulness of, bad boys.

2.5 stars

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Review: "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

To my mind, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: Those who think that Terry Gilliam is a cinematic genius, and those who are mistaken.

The former animator and member of the Monty Python troupe has had his ups and downs -- more down lately. In fact, he seems cursed.

Gilliam's last film, "Tideland," was barely released. The Don Quixote project he spent years trying to make fell apart -- the only tickets sold were for "Lost in La Mancha," a documentary chronicling the fiasco.

Consider his latest, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." His star, Heath Ledger, died tragically less than halfway through shooting. One week after wrapping, producer William Vince passed away. During post-production work, Gilliam was hit by a car and broke his back.

It's a minor miracle that "Parnassus" was even finished. That it's Gilliam's best film since 1991's "The Fisher King" should be considered a sign the gods are smiling on him, despite his misfortune.

The subtext of this film couldn't be clearer coming from a 69-year-old director whose battles with the studio system are legendary: It's about an ancient mystic who believes storytelling is what binds the universe together, spinning his tales for a world that has stopped listening.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) lives like a sideshow carny, travelling around London in a ramshackle wagon/stage/domicile, using psychic powers to offer passers-by a chance to wander through his mind, where their own imaginations can run wild.

Gilliam uses computer-generated imagery to depict the fantastic worlds conjured inside Parnassus' brain, where ladders rise miles high into the sky, or giant jewels twinkle like celestial stars lassoed and pulled down to earth.

Like James Cameron with "Avatar," Gilliam uses computers to paint his screen with images impossible to render with live action, rather than letting special effects overwhelm his story. It's like watching one of Gilliam's "Monty Python" morphing animations brought to life.

Joining the doctor's troupe are his teen daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), who yearns to give up vagabond life for hearth and home; Anton (Andrew Garfield), the emcee who secretly adores Valentina; and Percy (Verne Troyer), a pint-sized figure whose supernatural pedigree is at least as complicated as Parnassus'.

Troyer delivers a great line early on, when asked where they are: "Geographically, in the northern hemisphere; socially, on the margins; and narratively, with some way to go."

One night after a typically disastrous performance, they stumble upon a man hanging from a noose under a bridge. Discovering him to be somehow still alive, they soon incorporate the amnesiatic fellow into their stage act.

This man, whose name is eventually found to be Tony, is played by Ledger. The obvious question everyone will have is how much the movie suffers from having its star unable to complete much of his filming. And the truth is, not as much as you'd think.

Gilliam, who co-write the script with Charles McKeown, cleverly uses Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to play Tony during scenes inside the Imaginarium. Since reality is bendable in there, and Tony's loyalties remain in doubt, it actually seems logical to have his physical likeness in flux.

The plot is driven by a wager between Parnassus and the Devil himself, Mr. Nick (a sly and scrumptious Tom Waits), with Valentina's soul at stake. The doctor will spin tales of light and goodness, and Nick of lust and fulfillment, to see which they choose.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" can best be described as Terry Gilliam's most Gilliam-esque movie. It's fun, playful, shocking, silly, and bursting with originality.

3.5 stars