Sunday, February 28, 2010

Coming this week

I'll have reviews of "The Ghost Writer" and "Alice in Wonderland, although there's still some confusion about when "Ghost" is being released. I may hold it if it's not actually hitting theaters this Friday.

You can see I had a bonus video review of "Where the Wild Things Are"; I'll also have a video review of "2012" later in the week.

I'll have classic film columns on "Alice in Wonderland" from 1933 -- including fledgling actors Gary Cooper and Cary Grant in small roles -- and "Eat Drink Man Woman."

Oscar lovers, keep on an eye out on Wednesday for my complete predictions for the Academy Awards -- and I mean complete, every last damn category.

Joe Shearer and I will jointly present our picks in this week's podcast. And we'll be live-blogging the Oscars Sunday night, so make sure to tune in for the excitement!

Bonus video review: "Where the Wild Things Are"

It's rare when the video extras for a major release have disappointed me as much as those for "Where the Wild Things Are."

Usually, I just chalk it up to laziness or complacency on the part of the studio. But in this case, I think the lack of more robust participation by the filmmakers is a real detriment to the video.

This difficult, personal and occasionally brilliant film from director Spike Jonze was much more than a screen translation of Maurice Sendak's seminal 1963 children's book about a boy who goes to live on an island full of (mostly) friendly monsters.

It was a journey guided by the filmmaker behind the fuzzy realities of "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" to explore the inner life of a child. It was not so much a movie for or about children, but an expression of what it's like to be a child, aimed squarely at grown-ups who have forgotten.

A video release of this film cries out for the interaction and participation of the principle creators -- Jonze and his screenwriting partner Dave Eggers. A commentary track would be a treasure of insight as they told us what they were thinking about when they brought Sendak's world to life.

Sadly, none of these are included on either the single-disc DVD or Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

The DVD's extra features are limited to four Webisodes totalling 13 minutes of video footage from the production. Mostly they're just rambling bits about getting dogs to bark or pranks. The only interesting tidbit is that Jonze had many of the principle crew bring their children to the set so star Max Records would feel like he was in a playground, instead of working for adults.

The Blu-ray version has four more short Webisodes, and a 23-minute film version of another Sendak book, "Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life." It's a delightful combination of puppetry, animation and live action about a dog who runs away from home in order to get experience, taking on a job as a nanny to a crying baby, with a hungry lion waiting in the basement if she fails to get the baby to eat.

Although I appreciated the inclusion of the other film -- directed by the Oscar-nominated team of Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski -- it doesn't add anything to our experience of "Where the Wild Things Are."

Perhaps Jonze is of the "I let my films speak for themselves" school of thought. That's his choice. But filmmakers who attempt such a bold, personal vision -- and fail to connect with audiences, according to the film's box office tallies -- would do well to offer more of themselves, about why they wanted to make this movie, about the choices they made, and what it means to them.

I, for one, would like to hear Jonze talk about why he decided to abandon the faces of the giant puppets of the monsters created by the Jim Henson workshop in favor of computer-animated ones. How about a comparison of the unadorned puppet heads split-screened with the final version? What about a featurette on envisioning and constructing the monsters' strangely beautiful castle?

These are just a handful of things that could have been, and should have been, included with "Where the Wild Things Are" to allow its fans to revisit, explore it more deeply, and contemplate what the cinematic experience meant to them.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 1.5 stars

Friday, February 26, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Thief of Bagdad" (1940)

I'm not normally the type of critic who insists on forcing political correctness upon films. For example, I think the stink conservatives have raised about "Avatar" is (mostly) bunk. But watching 1940's "The Thief of Bagdad," I couldn't help but notice some troubling trends when it comes to casting.

On the whole, the film does pretty well in depicting Arab and African peoples. There are lots of shots of faces in the crowd, men at toil, etc. So one would be hard-pressed to say Middle Eastern folk are not to be found in a story set in Arabia.

But looking over the principal cast list, there's nary a native among them.

Most of the leads are played by English actors: Ahmad (John Justin), the prince and ostensible hero; the Princess (June Duprez) he loves; her father the Sultan (Miles Malleson); and the wise old king/prophet (Morton Selten).

The villain Jaffar is played by the great German actor Conrad Veidt. The djinn role was handled by Rex Ingram, an African-American. And Abu -- who starts out as Ahmad's sidekick but eventually occupies the center of the story -- was played by Sabu, an Indian.

Western cinema has an enduring and troubling tradition of casting Caucasians as Arab, Latino and even African characters. Heck, the forthcoming "Prince of Persia" movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal.

But the fact that this English production appears to lack an Arab in a single speaking role does leave an unpleasant tinge.

The other thing that struck me watching this movie is its intended audience. Nowadays, studios tend to delineate their productions into specific targets: Adult dramas, romantic comedies, gross-out comedies, etc. Seen today, "Thief" seems very much like a children's film. In its day, though, it was viewed as a rousing adventure story for the whole family.

I liked it well enough, although the special effects (which won an Oscar) haven't aged very well. I'm thinking particularly of the djinn's flying sequences, which all seem to feature a motionless puppet. Even more embarrassing is the scene where Abu seeks out the All-Seeing Eye and is trapped in the web of a giant spider. The arachnid literally looks like a child's toy danging from a clearly visible string.

The story is based on "The Book of a Thousand and One Nights," which has spawned countless other cinematic versions, including a Douglas Fairbanks Sr. 1924 silent version.

Disney's 1992 animated film "Aladdin" draws particularly heavily from the 1940 movie. The name and look of Jaffar as an imperious figure cloaked in black was very similar to Veidt's portrayal. The brightly colored costume and childlike demeanor of the Sultan is virtually a straight copy. (Although the cartoon sultan doesn't get assassinated by a blue chick with multiple arms.)

Curiously, in most versions of the story the thief and the prince are the same character, although 1940's "Thief" splits them into two different people. Justin's Ahmad is frankly an uninteresting drip, and the romance with the princess is similarly drab. The filmmakers wisely keep its screen time to a minimum to concentrate on the adventure.

Ingram makes a real impression as the thunderous djinn, whose first impulse upon being released from his bottle after 2,000 years is to kill the one who freed him. Abu outsmarts him, though, receiving the requisite three wishes in return. Ingram, who also played Jim in the previous year's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," had a long career in film and TV.

Although it hasn't worn its 70 years well, "The Thief of Bagdad" remains a remarkable film, one that set the bar for many subsequent adventure tales -- even ones that included Arab actors.

3 stars

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: "The White Ribbon"

"The White Ribbon" is a curious movie that is not about what it would seem to be about.

On the surface, it's mystery set in a tiny German town just before the outbreak of World War I, where all sorts of strange and increasingly vile attacks are directed at the inhabitants, presumably perpetrated by their neighbors. The incidents do not seem to be random outbursts of passion, but calculated acts of punishment.

This film, which won the top prize at Cannes and is an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, is an allegory inside a metaphor trapped in a parable. It increasingly becomes evident that it's a self-critique of German society, and how it allowed the rise of the Nazism.

But like poetry authored by an adolescent, the movie seems to rejoice in preventing its audience from fully grasping its hidden meaning. It delights in its own opaqueness.

This is what leads me to believe the film must be grasping at some higher meaning. If the movie merely operated at the level of its outward appearance, then it would all just be one big exercise in misdirection.

Shot in luscious black-and-white by writer/director Michael Hanecke -- who helmed the similarly convoluted French thriller "Caché" -- "Ribbon" is set in a pastoral town. Stubbornly agrarian and religious, things have gone on in the town more or less the same for centuries. The baron owns the farmland and employs half the residents, and the church keeps everyone strictly in line.

The most obvious characteristic of this mini-society is its extreme patriarchal nature. Every family is ruled over by the father like his own mini-barony, each man in turn knuckling under to the next fellow up in the hierarchy.

The young schoolteacher (Christian Friedal) serves as narrator, though he's telling his tale decades later with no apparent insight or agenda.

Events begin with the doctor (Rainer Bock) being tripped off his horse and severely injured by a wire strung through his garden. Next the baron's young son is kidnapped and whipped. Incensed, the baron demands answers, while the baroness decamps with the children to Italy.

The children of the village are disquietingly omnipresent -- poking their heads into windows, listening in on conversations, asking after the state of those who've been injured. The leaders seem to be Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), the oldest children of the stern pastor (Burghart Klaußner).

For a minor offense, the pastor ties white ribbons to his eldest to remind them to be good. By today's standards we would call him a domineering parent, but by the town's standards he's about average. Late in the movie, the doctor returns to show us what the low end looks like.

This dynamic goes on and on, with the violence growing worse and the identity of the perpetrators more clear. The retarded son of the midwife (Susanne Lothar), who is also the doctor's mistress, is attacked and nearly blinded. The doctor suddenly rejects the midwife's affections, in a scene of unimaginable and bewildering cruelty.

Knowing little about German guilt, I can only take a stab at the film's deeper themes. Something about how blind devotion to fathers (read: Fatherland) leads to an unthinking, timid society with the dry rot of depravity hidden underneath the tidy exterior.

What I do know is that "The White Ribbon" is more interested in disturbing its audience than enlightening them.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Video review: "The Damned United"

In 10 days the Academy Awards will be announced. One film whose name won't be mentioned, but deserves to be, is "The Damned United."

This excellent drama about Brian Clough's disastrous 44-day tenure as manager of the powerhouse soccer (football) team Leeds United features a terrific, charismatic performance by Michael Sheen. Sheen plays Clough as a brilliant man whose pursuit of excellence was so single-minded, he let his ego and his arrogance overwhelm him.

But no Best Actor nomination for Sheen. Red card, Academy!

Another name that won't be called is Timothy Spall, who gives a great understated turn as Peter Taylor, the quiet genius who stood behind and to the right of Clough.

Even for someone like me who doesn't care for soccer, "The Damned United" offers an engaging portrait of the game circa 1974 -- the managers, the players, the owners and the media.

At first the film's focus is on Clough's obsession with eradicating the memory of his predecessor, Don Revie, who preached a win-at-all-costs creed that Clough deemed cheating.

But gradually the focus shifts to the sibling-like relationship between Clough and Taylor. It was a partnership of very different men that resulted in sports glory.

The expansive and impressive video extras are the same for Blu-ray and DVD versions.

A commentary track by Sheen, director Tom Hooper and producer Andy Harries is an insightful give-and-take, including the revelation that Leeds was hesitant to let them film at their stadium because they feared a hatchet job. Having finally secured permission, the trio joke that they then opened their movie with a montage of footage showing cheap shots by Leeds players.

Nine deleted scenes total more than 30 minutes of screen time, and reveal a deeper take on Clough's rift with his star player, Billy Bremner.

There's a fairly conventional 16-minute making-of documentary, and featurettes with Sheen talking about how he developed his character and delivering media bites dubbed "Cloughisms." Sheen offers the startling observation that Clough's mesmerizing power over his players was almost cult-like.

For football fans, two other features give about a half-hour of perspective on the real Clough and the game of the 1970s, including interviews with some of the real Leeds players depicted in the movie.

Movie: 4 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, February 22, 2010

Reeling Backward: "King Solomon's Mines"

Stewart Granger was the biggest film star in England before 1950, but few in the States had heard of him. "King Solomon's Mines" turned that around overnight.

The most famous adaptation of the novel by H. Rider Haggard was not the first one, or the last. Cedric Hardwicke played hunter/adventurer Allan Quartermain in a 1937 version, and people of my generation think of Richard Chamberlain as that character from the 1985 version. There have also been numerous foreign cheapies, an Italian Hercules crossover, and a Patrick Swayze TV movie.

Interestingly, all the film versions have sexed up the book by adding a female character for Quartermain to woo. In Haggard's original story, it was pretty much an all-male affair, except for some native women they meet on their journeys. Quartermain is hired to lead an expedition in search of a Captain Goode's brother, who wandered into the African desert in search of the fabled diamond mine.

In the 1937 and 1985 versions, the Goode character is changed to a woman and the lost relative is her father. For 1950, Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) is searching for her missing husband. This adds an extra layer of intrigue, since she and Quartermain fall for each other during their journey, but must restrain themselves because of social mores (not to mention Hollywood's Production Code).

Capt. Goode is still around, although he got decommissioned into Elizabeth's brother, along for the journey.

My biggest problem with the movie is that it's 90 percent journey and 10 percent adventure. Quartermain et al spend so much time getting to the mines, my eyes glazed at the thought of yet another shot of crocodiles sliding into a river or giraffes leaping across the plain. I suppose this was pretty novel stuff 60 years ago, but for me it got old rather fast.

The most interesting thing about the film now is its depiction of African natives. On the whole, directors Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton and screenwriter Helen Deutsch -- who also wrote "The Seventh Cross," recently featured in this space -- paint a fairly progressive portrait of the native tribes.

Yes, there's a lot of gee-whiz shots of them in strange outfits and dancing around, but the film seems to respect their culture while clearly exploiting its entertainment value.

Khiva, Quartermain's right-hand man, is shown to be a respected friend rather than a mere employee. Umbopa, the freakishly tall stranger who offers to be a bearer for the expedition, is revealed as a prince in exile returning to claim his throne.

It's notable that for the climactic showdown at the end of the film, Quartermain is a mere spectator. The duel is between Umbopa and Twala, the evil king who has usurped the throne.

Can you imagine Indiana Jones being a mere cheerleader for the big fight?

I was fascinated how the characters seem to be utterly disinterested in the riches of Solomon's mines. After being taken to the mines filled with diamonds -- where the skeleton of Elizabeth's husband is found -- they are sealed into a cave by the tribal witch doctor. (In the book, this was a female witch.) They escape through an underground river, but no one is shown filling their pockets with precious stones (as in the novel).

Once the fighting is all over, Quartermain, Elizabeth and Goode ride off into the sunset, leaving Umbopa and his tribe in peace, the riches of the mines intact. That's about how I feel about the film, one with great potential that remains unplundered.

2 stars

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Coming this week

The slowdown is officially here. I've only got one new movie review coming: "The White Ribbon," the German film nominated for an Oscar.

I've got a bonus video review today of "Dead Snow." I'll also have one for "The Damned United."

Classic film columns will be "King Solomon's Mines" and "The Thief of Bagdad."

Bonus video review: "Dead Snow"

Here's everything you need to know about this Norwegian horror comedy: It has zombie Nazis.

ZOMBIE NAZIS!! I mean, doesn't that say it all? I think after hearing this information, pretty much everyone can decide whether they want to chow down on this goofy helping of splatter fun, or avoid it like the plague.

Count me among the enthusiasts.

Directed and co-written by Tommy Wirkola, "Dead Snow" is a gleeful send-up of the zombie genre, while delightfully reveling in the blood-and-gore celebration.

The characters -- a bunch of medical students taking an Easter holiday at a remote cabin in the snow-choked mountains -- will often break into English to quote American movies or talk about them. One chubby fellow, who's a professed film nerd, even wonders if they aren't acting out the plot of a cheap horror flick with their ill-advised trip to the middle of nowhere.

When the group discovers a cache of gold hidden in the cabin, this same character intones: "Fortune and glory, kid, fortune and glory."

(That's from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," for those slow on the uptake.)

Unfortunately for our friends, the treasure was stolen by the Nazis from the local populace, who eventually rebelled, driving the greedy soldiers into the mountains to die. But their withered corpses -- still dressed in suspiciously fresh-looking World War II uniforms -- remain hungry for the treasure, and human flesh.

For a low-budget horror movie, the bloody special effects are pretty impressive. One person's head is ripped apart by several zombies, leaving his brain to splatter on the ground in front of his friends.

There's a lot of entrails -- they even play a role in the plot. One guy gets disemboweled and keeps on running, but his progress is halted when his intestines snag on a tree branch.

Another fellow makes like Ash from "Evil Dead 2" with a chainsaw.

"Dead Snow" manages to be both funny and horrifying. For people (like me) who love generous helpings of cinematic gore, this flick is a banquet.

DVD extras are pretty generous, and run longer than the movie's 91 minutes.

There's a detailed making-of documentary, and featurettes on the make-up and special effects processes, outtakes and sound production.

There are also a pair of lengthy video segments that chronicle the production ("Madness in the North!") and the film's marketing in the U.S. ("Madness in the West!"). Amateurish but often hilarious, these videologs capture the cast and crew in amazingly frank commentaries.

For example, Wirkola says that in casting his film, he simply chose the actors who would work the cheapest. The actors themselves jokingly (?) berate the film company as a bunch of cheapskates and amateurs.

Especially humorous is the cast's trip to the Sundance festival, where "Dead Snow" was a huge hit. One actor -- sporting a massive cold sore on his lip the whole time -- crashes a fellow cast member's bath, and comments that the rich American food is causing them all to poop several times a day.

What a load ... of fun.

Movie: 3 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Friday, February 19, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Fight Club"

"Is that what a man looks like?"

To me, that is the central question of 1999's "Fight Club," a revolutionary movie about revolutionary men in a time of complacence.

Like a thousand cinematic rebels without causes before them, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt play young men uncertain about their place in the world. Lacking fathers, traditional male role models or even identities beyond what consumer culture dictates for them, they define themselves by rejecting the definition that society has placed upon them.

To wit: Study, work hard, play nice, climb the corporate ladder and you'll be rewarded with a home with nice furniture, a decent wardrobe, lots of cool gadgets and a woman to marry so you can replicate your experience for a new generation of men.

Norton plays Cornelius -- though that name may just be an alias -- who works for a major auto company, calculating whether it's more profitable to fix safety problems discovered in their cars, or cheaper to just let people die. Troubled by insomnia, he finds an outlet in attending therapy groups for troubles he does not have: Testicular cancer, infectious diseases, tuberculosis, etc. Only in the emotional outpouring between the afflicted can he find the release that helps him get by.

He's annoyed by the presence of Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a chain-smoking fellow "tourist" who is also faking her way into sessions. Cornelius is a faker, but he needs to believe others' pain is real. They come to an understanding not to expose each other by splitting up their groups.

On a business flight soon after Cornelius meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a inexpressible cool guy who looks how he would like to look, fucks the way he would like to fuck, and does things he only dreams of having the balls for. They become friends and roomies when Cornelius' swank condo is blown up in a case of suspected arson, and he moves into the run-down condemned shanty Tyler calls home.

On a whim after a night of drinking, they each reveal that have never been in a fight. How can they call themselves men if they've never experienced the male ritual of combat with fists? They have a bout that's quite bloody but holds no animus. They're not fighting each other, but their status as boys who need this rite to call themselves men.

I'll stop myself right here to explain that near the end of the film it's unveiled that Cornelius and Tyler are actually the same person, halves of a split personality. It was a big reveal in 1999, but after more than a decade I believe the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired.

The film, directed by David Fincher from Jim Uhls' screenplay (based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk) was groundbreaking in that it was the first mainstream Hollywood film in which the reality of everything we'd seen is ultimately revealed to be false, or at least faulty. It was used so much in subsequent, inferior films like "Vanilla Sky" that it soon become tiresome. But back then, audiences hadn't been so gobsmacked by a turn of the plot since "The Crying Game."

This essay's opening quote comes from a brief, seemingly unimportant moment when Tyler and Cornelius board a city bus. Spying an ad for one of those Calvin Klein/Abercrombie type of outfits, Cornelius nods toward the portrait of a mostly nude boy-man, his body impossibly lean and completely hairless, like one of God's angels rendered in marble and put on a pedestal.

Is that what a man looks like? The irony, of course, is that Brad Pitt epitomizes the new standard of male beauty, a denuded figure that seems stuck in the in-between years of adolescence.

But beyond superficial indications, the question goes deeper. Does a man wear a tie and a white dress shirt and go to an office every day? Does he bring home a nice paycheck and drive an expensive car and have sex with lots of beautiful women? Are these the things that make him a man? In an era where it's no longer necessary for a male to prove his worth by strength and deed, these Madison Avenue cues have become their substitute -- and, Tyler argues, unworthy ones.

Tyler starts a movement built around underground fight clubs. There are some professional types like Cornelius, but for the most part their recruits are the disaffected and the downwardly mobile: Waiters, mechanics, bartenders -- the people in service jobs who keep things running to ensure the comfort of the comfortable, and who are looked down upon for their efforts.

The famous first two rules of Fight Club are that you do not talk about Fight Club, but of course people do and they spread all over the country. The combat is not about winning and losing, but the rush of fighting another man, just to say you are capable of doing so. The primal reasons for doing so in a modern society may have vanished, but these wayward souls want to -- literally -- get medieval on each other.

The film's chassis gets looser and looser in the second half, the suspension becomes balky and the steering grows uncertain. The movie (unlike our two anti-heroes) never drives right off the road, but it careens through the breakdown lane at times.

Tyler expands the fight clubs into something called Project Mayhem, with random acts of vandalism against corporate symbols evolving into outright terrorism. The final image, of skyscrapers of industry collapsing upon themselves in a manner shockingly similar to the World Trade Center towers, feels blasphemous now.

At this point in the story, the Tyler/Cornelius split has been revealed, so the audience isn't really sure how much of what we're seeing is real and how much the duo's collective, fermented imagination.

The character of Marla flits in and out as the plot demands. Cornelius can't stand her, but she and Tyler start having lots of wild sex, which of course is actually with him, since it's his alter-ego. It's not really so much of a well-defined character as the connective tissue between scenes where the filmmakers want to go.

"Fight Club" is one of those movies that needs the separation of years for proper perspective. When I first saw it, I thought it was a spectacular failure of a film, ambitious and unwieldy. More than 10 years later, it looks like a truly audacious movie with a lot of important ideas underneath the kooky terrorism plot and spurting blood of the club's arena. Give it another 10 for the true reckoning.

3 stars

Thursday, February 18, 2010

IFJA adds 10th member

The Indiana Film Journalists Association is pleased to announce the addition of its newest member: Eric Harris of Cannelton.

With Eric, the IFJA's membership has broken into double digits with 10.

Eric writes film reviews and commentary for his web site,, and is also published in The Perry County News.

The IFJA was formed in February 2009 to promote quality film criticism in the Hoosier State. Members must produce consistent, serious criticism in any medium.

Review: "Shutter Island"

"Shutter Island" is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, accompanied by a relentlessly over-the-top musical score. We know from the get-go that the movie is playing mind games with us, and we don't need to have read the novel by Dennis Lehane to figure out pretty early on what the end game will be.

It's never a good thing when an audience knows where a story is going, and waits around for the film to catch up. Director Martin Scorsese and his cast pile on the atmospherics, the 1950s clothes and cars, so at least the waiting room is pleasant to look at.

Early in my career, I eschewed talking with other people who had seen the movie I'd just watched, worried about inadvertently plagiarizing. Lately I've taken to exchanging views with my fellow Indianapolis critics after a screening. We all know each other, so nobody's offended when there are disagreements. If someone says something brilliant, the others are polite enough to let him/her keep it without copycatting.

After "Shutter Island," a half-dozen of us sat around looking at each other, struggling to come up with anything to say. No one seemed blown away by the movie. Nobody really hated it, either. Joe Shearer enumerated some continuity errors that others had also noted but I hadn't, suggesting it was a deliberate attempt to comment on the characters' fractured state of mind.

About the only thing we all agreed on was that this is the sort of movie that requires several viewings to fully digest.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in his third outing with Scorsese, plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient from Ashcliff, a prison for the criminally insane on a forbidding island in Boston Harbor. The facility, nicknamed Shutter Island, is brimming with beefy security guards toting high-powered rifles, who eye Daniels warily as he disembarks from the ferry -- the only way on or off the island.

Teddy's got a new partner, Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo. They quickly form a hard-boiled detective trust, although it's clear Teddy isn't telling Chuck everything. Over time, we get a few tidbits: An arsonist named Laeddis (Elias Koteas) who burned down an apartment building, killing Teddy's wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), is secretly being held at Ashcliff. In response to Chuck's worried looks, Teddy promises he's not there to kill Laeddis.

The facility is run by a prim doctor, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who is less than forthcoming with personnel files and other information necessary for the marshals' investigation. The staff is squirrely, and the patients have obviously been coached in their answers. The warden (Ted Levine) seems ready to engage Teddy in mortal combat at the drop of a hat.

Topping things off, one of the doctors appears to be an ex-Nazi -- which doesn't sit well with Teddy, who as a soldier helped liberate Dachau and saw first-hand the brutality there. (The doc is played by Max von Sydow, I guess with the notion that American audiences can't tell the difference between Swedish and German accents.)

Like an endless ball of yarn, the more of the mystery Teddy and Chuck unspool, the more confusing things continue to get. They suspect the doctors are performing heartless experiments on the mentally ill. A former patient, George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley), who after his release tipped Teddy off about the goings-on at Ashcliff, turns up in one of the dungeons, beaten to a pulp. Teddy's migraines, usually accompanied by visions of Dolores warning him about dangers ahead, grow more frequent.

I can't give away more, but by this point most audience members will have figured things out for themselves.

The music is omnipresent in the film, to the point of becoming comedic. When Chuck and Teddy first arrive at the facility's steel-and-brick compound, the score reaches an incredible volume of surging minor chords. I'm guessing Scorsese and music supervisor Robbie Robertson were going for something, but I confess I don't know what it is. They say film scores should be felt but not heard; this one not only intrudes into the foreground, it wants to be the life of the party.

"Shutter Island" is an expertly-made movie that left me at times exasperated, but occasionally intrigued. It feels like an exercise in mood manipulation, with the entire plot operating as a MacGuffin to set up scenes of squirm-inducing paranoia. This film doesn't draw its audience in, but treats them like something to be experimented upon.

2.5 stars

Review: Oscar nominated short films

All 10 Oscar nominees in the two short film categories (Live Action and Animated) are playing on a single bill. Here are mini-reviews:


"Kavi" -- This drama about an Indian boy living in virtual slavery features a powerful performance by child actor Sagar Salunke. Kavi lives with his parents making mud bricks all day, but dreams of going to school. He tends a small potted plant that he imagines is a farm. A searing look at a real-world problem affecting millions.
Grade: 3 stars

"The Door" -- The Chernobyl disaster is made personal in this look at a family visited by tragedy when the nuclear meltdown turns everyone in town into "ticking time bombs," in the words of the narrator. A father, he sneaks back into his old apartment to steal a door, whose ultimate purpose is heart-breaking.
Grade: 2.5 stars

"Miracle Fish" -- Bewildering tale of a poor Australian boy's increasingly bizarre 8th birthday. He's teased at school for receiving no presents other than a toy fish that's supposed to tell your fortune. He falls asleep in the infirmary, and wakes up to find the school deserted. Ends with a loopy encounter and then sudden, repellent violence.
Grade: 2 stars

"The New Tenants" -- The blackest of black comedies opens with a monologue about how people are dying horribly every day in hospitals, and then it gets funnier. Two gay men sit in their new apartment as they receive an ever-stranger string of visitors, including Vincent D'Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan. Bleak, bitter, weird and wonderful.
Grade: 3.5 stars

"Instead of Abracadabra" -- Delightfully quirky Swedish comedy about a 25-year-old loser who lives with his parents but imagines himself to be a master magician. The fact that he put his mother in the hospital with his sword trick doesn't diminish his desire to perform, especially for the cute nurse who moved in next door. I loved these characters.
Grade: 3.5 stars


"A Matter of Loaf and Death" -- Nick Park, the mastermind behind the animated man/dog team of Wallace & Gromit, has already won this award three times (plus an animated feature Oscar). This time the boys are bakers unraveling the mystery of a murderer targeting bread-makers. Plus there's a subplot of romance for Wallace, all accompanied by the usual stop-motion hijinks.
Grade: 3.5 stars

"Logorama" -- Ingenious French-made short set in a hard-boiled alternate universe version of Los Angeles where everything consists of advertising logos -- people, cars, buildings, everything. Some Michelin Man cops chase violent fugitive Ronald McDonald, who's not passing out any Happy Meals these days. It's a skewed view of America with plenty of satirical bite.
Grade: 3.5 stars

"French Roast" -- Short and sweet little French story set in a cafe involving a rich man, a paper-chasing beggar, a nun, a policeman, the waiter and an ever-burgeoning tab. Great animation style reminiscent of "The Incredibles."
Grade: 3 stars

"The Lady and the Reaper" -- A delightfully wicked Spanish short about an old woman who wants to die. She's thrilled when the Grim Reaper comes to claim her, since she'll be able to join her deceased husband. But an egotistical doctor has other ideas.
Grade: 3.5 stars

"Granny Ogrimm's Sleeping Beauty" -- The story of "Sleeping Beauty" gets an extreme makeover in the telling of a resentful elderly lady to her grandchild. In this Irish recasting, the heroine is the decrepit old fairy who wasn't invited to Sleeping Beauty's christening part, resulting in some nasty curses. So funny you'll cackle with glee.
Grade: 3 stars

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: "The Last Station"

"The Last Station" is one of those historical dramas that we instinctively want to like because it shows an important figure in a humanistic, fervorous light. Whether or not the events of the film accurately match their actual lives seems less important.

We'd like to think that the last months of the life of the great novelist Leo Tolstoy were filled with such passion, intrigue and romance. I tend to doubt it, but I like imagining so.

Helen Mirren is the star of this passion play as Tolstoy's wife Sofya. After nearly 50 years of marriage, she is resentful of the intrusions her husband's fame brings upon her and her children. Chief among these is Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the leader of a movement based upon Tolstoy's writings.

The exact philosophy of the Tolstoyans is a little murky. They are pacifists who eschew personal property, and Chertkov seems to want to take things further until all human vices -- including sex -- are forbidden. Chertkov says that love is the central tenet of this faith, but he doesn't hold much of it in his heart.

Chertkov wants Tolstoy to sign away the copyright to "War and Peace," "Anna Karenina" and his other works to the Tolstoyans to support the movement.

Sofya, though, views this as not only impractical -- what will her family live on? -- but as a form of marital abandonment. At one point she muses on how she helped her husband while writing "War and Peace," with not only copying duties but suggestions for the story, and it's clear she views her husband's accomplishments as the result of their partnership.

Chertkov recruits a young Tolstoyan, Valentin (James McAvoy), to work as Tolstoy's secretary and act as his spy. The lad is bowled over by the attention the famous author lavishes upon him, but he also finds himself drawn to Sofya, and develops sympathy for her plight.

A virgin, Valentin also finds romance with Masha, a free-love advocate living at the nearby Tolstoyan commune. Played by Kerry Condon, Masha throws an appraising eye at the nervous young man, framed by some gorgeous laugh crinkles that render him helpless.

Tolstoy himself is something of a tertiary character in his own story. Played by Christopher Plummer, the author is mischievous and mysterious. He tries to be modestly dismissive of the movement that has sprung up around him -- "I'm not a very good Tolstoyan myself," he chuckles to Valentin. But Sofya isn't far off the mark when she accuses him of being seduced by sycophants and flatterers.

Written and directed by Michael Hoffman from the novel by Jay Parini, "The Last Station" is an enjoyable if unlikely fictional version of Tolstoy's last days. It's an opportunity for actors to fling a lot of big emotions around, raging and cooing and reveling. (A stage version seems an obvious next step.)

I most liked the scenes between Plummer and Mirren. They paint a believable portrait of what happens to love over time. Tolstoy resents a wife who doesn't share his relatively newfound convictions -- he rages that "Our privilege revolts me!" -- while she struggles to claim any identity outside the shadow of the great writer.

Love may make the world go round, but sometimes even the deepest romance suffers dry rot.

3 stars

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Video review: "Coco Before Chanel"

Coco Chanel had as much impact on society as any woman of the 20th century. Her clothing designs were revolutionary, centered on the notions of simplicity and realism. Constricting corsets, huge flower hats and trails of lace and poofery all died off in the wake of her clean, elegant vision.

The movie about her life before becoming famous, "Coco Before Chanel," similarly opts for simplicity, smoothing out any inconvenient ruffles in the icon's history. The result is a film that seems magnetically repulsed by emotionality.

French screen queen Audrey Tautou strikes quite an imposing figure as Chanel, with her dark eyes and penetrating stare as she observes -- and dismisses -- the early 20th century fashions of her day.

The story concentrates mostly on Chanel's two major romances, with French aristocrat playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and English businessman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola).

Each in their own way, her lovers try to control her, or at least channel her talents in ways that suited them. But Coco repeatedly casts off any attempts to bind her in chains -- lovely and golden though they may be.

Extras are identical for both DVD and Blu-ray versions.

There's a 45-minute making-of documentary, featuring a lot of solo interviews with principal cast and crew. I have to say that the French take themselves much more seriously than do American filmmakers, and their ramblings about the importance of this or the significance of that quickly grows pedantic to these ears.

The exception is Poelvoorde, who's funny and engaging. Talking about what he did to prepare for his role, he casually dismisses Method acting. "I don't believe in this Actors Studio stuff. It's for people who have nothing to do," he says.

There is also an 18-minute featurette focusing on Chanel's young life, and 8 minutes of footage from the New York and Los Angeles premieres.

A commentary track by director/co-writer Anne Fontaine, producer Philippe Carcassonne and editor Luc Barnier is pretty slow-going stuff.

Lighten up, Frenchies!

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, February 15, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Seventh Cross"

"The Seventh Cross" reminds me very much of "Fury," another Spencer Tracy film that was profiled in this space some time ago. Tracy plays a decent Everyman who's hunted by the mob, and finds reasons for both hope and despair about the state of mankind during his run.

This film has additional political overtones since it was made in 1944 and set in 1936, before most of the world appreciated the threat of the Nazis' rise to power. Tracy plays the last of seven escapees from a German concentration camp. All the others have been captured and killed, their bodies strung up on trees at the camp that have been pruned and turned into crosses. The last, empty one is awaiting George Heisler.

Based on the novel by Helen Deutsch, screenwriter Anna Seghers doesn't even mention anything about why the men were imprisoned until more than halfway through the film. It turns out Heisler was a political agitator who spoke out about the takeover of Germany by Nazism.

Director Fred Zinneman doesn't take the gloves off in his depiction of the German people -- they're shown as being gleeful about the search for the escaped prisoners. In a disturbing scene one of the escapees, a former circus acrobat, flees the police across the rooftops of the town before intentionally plunging to his death.

Even small boys of the Hitler Youth enthusiastically scour the town for George, nearly discovering him in a woodpile.

There are some good Germans, though. The main example is Paul Roeder and his wife Liesel, played by the real-life married duo Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in their first onscreen pairing.

Paul is a friend of George who's so focused on his family and his job that he barely pays attention to the political unrest. He doesn't even know that George was sent to a concentration camp, and is now being sought by the authorities. The factory where he works has been busy cranking out weapons for the German build-up, but Paul doesn't care because his paycheck has swelled.

The veil over Paul's eyes is yanked away when he sees how his friend is being persecuted, and he soon becomes caught up in the underground movement. Cronyn would receive an Oscar nomination for his moving performance -- the only recognition he received from the Academy during his long career.

The film uses an interesting device that's effective, but it sort of gets misplaced. It starts out with narration by another escapee. After he is captured, tortured and killed, his narration continues as the voice of reason whispering inside George's head. The narration grows more and more infrequent, until it finally disappears for good. Storytelling tricks like that work only if the filmmakers are willing to fully commit to them, and here they seemed to lose faith in it.

Also unconvincing is a slapped-together romance between George and a hotel maid played by Signe Hasso. She helps him escape by hiding in her room, and then in the next scene Tracy is shown putting on his tie on. That's about as close to an explicit declaration of sexual intercourse having taken place as one got at that time.

"The Seventh Cross" is a decent thriller, one of the first prison break movies that became so popular after World War II. Spencer Tracy was one of those performers that audiences just immediately identified with and wanted to root for.

3 stars

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Coming this week

I'll have reviews of "Shutter Island," Martin Scorsese's new flick, as well as some Oscar contenders.

"The Last Station" received acting nominations for Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. I'll also have 10 mini-reviews of all the Oscar-nominated short films.

The video review will be "Coco Before Chanel."

I'll have Reeling Backward columns on "The Seventh Cross" and "Fight Club."

Friday, February 12, 2010

Review: "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief"

The studio would not screen "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief" for critics here in Indianapolis. It's something that's been happening more and more lately. Once, it was only tiny little indie films. Now, mainstream movies like this are skipped.

In this case, it was especially curious because several weeks ago they contacted several local critics and offered interviews with the cast. We took them up on it -- you can read the Q&A here -- but still no screening. Exasperating.

Usually when a film is not screened, it's because the studio knows it has a dog on its hands. "Percy" is not a dog of a movie; it's actually a pretty good one. It's a pleasant enough action/adventure story for the preteen crowd -- sort of a Greek mythology version of "Harry Potter."

Instead of spells, Percy Jackson (a winning Logan Lerman -- one to watch) and his cohorts have gods for parents: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Athena, Hermes, etc. This makes them demi-gods -- humans with magical powers.

Percy thinks he's a regular kid with dyslexia and ADHD, a loser whose mother (Catherine Keener) is married to a slob of a step-father. His only friend is Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), a cripple on crutches.

But when minotaurs and furies start materializing out of thin air to attack him, it's a clue that his daddy is actually Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). It seems some miscreant has stolen Zeus' lightning bolt, and he thinks it's Percy. Unless the lightning is returned, the gods of Olympus are going to war.

The movie is based on a popular series of books by Rick Riordan. Screenwriter Craig Titley and kid-centric director Chris Columbus -- who directed the first two "Harry Potter" movies -- aim for a slapdash of PG-rated mayhem mixed in with some Greek Mythology 101.

In their reckoning, the Earth is populated by hundreds of offspring of the gods, who have a tendency to visit and "hook up" with mortals and then skedaddle. Percy and his ilk think they've been abandoned by their parents -- a none-too-subtle metaphor for the divorce epidemic.

Percy is taken to Camp Half-Blood -- think Hogwarts as a summer retreat -- to train and learn about his destiny.

Grover is revealed as a satyr, half-man, half-goat and all girl-loving horndog. The headmaster is a centaur who had been posing as a wheelchair-bound professor at his school, played by Pierce Brosnan. Luke (Jake Abel) is the friendly son of Hermes who takes Percy into his confidence. Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, is the baddest warrior in camp.

(No hint as to why all the demigod students happen to be between 16 and 18 years of age -- was the early 1990s the Summer of Love for gods coming to Earth to knock boots?)

The plot is fairly simplistic and silly, something involving finding their way into Hell to confront Hades, who's taken Percy's mother hostage. First they have to find three magical pearls that will allow them to return from the fiery depths.

This, of course, involves fighting increasingly dangerous critters pulled from the pages of Greek and Roman lore. Uma Thurman has a nice cameo as a sunglasses-wearing medusa. Other star turns include Sean Bean as Zeus, Rosario Dawson as the spouse of Hades, and Steve Coogan as the original man in black himself.

"Percy Jackson" is certainly not a great film, but it's well-executed family entertainment that will keep even parents reasonably entertained.

The only supernatural mystery is why the studio didn't want critics to see it.

3 stars

Reeling Backward: "Le Mans"

As someone with a lifelong passion for cars, most people who know me are surprised when I express my indifference to auto racing. Or at least the American version of it. I'm part of the crowd that dismisses it as a whole lot of boring left turns.

I've always preferred the European model of racing, in which competitors drive on real roads, in real conditions like rain or darkness. The endurance style of racing, typified by Le Mans, puts as much emphasis on the reliability of the cars as their speed, and the constitution of the driver in addition to his skills.

"Le Mans," the 1971 film starring Steve McQueen, is an odd duck of a movie. There really isn't much of a plot to speak of, other than the race itself. There's very little dialogue -- I don't think McQueen utters a word until almost halfway through the film.

Directed by Lee Katzin from a script by Harry Kleiner, "Le Mans" is really more a documentary of European racing. The first half in particular is an almost fetishistic orgy of shots of zooming cars, tires being replaced, men wrapping themselves in fire-resistant racing suits and the spectacle of the crowd. With all the close-ups of mechanisms and metal, it's practically racing porn.

McQueen, a serious racer in real life, had very specific ideas about how he wanted this movie to be made -- so much so that he clashed with the film's original director, John Sturges, several weeks into production. Sturges had directed McQueen in his star-making roles in "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape," but walked off the set.

The production was an amazing orchestration between fiction and reality. It was shot during the actual 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans race. McQueen in fact intended to participate as one-half of a racing team -- at that time, two drivers alternated in each car -- but that idea was scrapped. But cameras were set up all over the track, and additional scenes were shot after the race using the same cars from the Porche and Ferrari teams.

The studio even entered a special car in the race equipped with cameras to record the action on the track. That car did fairly well, although the team didn't win because it had to make extra stops to swap out film reels.

So as one watches "Le Mans," you're seeing a combination of footage of the actual race and scenes staged for the movie, but using the exact same cars and equipment the real drivers use. It's the ultimate in verisimilitude.

Perhaps that's one reason why this film, which was a critical and box office flop, has gained a cult status among racing fans for its devotion to realism and detail.

Several crashes were staged for the film, including the one where McQueen's character, Michael Delaney, is distracted by a fireball from another crash and wrecks his own car. He's not out of it long, though, as the Porche team leader substitutes him into another car to replace a soon-to-retire driver who's gotten overly cautious.

There's also a romance of sorts, between Delaney and the widow of another driver (the striking Elga Andersen). Delaney was part of the accident that killed her husband a year earlier, and perhaps he feels responsible, so they exchange a few looks and bits of dialogue that suggest an attraction.

She asks him why men like him (and her husband) risk their lives for something that's ultimately unimportant. Delaney delivers probably the longest piece of dialogue in the movie, and the most memorable:

"A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it ... it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."

The movie does not exaggerate the danger of Le Mans. Serious crashes happen every year, and in 1955 driver Pierre Levegh catapulted his car into the crowd, losing his own life and taking those of 84 spectators with him. Another 100 or so were injured.

I really liked the film's ending. Delaney and his arch-rival from the Ferrari team, Erich Stahler, are both waiting in the pits while their teams work out mechanical problems with their cars, numbers 22 and 8, respectively. In the down time, number 21 from Delaney's Porche team zooms by and takes the lead.

Stahler takes off and catches up with the 21 car, driven by a young and inexperienced driver. Delaney uses his vehicle to block out Stahler so he can't pass, preserving a win for the Porche team.

As the young drivers are feted by the crowd with champagne, Delaney stands alone, ignored, even though it was his actions that guaranteed the win for his team. He looks over at the driver he replaced and flashes two fingers twice, silently cheering their car and its decisive --if unheralded -- role in capturing glory.

3 stars

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review: "The Wolfman"

There hasn't been a big-budget Hollywood werewolf movie in a long time, and based on this new venture there may not be again: "The Wolfman" is howlingly bad.

This film from director Joe Johnston and screenwriters David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker is a remake of the 1941 film "The Wolf Man" starring Claude Rains as a man suffering from lycanthropy, a movie that helped set off the monster movie craze.

The new version stars Benicio del Toro -- not that you could ever discern this fact from the movie's trailers -- in a glum, flat performance. Del Toro's no hack, so I can only guess he was trying to gauge his performance on some earlier interpretations, notably Lon Chaney, who portrayed the werewolf in the 1941 film.

If this new movie sounds familiar, that's because it was originally supposed to be released in November of 2008. It was repeatedly pushed back, and some new scenes were shot last year and computerized effects added in.

The result is a strange mix. The action scenes with the werewolf are exciting enough, although most of the kills seem to be of the "boo-gotcha" variety. Johnston starts out shooting the monster circumspectly, but about halfway through he switches to full-on gore mode. There's lots of torn limbs, spilled entrails, and ripping of flesh in long, stringy tendrils.

Then we switch the the "human" scenes, which are interminably boring.

Emily Blunt plays Gwen, the fiance of a son of Lord Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) killed by some beast. Del Toro plays the other son, Lawrence, a famous stage actor who returns to investigate his brother's murder -- and cast some goo-goo eyes at Gwen.

Lord Talbot is a strange figure who talks about how much he loves his sons, but behaves curiously indifferent to them -- especially whether they live or die.

The transformation scenes are impressive, but honestly aren't better than the ones achieved by "An American Werewolf in London" nearly 30 years ago.

Hugo Weaving is a welcome respite as Abberline, the Scotland Yard detective sent to investigate the murders. He has a great scene where wanders into the local pub and begins to read a newspaper. The frightened townsfolk demand to know why he isn't out hunting the creature. Abberline responds that since it's impossible for him to track the beast, it's better if he remains close to the largest concentration of "potential victims" -- i.e., the pub-dwellers swilling their pints.

The movie keeps tumbling along through alternating scenes of increasing violence and dialogue scenes of surmounting lethargy.

I have never fallen asleep in a movie, but I came dangerously close during "The Wolfman."

1 star

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review: "Valentine's Day"

"Valentine's Day" is more a marketing push than a movie. I have no doubt its genesis occurred in a cynical producer's office with dreams of opening weekend box office tallies -- not the den of a writer with a burning story to tell.

It's a manufactured film about a made-up holiday.

The movie boasts a huge roster of stars in one of those ensemble-casts-with-intersecting-storylines dealies. The boyfriend who proposes to his girlfriend is best friends with the woman who's a teacher with a boy in her class who buys roses from the first guy's flower shop, and so on.

Every time a new character arrives, we wonder where they will fit into this ever-expanding puzzle.

It's like "Crash," but everyone's moony.

I guess it's nice seeing so many cute young couples (and one older one, but still pretty cute) making big declarations of love and encountering romantic surprises. Some of the couplings are more interesting than others, and some of the characters you wish would go away.

The Meet Cute between Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts is one of the better ones. They're on a long plane flight, she falls asleep on his shoulder and they get to talking. She's an Army captain making a 28-hour round trip so she can spend a single day with someone special. He plays it coy but is impressed by her dedication.

Anne Hathaway and Topher Grace are a couple who've only been dating a couple of weeks when they have to face the daunting holiday that commands romance. She's got a rather kinky side job that might just send him for a loop.

"I'm from Muncie, Indiana," he explains. "The wildest thing I ever did was ... leave Muncie, Indiana."

Less intriguing is the sports newscaster (Jamie Foxx) forced to do man-on-the-street pap for Valentine's Day, when he wants to pursue the story of the NFL quarterback who has something big to announce. The quarterback's agent (Queen Latifah) is the boss of Hathaway's character, while his publicist (Jessica Biel) holds an anti-Valentine's Day party every year.

The movie starts with flower guy (Ashton Kutcher, who apparently actually has a career beyond Tweeting). He proposes to his sweetie (Jessica Alba), and he wants to tell the whole world about their engagement, while she advises keeping it quiet, which sorta hints where things are heading.

And so on. New love is found, old love is shaken, what was thought to be true love is shown to be not.

"Valentine's Day" is directed by feel-good king Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman," "The Runaway Bride") from a screenplay by Katherine Fugate. It's smarmy but not cynical. What it mostly is is unnecessary -- sort of like a holiday reminding people to be nice to the one they love.

2 stars

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Video review: "Good Hair"

Chris Rock got the idea for "Good Hair" when his young daughter came up to him one day and asked, "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?"

That simple question led to this documentary about black women's relationship to their hair that is heartbreaking and illuminating, and often raucously funny.

Rock roams into Harlem hairdresser shops, an Atlanta stylist convention, factories filled with vats of chemical relaxers, and even remote Indian temples to answer his daughter's question.

What he discovers is a multiple-billion-dollar industry built around the idea of convincing African-Americans their hair needs to be tortured and teased in order to look "natural."

Some of the funniest scenes are in Rock's interviews with beautiful black celebrities like Nia Long, Eve and Raven-Symoné, who talk frankly about the expensive weaves they braid into their own coiffures.

Rock travels to India, visiting back-alley sweatshops where human hair is processed in a primitive fashion to be shipped to Beverly Hills boutiques. He even observes the religious practice of tonsure, the wellspring of this river of hair.

But the movie's real heart lies in Rock's revealing chats with everyday folks in barber shops, in scenes that are both funny and confessional.

Other than a copy of the theatrical trailer, DVD extras are limited to a single item. But it's a doozy: A feature-length commentary track with Rock and producer Nelson George.

The commentary is nearly as much fun as the movie itself, and also offers a few special insights. For example, Rock met one of the film's principal subjects, a hair product magnate, while attending a fundraiser for Barack Obama at Oprah's house.

I also liked their running commentary about their trip to India, including a surprising find by Rock in the local airport, and George's decision to throw away his luggage upon returning home.

The lack of other features is grating, though. What's especially odd is that during their commentary, Rock and George repeatedly refer to things that will be in the DVD extras.

I kept hunting through the disc's menus to find these phantom extras.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, February 8, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Strange One"

Although not remembered as one of the classics of its era, 1957's "The Strange One" is notable for a number of reasons that urge its consideration as a seminal film.

The first is that it was essentially an experiment by producer Sam Spiegel, in which the entire cast and crew came from the famed Actors Studio of New York, the wellspring of Method acting that influenced generations of performers. It would be like a modern Hollywood bigshot recruiting a graduate NYU film class and giving them a few million bucks with which to make a movie.

Ben Gazzara, George Peppard and Pat Hingle all made their film debuts in "The Strange One." All would go on to long and respectable careers in film and television.

It also launched the career of writer Calder Willingham, who wrote the screenplay based on his first novel (also a play). Stanley Kubrick noticed his work and picked him to do the screenplay for "Paths of Glory," perhaps the most overlooked movie of the great director's body of work. Willingham also had screenwriting credits on a number of important films: "The Graduate," "One-Eyed Jacks," "Rambling Rose" and "Little Big Man" -- probably my favorite Arthur Penn flick.

A number of other people associated with the film did not enjoy a similar level of future success. Rookie director Jack Garfein made only one other film. And actor Paul E. Richards, who had perhaps the boldest role of a homosexual cadet at a fictionalized version of The Citadel, saw his first and only screen credit of any kind.

Cadet Perrin McKee, or "Cockroach" as everyone calls him, starts out seeming a foolish and bumbling character, borderline moron in fact. But he later reveals himself as a schemer on par with any one of his classmates.

This was a time, don't forget, when Hollywood's production code forbade any overt depiction of homosexuality. Also notable is the character of Cadet Simmons, memorably played by Arthur Storch, a severely sexually repressed figure who is petrified when another cadet sets him up on a date with a woman.

The star, though, is Cadet Jocko DeParis, played by Gazzara. DeParis is a despicable upperclassmen who takes delight in manipulating and torturing those under his command. Even worse, he does this not out of any apparent sense of malice, but simply for the Machiavellian delight of it.

Willingham's novel and stage play were titled "End As a Man," but it was changed to "The Strange One" to emphasize the creepy charisma of Gazzara's performance. Neither is particularly great title.

Hingle plays Cadet Harry Koble, DeParis' right-hand man who experiences a case of the jitters when one of DeParis' jokes goes too far. While hazing Simmons and another freshman, Cadet Marquales (Peppard), in order to win poker money from another upperclassman, DeParis ends up framing a Cadet Avery for drunkenness. DeParis and his stooges beat up Avery and force whiskey down his throat to get him kicked out of school.

Avery's father, a major at the military college, confronts DeParis about his actions in an attempt to get him to fess up, but the cagey cadet brilliantly controls the conversation to gain the upper hand, in the film's most powerful scene.

It's a good movie, and would seem to be one in the long line of movies about the depravity beneath the shining surface of an elite prep school or military institution ("The Lords of Discipline," "School Ties") -- except for the fact that "The Strange One" was one of the first forays down this path.

For a movie that started a lot of careers, "The Strange One" also kicked off a worthwhile cinematic genre.

3 stars

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Coming this week

I'll have reviews of "The Wolfman" and "Valentine's Day."

The video review will be "Good Hair."

I'll have classic film columns on "The Strange One" and "Le Mans."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Roxanne"

Because he got his start doing doofy stand-up and comedies like "The Jerk," most people don't have an appreciation for what a cerebral guy Steve Martin really is.

This is a fellow who wrote a novel about Picasso arguing with Einstein, and penned numerous screenplays, including clever little movies most people didn't see like "Shopgirl" (he also wrote the novella). He also came up with the story for "Traitor," a terrific 2008 Don Cheadle movie that's worth catching.

So in that light perhaps it's not surprising that "Roxanne," which wears the clothes of a quirky romantic comedy, is actually based on the play "Cyrano de Bergerac" by Edmond Rostand. The story of a poet/swordsman with a comically huge nose has been turned into numerous movies -- most notably the 1950 film version that won Jose Ferrer an Oscar. But Martin, who wrote the script and stars, took the tragedy and took a left turn with it, both modernizing the setting and emphasizing the romantic and comedic elements.

He plays Charlie "C.D." Banes, the fire chief of a small ski resort town, who falls for the title character, an astronomer who's rented out a house for the summer to study a new comet. Of course, since his schnoz has its own zip code, she kind of dismisses him as a romantic partner. Instead, she falls for Chris (Rick Rossovich), the handsome but dim new firefighter at C.D.'s station.

Directed by the Australian talent Fred Schepisi (who also helmed "Barbarosa," featured in this space not long ago), "Roxanne" is a light, funny movie with a lot of deep undercurrents. It's a challenging look at the nature of love and attraction, and how people often fall for the outside package, deluding themselves into thinking the object of their lust must also have wonderful inner qualities, too.

The fact that it's about male rather than female beauty makes it all the more interesting. The movie's depiction dovetails with my own observation that handsome men tend to be pricks, and that women are much more willing to ascribe positive personality traits to a man just because she thinks he's dreamy-looking. Men learn very early on that just because a woman is beautiful, it doesn't mean she's a wonderful person, too. I think it has to do with the whole "Prince Charming" myth, that a perfect guy will arrive to rescue them. As a result, good-looking guys have a lot of women throw themselves at them, which leads to swelled ego, and hence the aforementioned prickdom.

In the movie's case, Chris is actually not a jerk, and is in fact painfully shy around women. That's why he enlists C.D.'s aid in wooing her with romantic, poetic letters. Of course, eventually he and Roxanne have to have a real date, which the boys nearly destroy with a cockamamie scheme to rig a transmitter in Chris' hunting hat so C.D. can feed him lines. When the radio goes on the fritz, Chris reveals an unfortunate glimpse of his real self, praising Roxanne's "knockers."

Of course, it all builds to Roxanne discovering that it is C.D. who really loves her, and that he is the one she fell in love with through his words.

The film is a real charmer, from start to finish. There's a lot of lovely throwaway jokes -- I love the one where C.D. buys a newspaper from a machine, looks at the headline and screams, and fetches another coin from his pocket so he can throw the offending paper back into the box.

There's also a lot of actors in nice supporting performances, such as Fred Willard, Shelly Duvall, Damon Wayans, John Kapelos and Michael J. Pollard.

This gem from Steve Martin, Fred Schepisi and company has both beauty, and brains.

4 stars

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: "From Paris with Love"

"From Paris with Love" is a dumb, violent movie, but it knows it. It doesn't take itself seriously, and features John Travolta in a performance of such impish glee, he's obviously enjoying chewing on the scenery so much he should have paid the filmmakers for the privilege, rather than the other way around.

It's such an adrenaline-filled, kooky kick that we don't mind that the plot makes hardly a lick of sense. Sometimes, boys just want to have fun.

Travolta plays Charlie Wax, an American spy sent to Paris do some clean-up work. And to someone like Charlie, getting things clean is a very messy process.

With a shaved head, goatee, gawdy earring and omnipresent keffiyeh and leather jacket, Travolta strikes quite an outlandish figure. The only thing more over-the-top is his behavior. Charlie's M.O. is shoot first, shoot second, and keep on shooting until your problems go away.

In one scene, Charlie goes into a Chinese restaurant looking for cocaine. He takes out his gun and starts blowing away waiters, and finally shoots holes in the ceiling, where streams of powdered narcotics start cascading down.

Who keeps cocaine stored in their ceiling? How did Charlie know it was there? If you're the sort of person who can't help but wonder these things, then this movie is not for you.

Charlie's reluctant partner is James Reece (John Rhys-Meyers), a young up-and-comer sick of his cushy duties acting as the American ambassador's secretary. He can't believe the way Charlie operates, and would rather be spending time with his cute French girlfriend Caroline. (She's French, so it's pronounced "karo-LEAN.")

Charlie clearly enjoys getting a rise out of James, so he does all sorts of crazy things to put them in danger, just so he can save their bacon. In one scene, he takes out an entire gang of drug dealers, then turns to James and thunders, "Tell me that wasn't some impressive shit!"

Based on a story by Luc Besson (who also produced) by screenwriter Adi Hasak, "Paris" was directed by Pierre Morel, who impressed with last year's "Taken." The characters played by Liam Neeson and Travolta couldn't be more different, nor the movies in which they are showcased. Whereas Neeson's ex-spy was a lesson in controlled lethality, Charlie is a giggly killer who really, really likes what he does.

At some point, the story turns from one about drugs to terrorism -- and it occurs just that abruptly. Charlie yells something like, "This isn't about cocaine, it's about terrorists!" And then they start chasing Middle Eastern-looking guys who are plotting to blow up something important.

One moment I have to comment on: At one point a character reveals themselves to be wearing a suicide bomb. In close-ups of the plastic explosives and wiring, you can clearly see a triangular sign in yellow-orange that says, "CAUTION." Now, what kind of terrorists put warning labels on their suicide vests? "Hey, we better let them know, since we don't want anything bad to happen."

I admit I went into "From Paris from Love" thinking it was going to be a supremely stupid movie. I was right, but didn't imagine how much fun idiocy could be.

3 stars