Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: "A Prophet"

"A Prophet," a big winner at Cannes and a Best Foreign Language Film nominee, is unlike an American prison drama. It's rambling and episodic, and some viewers may find their mind wandering. But it's got a great, authentic energy as it provides a roving-eye view of life in a rough French prison.

When he first arrives, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a callow 19-year-old punk who finds himself pushed and pulled between Italian gangsters and Muslim toughs. By the end of this 2½-hour journey, he's got his hands on the puppet strings.

It's almost like watching a latter-day Michael Corleone transform himself into a hardened killer in a walled-off multicultural landscape of shifting loyalties and deadly intrigue.

Throughout, Malik remains something of a cipher. We never learn what crime earned him a six-year prison sentence. Or why he has a web of scars on his face and torso. During his arrival interview, a guard asks him about his religion, ethnicity, dietary needs, etc. Malik's response is a noncommittal shrug that he's "nothing special."

But because he speaks Arabic as well as French, he's recruited by the Corsican mob to assassinate Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab who's slated to testify at an upcoming trial. Threatened with being killed or become a murderer, Malik goes along with the plot, with horridly bloody consequences.

But then a strange thing happens: Reyeb starts appearing to Malik in visions, befriending him and counseling him what to do in the increasingly complex game of cat and mouse being played for high stakes behind bars.

Malik also meets a Muslim prisoner, Ryad (Adel Bencherif), learns more about his culture and feels drawn to his newfound brethren. But the Arabs reject him as a tool of the Corsicans, while the Corsicans treat him more like a servant than a comrade.

Niels Arestrup gives a terrific performance as Cesar Luciani, the silver-haired leader of the Corsicans. Although he's old, tubby and physically vulnerable, Cesar rules the prisoners and prison guards alike through a combination of charisma and intimidation.

Cesar initially treats Malik as just another disposable pawn, but over time he comes to trust the younger man, even seeing a little of himself in Malik. After a few years, Malik becomes eligible for single-day releases, which he uses to carry out errands for Cesar -- and do a little side business for himself building up a drug ring both inside and outside the prison walls.

This is where director and co-writer Jacques Audiard goes a bit astray. These outside jaunts begin to blur into each other, always seeming to end with a gun to Malik's head, as Cesar has once again put him in danger without any prior warning. It's no surprise that his fear for the crime boss begins to subside.

Despite the wildly different subject matter, "A Prophet" has a similar texture to another French film, "The Class" -- also nominated for an Oscar, one year earlier. It seems less like a story that's being staged for our benefit than a real-life encounter we just happen to be witnessing.

So there's no convenient story arcs or tidy plot resolutions. The very unevenness of the film is also what bestows its gritty power.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Video review: "An Education"

A good though not great film, "An Education" will be most remembered as the coming-out party for Carey Mulligan.

Previously a virtual unknown, she delivered a career-launching performance -- and earned an Oscar nomination -- in this drama about a young English girl who gets caught up in a whirlwind of romance with a dubious character in 1961 London.

Although the film didn't light any fires in its theatrical run, movie lovers are poised to discover Mulligan's nuanced, layered turn as "An Education" hits video stores.

Mulligan plays Jenny, a working-class girl whose entire existence seems to revolve around meeting her parents' expectations that she get into Oxford. She dreams of escaping her bourgeois confines and seeing the world, and meeting people "who know lots about lots."

One day she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), who represents everything she desires: He wears sleek suits, drives a rare sports car, goes to mod parties and whisks her off to Paris for romantic getaways. Though at least twice her age, the charismatic David convinces Jenny's parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) to condone the affair.

As Jenny edges closer to ditching her future -- despite the warnings of her English teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson) -- some cracks appear in the attractive pedestal upon which David is placing her.

Danish director Lone Scherfig brings an outsider's touch to this very British tale, showing the allure of both worlds in which Jenny rests a foot.

Extras are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray.

There is a rather conventional 9-minute making-of documentary, consisting of the usual collection of actors and filmmakers complimenting one another. Another 8-minute featurette, "Walking the Red Carpet," covers the film's Los Angeles premiere.

Eleven deleted scenes totaling 16 minutes are generally non-essential but interesting.

The most consequential is an alternate ending in which David confronts Jenny one last time and tries to woo her back. I'm glad I saw it, but at the same time, watching it only reinforces the wisdom of leaving it out of the final cut.

Scherfig, Mulligan and Sarsgaard team up for a lively and entertaining commentary track. It's so rare to see a director and her principal cast members engaging one another, and this engaging trio offer plenty of insights, and laughs.

Movie: 3 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 29, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Blackboard Jungle"

"Blackboard Jungle" is an amazing film, but to me this is the most amazing: It was written, shot, edited and released in the space of three months.

It went on to become a watershed movie about youth violence. It launched the career of Vic Morrow, as the chief hoodlum, and gave a big boost to that of Sidney Poitier. Jamie Farr debuted as a slow-witted student. And it was one of Glenn Ford's better-known roles.

If that weren't enough, the last-minute prominent inclusion of Bill Haley & The Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" into the soundtrack was credited with helping launch rock 'n' roll.

How writer/director Richard Brooks (working from the novel by Evan Hunter) accomplished all that in 90 days is beyond me.

Seen today, it's still a gripping account of a well-meaning young teacher faced with a school full of problem kids who don't want to learn. The depiction of social unrest is rather dated -- the worst thing the miscreants do is steal a newspaper truck and beat up teachers -- but the dramatic tension of teachers vs. students has aged well.

There's been a long and often ignoble tradition of movies about teachers in rough schools, and "Blackboard Jungle" kicked it off. It got me to thinking that even over-the-top revenge fantasies like "The Substitute" and "187" are descendants of this film, though the nut has rolled pretty far downhill from the tree.

Ford plays Rick Dadier, a WWII vet who went to a girls' college on the GI Bill and is looking to launch his teacher career at North Manual High School. It's a rough inner-city school where the students all seem to wear greasy ducktail haircuts, leather jackets and perpetually smug expressions. The principal seems delusional in insisting that there's no disobedience problem at his school, as long as it doesn't come spilling in his door.

Things start right off the first day in the classroom when Dadier nearly has his head taken off by a hurled baseball. The crushed section of blackboard, looking a spider web, remains throughout the school year.

The chief troublemakers are Artie West (Morrow) and Greg Miller (Poitier), the leaders of the other boys. Dadier spends most of the movie under the mistaken impression that the two are in cahoots, when in fact they can't stand each other. Miller turns out to be a smart, hardworking kid who's just seen two many adults turn their back on his school, and him.

West is a straight-out criminal, organizing his gang to beat up Dadier and another teacher after they've been drinking in a bar. He even sends letters to Dadier's pregnant wife claiming he's having an affair with another teacher. One day Dadier accosts West on the street after seeing some of his gang knock over a truck. "This is my classroom out here," West warns. "And I'm gonna teach you."

Poitier and Morrow were both pushing 30 when they starred in the movie, which itself has become a long-standing cinematic tradition for films set in high schools. Poitier would go on to star in a similar movie himself -- this time as the teacher -- a dozen years later with "To Sir, with Love."

Louis Calhern has a nice supporting role as a veteran teacher who's given up all hope, but can't help rooting for his enterprising younger colleague. Richard Kiley plays a fellow rookie who isn't as successful in reaching out to his kids. There's a scene where he announces that he's going to bring his swing records into the classroom so his students can study the mathematical construction of the melody, and we already know what's coming.

Despite the slight staleness of the plot, "Blackboard Jungle" remains a riveting drama filled with some wonderful performances. Ford is especially touching as a frustrated guy who doesn't know whether to use compassion, violence, friendliness or some other tool in order to break through. In the end, he does it by showing them a movie.

3.5 stars

Friday, March 26, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Little Big Man"

There are a lot of things to love about 1970's "Little Big Man."

It's one of the first great Revisionist Westerns, when Hollywood began to throw a baleful eye at the portrayal of American Indians in the movies it had made up until then. Long before "Dances With Wolves," it depicted a white man who lives among both Indians and U.S. soldiers, and finds the latter lacking.

The film wears the clown face of a comedy, but has many moments of pathos and even some of disturbing tragedy. It eases seamlessly in and out of these disparate moods without ever seeming discombobulated. There's a gentle world-weariness, with a sense of outrage buried beneath the satire. It's the sort of Western Charlie Chaplin might have made if he'd been born 50 years later.

The makeup turning Dustin Hoffman into a believable 121-year-old man still looks amazing 40 years later -- compare it with the combination of makeup and computer assistance for "Benjamin Button," and I think it holds its own quite well. Artist Dick Smith was not nominated for an Academy Award only because they didn't have that category back then.

Based on the novel by Thomas Berger, the screenplay for "Little Big Man" was written by Calder Willingham (whose first movie script, "The Strange One," was featured in this space not too long ago.) And, of course, it was directed by Arthur Penn, whose heyday as a filmmaker ("Bonnie and Clyde") was rather short but intense -- "Little Big Man" more or less marked the end of it.

Hoffman plays the titular character, a man who saw every face of the Old West. He was an Indian fighter, a member of the Cheyenne tribe, a mule skinner, snake oil salesman, drunk, gunfighter, merchant and hermit. Structurally, there's a lot of similarity to "Forrest Gump," with the main character a naive bumbler who stumbles across all sorts of famous people, and acts as our guide through the history we thought we knew.

The framing story is set in the 1950s, with the extremely aged Jack Crabb relating his story to a skeptical historian. Crabb claims to be the sole surviving white man from the Battle of Little Big Horn.

General George Armstrong Custer, played by Richard Mulligan, is depicted as a cartoonish figure, more inept than evil. Crabb and Custer repeatedly run into each other, with Custer's attitude to the little man growing darker each time. It builds to their final confrontation right before the massacre, with Crabb goading the vainglorious Custer into a foolish charge -- revenge for the general's earlier massacre of Crabb's Cheyenne family.

(I should note that in the film Custer is always referred to as a general, although at the time of his death at age 36 he was actually a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Cavalry. He did receive a temporary battlefield promotion to major general during the Civil War.)

Another historical figure Crabb meets in his journeys is Wild Bill Hickok, played by Western mainstay actor Jeff Corey. Crabb is at this time a wannabe gunfighter calling himself the Soda Pop Kid. After watching Hickok gun down an assassin, and coolly commenting at the bloody mess that he hit both the heart and lungs with one shot, the Soda Pop Kid decides to go into the mercantile business.

Martin Balsam plays Merriweather, a con man who keeps getting whittled down by life -- quite literally, losing an eye here, a hand there. Faye Dunaway plays the young wife of a reverend who briefly adopts the teen Crabb after he's recovered from the Indians who raised him after his settler parents were killed. Her mix of lustiness and protestations of religious fervor make for a memorable turn.

Crabb's longest and most important relationship is with his adopted grandfather, Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George, who received the lone Oscar nomination for "Little Big Man." It's a terrific role, with wisdom, humor and heart, and George makes the most of it.

"Little Big Man" unfortunately has not maintained much of a reputation over the decades, which is a pity. I consider it one of the minor Western masterpieces.

4 stars

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Review: "Hot Tub Time Machine"

A movie called "Hot Tub Time Machine" sounds like a really bad sex comedy from the '80s -- except that it's actually a pretty decent comedy about some fortysomething guys who get to relive their wild teen days.

It even stars John Cusack, a guy who made his bones in flicks like "The Sure Thing." He gets to headline a movie that is not so much poking fun at the Decade of Reagan, as mocking movies of that era.

In fact, when Cusack and his crew get back to 1986 Kodiak Valley, the setting is almost a straight lifting of "Hot Dog: The Movie": Lovable losers take on preppie bullies at a partying ski lodge, with a whole lot of binge drinking and topless shenanigans.

It's an orgy of teased hair, DayGlo-colored outfits and hard-rock love ballads. And it's actually pretty dang funny.

Cusack, Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry are Adam, Nick and Lou (whose nickname is "The Violator," which I hope he did not give himself) -- three best buds and former party animals turned middle-aged has-beens.

As the story opens Adam has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Nick is stuck working at a pet clinic called 'Sup Dawg?, and Lou nearly dies rocking out to Motley Crue sitting in his garaged Firebird as deadly fumes spew.

They decide to recapture their glory days at Kodiak, but find the town hit hard by the Great Recession. Their old ski lodge is falling apart, and the surly one-armed bellhop looks suspiciously like Crispin Glover.

But after they jump into the hot tub and zap themselves 24 years into the past, they get a chance to right some wrongs.

For Adam, that means not breaking up with the dream girl he let get away. For Nick, it means not whiffing at his big shot on stage with his band. For Lou, it means not getting repeatedly beat up by the preppy ski patrol head goon.

Initially, the guys are not happy about going back in time. When they look at each other, they see their lumpy, graying selves. But in the mirror and to others, they're 19 again. After some dithering, they decide to revel in and remake their youth.

Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) is along for the ride, which threatens the sanctity of the time-space continuum since he wasn't even born in 1986. But given that the time machine is a hot tub, metaphysical musings are perhaps misplaced.

Oh, and Chevy Chase turns up as a cranky hot tub repairman who may or may not be in on the time travel. He keeps promising to repair the temperamental machine, and then disappears. He's like Mr. Miyagi crossed with Carl Spackler.

The constant stream of jokes about how strange and funny things were in the '80s somehow never gets old. The ski patrol convinces themselves that the iPods, cell phones and energy drinks they confiscated from the guys are actually a Russian plot.

And I liked the bit where Jacob meets a girl, and asks how he'll get in touch with her since he can't e-mail, text or call her on her cell: "You just come find me." "That sounds so exhausting."

"Hot Tub Time Machine" is essentially just a clever retread, but at least it's a consistently humorous one.

3 stars

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon"

Like "Kung Fu Panda," "How to Train Your Dragon" is a slickly-made computer-generated animated flick for kids that unexpectedly turns out to have a whole lot of soul.

Actually, I preferred "Dragon" over "Panda." Both movies are from the DreamWorks animation team, but this one borrowed a little old-school Disney magic.

The writing/directing duo of Dean DuBlois and Chris Sanders are veterans of hand-drawn animation who made the wonderful "Lilo & Stitch" for The Company That Walt Built back in 2002, then jumped ship to DreamWorks. "Dragon" milks similar themes about young outcasts learning to celebrate their differentness, with some slightly subversive humor mixed in.

In this case, Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) is the wimpiest Viking who ever lived. While the rest of his clan are barrel-chested barbarians who live to fight the many dragons that plague the island of Berk, Hiccup is small and scrawny. He's better at tinkering with gadgets in the blacksmith shop than swinging an axe on the battlefield.

It doesn't help that his father is Stoick (a great Gerard Butler), the fearless leader who is mortified that his offspring is such an anti-Viking.

Gobber, the town blacksmith, clumsily tries to reassure the young man -- which leads to this hilarious twist on the trite old "be true to yourself" advice:

"It's not so much what you look like. It's what's inside that (Stoick) can't stand."

Determined to live up to the old man's standards, Hiccup enrolls in Dragon Training. Around the same time, he finds an injured dragon that he brought down using one of his gizmos. He tries to kill the ebony beast, but instead ends up befriending him and naming him Toothless.

So Hiccup spends his mornings learning to kill dragons, and his afternoons learning to fly on the back of one. It turns out the fire-breathing reptiles aren't the thoughtless killers the Vikings thought them to be.

Hiccup ends up learning all sorts of insider tricks about dragons that propel him to the top of his class -- much to the consternation of Astrid (America Ferrera), a fierce warrior and love-interest-turned-potential-enemy who resents being shown up on a daily basis.

I loved the look of "Dragon," where humans are depicted with exquisite realism, but with proportions just enough out of whack to give it a cartoony feel. The dragons, which come in dozens of varieties, are a delightful rainbow of horns, wings, snapping teeth and buggy eyes.

Actually, what the animation most reminded me of was that old "Dragon's Lair" video game. In 3D, it pops off the screen without any self-conscious look-at-me tricks.

The film is based on the book by Cressida Cowell, and screenwritten by Sanders and DuBlois (with an assist from Adam F. Golberg and Peter Tolan). It boasts plenty of pulse-racing action scenes, but the film's heart lies with characters and subtext.

For instance, I really admired the subtle way the theme of overcoming disabilities is woven into the story. Toothless has a malformed tail -- possibly injured when he was shot of the sky? -- and can't fly straight until Hiccup makes him a prosthetic aileron. And Gobber has a peg leg and an interchangeable hand that don't seem to slow him down a bit.

Fun and fresh, "How to Train Your Dragon" is one of the best films so far this young year, animated or otherwise.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: "Chloe"

"Chloe" is a superbly acted, expertly made sex thriller. It stars Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson as a married couple experiencing a case of the middle-age blahs. It's a treat to watch these skilled veterans executing their craft, as their characters live together without really communicating, their emotional estrangement almost a physical presence between them.

But the film's real punch to the jaw is Amanda Seyfried in the femme fatale title role. The nice girl from Allentown who has been defined by her all-American parts in "Dear John" and "Mamma Mia!" astonishes us with a highly sexualized turn as a prostitute who becomes obsessed with her client.

A few months ago, Seyfried played straight woman to Megan Fox in "Jennifer's Body." With "Chloe," Seyfried's screen sizzle makes the overheated Fox seem like an ice queen.

Moore plays Catherine, a successful gynecologist who would seem to have it all. She lives in a sleek modern Toronto mansion, has a handsome music professor husband in David (Neeson) and a talented musician son, Michael (Max Thieriot).

But little cracks in her facade hint at deeper fault lines. She's annoyed at the way David flirts with seemingly every younger woman he meets. When he misses his plane and fails to show for the elaborate birthday party she spent months planning, Catherine suspects he's having an affair.

Happening upon Chloe, an alluring young courtesan, Catherine hires her to throw herself at David. At first she just wants to see if her husband will respond to temptation. But as Chloe's meetings with David continue -- and she regales Catherine with tales of their increasingly passionate encounters -- the film wades into some seriously kinky territory.

Devastated by the realization of her husband's adultery, Catherine starts to rely on Chloe's stories for her own sexual satisfaction. There's a scene where Catherine fantasizes about the two of them together while she pleasures herself in the shower.

For her part, Chloe seems to feed upon this erotic tension. Soon she's showing up unannounced at Catherine's office, acting as if they're friends. When Catherine is most vulnerable, Chloe becomes the aggressor, leading to some scenes that ... well, let's just say that I'm sure the MPAA gave them a good look-see.

Seyfried shows flashes of coquettishness, followed swiftly by an almost shark-like quality as she hones in on her target. At one point Catherine asks her how she can focus so on a client, with not just her body but the entirety of her person.

"I try to find something to love in everybody. Even if it's a small thing," Chloe says.

Based on a French film, "Chloe" was written by Erin Cressida Wilson, who has explored sexual territory before in "Secretary" and "Fur." The film was directed by Atom Egoyan, who doesn't shy away from depicting how people can use sex as a weapon, or as a means of self-deception.

There's one scene where Chloe finds pleasure by staring at some of Catherine's stiletto heels that elicits a frisson as taboo as anything you're likely to encounter with a mainstream film.

"Chloe" suffers somewhat from a predictable plot. The film builds to a big reveal near the end that sharper audience members will see coming a ways off. But it's a daring, splendidly acted portrait of two women who are not so unlike as one of them might like to think.

3 stars

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Video review: "Brothers"

"Brothers" likely got caught up in audiences' serial aversion to movies about our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Good ("The Hurt Locker") or bad ("Green Zone"), movie goers have consistently avoided these movies in droves.

"Brothers" falls somewhere in the middle in terms of quality, and is less about the question of the rightness or wrongness of American intervention than the dire effects on the flesh-and-blood soldiers sent there -- think "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Tobey Maguire, in a strong performance, plays Capt. Sam Cahill, a Marine shot down in Afghanistan. Everyone, including his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two young daughters, think he's dead.

Grace tries to move on with some emotional assistance from Sam's ex-con brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), which crosses into a gray zone of affection. When Sam, who suffered unspeakable treatment at the hands of the jihadists, is rescued and brought home, he has difficulty fitting in -- and resents his brother acting as surrogate to his wife and kids.

Based on a Danish film, "Brothers" was directed by Jim Sheridan from a screenplay by David Benioff. Sheridan has a great touch with actors, but too often the story telegraphs its punches.
As affecting as Maguire is as the good son brought low by tragedy, "Brothers" can't break free of a tendency to wade into melodrama.

Extras are identical for DVD and Blu-ray formats. It's a fairly lean list of features, but they're pretty meaty.

There's a fairly standard making-of doc that runs 13 minutes. Sheridan and Benioff talk openly about remaking the Danish film, concentrating less on the question of an affair than the relationship between the siblings.

A 16-minute featurette looks at Sheridan's history of films that concentrate on familial relationships, which is quite illuminating about his unstructured creative process. "In a certain regard, performance is a lie," he says.

The commentary is a rather straightforward description of shots and what the director was thinking about for each scene. It's not revelatory, but it is engaging.

"Movies now have become eye candy, trips of escapism," Sheridan opines.

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 22, 2010

Reeling Backward: "On the Beach" (1959)

Subtle as a sledgehammer, "On the Beach" is a movie about people waiting to die. Anyone who watches it will know exactly how they feel.

The 1959 film is set in the post-nuclear apocalypse. The entire world population has been erased except for Australia, and they'll soon be gone when the weather brings radiation poisoning to the holdouts in five months or so. Gregory Peck is captain of a U.S. submarine that escaped the bombs, and is sent out by the remaining joint Australian/American leadership to survey the spread.

(Even in 1959, scientists knew it wouldn't take five months for radiation to spread. But audiences probably didn't.).

Directed by Stanley Kramer, "On the Beach" was written by John Paxton from the novel by Nevil Shute. It's really heavy-handed stuff as the characters try to put a brave face on their impending doom, and take a break now and then to wail about how mankind could have been so stupid as to play around with nuclear weapons.

The story is set in 1964 -- the near-distant future. Peck plays Dwight Towers, the sub commander who still speaks about his wife and two children as if they're alive. He's not bonkers, or at least not more so than any of the other people trying desperately to maintain an even keel.

Anthony Perkins plays a young Australian naval officer assigned to Towers as a liaison, and Donna Anderson plays his nervous wife. Ava Gardner stars as Moira, a friend of theirs who soon gets caught up in romance with Towers. Gardner gives a vibrant, fetching performance as a woman with a big personality and an excess of passion, but there's a layer of self-hatred underneath.

Fred Astaire plays Julian, an English scientist who bears a guilty conscience, since he was one of those who helped build the bomb.

The most interesting thing about the movie is its depiction of how society adapts after the bombs have fallen. The short version is, not very much. They still have electricity, telephones and plenty of booze -- which all the characters help themselves to generously. About the only major change is that everyone gets around by bicycle or horse, since there's little gasoline for cars.

Although Julian does own the last functioning Ferrari in the world, which he intends to race in the upcoming (and last) Australian Grand Prix, despite being a bit long in the tooth for this sort of thing, not to mention a total novice as a race car driver.

The movie is quite dull and repetitive. There's lots of scenes of men and women sharing drinks and trying not to talk about the radiation that's coming to kill them.

Eventually, Towers and his crew do set out on their mission. It includes a side trip to San Diego to track down a mysterious Morse Code signal they've been receiving.

I don't mind a movie that's depressing, but "On the Beach" is simply a great bore. The anti-war and anti-nukes message is delivered so stridently, it feels more like a lecture than a forbidding cautionary tale.

1.5 stars

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Coming this week

A fairly busy week ahead.

I'll have reviews of new movies "How to Train Your Dragon," "Chloe" and "Hot Tub Time Machine."

The video review will be "Brothers," starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman.

There will be classic film columns on "On the Beach," an early post-nuclear apocalypse drama, and "Little Big Man," one of my favorite anti-Westerns.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Blow-Up" (1966)

It's always funny to watch a film from back when that was considered racy in its day. "Blow-Up" was the first English-language film by the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, and was picked up by MGM for release in the U.S.

But with its generous helping of nude(ish) flesh, the film couldn't get past the censors, still functioning in 1966 but wavering as more films with provocative material were becoming mainstream. MGM created a special distribution wing for "Blow-Up."

Seen today, the movie would be unlikely to get anything harsher than a PG-13 rating. The nudity is mostly oblique -- Vanessa Redgrave famously played an entire extended scene topless, but her breasts are never fully seen.

Based on a short story about a hip British photographer, "Blow-Up" is framed as a whodunit, but mostly is an exploration of swinging London of the 1960s. At the time of its release, it was viewed as a celebration of everything "mod." But I think the film, and Antonioni, paint a more critical of this movement than first glance would suggest.

Start with the fact that the protagonist, Thomas, is completely unlikeable. As played forcefully by David Hemmings, Thomas is vain, selfish, egotistical and utterly unconcerned with anyone's feelings than his own. A famous fashion photographer who yearns to be taken more seriously as an artist, Thomas treats his models as beautiful playthings to be manipulated and disposed of.

Perhaps the most famous image from the film is from Thomas' photo shoot with a supermodel (Veruschka von Lehndorff, playing herself) in a skimpy dress. At one point he straddles her on the ground while she writhes. Then he gets up and leaves abruptly: He's finished with her, and therefore she holds no more allure for him once her image has been satisfactorily captured.

At one point he complains about having to photograph women, referring to them as "these bitches." In another famous scene, he cavorts with two young girls who have come to his home studio hoping to become models, chasing them around and tearing off their clothes in a fascinating sequence that blends eroticism, subjugation and misogyny. They're all laughing, but Thomas wears a sadistic expression throughout.

Thomas doesn't seem to stand for anything, or possess any underlying principles. He's pure id, completely caught up in whatever grabs his interest in the moment, then moving on to the next thing once he quickly grows bored. He buys a huge airplane propeller from an antique store, then forgets all about it until the delivery man shows up with it.

He wanders into a park and takes some pictures of a man and woman canoodling. The well-dressed man is suspiciously older than the girl, whose name turns out to be Jane. She catches sight of Thomas taking their photograph, and confronts him to demand the pictures -- even trying to snatch away his camera and biting his wrist when he resists.

Later she shows up at his studio, again insisting upon obtaining the negatives. Thomas plays with her cruelly, thinking she's just cheating with a married man and doesn't want to get caught. She even undresses in hopes of seducing him in exchange for the photos. Thomas again resists temptation, and gives her a different roll of film.

When he blows up the pictures, he sees what appears to be a figure standing in the bushes with a gun. He returns to the park and finds the older man stone dead. Was the couple's foray into the park a set-up to kill him? Is Jane a terrified dupe or part of the plot?

Antonioni deliberately keeps the potboiler aspects of the plot at arm's length in order to explore the London scene -- the fashion, the music, the freewheeling spirit. Near the end there's an extended chase sequence where Thomas thinks he spots Jane on the street, and pursues her. This is where things really get interesting.

Antonioni depicts the twentysomethings of mid-60s England not as vibrant, brash rebels, but zombie-like figures dulling their senses with booze, drugs and emotional detachment.

While chasing Jane, Thomas stumbles into a club where a rock 'n' roll band is playing. Hundreds of young people decked out in fashionable clothes stand or sit, listening intently to the music but barely moving. They have no expression on their faces. A few heads nod almost imperceptibly in time, but otherwise everyone seems more mesmerized by the concert than enjoying it. A lone couple dance nonchalantly, their rhythmic activity serving only to underline the torpor of the rest of the crowd.

The band was played by The Yardbirds, performing their song "Stroll On." The guitarist is annoyed by static from a faulty amplifier, and starts hammering it with his guitar. Eventually he smashes the instrument and throws the battered remains of the neck into the crowd, which suddenly erupts into frenzy. The once-comatose audience scrambles for the trashed relic, which Thomas manages to grab hold of and flee the club, pursued by others who want the souvenir.

Once he gets away, Thomas looks at the half-guitar and sullenly tosses it onto the street. Another young man picks it up, inspects it, and throws it back down. It's Antonioni's comment on how the things the mod crowd value are so shallow and ultimately worthless.

Thomas wanders into a party looking for his friend and business partner, Ron, and finds everyone stoned out of their minds. He tries to explain to Ron about having witnessed a murder, but can't pierce his friend's drug-induced haze.

Returning to his studio, he discovers all the photographs but one stolen. He returns to the park to find the body gone. His chances of exposing the crime -- and gaining fame and fortune for doing so -- are gone.

Wandering around the park, he comes across a troupe of mimes riding around in a jalopy. (The same group opened the film, accosting Thomas for money, which he bemusedly gave.) He watches them conduct a mime game of tennis, even returning an errant "ball" that goes over the fence near him, and hearing the sound of nonexistent racquets.

I tend not to like rambling storylines like this, but I think "Blow-Up" is the rare film where the subtext is more interesting than the surface.

3.5 stars

Review: "Hubble 3D"

There's a moment in "Hubble 3D," the new IMAX film, that may make you gnaw your fingernails down to the stubs. Two astronauts, working for hours in bulky spacesuits, are working inside the guts of the Hubble Telescope to effect some tricky repairs.

One tiny slip among the delicate circuit boards and lenses, and Hubble's billions of dollars worth of technology is instantly transformed into so many pounds of space junk. It's especially poignant because the May 2009 mission is one of the final flights for the NASA space shuttle program.

Faced with budget cuts, NASA officials at first were just going to let Hubble -- which has been projecting amazing images from space for nearly two decades -- rot in orbit. A legislative push got the funds for a final mission to repair and upgrade Hubble.

"Hubble 3D" is the result of that blessedly successful endeavor. Writer/director Toni Myers -- and IMAX veteran -- splits the 43-minute film into alternating segments chronicling the mission to repair Hubble, shot by the astronauts themselves, and wading through the resulting images of their work.

Presented in drop-your-jaw 3D, both sets of images make for a fascinating and engaging journey into space.

Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, "Hubble" occasionally wanders into self-serving grandiosity: DiCaprio describes the launch mission for the telescope as setting "the great eagle" adrift "to soar in orbit." But the view is so breathtaking, that dollop of schmaltz doesn't detract for long.

The astronauts, with their all-American can-do spirit, might come across as caricatures, except that they're so serious and focused on their mission that we find it impossible to feel anything but empathy for their dedication.

"Now I know why surgeons go 'Yoo-hoo!' when they pull something out," one says after completing seven hours of difficult repairs. At least surgeons can scratch their noses.
Then there's the exploration through the vastness of the universe, which the 3D images translate into a virtual expedition.

As we watch whole galaxies whiz by and dive deep into the Orion Nebula -- ''a nursery for stars'' -- the experience is not unlike sitting in the captain's chair aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, with our commands sending us hurtling in whatever direction we want.

"Hubble 3D" is an IMAX film that stokes our twin passions for technology and exploration. Time to boldly go.

3.5 stars

Review: "The Bounty Hunter"

I like Gerard Butler. I like Jennifer Aniston. Both are intrinsically charismatic performers, who make an audience want to root for them and spend time with them. Put them together in a lame romantic/action comedy, though, and I wanted to haul them both off to cinematic detention.

What a lame, cynical, lazy and boring flick "The Bounty Hunter" is. It's about a burnout ex-cop who brings in criminals who jump bail, and leaps at the chance to nab his ex-wife.

It starts out with ... wait, do I even need to describe the plot to you? I think anyone with half a brain who's seen more than two movies in their lifetime could accurately predict the arc of this entire film based just on that one-sentence summation.

They fight, they play a running game of one-upmanship, they exchange enough bile to melt titanium right up until the moment they realize they are still, in fact, deeply in love.

"Bounty" is an original script by Sarah Thorp ... although I'm using the word "original" in a very loose sense. Imagine every cliche of the romantic comedy, and stitch it together with every shtick from buddy-cop action flicks, and you've got this movie. Director Andy Tennant ("Fool's Gold") layers on the bantering tone and physical slapstick.

Aniston plays Nicole, a hotshot reporter for the New York Daily News, chasing down a story about the supposed suicide of a police evidence clerk. It's the sort of portrait of a journalist in which she never speaks to an editor, never seems to have a deadline, sticks her nose into dangerous situations without a clue how to pull it out, and can disappear from the newsroom for days on end without anyone thinking anything is amiss.

Milo used to be a police detective, but turned to drink after the divorce and is now eking out an existence as a bounty hunter. He's in hock to a Jersey loan shark. When the chance to score $5,000 by bringing in Nicole drops into his lap, he's ecstatic.

Her arrest was something about assaulting a police officer with her car, but she ditched her hearing to chase down the story.

They have a predictable assortment of adventures, with a scary guy chasing them around and taking shots at them. All the time, Milo is determined to turn Nicole in -- but not before a few diversions.

They stop in at their honeymoon B&B, but get thrown out for misbehavior. They chase some hapless caddy across a golf course, and when they question him, the audience realizes there's no earthly reason he would have run in the first place, other than he once caddied for the bad guy.

There's even a scene, God help us, where the pair wanders into a casino. Milo starts rolling some hot dice with a little luck from Nicole, who blows on the dice before each toss. Of course, they get into an argument over when it's time to quit while they're ahead, she withholds her blessed breath, and they lose their whole stake.

Other than the dumb jokes and complete lack of originality, the thing that really kills this movie is that we never learn anything about how their relationship went sour. It's hard to understand the context of why Milo is so eager to cause her pain, since we never got to see any that they inflicted on each other. He's just a guy who wants to irritate his ex-wife because ... well, aren't guys supposed to hate their ex-wives?

"The Bounty Hunter" is nothing but a collection of hackneyed story threads and elements, cynically mixed and matched like drinking glass coasters. It is neither funny, nor charming, thrilling or interesting in any way.

1.5 stars

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: "Repo Men"

What a steaming pile of a movie.

Part sci-fi fable, part blood-spurting action film, "Repo Men" is a movie with a lot of ideas but no concept how to weave them together. It veers wildly from futuristic satire to knife fights to anti-capitalist screed, with a little love story and buddy-cop stuff thrown into the blender.

Here's the setup: Jude Law and Forest Whitaker are Remy and Jake, lifelong pals who traded the soldier life for repossessing artificial organs from people behind on their payments. And it's not some genteel transaction: They zap their targets with electrical darts, slice them open and tear out the mechanical liver, kidney, lungs, whatever -- even if it means death, and it usually does.

Now, you might think that it's hard to like a couple of characters who gleefully carve up other people for a commission. And you'd be right. The repo men -- who are for some reason marked with a special neck tattoo -- are essentially licensed thugs, not so much trampling on civil liberties as acting as if they didn't exist.

The film is set in a vague near future, where cityscapes teem with video billboards and vertical overdevelopment a la "Blade Runner" -- and yet Remy's car looks suspiciously like a 2010 Subaru with a few bolt-ons.

It's the sort of universe where miraculous "Artiforgs" are marketed to the masses, but firearms seem to be a forgotten technology: Jake and Remy rarely encounter resistance any stiffer than a switchblade.

Remy's wife (Carice van Houten) wants him to give up the repo life and go into organ sales instead -- it's still the same nasty business, but hey, at least now he can work 9-to-5.

His life gets turned upside down when a job reclaiming a heart from a famous jazz musician goes bad, and Remy's left with his own artificial ticker. Back on the job he discovers his taste for killing strangers has ebbed -- a real change of heart, get it? -- and soon he's behind on his payments.

It's not long before the creepy boss (Liev Schreiber) taps Jake to go after Remy. On the run, he teams up with a nightclub singer (Alice Braga) who has more replacement parts than she can remember.

My objections to this film are many, but here's the ones I can think up right now:

· Why is it that so many people need new organs? They're so numerous they band together into small armies to hide out from repo men. Is there something in the future water making everyone rot on the insides?

· Wouldn't you think if a company was sending out goons to rip people open because they can't make their payments, the media would be reporting on it, day in and day out?

· All the female roles seem to be played by actresses with indistinct, hard-to-place accents that make it very difficult to understand their dialogue.

· Remy is presented as a dumb, brutish guy: There's even a flashback to his Army days, where he's assigned tank duty because of his "small brain and big skull." Yet at one point in the movie, he sits down and writes an entire book about his experiences in the repo biz.

"Repo Men" is based on a novel by Eric Garcia, who co-wrote the screenplay with TV vet Garrett Lerner, and was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, his first feature film. Normally I try to be charitable to novices, but based on this borderline-unwatchable mess, their nascent careers should be recalled.

1.5 stars

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Video review: "New Moon"

"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" is soft-core romantic fantasy for tweens: An unremarkable girl is pursued by two intense, dreamy guys with super powers and a penchant for doffing their shirts, but who are content with holding hands and smooching.

I vividly remember at the screening for this movie, I was surrounded by hundreds of teen girls and their middle-aged mothers cooing appreciatively whenever 17-year-old Taylor Lautner's frequently shirtless, chiseled torso appeared onscreen. I kept wanting to ask the moms how they'd feel if I started slobbering over their semi-nude, underage daughters.


In a sequel to the hit vampire romance, high school senior Bella (Kristen Stewart) is abandoned by her blood-sucking boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson), who departs with his family from the tiny, cloistered town of Forks out of fear they'll be discovered. Local boy Jacob Black (Lautner) fills in the amore gap, despite dealing with the mother of all adolescent transformations -- in his case, into a huge, snarling wolf.

"New Moon" is actually a bit of an improvement over the first "Twilight," but it's still often draggy and much too long.

New director Chris Weitz (taking over for Catherine Hardwicke) has a better flair for the action scenes, which are more frequent, too. At least the fighting scenes have a little bite to them -- that's certainly more than you can say for these glum, dull teen protagonists.

To build the video release into an "event," "New Moon" is debuting this Saturday (March 20) instead of the usual Tuesday.

Video extras are the same for both Blu-ray and DVD versions.

Weitz and editor Peter Lambert team up for a feature-length commentary track. A making-of documentary is split into six parts, each concentrating on a different aspect of the filmmaking process.

There is also music videos from soundtrack bands Muse, Death Cab for Cutie, Mute Math and Anya Marina.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 15, 2010

Interview: Jason Reitman

Jason Reitman wears a gray skullcap and red plaid shirt. Together with a week's worth of dark stubble and an unlined, sharp-angled face framing penetrating eyes, he could easily pass as a slightly older, slightly more focused student on the campus of DePauw University, about an hour west of Indianapolis.

But at 32, Reitman has already achieved a reputation as one of Hollywood's top filmmakers. Despite the comic undertow of his three feature films -- "Thank You For Smoking," "Juno" and last year's "Up in the Air" -- there's a sobriety to his movies, as well as a consistent personal vision lacking in most of Tinseltown's hired guns.

Reitman is at Depauw to give a talk Monday evening to students and faculty at Kresge Auditorium titled, "Finding Your Place Up in the Air."

Speaking to media a few hours before while munching on peanut M&Ms, Reitman laid out his notion of being true to your own voice and how he approaches making movies -- which turn out to be one in the same.

How does he feel about the performance of "Up in the Air" at the Academy Awards? He pulls no punches: "Well, we went zero-for-six, so kinda shitty ... If you went 0-for-6 shooting in basketball, you probably wouldn't be thrilled."

He's never had to face someone like Ryan Bingham, the cool corporate heel played by George Clooney in the film: Reitman has never lost his job. But he has had to fire people, and says it isn't a fun experience. His method is to just be as truthful with the person getting axed as possible.

The son of comedy director Ivan Reitman ("Ghost Busters"), Jason bristles slightly at suggestions he achieved success at such a young age through nepotism. He points to his hustling days directing commercials, music videos and short films. While studying film at University of Southern California, he started a business distributing calendars to students as a way to make money to finance his nascent cinematic efforts.

But he also clearly has affection for his father, citing his advice as the best he ever received: "He said, 'Don't worry about it being funny. Your barometer for comedy is nowhere as good as your barometer for honesty. So when you're on set, don't ask yourself if this is funny, because you don't know. Sometimes people will laugh on set; sometimes they won't. Ask yourself, does this feel real? Is it truthful? Is it authentic?'"

Reitman has been giving these talks at universities and other venues almost since the start of his feature film career. He likes to encourage young(er) people to be true to their own voice, whether it's in filmmaking or any other vocation.

He does admit that he's not quite so forthcoming in these talks as Kevin Smith -- Reitman says he admires the "Clerks" director -- who's been known to answer any and all questions, even about his showbiz rivalries and sex life.

An avid film-goer, Reitman says his only financial indulgence after two hit films in a row was building a theater in his home with a 12-foot screen. Saying he's "never been interested in the silly stuff" of fame and fortune, he pointedly contrasts himself with Brett Ratner of the "Rush Hour" movies, who built an entire nightclub in his house.

Tiptoeing through the area of the unspoken Hollywood law against bad-mouthing other people's movies, Reitman says he does this with his friends all the time, but thinks it wouldn't be good manners to be in your face about it.

"You have tact -- don't just go out and be a jerk. My fellow filmmakers, we talk about other movies all the time. Like would I go to another director and say, 'Hey, you movie sucked!' I wouldn't say that."

After someone (me) pointed out that there are no other directors in the room, Reitman deigned to express his disappointment in Tim Burton's latest effort.

"I didn't like 'Alice in Wonderland.' I just didn't even know what it was trying to say. I liked the original 'Alice in Wonderland,' I thought this was just kind of ... a hodgepodge of shots."

He says he's not a big fan of the recent push to distribute movies in 3D -- for practical as well as artistic reasons. "As a storytelling experience goes, I preferred 'Avatar' in 2D to 3D. Some of that has to do with my eyes. My eyes just can't focus well in 3D. For some reason, things come across soft and my eyes feel strained... For me, there hasn't so far been a movie that has been enhanced by being 3D."

Reitman doesn't fret about box office tallies, other than the freedom monetary success allows him to pursue the artistic kind. "I've never really worried about what's going to be commercially successful. And I've been fortunate so far in that what tends to interest me tends to interest other people."

As for the future, Reitman is working on a screenplay adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel "Labor Day," about a 13-year-old boy whose life is changed by an encounter with an escaped convict.

"I think about my career and the movies I want to make over time. Absolutely. I would like there to be a continuity of personal (themes) throughout all my work. I don't know if I'll be able to keep that up. But that's my aspiration. I don't have to see myself in (my films), but I do want to explore something that I'm feeling -- most often a question that I have. I'm looking for the answer, and sometimes making the movie helps me find it."

Did he get any answers out of "Up in the Air?"

"Yeah. They're not satisfying answers, but they are answers. The biggest answer I got in 'Up in the Air' is that there are no answers, which is an answer in of itself. Life is very complicated. And you will never know if you made the right decision or not in life. And there is a value in living alone, and there is a value of living connected. That's it."

Reeling Backward: "The Privates Lives of Henry VIII" (1933)

As history, "The Privates Lives of Henry VIII" is a joke. The biopic about England's most infamous monarch ignores whole swaths of his life, invents facts about his marriages and portrays him in a way intended for entertainment rather than enlightenment.

Henry VIII has consistently been portrayed in popular culture as a fat, Dionysian figure whose lusts for food, women and attention were legendary. The 1933 film starring Charles Laughton and directed by Alexander Korda did much to spawn this trend.

Many people, therefore, were surprised when Showtime debuted its series about Henry, "The Tudors," in 2007 starring a conspicuously slim and dreamy Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In fact, Henry was an avid sportsman and accomplished athlete until late in his life, when a leg injury suffered in a tournament led him to a sedentary lifestyle that brought on obesity.

As you might guess from the title, "Private Lives" is about his famous six marriages. Curiously, the story begins with first wife Catherine already divorced and second wife Anne Boleyn about to head to the executioner's block. Sixth and final wife Katherine Parr only gets a few minutes at the end, so in essence the film covers only 3.5 of Henry's marriages.

Laughton won an Academy Award in this role, although I hardly consider it one of his greatest performances. Interestingly, the movie features several sequences where Henry looks into the camera and speaks directly to the audience -- a very rare technique in those days.

Laughton plays Henry as essentially a man-sized id, a walking vessel of desires. Although they're careful to show him to be politically crafty, it's clear that he's a man who just can't say no to indulgences. In one of the film's more famous scenes, Henry tears through a whole roast chicken, tossing the bones onto the floor of his dining hall, while complaining about how good manners have become a thing of the past.

One can only hope Laughton nailed the scene on the first couple of takes, otherwise he would've grown too fat to play Henry VIII!

After Boleyn is executed, Henry quickly marries Jane Seymour, who produces a son but dies in childbirth. Although by now he already has two daughters and a male heir -- not to mention several likely bastards, according to historical records -- Henry succumbs to his advisers' insistence that he produce more children.

He agrees to an arranged marriage with Anne of Cleaves (Elsa Lanchester, best known as the Bride of Frankenstein, in a standout turn). Anne, who loves another man, contorts her face to make herself appear ugly so Henry will divorce her. In the film's funniest scene, they play cards on their wedding night, with the stakes increasing and Henry losing.

Henry is depicted as genuinely adoring his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, but she loves his servant, Thomas Culpeper. Eventually their affair is found out, and the axe falls again.

Now aged and decrepit, Henry resists the temptation to remarry, but finally selects a scolding nag to help keep him in line. "The best of them was the worst," Henry chuckles to the audience in the final shot, underlining that this movie was about erecting the facade of mythology around Henry VIII, not peaking behind it.

2.5 stars

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Coming this week

Today I've got a bonus video review of "Cold Souls," which actually hit video stores a couple weeks back. Sorry for the delay.

The regular video review will be "The Twilight Saga: New Moon."

For new films, I'll have reviews of "Hubble 3D" and "Repo Men." Possibly "The Bounty Hunter," too.

Classic film columns are "The Private Lives of Henry VIII" and "Blow-Up."

Bonus DVD review: "Cold Souls"

"Cold Souls" is a strange little movie that is trying too hard to be the next "Being John Malkovich."

It's got the same kooky plot filled with metaphysical musings about consciousness being transportable from one body to another, and having that transaction monetized by some enterprising individuals.

There's also the play on reality, with a real-life actor -- in this case, the great Paul Giamatti -- portraying a fictionalized version of himself.

The same black, dry sense of humor is there, too -- although not in great quantity. That's the film's main problem, as director/writer Sophie Barthes often forgets that she's making a comedy. Scenes start out with a humorous verve, but spin off into long stretches of tragedy before the film remembers itself.

The tone is, in fact, very much like Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," which the play Giamatti is rehearsing as the story opens. He can't seem to nail the play's very Russian blend of humor and despair, which causes him to go into his own depression.

Seeing an article in the New Yorker about upper-crust people have their souls extracted brings him to the office of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), a fussy scientist who heads up the operation. The doctor freely admits they don't fully understand the technology or long-term implications of extracting souls, other than it's guaranteed to make dark thoughts go away.

It won't make him happy, Giamatti figures, but at least it will keep him from suffering.

The nature of the soul and its physical appearance don't have any correlation, Dr. Flintstein insists, demonstrating some clear receptacles where a lot of drab, indistinct shapes reside. Still, Giamatti is upset when he undergoes the procedure and learns his soul looks like a chickpea.

"I don't even have a sexy soul. It's all dark and twisted. It's got a ridiculous shape," he complains.

Being soulless (well, mostly ... about 5 percent remains, Flintstein says) doesn't really help Giamatti's acting, and his relationship with his wife (played by Emily Watson) deteriorates. In a panic, he agrees to rent the soul of a Russian poet, at least until the play is over.

This brings us to the other end of the soul business, which is similar to drug trafficking, with a dank Russian warehouse as its epicenter. A mobster pays workers to suck out their souls to sell to the West. But then he gets the idea of selling American souls in Russia. His wife, a soap opera star, makes a list of famous actors whose soul she thinks would help her lack of talent -- Johnny Depp, Robert De Niro, etc.

Nina (Dina Korzun), the Russian mule who transports the souls overseas inside herself, steals Giamatti's soul from the storage site and passes it off as Al Pacino's. Giamatti decides he wants his own soul back, which leads to some international intrigue.

The movie is clever without ever finding anything interesting to say about the notion of souls being extracted and bartered on the international market like kidneys. Its tone exists entirely on the plot level, treating the events for what they are rather than what they imply.

Giamatti is a delight, as always, playing a kvetching, complaining portrait of his own persona. It must be an interesting and terrifying prospect for a character actor to expose himself on screen like this, even if it is a made-up person who happens to have his name and disposition.

While an interesting premise, "Cold Souls" left me pretty cold as a viewer.

DVD extras are pretty scarce. There's a 3-minute featurette about the construction of the "soul extractor" prop, and seven deleted scenes.

The first, of Giamatti displaying some (intentionally) awful acting during a rehearsal of his play, is so hilarious its excision from the film is mystifying. The other six, though, are of limited value.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 1.5 stars

Friday, March 12, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973)

It's possible that "Bang the Drum Slowly" was made because of the success of the 1971 TV movie "Brian's Song," in that they're both about the brotherly bond between two professional athletes, one of whom is dying.

But I don't think so.

For starters, "Bang," which came out in 1973, was actually based on a book by Mark Harris (who also provided the screenplay) written nearly two decades earlier. Paul Newman even starred in a 1956 television version.

It's sad but uplifting, more about the bond between men than the game of baseball -- even though the film is consistently ranked as one of the best sports movies of all time.

Nobody'd heard of Robert De Niro when this came out; "Mean Streets" would hit theaters two months later and make him a name, and next year's role in "The Godfather Part II" would earn him an Academy Award and cement his place as one of his generation's greatest actors.

Interestingly, for the first decade or so De Niro was known for his brutal characters quick to violence. In "Bang," he plays a sweet, naive guy who's so slow on the uptake, he might have been classmates with Forrest Gump.

Director John D. Hancock -- not to be confused with John Lee Hancock, who made the excellent baseball movie "The Rookie," and the Oscar-nominated "The Blind Side" -- opens right away with Bruce Pearson (De Niro) leaving the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. He knows he's dying, but he and star pitcher Henry Wiggin (Michael Moriarty) resolve not to tell anyone.

The reason for their secretiveness is never overtly revealed, but it's suggested that Pearson doesn't want to be pitied. He can accept the "shit deal" he's been dealt, and he even accepts the ragging of his teammates for being a dummy. But he can't stand being looked down upon.

Henry -- whom everyone calls "Author" because he's published a book about his baseball exploits -- is holding out for a new contract with the New York Mammoths. As spring training draws to a close he suddenly lowers his asking price, with one proviso: That he and Bruce be tied together in any personnel moves. If he's traded or his contract bought out or sold, then so will Author. This also means the team can't send Pearson -- a catcher of nominal abilities -- down to the minors without sending Author, too.

Dutch (Vincent Gardenia), the crusty manager, is appalled at the demand, but gives in to keep his star player. He doesn't give up his determination to get to the bottom of the mystery, though. Throughout the season he needles Author and Bruce with questions about their winter excursions, even hiring a detective at one point to find out what they were doing in Minnesota.

Eventually their secret gets out. Author tells one of the older players to get him to lay off teasing Bruce. That player tells his roomie (a young Danny Aiello), and eventually the whole team knows.

The movie's pivotal scene takes place in the locker room. At this point, about half the players know about Bruce's diagnosis, and the other half doesn't. Piney Woods, a colorful catcher who was sent down to the minors to make roster space for Bruce, has been brought back (unknowingly) as his replacement. He strums his guitar and plays "The Streets of Laredo," a mournful song about a cowboy shot down in his prime.

Author and those in the know urge Piney to play another song, calling it cornball. But they just don't want their dying friend to have to listen to a mournful ballad about death. Piney plays on, as the cowboy is carried to the hills to be laid to rest.
"Oh, bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
And play the dead march as you carry me along;
Take me to the valley, and lay the sod o'er me,
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong."
Arlo Guthrie, one of many to record the tune, called it the saddest song he's ever heard.

Strangely, the sadness over Bruce's condition galvanizes the team and the start to play better. They stop their squabbling, finding something to focus on besides their own inner rancor. Even Bruce gets into the starting rotation and plays the best ball of his life, though even Author -- who narrates the movie -- wouldn't exaggerate him into a great ballplayer.

Eventually Bruce's illness gets the better of him and he's forced to the leave the team, which goes on to win the World Series without him. Nobody from the team except Author bothers to show up at his funeral, and even he admits he stiffed his friend's request to send him his Series scorecard. He resolves to never rag on anyone for the rest of his life.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" is a lovely meditation on male relationships, and how our competitive natures --exemplified through sports -- compel us to shun intimacy and vulnerability with other men. Only when we can find sympathy for another do we earn a touch of grace, and truly win.

3.5 stars

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: "Remember Me"

"Remember Me" is a mess of a movie, but its flaws are those of a cast and crew trying to do too much, rather than taking the easy way out with cliches and familiar plot devices.

The romantic drama has a twist ending that feels cheap and exploitative. And some of the actors -- notably Chris Cooper -- get lost in the ambitious but undisciplined storytelling.

Still, I would rather sit through a dozen noble failures like this than the latest idiot comedy or sentimental pap.

Robert Pattinson, in his first role since the "Twilight" movies made him a phenom, plays Tyler Hawkins, the scion of a well-to-do family who's slumming it in the poorer boroughs of New York City. He's seriously estranged from his business magnate father (Pierce Brosnan, proving once again that one of the few things he can't do is a convincing American accent).

He attends college, but not officially, only auditing some classes, and spends most of his time working part time at a book store, or hanging out in a coffee shop writing in a journal that he shows to no one. He's coasting through life, undecided about just about everything.

It's the sort of role that seems designed to promote Pattinson's mojo as a heartthrob rather than build a discernible, believable character. He twitches a lot and clenches his jaw and doesn't look people in the eye, except for the one person in the world he truly cares about, his little sister, Caroline. Tyler is the classic sensitive/broken soul who needs a romance to assemble the disparate pieces of his lackadaisical life.

That would be a role for Ally, played by Emilie de Ravin (an Aussie whose American accent is also strained). She's the daughter of a tough cop (Cooper) and a mother who was gunned down when she was 11. (Mom is played by Martha Plimpton, who I can't even remember the last time I saw her onscreen, and it makes me happy seeing her.)

Ally's dad compensates for his wife's murder by keeping a sharp eye on his daughter. Needless to say, he doesn't much care for the unambitious Tyler or his horndog roommate Aidan (Tate Ellington). In fact, the two meet the cop before Ally, when they try to break up a street fight. Tyler mouths off to him and so he throws them in jail. Aidan spots Ally with her father, and suggests as a joke that Tyler flirt with Ally using his gift with "that freaky poetic crap" that the gals love.

So he does, but then they fall for each other for real. Friction with the two fathers exacerbates their relationship on either end, which is further strained by other family problems for Tyler.

The screenplay by rookie Will Fetters meanders and loses its way, more interested in individual scenes than any kind of narrative arc. Some of its eddies are interesting enough in their own right, while other times we wish the film would hurry up. I kept waiting for things to happen -- such as the two a-hole fathers meeting -- that never did, and some of the places the story did go were baffling and boring.

For instance, there's a whole long sequence about Tyler sister Caroline getting hazed by some school mates at a sleepover party. Kids can be nasty to each other, and I don't want to minimize the effects of bullying. But the way the entire Hawkins clan goes into crisis mode over some pretty mild behavior seemed way overblown. Tyler's super-busy father, who doesn't even bother to acknowledge his son's 22nd birthday, stops everything he's doing to rush over. It just felt contrived and wrong to me.

The title comes from Tyler's brother Michael, who killed himself six years earlier. Tyler has Michael's name tattooed over his heart, and gets all cold and moody whenever anyone brings the subject up. The movie doesn't really do anything with this information other than use it whenever an angsty moment is required.

The Ally/Tyler romance didn't really do anything for me. We believe that they're a couple because the movie tells us so, not because they seem fated to be together. I also didn't like how they treated the character of Ally's father. He's all rage without any paternal warmth. We never spend any time with him, so we don't understand what makes him tick. All we see is him doing bad things, so eventually we just figure he's a bad guy.

(I will say that if I were Tyler, after the same police detective beat me up twice, I'd be thinking about a conversation with his lieutenant.)

Director Allen Coulter is a TV veteran who made the excellent "Holllywoodland" a few years back, and he seems to have a nice touch with actors but not with the mechanics of storytelling. I really liked the performance he got out of Ruby Jerins as little Caroline -- she seemed to hold all the hope and fears of a lonely, gifted child in her every glance.

I won't say anything about the strange, shameful ending, other than the film's timeline should have tipped me off.

It doesn't work, other than as a purely manipulative trick. For some reason, I want to believe the people behind this movie are better than that, so I'll write it off as a profoundly misguided mistake rather than a cynical ploy.

2.5 stars

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: "Green Zone"

"Green Zone" could have been a perfectly serviceable military action-thriller, except it tries to frame the entire U.S. invasion of Iraq in cops-and-robbers terms.

Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, a heroic, no-nonsense Army chief warrant officer whose tendency to toss the rulebook isn't all that different from Dirty Harry. He even carries a bigger gun, although at least when he perforates bad guys he doesn't toss off gravelly one-liners right before pulling the trigger.

Set in the weeks after the spring 2003 invasion, Miller is presented as the do-gooder who uncovers all sorts of nasty intrigue and secret deals between the bad guys and supposed good guys. Instead of drug dealers colluding with city councilmen or some such, it's Baathist generals and Pentagon paper-pushers cooking up evidence on weapons of mass destruction.

I don't mind filmmakers using the historical record as a backdrop to spin bullet-filled stories. But the filmmakers muster a generous helping of self-righteous outrage, as if we're supposed to get mad all over again at Dubya et al based on this new made-up yarn.

It ends up playing like a bunch of Hollywood liberals -- but I repeat myself -- ganging up to re-spin the previous administration's colossal screw-ups, but with the benefit of hindsight. So Miller ends up shouting at some soulless government honcho, "It always matters why we go to war! How will we get anyone to trust us again?!?"

My objection here is not with the argument, but how it's presented. By depicting the whole WMD excuse as a fabrication of a few people, it actually lets many in power, and the many more who enabled them, off the hook.

"Green Zone" is directed by Paul Greengrass, who previously worked with Damon on the latter (and lesser) two Jason Bourne movies. He's tackled historical material before with "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," though in both those movies he eschewed a political prism to focus on the human tragedy.

The screenplay is by Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River"), inspired by a book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran that took a critical look at the U.S. handling of Iraq following the invasion, but had little to do with WMDs.

Paul Gleeson plays a CIA agent who agrees with Miller's assessment that the WMD intelligence is bunk. They team up to track down Saddam's chief weapons officer, Al Rawi (Igal Naor), to learn why they can't find any weapons.

Meanwhile, a Pentagon true believer (Greg Kinnear) would rather the Iraqi general not talk, and sends a special forces commander (Jason Isaacs) to shadow Miller.

Miller is helped by a helpful local (Khalid Abdalla) of questionable motives. Amy Ryan plays a Judith Miller-type journalist who wrote a lot of WMD stories that were spoon-fed to her, and now wants the straight dope.

The bulk of the movie is taken up by a lot of chases through darkly-lit alleys shot in an extremely grainy way to make it seem gritty. With all the jumpy editing, the audience will have trouble keeping track of who is after who, and why, and where they're going.

At one point two different sets of Army soldiers get into a fistfight over some intel. In the Dirty Harry parallel universe, it's the equivalent of straight cops and dirty cops having a dust-up in the locker room. "Green Zone" relishes such clich├ęs and simplification.

2 stars

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Video review: "Precious"

Lately it seems major films are being pushed onto video in a slipshod manner. Extras are skimpy and unenlightening, as if the studio couldn't be bothered to take the time or spend the money.

(Yeah, I'm talking to you, "Where the Wild Things Are.")

So it's refreshing to see Best Picture Oscar nominee "Precious" given a top-notch release. It's got a solid commentary track and host of probing featurettes totaling nearly an hour. About the only knock is the lack of a digital copy.

Extras are identical for DVD and Blu-ray versions. In the commentary, director Lee Daniels talks openly about his own troubled youth and how it inspired him during the shooting.

Author Sapphire speaks about her experiences as an inner-city teacher, and how she was reluctant to let Hollywood film her book. She relented after seeing Daniels' "Monsters Ball."

The casting of novice Gabourey Sidibe is covered in detail, including footage from her audition. Sidibe is nothing like her character -- she's smart, outgoing and "talks like a white girl," Daniels says.

Daniels talks about de-glamorizing his cast, making nearly everyone work without makeup -- he even reveals he caught Mariah Carey trying to sneak in some blush between takes.

Oprah and Tyler Perry talk about their roles in "presenting" the film. Artistically, they had nothing to do with it. But after seeing it, they felt compelled to lend their names to get the Sundance favorite a major release.

Set in Harlem 1987, it's the first-person story of Claireece "Precious" Jones, an obese, illiterate 16-year-old who's pregnant with her second child. She's the victim of her mother, a serial abuser, played with terrifying rage by Mo'Nique, and was raped repeatedly by her father.

She's like a thousand others girls that people pass on the streets every day without seeing. Her entire life has taught her to feel worthless, like "ugly black grease."

But Precious is given a second chance when she's sent to an alternative school, where she finds a teacher and fellow female students who help her, for the first time in her life, to feel empowered. The vibrant fantasies that ping around her head start to translate into the journals she keeps for class.

"Precious" is a hard movie to watch. The brutality it depicts, of both a physical and psychological nature, are vile. The only thing worse would be failing to see it.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars