Friday, April 30, 2010

IFJA announces addition of its 11th member

The Indiana Film Journalists Association is proud to announce the addition of its newest member, Gina Wagner!

Gina is an Internet-based film critic, and also our first member whose work is primarily via video. She is the critic for, an Indianapolis social networking site, as well as her own site,

In addition, her reviews are regularly featured on The Rotten Tomatoes Show, seen locally on Current TV.

The IFJA was formed in early 2009 with six members. With Gina's addition, we now number 11.

Our mission is to promote quality film criticism in the Hoosier State.

Reeling Backward: "Ship of Fools" (1965)

There's a lot of stuff to like about 1965's "Ship of Fools" -- aptly described as "Grand Hotel on a boat." But overall it's a heavy-handed bit of social commentary along the lines of "On the Beach," which was recently featured in the Reeling Backward column.

That's no surprise, since both films were directed by Stanley Kramer. Kramer had a long and illustrious career as a producer and director, and often gravitated to material with a social conscious. Often the results were sublime ("Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," "Judgment at Nuremberg") but sometimes it feels like a big lecture.

The cast of "Ship" is huge -- Lee Marvin, Janet Leigh (in her final film role), Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Oskar Werner, George Segal, Heinz Ruhmann, Michael Dunn, Jose Greco, and on and on.

It's all one big circus of human frailties and prejudices. It's set aboard a German ocean liner in 1933, just when Nazism is on the rise. Virtually every Western society is represented, and almost always in a negative light.

The only truly good characters are the outcasts: The Jew and the dwarf. They sit together at their own dining table, even though the rest of the German passengers get a seat at the captain's table.

Dunn, who was one of the first Little Persons to have a serious dramatic film career, even takes on the role of the narrator who addresses the audience directly at the beginning and end -- not so subtly indicting those watching the movie for having the same flaws as the poor creatures they just watched.

Leigh is great as Mrs. Treadwell, an aging divorcee whose bitterness about the tatters of her own hopes and dreams seems to infect all of her interactions.

Marvin has an awful role as a racist American Southerner and ex-baseball player whose biggest problem in life was that he couldn't hit the outside curve ball. He spends most of the movie tomcatting after this feminine object or that. He's depicted, quite explicitly, as an ape.

I could spend a lot of time describing the rest of the characters, but I think you get the idea.

The centerpiece of the film is the plight of the ship's Dr. Schumann. Disaffected and estranged from his family on shore, he falls for a rich Mexican woman whose paramour has been deposed. Because of her habit of aiding the poor and needy, she's being deported to Spain, a country she's never been to.

A high-class drug addict, she gloms onto Shumann for her fix, but they soon recognize the same world-weary resignation in each other. Their romance is doomed from the start, and they both know it, but they can't help stirring the embers of their youthful passions.

I also liked Jose Ferrer in this film -- but then, it is virtually impossible not to like Jose Ferrer in anything. He plays a rich industrialist and early proponent of eugenics and Nazism. A raconteur who enjoys shunning those who do not live up to his definition of proper Germans, he spends most of his time chasing a nubile blonde German half his age. There's no meanness to the performance, though, but rather the wayward pride of a man who has confused patriotism with elitism.

There's a lot to take in with "Ship of Fools." But its high-mindedness gets the better of it.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Video review: "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is a fitting final bow for star Heath Ledger, who died midway through the shooting of this kooky, wonderful flight of fancy from director Terry Gilliam ("The Fisher King").

Ledger plays Tony, a mysterious figure with amnesia who gets adopted by a traveling theater troupe whose featured act, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a (literally) ancient mystic. Living like circus carnies, they put on a show in which people can wander through a dreamscape of Parnassus' creation, where they're tempted by the Devil himself (Tom Waits).

Since reality is unsettled inside the Imaginarium, Tony changes appearance every time he goes inside (Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp lent a hand to stand in for Ledger). Even though it's an ad-hoc necessity, it's still a lovely storytelling device.

Gilliam spins his most Gilliam-esque tale, one full of strange metaphysical themes, computer-generated universes and shadowy motives.

The film died in theaters, but I'm truly hoping audiences will give it a chance on video. I would hate the idea that, like Parnassus, Gilliam is a forgotten old man spinning his odd tales for a world that has stopped listening.

As you might expect, DVD extras on this film wouldn't be complete without an exploration of how the production was affected by the death of Ledger, and "Parnassus" certainly delivers.
The most wrenching bits are costume and makeup tests with Ledger, and an audio interview right before shooting started. Gilliam says cast and crew gathered to discuss if it was even possible to complete the movie.

Seven featurettes explore various topics such the CGI creative process and the film's red carpet moments. In an introduction and feature-length commentary, Gilliam is an amusing and illuminating guide -- at one point he confesses that even he's not certain of Dr. Parnassus' exact history and powers.

He says he started out wanting to make something "light and joyful," without the neuroses that he'd been exploring all his career. If that was his aim with "Parnassus," then he certainly failed.
But for real Gilliam fans, it's the very irrational nature of his imagination that make him such a compelling filmmaker.

In addition to the aforementioned features, the Blu-ray version also has "The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam" and remembrances of Ledger by cast and crew.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, April 26, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Dial M for Murder"

It's usually not too hard to discern a film that was adapted from a stage play. There's an economy of cast and settings that indicates a necessity for limiting each. Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" has both: There are only five significant roles, and almost the entirety of the action takes place inside a single apartment, and nearly all of that in one room.

Hitchcock did a few stage-to-screen jobs ("Rope," "I Confess!"), often sandwiched in between bigger projects with multiple locations. In the same year, 1954, he also directed "Rear Window," which is similar to "Dial M" in the way the same setting can be exploited in different ways. By the mid- to -late 1950s, Hitchcock's films tended to be veritable travel pictures like "North by Northwest" and "Vertigo."

Ray Milland is the star, though it's remembered today for being one of Grace Kelly's first major film roles. (Most people have forgotten she got her start primarily as a television actress.) The period of 1954-55 was a fertile period for Hitchcock and Kelly, as she would also be featured in "Rear Window" and "To Catch A Thief." By 1956 she was done with the movies, trading her status as Hollywood princess to become a real-life one.

Milland plays Tony Wendice, a recently retired tennis pro who relies on his wife Margot (Kelly) for money. A clever, erudite fellow who enjoys his creature comforts, Tony wouldn't mind so much except that Margot has been cheating on him with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American mystery novelist. After a year away, Mark has returned to England to claim Margot permanently, and Tony is out to do away with her and get his inheritance while he can.

The plot is a labyrinthine twist of clues and plots and intrigue. The short version is that Tony blackmails a wayward old school chum, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) into strangling Margot while he and Mark are at a stag party. Thus his rival for his wife's affection will provide his alibi.

As Mark cautions about constructing the perfect crime in real life versus fiction, things go horribly awry. Margot fights off Swann and kills him with her knitting shears.

The second half of the movie concerns Tony having to adjust his plot on the fly, managing to plant evidence to make it seem as if Margot intentionally killed Swann because he was blackmailing her with evidence of her affair with Mark.

It has a lot to do with missing love letters and the presence or absence of latch keys. I suppose it works well enough for a stage potboiler, but for the more verite demands of cinema, it seems like a whole lot of flimsy evidence upon which to indict a murderer.

John Williams has a nice role as Chief Inspector Hubbard, the crafty detective who subtly stalks Tony's web of lies and manipulations. I loved the moment where he begs for more credit to be given to veteran policemen like himself to overcome the work of "a gifted amateur" like Tony.

It's a typical Hitchcockian thriller, as he slowly stirs the pot of brewing suspense. I do have to say the biggest weakness of the film is the character of Mark Halliday, who spends 9/10ths of the movie as a naive patsy, and suddenly manages to come up with enough brilliant deductions in the final sequence to put Sherlock Holmes to shame.

3 stars out of four

Friday, April 23, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Back to Bataan" (1945)

I've enjoyed writing this column for many reasons, but one has been discovering Golden Age war films that are much more nuanced and anti-war than I would have given credit for.

"Back to Bataan" is not one of them.

This creaky, stolid picture stars John Wayne as Col. Joseph Madden, an Army officer tasked with leading the insurgency in the Philippine Islands after General MacArthur was forced to withdraw, leaving tens of thousands of American soldiers in captivity at the cruel hands of the Japanese and their atrocities -- most famously, the Bataan Death March.

The march itself is briefly depicted in the film, but includes the movie's most curious moment. Andres Bonifacio, a captain and grandson of the Philippine's greatest hero, is among the prisoners. The Japanese soldiers are shooting or bayoneting any prisoner who falls or attempts to escape.

Bonifacio stumbles off the trail but passes out before he can reach safety. A Japanese soldier hovers him, preparing to stab him through, but then intentionally thrusts his bayonet harmlessly into the ground between Bonifacio's legs, looking around to see if anyone saw him. The man is then pulled into the jungle by the insurgents.

Now, why in the world would a Japanese soldiers spare this man? Did he know about Bonifacio's ancestry, and the ability of his surname to rally the people? Or was it simply the rare example of kindness amidst the atrocities? Either way, it needed to be explained.

Bonifacio is played by Anthony Quinn, the Irish/Mexican actor whose swarthy good looks allowed him to portray virtually every ethnicity in the movies, from Arab to Italian to Greek to Filipino.

Wayne's doing his usual big-hero shtick, leading other men through the sheer force of his personality -- and the explicit threat that he'll personally beat them senseless if they fail to obey.

The Japanese are portrayed in the usual way of World War II propaganda -- smiling while killing innocents, big glasses, etc. I know a war was one, but it's still sickening to watch this vile stuff so many years later. It makes you wonder: In German or Japanese war films of the era, are Americans depicted as big, gangly evildoers? Do they wear cowboy hats as they gun down innocent Germans? I'd love to know.

The other interesting thing about "Back to Bataan" is the explicitly heroic light in with the Filipinos are depicted. They are continually praised as brave, loyal and fiercely independent. One character, a young boy named Maximo who continually helps Madden and his troops, is beaten by the Japanese into revealing their location, but he sacrifices himself by steering the troop carrier into a ravine.

In his dying breath, Maximo apologies to his stodgy old white schoolteacher (Beulah Bondi) for misspelling "liberty" with a "u." She clutches his body, crying out that even if he couldn't spell it, no one better understood the meaning of the word.

It's a seriously corny moment in an underwhelming war picture.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" could have been a standard international potboiler. It’s about a disgraced journalist hired to investigate the mysterious death of the daughter of a wealthy dynasty decades ago, with every clue taking him deeper into a maze of intrigue and dark family secrets.

What makes this Swedish thriller exceptional is, well, the girl of the title.

It might interest you to know that its original title is "Men Who Hate Women," and it was only given its new, somewhat clunky moniker for international release.

Lisbeth Salander does indeed have a dragon tattoo. It’s so large it doesn’t so much decorate her body as entwine her in its coils. She dresses like a punk rocker, glares at the world from beneath a mane of haphazardly sawed-off tresses, and works as a professional hacker, burrowing into the lives of people targeted by her clients.

Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), an elderly tycoon, hires Lisbeth look into Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a famous investigative reporter who has just been convicted of libeling a rich businessman. He checks out clean, so Vanger brings Mikael to his remote island and relates the sad tale of his niece, Harriet.

Harriet disappeared mysteriously nearly 40 years ago during an annual meeting of the Vangers. Henrik freely admits that his clan is a nest of vipers, greedy and suspicious of one another. He suspects one of his relatives might be involved in her death, but the police inquiry turned up nothing.

For awhile, Mikael and Lisbeth’s stories run parallel. Unbeknownst to him, she’s been hacking into his computer, keeping up to date on his investigation. She gives him a tip that breaks the case wide open, and soon they’ve joined forces as they elbow through the morass of the Vangers’ twisted legacy.

Played by Noomi Rapace in a mesmerizing performance that vacillates between inner turmoil and outward explosion, Lisbeth has her own history of disturbing secrets.

In a horrifying sequence early on, she is assigned a new probation officer who uses his power to send her back to jail to perform unspeakable acts of degradation. Rather than wallowing in victimhood, though, Lisbeth acts out, displaying both her keen intelligence and a ruthlessness that allows her to give as well as she gets.

Even as Lisbeth and Mikael work the conventional end of the murder-mystery plot, it takes the back stage to their relationship – if one can call it that. The brooding, brilliant girl quickly becomes the dominant personality, despite being half Mikael’s age. She calls the shots and decides what level of intimacy they will, or will not, share.

At 2.5 hours, "Girl" is longer than it needs to be; director Niels Arden Oplev dithers on montages of characters typing furiously on the computer or poring through printed archives, searching for clues. But since the interplay between the two main characters is the far more compelling mystery, the occasionally languid pace doesn’t detract too much.

The Swedes have been on a roll lately with darkly atmospheric movies that seem inspired by American films, and in turn spawn imitations. "Let the Right One In," the chilling vampire film, is getting a U.S. remake. So is "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

While I lament the perceived necessity of an English version for audiences who won’t venture into subtitled films, I am warmed in knowing that Hollywood recognizes excellent material to rip off.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Video review: "Avatar"

So what kind of video release do you give the newly minted top-grossing film of all time?

One full of oodles of never-before-seen insights and peeks behind the scenes? An interactive pop-up commentary with auteur James Cameron? Exclusive interviews with the cast? Dare we imagine 3-D presentation to take advantage of all those expensive new televisions with this feature?

For "Avatar," the answers to these questions are: No, nope, uh-uh and fugeddaboutit.

The cinematic sensation is being given an absolute bare-bones video release on April 22 (to coincide with Earth Day). It's arriving with zero extras, whether you choose the DVD version or the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack (though the latter does at least include a digital copy).

Cameron is known for waiting to deliver the real goods with a special edition that usually includes a longer director's cut (see "Terminator 2," "The Abyss"). I believe that's what we can expect with "Avatar."

So if you want all the goodies a watershed film like this demands, content yourself with just renting for now.

Like "Titanic," James Cameron's other much-loved and -loathed epic, "Avatar" is a film whose flaws become more apparent after you've left the cinema. The clunky dialogue, derivative plot and downright silly sci-fi gobbledygook (Unobtainium?) tends to pile up.

But while you're in the theater, sitting there in the dark, it's a thoroughly engrossing spectacle of the first order as we witness the plight of the blue-skinned alien Na'vi and their paradise planet of Pandora, which is steadily being encroached upon by greedy humans plundering it for ore.

Whether or not that experience will translate to your living room television, with the dog barking and the kids clamoring, is a good question. I wish I could answer it for you ... but I can't. The studio declined to provide review copies prior to the release date.

(I suppose with $2.7 billion in ticket sales, they figure they don't have to spend any dough to promote it.)

My guess is that "Avatar" will diminish somewhat on the small screen. Some films -- "Lawrence of Arabia," "Ben-Hur," "Saving Private Ryan" -- need a big canvas to envelop you. But it says something that "Avatar" belongs among those titles.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 1 star

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Set-Up" (1949)

"The Set-Up" is as lean and spare as star Robert Ryan's sinewy body.

Ryan, a character actor who occasionally was blessed with leading roles, did not have an ounce of fat on him. He actually seemed to grow thinner as he aged, and by age 60, his rawboned face had sunken in enough to play the regretful Deke Thornton, let out of prison to pursue his old gang of outlaws in "The Wild Bunch."

It was the perfect role for Ryan, who always seemed more comfortable playing characters with some measure of shadow looming across their souls, usually through circumstance rather than choosing. "A good man in a bad spot" is a pretty decent way to sum up his most memorable roles. "Noble loser" is another, and it certainly applies to this boxing picture.

"The Set-Up" was one of director Robert Wise's early efforts, a tightly-wound film noir about an aging boxer desperate for one last score. Midway through his epic bout against a hot young prospect, Stoker Thompson learns that his manager and trainer have sold him out, accepting a mobster's bribe to take a dive without even bothering to cut him in on it.

Tiny (George Tobias), his cynical inkspot of a manager, figures Stoker is sure to lose, so why share part of the $50 bribe with him? "There's no percentage in smartening up a chump," is the gruff justification Tiny provides.

Even Stoker's wife Julie (Audrey Totter) fails to show up for his big fight, sick of the endless life on the road -- picking him up after each fight and patching him up in time for the next slaughter.

So Stoker has, quite literally, no one in his corner. After he takes a hard shot and appears to be down for the count, Tiny and his trainer Gus (Wallace Ford) put their coats on and head for the exits, only to return disappointed when Stoker struggles back to his feet.

But the old man -- he's 35, practically ancient by boxing standards in the 1940s -- still has a strong punch, and knows that all he needs to do is land one good one on Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor) to turn things his way. What's more, he may be just this side of a stumblebum, but at least he's one who doesn't take a dive.

Things do go his way, and he scores an upset victory through sheer grit and determination. Unfortunately, the mob boss Little Boy (Alan Baxter) doesn't like being double-crossed, and makes Stoker pay for it by smashing his right hand with a brick.

In the last scene, Julie finds her husband staggering through the streets barely conscious. Looking at his mangled hand, their regret and anger turns to relief, as they both realize his boxing days are finished. Whatever their future holds -- good, bad or somewhere in between -- they've escaped the cruel chains of bloodsport.

"The Set-Up" is based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, although screenwriter Art Cohn changed things around considerably. For starters, the protagonist is African-American in the poem, and is thrown under a subway rather than being merely crippled.

The film is a spare 72 minutes, and several years before "High Noon" was lauded for it, the story unspools in real time. We observe Stoker as he argues with his wife, gets ready for the fight, and interacts with other boxers before their fights. All shoved into one tiny locker room, they range from a total rookie, up-and-comer Luther Hawkins (James Edwards), to punchy wash-up Gunboat Johnson (David Clarke).

The compassionate way Stoker, who still commands some measure of respect from the younger fighters, protects Gunboat from their catcalls indicates his knowledge that a few more wrong ends of a knockout, and he'll be just like Gunboat. There's also a pathetic hulk of a man peddling boxing programs to the crowd who would seem to be a former fighter himself.

"Well, that's the way it is. You're a fighter, you gotta fight," Stoker reasons.

The cinematography by Milton R. Krasner is simply terrific, a slash of shadow and light that informs and comments upon the characters' various shades of morality. Little Boy, a chilling figure of pure malevolence, wears a startlingly white hat.

I do have to say that the boxing action is the weakest part of the film. Wise stages the bout with a lot of kinetic energy -- although, like most Hollywood depictions of the sport, more punches are landed in a half a round than an entire real match.

Beyond that, Ryan doesn't look or move like a boxer. He's continually dipping his head and lunging forward in an ungainly way. Balance is everything to a fighter, and it doesn't stand to reason that a seasoned pro like Stoker would make such rookie mistakes.

The other notable thing about "The Set-Up" is the extremely negative portrayal of the crowd. They're bloodthirsty, of course, and Wise keeps revisiting a dozen or so particular members of the audience, and always in a harsh light. There's the immensely fat man who's chowing down on a different kind of food every time we see him, smiling at the gladiators spilling blood while he engorges himself.

Most affecting is an older woman who was seen reluctantly entering the coliseum at the beginning of the film, making an audacious display of her ladylike revulsion of boxing. She then becomes the most savage witness, even shouting at Stoker to pull himself off the canvas -- not because she thinks he can win, but so his horrible, bloody beating can go on a little longer.

3 stars

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Coming this week

This are a little bit slower in terms of reviews of new films this week and next, since I'm traveling.

I will have a review of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" this week.

I have video reviews of "The Lovely Bones" (already up) and "Avatar."

Classic film columns are on "The Set-Up" and "Back to Bataan."

I won't be part of the podcast this week, but Austin's filling in with my usual partner in crime Joe.

Video review: "The Lovely Bones"

I'm not sure I can think of a film from last year whose prospects rose and fell as far as "The Lovely Bones."

Before it was released, this adaptation of the hugely popular book by Alice Sebold was hyped as a sure-fire Best Picture nominee. When I saw it, I judged it a seriously flawed but still worthy film. Here's part of what I wrote:

"At two-and-a-quarter hours, "The Lovely Bones" is either too long or too short. The dynamics of the family feel like they should be at the center of the story, but the movie never quite coalesces around them."
The story is about Susie Salmon (the incredibly blue-eyed Saorise Ronen), an average 14-year-old girl from the suburbs who is brutally raped and murdered and watches from Heaven -- or at least some pseudo after-life -- as events continue to transpire on Earth.

I hadn't read the book then, though I've corrected that since. I can now see the immense challenges that faced director Peter Jackson and his longtime screenwriting partners, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, in adapting this novel for the screen.

It covers more than a decade after her death, which is problematic for a movie for numerous reasons, the most obvious being that the young actors playing Susie's siblings can't believably be aged that much. The alternative of casting different actors for the adult roles only tends to remind us we're watching a movie.

The route Jackson et al take is a good one -- focusing on the plight of Susie's killer, Mr. Harvey, a secretive neighbor who hides in plain sight. Played by Stanley Tucci in a performance that brought a much-deserved (and overdue) Oscar nomination, Mr. Harvey's voracious appetite for pain renders him one of cinema's all-time great villains.

But the net effect of this focus on the antagonist is to transform "The Lovely Bones" from a meditation on the afterlife into something of a supernatural whodunit, with the audience rooting for Mr. Harvey's arrest and/or punishment. Having now read the book, I can see that the filmmakers clearly structured it this way -- for example, moving the incident where Harvey buries the steel safe containing Susie's bones into a sinkhole from the middle of the story to the end, where it's pumped for suspense.

Although, one way the movie has depreciated in my view as a result of having read the book is the depiction of Susie's actual demise.

Though Sebold was not overtly graphic in her rendering, she at least made it clear that Susie was brutally raped. The movie skims over her death so quickly (and with PG-13-rated kid gloves) that this is completely lost on the viewer. It undermines the theme of victimhood and its effects, a thread that runs strongly through Sebold's novel.

Prior to its release, much consternation was directed at how Jackson would handle the scenes of the "In-Between," where Susie's soul exists in an ever-shifting landscape of dreams and shadowy perceptions. I still think he handled it well, as these CGI sequences enhance rather than subtract from the experience.

But in the end, "The Lovely Bones" was just an example of a book that's impossible to properly translate to film. Let me put it this way: I seriously doubt another set of filmmakers could have done a better job than Jackson, Boyens and Walsh.

I still recommend the movie -- as I said at the time, Tucci's performance is simply not to be missed. If nothing else, "Bones" serves as an example of how the noblest creative intentions cannot always bridge the gulf that exists between literature and film.

Extras are somewhat disappointing -- especially if you buy the DVD version, which contains ... absolutely nothing whatsoever.

The Blu-ray comes with a 15-part video diary featuring Jackson and Boyens, which follows the production through shooting and the post-production work on visual effects.

I realize the studios are really pushing Blu-ray these days as the format of destination for cinephiles. And I actually happen to agree with it. It's like laserdisc 20 years ago -- its technical advantages simply make it the way to go for people with a serious approach to movies.

But to completely rob of any kind of enhancement those who haven't yet upgraded to Blu-ray -- or can't afford to -- is short-sighted.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Friday, April 16, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Whole Wide World"

I've always admired people who try something new late in life. One of personal favorite stories I've written for newspapers was a piece I did on people who became artists in their 30s, 40s and even beyond.

Frank McCourt wrote his first book, "Angela's Ashes," in his mid-60s. Norman MacLean published "A River Runs Through it" at age 75. Perhaps it's not happenstance that they were both autobiographical works, written by people with long teaching careers. And both were made into movies.

"The Whole Wide World" is another in that vein. The 1996 film is based on a memoir, "One Who Walked Alone," written by Novalyne Price Ellis in the 1980s about her friendship and brief romance with Robert E. Howard in the 1930s.

If Howard's name doesn't ring a bell, I'm not surprised. He's one of the most famous authors whom nobody knows.

Howard was a pulp fiction writer whose work mostly appeared in magazines and cheap paperback compilations. During his short life he wrote most every type of fiction -- dramas, Westerns, sports stories, you name it. But he's best known for his work in the nascent sword-and-sorcery genre. He created Conan the Barbarian, whose mighty legs strode the literary and cinematic worlds.

Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger were mostly unknown youngsters back in 1996, although D'Onofrio had a few more high-profile roles ("Full Metal Jacket," "Ed Wood") under his belt than she did, pre-"Jerry Maguire."

D'Onofrio is known to be a scenery-chewing performer, but it fits for this outsized role as a man who lived (and died) by his own rules. Howard rejected conformity and eschewed middle-American values -- and yet he lived with his parents his entire life, and doted on his mother (Ann Wedgeworth).

There's a great scene where Novalyne sees Bob Howard in town with his mother, and you can see the envy in her eyes as she witnesses how considerate and gentlemanly he is around his mother -- exactly unlike the brooding, boasting figure he strikes during their on-again, off-again dating.

One of the most interesting things about the portrayal of Howard is that he wrote his lusty, blood-spattered Conan stories banging away at his typewriter while yelling his prose out loud, like a mad shaman spinning tales of yore. In another scene, Novalyne asks Bob to describe Conan, and he pulls the car over, jumps out in front of a cornfield and proceeds to deliver a thunderous, passionate rendering of an anti-hero who "takes it from no one."

Having read all of Howard's Conan books and knowing a little about him, it's clear that the author saw himself in these stories -- or at least how would like to have been. Of course, it's easier to be an iconoclast when you're swinging a sword against monsters, instead of a chubby outcast in Depression-era Texas.

Directed by Dan Ireland from a script by Michael Scott Myers, "The Whole Wide World" starts out as a mesmerizing portrait of Robert E. Howard that slowly loses steam as the movie's focus shifts over to Novalyne. Part of that reflects the historical record -- Howard and Price never could keep any kind of momentum going in their romance, and they grew farther apart the nearer his death grew.

(I should point out his suicide at age 30 had nothing to do with losing her. Upon hearing that his mother, who had long been in decline with tuberculosis, would never wake again, he walked out to his car and shot himself. He lived a few more hours, and his mother died the next day.)

But the bigger challenge is that making a movie about an amazing, bigger-than-life personality is much easier to do than one about the person who was inspired by them. The half-crazy artist is always going to be more interesting than the ordinary friend or relative who had to put up with them. They don't make movies centering on Vincent Van Gogh's brother or Shakespeare's wife.

3 stars

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: "Kick-Ass"

There are a lot of movies that want to be regarded as edgy and rebellious, but fall squarely into mainstream Hollywood mores. They toy with conventions rather than shattering them. "The Runaways" is a recent, agreeable example.

"Kick-Ass" is something different: A film that is entirely subversive.

This off-the-wall adaptation of an underground comic book about underage superheroes is ultra-violence mixed with laughs, the one segueing into the other and back again. It's "Spider-Man" meets "A Clockwork Orange."

I was disturbed, and entertained, and disturbed by how much I was entertained.

Director Matthew Vaughn lingers lovingly over slo-mo depictions of bullets perforating bodies and fists smashing lips. In one scene, a goon gets the muzzle of a gun pressed inside his mouth, and when it blows out his cheek, the expectation is that the audience will laugh.

And we do.

I should mention that the most heinous blood-letting is perpetrated by an 11-year-old lass who wears a purple wig and mask and calls herself "Hit-Girl." As for the bad guys she's about to blow away and/or carve up, she calls them the f-word, the c-word, and pretty much all the other words little girls aren't supposed to say.

It's a smashmouth performance by young Chloe Moretz, who speaks those naughty epithets with an unpracticed ease, using that dramatic rasp so favored by avengers from Dirty Harry to Batman. Having them come out of this kewpie-doll-sized character's mouth immediately renders all those other iterations utterly ridiculous.

The star of the movie, at least in name, is the title character. An everyday put-upon nerd who can't get a date or stand up to bullies, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) finds courage when he dons a green-and-yellow wetsuit and starts carousing around Manhattan, calling himself Kick-Ass and looking for crime to fight.

"Like every serial killer knows, eventually fantasizing doesn't do it anymore," Dave/Kick-Ass narrates about his super-hero longings.

His first outing doesn't go so well, resulting in an extended hospital stay. But eventually his exploits are captured on YouTube and he becomes a sensation, attracting the attention of other super-wannabes.

Chief among them are Hit-Girl and her partner Big Daddy, who dresses like Batman and actually is her daddy, played by Nicolas Cage. Cage, who's a huge comics fan himself and almost played Superman, is delightfully cracked as a man who trains his only child to be a cheerful killing machine. Their target is Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), the local mob boss with whom they have history.

Also popping up is Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who's even geekier than Lizewski. He wants to be Kick-Ass' sidekick, which seems a little odd since he owns an awesome red Mistmobile and a lot of hardware, while all Kick-Ass seems to have at his disposal is a couple of billy clubs.

The screenplay for "Kick-Ass" was written by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. I haven't read it, but based on its cover teaser -- "Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!" -- they seem to have nailed the tone spot on.

Fanboys are apt to enter full-on gush mode for the movie's gleeful depictions of brutality. But will a film that doesn't play by the rules gain a mass following? Heaven help us, we can only hope.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: "The Joneses"

Some movies present a bigger challenge to review. I'd prefer to write about "The Joneses" without revealing the film's big surprise, but I would have to be so circumspect and vague as to be of dubious use to you.

So I'm trying something new: Review A and Review B. Only read the first one if you want to discover the film's secret for yourself. Move on to B if you want a fuller picture.


The Joneses, the new family in an unnamed town, are a curiosity. Steve and Kate (David Duchovny and Demi Moore) and their teen children Jenn and Mick (Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth) seem to have it all. Each of them is gorgeous and charismatic, and immediately grab the center of attention in their respective social circles.

Their huge house has been tastefully outfitted with the poshest furniture and decorations, and they have all the newest gizmos, golf clubs, clothes, beauty products and toys.

They are, by all measures available, perfect.

But strange clues abound. While the envy of other married couples for their copious gift exchanging and passionate PDAs, Kate and Steve sleep in separate beds. The kids seem especially emotionally detached from their parents -- even by teen standards.

With all their newfound friends and neighbors trying to emulate their swank lifestyle, the Joneses have to work hard to maintain appearances. And yet, none of them seem to have jobs to pay for it all. Steve spends most of his time at the golf course, and Kate apparently gets a mani-pedi every other day.

Clearly, there's more to keeping up with these upscale Joneses than meets the eye.

OK, read no further if don't want to learn the big reveal. Spoilers, ahoy.


The Joneses are not a real family. They're "self marketers" -- peopled hired by companies to peddle their products indirectly. Instead of knocking on doors to sell stuff, the Joneses move from city to city living the high life, subtly convincing their neighbors to buy the high-end goods of their clients.

K.C. (Lauren Hutton), the mysterious supervisor who occasionally shows up in a black limo to go over the numbers, explains it best:

"You're here to sell a lifestyle, an attitude. If they like you, they'll want what you've got."
This may sound conniving and underhanded, but some version of it is already happening in all sorts of industries. Heck, film studios have been putting "plants" into promotional screenings for years, to laugh and cry at just the right places to pump up the audience's reaction.

So in reality, Steve is a failed golf pro and car salesman, hired to play dream hubby to Kate, an ambitious veteran and the boss of this "unit." And Mick and Jenn -- played, appropriately enough, by actors in their mid-20s slumming as high schoolers -- have more grown-up proclivities than their would-be peers.

Writer/director Derrick Borte (working from a story by Randy T. Dinzler) ladles on the satire of consumer culture with a generous hand, but manages to keep the tone light and biting -- at least until the ending, which is pat and predictable.

Given our current economic trough, it can be a bit sickening to witness all the conspicuous consumption of luxury cars and unnecessary junk -- "He who dies with the most toys, wins!" is Steve's declared motto.

I feel compelled to point out that the merchandise featured in "The Joneses" is real stuff from real companies, who are duly listed in the end credits. It would seem strange that they would want to be identified as product placement perpetrators in a film mocking such practices.

Maybe K.C. was right, and if people like the movie, they'll want the stuff they saw in it. "What a wonderful send-up of the culture of envy! Now where can I test-drive one of those Audi R8's?"

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Video review: "Pirate Radio"

It's a slow time for new films arriving on video -- "Pirate Radio" is about it for the first half of April, until the 800-pound gorilla (aka "Avatar") lands next week.

The name "Pirate Radio" not ring a bell? It's not surprising. This comedy from writer/director Richard Curtis ("Love Actually") barely made it into American theaters, although it did decent business across the pond in its native England (where it was titled "The Boat That Rocked").

It's a hilarious, edgy and thoroughly enjoyable comedy about a forgotten bit of rock 'n' roll history.

In the mid-1960s, it was the golden era of music in Great Britain -- The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones -- but public radio outlets were only permitted to play two hours of it a week. So it was left to a bunch of outlaw stations to pipe the music of rebellion into the nation from ships moored just outside territorial waters.

This highly fictionalized version tells the story of Radio Rock, the leader of the ocean-going music brigands.

A motley ensemble of DJs lead the way, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris O'Dowd, Rhys Ifans and Nick Frost. Bill Nighy is the free-willed boss, Tom Sturridge plays the innocent young recruit, and Kenneth Branagh is the prig of a government minister tasked with shutting them down.

It's as entertaining as it is unlikely, with the boys (and one lesbian) hosting a non-stop soundtrack party.

Video extras are top-shelf.

The centerpiece is 16 deleted scenes totaling 68 minutes of screen time. In the intro, Curtis describes them as self-contained little vignettes. He even jokes that if he'd swapped the scenes that remained in the film with those left out, the movie "might have been more successful. Alas!"

The deleted scenes are quite good; it's almost like getting a whole other bonus movie. Don't miss the one in which Midnight Mark, the DJ whose sex appeal is legendary, is caught with 35 naked women crammed into his cabin.

The DVD comes with the deleted scenes and a funny commentary track by Curtis, O'Dowd and Frost. The Blu-ray also has six featurettes totaling 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes action.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, April 12, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962)

Good movie, but they got the title wrong: Robert Stroud kept and studied birds for decades while imprisoned in Leavenworth. When he got transferred to Alcatraz, he was not allowed to have pets or scientific equipment. The "Birdman" spent 17 years at Alcatraz, with nary a bird to call his own.

But I guess the title "Birdman of Leavenworth" doesn't sing as sweetly.

This 1962 drama about a two-time killer who was saved from the hangman's noose to serve a life term studying birds is fairly typical of its era. The truth -- that Robert Stroud was a pretty hateful and despicable guy who also happened to be brilliant -- is rewritten and glammed up by Hollywood.

Played by Burt Lancaster, one of the most handsome men to ever grace a screen, Stroud is turned into a symbol of the nobility of man, and the wrongness of locking that away in a dank corner when he could be contributing to society.

Although, given the real-life narrative of Stroud's incarceration -- which the film follows fairly accurately -- it's pretty hypocritical to spend the first third or so of the movie in which Stroud and his mother fight to prevent him from getting the death penalty, and then spending the last two-thirds sermonizing about awful it is to deny him parole.

When Stroud stabs a prison guard to death in the cafeteria because he insists on reporting Stroud for a minor infraction, thus preventing him from seeing his mother, it's presented as a moment of supreme oppression -- against Stroud. That guard -- nay, the very penal system -- is just a big ol' meanie, so as the music soars and director John Frankenheimer sends his camera into opera-esque swoops and swoons, we're meant to see him as the hero striking back against a corrupt system.

Stroud goes on to mellow out quite a bit, becomes a leading authority on the anatomy of birds, and even ends the movie by heroically ending a prison riot, sagely advising the hot young guns that all life is precious. But never once does he express any remorse for his crimes.

Although I don't agree with the socio-political conclusions "Birdman of Alcatraz" steers its audience toward, I still enjoyed it. It's a skillfully-made film by a top-notch filmmaker who could still crank out a lean, mean thriller like "Ronin" at age 68.

There's a really nice crop of supporting performances. Karl Malden plays Harvey Shoemaker, Stroud's first and last warden, who vows to keep him locked in solitary until the end of his days. Their relationship starts out adversarial, morphs into something more or less civil, but retains a steel edge of enmity even into their old age.

A young Telly Savalas, who started and ended on television, plays Gomez, a dim-witted but amiable fellow prisoner who gets caught up in Stroud's affection for birds, and starts keeping some of his own.

Thelma Ritter plays Stroud's mother, who stood by him, even petitioning President Woodrow Wilson to commute his death sentence, but cut ties when he marries his business partner (Betty Field) to generate publicity. (Stroud sold birds and medicine that he made right in his cell.)

Neville Brand gives a really touching performance as Bull, a crotchety guard who forms a grudging respect for Stroud. On the day they come to pluck Stroud out of Leavenworth to transfer him to Alcatraz and back under Shoemaker's control, Bull shakes his hand and calls Stroud a friend. Because the film has patiently taken its time to sketch their relationship over the years, the moment feels true and right. It's the sort of thing a lot of modern filmmakers skimp on now.

Narrative film lends itself better to fiction, because facts almost never have a satisfying story arc. Real life is inconvenient. The real Robert Stroud was diagnosed as psychotic and possibly was a pedophile, and his bird-filled cell was a hygiene nightmare. But good stories need inspiration, and the life of Stroud certainly provided that.

3 stars

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Coming this week

I'll have reviews of "The Joneses" and "Kick-Ass," and possibly of "Death at a Funeral" if I get motivated to go to the screening.

The video review is "Pirate Radio."

I'll have classic film columns on "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "The Whole Wide World."

Look for the podcast Wednesday at The Film Yap, and possibly another radio appearance.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Throne of Blood" (1957)

I'd been wanting to see "Throne of Blood" for years, ever since I saw a short clip of a scene from the film where a Japanese lord is killed by his own men with arrows. It's an arresting moment, full of poetry and violence, as only the great Akira Kurosawa could compose.

After finally seeing the movie, I consider it one of the great director's minor works, even though I know it is widely considered one of his best.

The plot is a more or less straight adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," transposed to feudal Japan. An ambitious general is egged by his wife into assassinating the Great Lord, and usurps his position. But he is brought down by his own foolishness and suspicion.

Toshiro Mifune, in one of his 16 collaborations with Kurosawa, plays the lead role, Washizu. His wife, Asaji, is played by Isuzu Yamada. Washizu's lifelong friend and comrade is Miki (Minoru Chiaki).

On their way Spider Web Castle -- which is the film's Japanese title -- Miki and Washizu encounter a strange spirit. Bathed in white light and spinning a loom, the old ghost woman makes two predictions: That both men will be promoted that very evening, and that both Washizu and Miki's son will eventually become lord of the castle.

The two generals laugh at this, but indeed upon presenting themselves to the Great Lord they are promoted to the positions the spirit predicted.

Thus begins the deceit of Washizu by his wife. Whispering in his ear a la Lady Macbeth, Asaji convinces Washizu that it is only a matter of time before the Great Lord hears about the prophecy and dispatches him. His choices are but two, she claims: Serve loyally and wait for the execution to come, or dare to grasp the reigns of power and become the Great Lord himself.

His chance arrives when the monarch comes to visit at his fort. Asaji drugs the Great Lord's guards, and puts one of their spears into Washizu's hands. He leaves and returns, almost in a trance, with the weapon, and his hands, covered in blood.

War breaks out, with the Great Lord's son supported by his old enemy. Miki, who had been placed in charge of Spider Web Castle, clearly knows that his old friend murdered their sovereign. Still, he acquiesces to Washizu's ascension to Great Lord in order to keep the peace. Washizu, who is childless, agrees to appoint Miki's son his heir.

But still the scheming continues. After inviting Miki and his son to a celebration feast, Washizu secretly dispatches as assassin to slay them before they arrive. He sees the ghost of Miki in the empty seat where his friend should be, and goes into a panic that alienates his other guests.

Washizu seeks out the forest spirit again, who tells him that he will not be defeated in battle before the very trees of the forest rise up against Spider Web Castle. Renewed with confidence against such an impossibility ever happening, he boasts to his soldiers about the prophecy.

But when his enemies cut down the trees and use them as cover, the men turn on their lord and slay him with arrows.

This death scene, coming at the very end, is just a startling sequence. Wild-eyed, Washizu runs back and forth across the parapet of the castle as arrows rain in. Kurosawa's battle scenes are always amazingly authentic in addition to being kinetically precise -- those arrows really look like they're screaming in at full speed, even thunking into Washizu's armor.

Compare this movie with the battle scenes from "Ivanhoe," a Hollywood movie that is a contemporary of "Throne," which featured arrows that looked like they'd been dumped out of a canister.

There's an astonishing amount of smoke and fog throughout the movie. Clearly, Kurosawa is saying something about people's perceptions being obscured by hate, ambition, lust, etc.

I liked "Throne of Blood," but while there are many scenes that just crackle with Kurosawa's distinct energy, there are many more that just ramble on and on. In particular, his obsession with ranks of soldiers maneuvering on the battlefield gets to be very old, very fast.

Fortunately, the film ends with a scene of such power and electricity, it overpowers the movie's tendency to amble.

3 stars

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review: "Date Night"

Tina Fey and Steve Carell are gifted comedians and likable performers. They're the centerpieces on their smartly-written back-to-back TV shows, "30 Rock" and "The Office."

They're so good, in fact, that watching them slum their way through inferior material like this is depressing.

"Date Night" is a lower-middle-brow comedy about an upper-middle-class New Jersey couple who get their marriage spark reignited by a crazy night in Manhattan where they're mistaken for blackmailers and chased by cops and bad guys alike. I don't know about you, but I'm actually getting sleepy just describing it.

Fey and Carell make for a good team, and they invest themselves in every joke, managing to save a few scenes that end up being pretty funny.

Yeah, they're more or less playing variations on their television characters -- Liz Lemon's self-deprecating neurotic charm and Michael Scott's diffident discomfort in his own skin -- but we enjoy those people so much, it's not a big deal that they're repurposing.

When the pair are just inhabiting a scene, riffing and ad-libbing, the effects are pleasurable. But then the movie has to fall back on its idiot plot -- car chases, scary guys with guns, etc.

They do make for a believable couple. Phil Foster is a tax accountant, and Claire is a real estate agent. Harried and worn out, they barely keep the romance on life support with the occasional date night.

There's a great little moment where Claire is fixing herself up for a night out, and Phil barely glances at her when he walks in the door, and we can see she's crushed. But he redeems himself by taking her to Claw, the hottest new Tribeca restaurant. They have $50 soup, a month-long backlog for reservations and snootily answer the phone, "Claw, you're welcome."

When another couple misses their reservation, the Fosters pretend to be them. Unfortunately, a pair of toughs show up and, thinking they're the other couple, to demand a Flash drive with some juicy material on it.

It's all one big lame case of mistaken identity, and the rest of the movie is spent with the Fosters on the lam, trying to track down this mysterious drive while skirting the hoods and the police.

Directed by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum") from a script by Josh Klausner, "Date Night" features a lot of cameos by well-known actors who run into the Fosters. Some are pleasing -- I liked James Franco as a skeevy character who dubs himself "Taste" -- while others just lie there.

Their stale adventures take the Fosters through Central Park, breaking into a friend's office, and showing up on the doorstep of an old client of Claire's (Mark Wahlberg) who has a background in security and is apparently incapable of wearing a shirt.

Throwaway jokes are usually the best ones. There's one bit where they have to infiltrate a mobbed-up strip club, and Claire sneaks into the strippers' locker room and emerges in a tart little outfit. "It's the only one long enough to cover my Caesarean scar," she explains.

Chuckle-worthy little moments like this almost -- almost -- save "Date Night" from itself.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Review: "The Runaways"

"The Runaways" is a manufactured movie about a manufactured band.

The all-girl rock 'n' roll band was a '70s gimmick designed to peddle teen sex appeal -- and yet the songs they produced ("Cherry Bomb," "Queens of Noise") have a brash energy that's hard to deny.

Similarly, the movie about them wades through every cliché of the rock biopic genre, but is still an entirely watchable and fleetingly engrossing glimpse at Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and the gang.

I say "and the gang" not because I'm trying to minimize the contributions of Lita Ford, Sandy West and Jackie Fox (and several other bassists whose tenures with the band are not depicted). But since it's based on a memoir by Currie, and executive produced by Jett, it's not surprising they're in the spotlight.

Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning make for believable teen rockers who got caught up in the manipulation and excesses of the music biz. Joan (Stewart) is the purist, a tough girl who buys a man's leather jacket, spends her idle days huffing to get high, and refuses to accept a music teacher's admonition, "Girls don't play electric guitar." She was born with rock 'n' roll in her bloodstream.

Cherie is more of a dreamer who has to be coaxed out of her shell into becoming a vicious stage vixen. As adroitly played by Fanning, Cherie is like a million other girls searching for an identity, and using her broken home as a crucible in which to forge a steely persona.

They're brought together by Kim Fowley (a terrific Michael Shannon), a strange but legendary producer who sees in the teen girls a chance to create something new: Hard rock performed by sexy, underage girls. (Upon learning that Cherie is only 15, he raises his fists triumphantly: "Jailbait!")

This is the movie's strongest section, as Fowley sets about forming a band and toughening them up to withstand hecklers and the media glare. With Joan and the rest of the musicians already assembled, Fowley decides they need to inject a little more sex into the mix.

In a great scene, he goes trolling through a local nightclub, picks Cherie out of the crowd because of her brazen stare and Bowie-meets-Bardot look, and offers her a spot in the band.

They rehearse in a run-down trailer, and Fowley composes the song "Cherry Bomb" on the spot for Cherie's audition. (Sounds like a fake Hollywood moment, but various accounts say it really happened.) It's fascinating to watch Cherie, and Fanning herself, transform from innocent little girl to fire-breathing sexpot in a matter of minutes.

Fowley's tactics are a far cry from politically correct, even for 1975 -- he calls the Runaways "kittens" and "little bitches," and even recruits neighborhood boys to hurl tin cans and dog feces at them to make their performance angrier.

The Runaways go on the road, do progressively harder drugs, make the big time, face hordes of fans, and the movie enters the inevitable, dreary decline-and-breakup phase that seems to be genetically embedded into every rock 'n' roll movie.

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi handles the material without a lot of depth, but keeps the film from spiraling into a torpor. She also employs coy camera tricks in tackling the possibility of a lesbian encounter between Cherie and Joan.

Like the band it chronicles, "The Runaways" is mainstream entertainment waving a rebel flag. It still kinda rocks, though.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Video review: "The Lord of the Rings" and "LOTR Trilogy"

The Lords are finally going Blu.

The "Lord of the Rings" movies are being issued on Blu-ray today. And I do mean all of them: The trilogy of 2001-03 films directed by Peter Jackson, which is being released as a single set, and the animated version directed by Ralph Bakshi in 1978.

The fates of those disparate attempts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasyland of hobbits, orcs and elves to cinematic life could not have been more diverse. Jackson's films set box office records and won a slew of Oscars, while Bakshi's version remains a punch line for serious Tolkienites, who dismiss it as a cartoon for kiddies.

Say what you will about Bakshi's much-maligned take, it looks great on a big TV in Blu-ray. The film itself hasn't improved with age; the cutesy depiction of Frodo and the other hobbits as big-haired moppets still grates. And the technique of "rotoscoping" -- filming live action and turning it into animation -- makes for jerky action scenes.

It doesn't help that the story abruptly stops about two-thirds of the way through Tolkien's novel. Bakshi intended the epic tale to be divided into two parts, but the studio refused to fund a sequel.

Jackson had about 70 times more money to play with than Bakshi did, and it shows. The story was split into three parts, just as publishers generally did with Tolkien's book.

But beyond production values, Jackson and his crew hew closer to Tolkien's vision in both plot and tone. They understood that they were translating an entire world into film -- and fans wanted it treated seriously.

The only downside of the LOTR Trilogy's arrival on Blu-ray (which had been delayed repeatedly) is that this set includes only the theatrical version of the films. The longer -- and better -- extended versions are expected to make their hi-def debut eventually, but no date is set.

Extras for the Bakshi version are limited to a single item: A 30-minute documentary covering Bakshi's career. There's some interesting behind-the-scenes photographs and footage from the "Rings" production, and interviews with Bakshi, his children and collaborators. But it mentions nothing about his intention to do a sequel, or the film's dismal reception, or other critical subjects.

The features for the LOTR trilogy closely mirror those of the extended DVD version, although the multiple commentary tracks are missing. It's an exhilarating and exhausting collection of hours' worth of interviews, features and documentaries. The nine-disc set also includes digital copies of each film.

Personally, I'll wait for the Blu-ray extended version.

Movies: Bakshi version: 2 stars; Jackson version: 4 stars
Extras: Bakshi: 1.5 stars; Jackson: 3.5 stars

Monday, April 5, 2010

Reeling Backward: "To Have and Have Not" (1944)

Lauren Bacall was 19 years old and a total acting novice when she appeared in a doorway to ask Bogie for a match. She reportedly was so nervous to be starring next to the screen legend that she tucked her chin into her chest to keep from shaking, tilting her eyes up at Bogart in an alluring way that soon earned a nickname, "The Look."

Later on in the film, standing in that same doorway, Bacall would deliver the lines that would cement her debut as one of the most memorable in cinematic history: "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

Talk about togetherness: Bacall and Bogart would initiate a romance during the shooting of 1944's "To Have and Have Not" that eventually led to their marriage (and the demise of Bogie's).

Directed by Howard Hawks from a script by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, "To Have and Have Not" was based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway that bears little resemblance to the movie, other than the Caribbean setting and being about a fishing boat captain. Hawks supposedly called it Hemingway's worst novel, and the author dared him to produce a decent movie out of it.

The result is a film whose plot is a mishmash that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but is so strong on mood and romantic tension that we don't give a fig.

Bogart plays Harry "Steve" Morgan, an itinerant boat skipper in Martinique. Much like the city of Casablanca, Martinique is an exotic locale ostensibly under the control of the French, but with the influence of the Nazis clearly visible. The Vichy thugs are running the show, while the Free French are trying to drum up a rebellion.

As the story opens, Steve has been taking a rich American out for big-game fishing every day for two weeks, without much success. On the last day the client loses the rod and reel, and slaps Steve's friend and first mate Eddie across the face. Played by the great character actor Walter Brennan, Eddie is an old drunk who has to beg for his booze. But he's still Steve's friend, and he can't stand to see Eddie treated that way, even if he is a worthless rummy.

His client tries to skip out on Steve without paying his bill, but dies first in a gunfight between the Vichy and patriotic French. The fat, diabolical police Captain Renard -- played by Dan Seymour, in something like a combination of the Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet roles from "Casablanca" -- confiscates Steve's passport and money.

Penniless, he's forced to take a job from the resistance to pick up one of their leaders on a remote island, but the important passenger is shot during an encounter with a patrol boat. Steve spends the rest of the movie nursing the injured man, insisting to the Free French that he's not taking sides, and dodging questions from Renard.

It's funny; as you watch the movie, you can't take your eyes off Bacall. But once it's over and you start thinking about it, her character is almost totally unnecessary to the story. See, I just gave you a pretty complete overview of the plot without ever mentioning Marie Browning -- aka "Slim."

Slim is a young pickpocket whose M.O. is to lure men into buying drinks for her, then making off with their wallets. That's how she and Steve first meet -- she's just duped Steve's fishing client, and when he demands she return the wallet, he finds a ticket for a plane that takes off right before they were supposed to meet at the bank for his payoff.

Slim and Steve spend most of the movie fighting and kissing, often both within the same scene. It's real screen magic, the two of them. Bogart's doing his usual world-weary cynic shtick, but in between we catch little moments where he seems totally amazed by Bacall.

Jazzman/composer Hoagy Carmichael has a small role as Cricket, the saloon piano player, and Bacall even sings a couple of his tunes. Well, perhaps not. Accounts vary about whether the voice is actually Bacall's. According to legend, as a boy Andy Williams was recruited to dub Bacall's singing. It certainly sounds like her famously low (though not yet husky) voice.

I love the film's ending, which is somewhat abrupt but still satisfying. Having shot one of Renard's men, Steve proceeds to beat the captain and his cohort until they agree to release Eddie, who they've taken hostage. Leaving the villainous police in the hands of the resistance, they gather their stuff to hop on the boat, hoping they have enough gas to get them to another island and a new start.

Slim, whispering her goodbye to Cricket, asks him to play a happy song, and Bacall does this gorgeous little jig on their way out of the nightclub. It was the start of a beautiful friendship -- between Slim and Steve, between Bogie and Bacall, and between her and audiences for decades to come.

3.5 stars

Friday, April 2, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Grand Hotel" (1932)

"Grand Hotel" was one of the first conscious attempts to gather an "all-star" cast. The poster blared out the names of the cinematic giants of that era: Garbo! Barrymore! Barrymore!

Joan Crawford, nearly unrecognizable with her trademark eyebrows shorn back, was the baby of the bunch.

Nearly 80 years later, the 1932 film is most notable for its intersecting, interweaving storylines -- similar to "Nashville," "Crash" and a number of other notable films.

Like "Crash," "Grand Hotel" would win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was the only award for which it was nominated, and still holds the record of least number of nominations for the movie that won Oscar's top prize.

An old, horribly scarred doctor (Lewis Stone) acts as the quasi-narrator and chorus. "Grand Hotel: People come, people go, but nothing ever happens," he intones at the beginning and end of the story. The obvious irony is that a whole lot does happen.

The central story thread revolves around Grusinskaya, the greatest ballet dancer in the world, played by Garbo. At the height of her fame, she's sick of dancing and adoration. "I want to be alone," she insists after a performance -- words that would forever become associated with Garbo, herself a reluctant star.

Little does she know, but Grusinskaya is being stalked by a thief after her priceless pearls: Baron Felix von Geigern, played by John Barrymore. The baron is a ruined noble, a gambler and occasional bandit, when necessity calls. He poses as a rich gentlemen to move about in high society, which he exploits either with card games or outright robbery.

He's being financed by some criminals who are growing impatient with his attempt to wrest away the pearls, and are ready to apply strong-arm tactics to recover their stake money. The baron finally sneaks into Grusinskaya's suite and takes the pearls, but overhears her despair and stops her attempt at suicide. They fall in love, and he resolves to repay his partners in crime rather than hurt her.

The entire story takes place over the course of a couple of days, with lives and loves being changed forever.

Crawford plays Flaemmchen, a poor young stenographer hired by a powerful business magnate named Preysing (Wallace Beery). The baron and Preysing both flirt with the ingenue, which leads to a clash between the two later on.

The other principle character is Kringelein (Barrymore's brother, Lionel), an accountant from Preysing's textile plant. An old, timid man, he's been diagnosed with a fatal illness, and determines to spend all his money living his last few days in luxury.

Preysing, who's pursuing a major merger deal to save his failing business, is the villain of the piece, although he isn't portrayed as evil -- merely imperious. He's the sort of man who treats his perceived equals with genteel manners, and his underlings with dismissive contempt.

At one point Preysing hires Flaemmchen to be his secretary on a trip to England, and both of them understand this to mean she will become his well-compensated mistress. It's a great early role for Crawford, as the smart but fatalistic woman who keeps finding herself under various men's thumbs.

Director Edmund Goulding -- who also helmed "The Dawn Patrol," which was featured in this space some months ago -- uses some interesting storytelling techniques. He shoots the Grand Hotel in Berlin with an opulent eye, lingering particularly over the great checkerboard-tiled lobby and the view down the great circular atrium. William A. Drake adapted his play for the screen, which in turn was based on a novel.

Money, and the pitfalls of the pursuit of it, are the central theme. Other than Grusinskaya, who only wants a little joy in her life, every character is in some way ruled by their wealth, or lack of it.

"Grand Hotel" hasn't aged particularly well, but it's still an engaging and important piece of cinema.

3 stars

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review: "Clash of the Titans"

Has it really been three decades since the original "Clash of the Titans," featuring a mangled mash-up of Greek mythology, herky-jerky stop-motion animated monsters and a really bitchin' Harry Hamlin feathered haircut?

The new "Clash" exists mostly to remind us how much things have changed.

The monsters are now sleek computer-generated beasties, snapping and slithering in all their 3-D glory. The gumbo of Greek legends has been remixed with the addition of wood-skinned sorcerers and some new humanistic themes.

And as Perseus, the half-man half-god hero, Sam Worthington's no-frills buzzcut signals that this is one classical dude with a lot of post-modern 'tude.

This remake is unnecessary but unobjectionable, and generally pretty fun. Fans of the original -- who, like me, regard it with warm nostalgia while chuckling at its hokier aspects -- will find themselves ticking off a checklist of what's been retained, changed or dropped.

I was disappointed that Calibos, the half-demon villain from the original, has been relegated to a walk-on role. Although there's still a nice touch of pathos to him.

And I didn't like the reduced byplay between the Gods of Olympus. I really enjoyed the first film's depiction of scheming, jealous super-beings conniving against each other, with mortals and their own demigod offspring used as chess pieces.

Liam Neeson gets in a few moments of thunder as Zeus, head god and Perseus' father. And Ralph Fiennes shines as crafty Hades, dissolving into mist and turning a human queen into an ancient hag with a touch.

But the rest of the gods are relegated to mere eye candy. Danny Huston, as Poseidon, has about two lines of dialogue. The female gods don't even get that.

At least the earthbound women got meatier roles. Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), the princess of the god-offending city of Argos, is prepared to sacrifice herself if Hades releases the Kraken, a powerful sea titan, as revenge for their arrogance. And Io (Gemma Arterton), an ageless demigod herself, takes on the role of Perseus' protector and companion.

Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi deliver a lean, mean script that focuses on the thrill of individual encounters without an ounce of dilly-dally in between. Perseus and a band of Argos' best warriors are sent to find the Stygian Witches -- frightful triplets sharing a single eye -- to learn if the Kraken can be defeated.

Instead of being the anointed, favored son of the gods, in this version Perseus is a poor fisherman resentful of the big boys' meddling in their workaday lives. He even refuses the gift of a magic sword from Zeus because he wants to win as a man, not a god.

(Although I couldn't help noticing he starts accepting these supernatural advantages ... but only after his cadre of comrades has been significantly reduced in headcount, and his own neck is on the line.)

Director Louis Leterrier keeps things moving along at a brisk pace that prevents the audience from dwelling on any incongruent new elements. Like Perseus' djinn companion, who looks like a cross between the "Lord of the Rings" ents and the Tusken Raiders of "Star Wars." Or that the Greek team also includes, for some reason, a pair of Russian hunters. I think someone took a wrong turn at the Caucasus.

One throwaway joke neatly sums up this entire movie. As Perseus and his crew are arming themselves for their journey, he reaches into a pile of equipment and pulls out a certain golden mechanical owl and asks what it is. The gruff captain (Mads Mikkelsen) tells him to leave it behind.

Younger audience members will be bewildered, but fans of the 1981 film will feel their hearts freeze: "Not that frackin' owl!!" Fortunately, the new "Clash of the Titans" has retained enough of the stuff that made the original memorable, and left the goofier ordnance back in the nostalgia bin.

3 stars