Monday, May 31, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Pawnbroker" (1965)

Sol Nazerman, the feckless proprietor of a Harlem pawn shop, offers two dollars for an old radio.

It's probably not worth even that, since the jittery junkie looking to pawn it for a quick fix can't get it to tune a single station. As Nazerman is filling out the receipt, the customer, veritably vibrating with the shakes of withdrawal, screams at him about the low offer, calling him a "bloodthirsty kike."

Nazerman, who bears a crooked tattoo of numbers on his left forearm courtesy of the Nazis, does not even look up. "Do you still live at the same address?" he asks neutrally.

The man nods, takes his two bucks and dashes out of the shop, no doubt headed straight for his dealer.

This is the world of "The Pawnbroker," an unheralded but seminal 1965 film that launched the career of Rod Steiger, helped put a nail in the coffin of the gasping Production Code, and opened a floodgate of movies about the Holocaust and its lingering effects on millions.

Nazerman, whom everyone in the colorful neighborhood calls "uncle," is a man who sees no profit in human connections. He lives with his sister and her family on Long Island, making the long commute each day to Manhattan's low-rent north side. He has a girlfriend, if you can call it that, where he eats his dinner and endures the constant berating of her father, a fellow survivor who recognizes that Nazerman has nothing left inside him.

The woman, Tessie, is the widow of a friend killed while trying to scale the concentration camp fence. She is there to provide meals and sex, which Nazerman consumes without appetite, simply fulfilling his basic human impulses.

His shop is a labyrinth of cages and bars, ostensibly to keep the customers out, but one senses Nazerman desires the security of this self-imposed prison. The only employee is Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez), a small-time crook trying to go straight, who's smart and exuberant and wants to soak up all the knowledge he can from Nazerman so he can open his own business one day.

Nazerman treats Ortiz with disdain, lumping him in with all the "rejects and scum" on the streets outside the shop. This sends the young man, angry at being dismissed by his idol, running into the arms of a local hood, who wants to knock over the pawnbroker for his fat safe.

The safe is full because of Nazerman's dealings with Rodriguez (a chilling Brock Peters), the local crime lord who uses the pawnbroker to launder money. This appears to be the only actual source of income for the shop; Nazerman's clientele is a never-ending string of down-on-their-luck neighborhood denizens, looking to pawn this or that bit of scrap for a few dollars. Nobody ever buys.

This motley cast of characters is sad and funny and diverse. There's an elderly man who likes to come in and ramble about the classics. A man trades in an oratory prize he won as a youth for a few bucks. The hoods bring an obviously hot lawn mower, and after delivering barely-veiled threats, are paid off with $30.

One day a woman about Nazerman's age, Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) wanders in representing a youth center, looking for a donation and, even more urgently, a human connection. Her overtures of friendship escalate, to the point that Nazerman rudely tells her to stay out of his life.

One of the great ironies director Sidney Lumet employs is to depict every location other than Harlem -- the Long Island suburbs, the high-rise apartments of Manhattan -- as cold, anti-septic and impersonal. It's only the ghetto, with the urban decay and human depravity, that seems vibrant and alive.

The film is also notable for its inclusion of nudity and fairly blatant (for its time) sex scenes. The Production Code prohibited such things, but the movie was granted a special exception because of the weight of its topic. (A prostitute bares her breasts to Nazerman to entice him into giving her more money for a gold locket, which causes him to flash back to seeing his wife used as a whore by the German soldiers.)

Steiger underplays for most of the film, but as Nazerman approaches a breakdown of his carefully built-up defense mechanisms, the man seems to literally implode before our eyes. Steiger had been around for years as a solid supporting player, but this role earned him an Oscar nomination and made him a reputable leading man.

Lumet, working from a screenplay by David Friedkin and Morton S. Fine based on Edward Lewis Wallant's novel, was the first major filmmaker to tackle the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of one of the Jewish survivors. He uses hyper-fast editing, sometimes just two or three frames at a time, to show how what Nazerman sees in everyday life evokes the horror he witnessed.

An idyllic opening shows a young Nazerman, his wife and young children enjoying a picnic in a field, only to see them taken away by the Nazis. "I lost everything I loved that day, but I didn't die," he says. His physical existence goes on, but his soul suffered a fatal blow.

"The Pawnbroker" is the story of a man who became a prisoner on the day of his liberation from a concentration camp.

3.5 stars out of four

Friday, May 28, 2010

Reeling Backward: "High Sierra" (1941)

I've seen probably three dozen Humphrey Bogart movies in my lifetime, and no matter what his part in it is, the experience always affects me the same way.

I spend the next couple of days unconsciously talking through my teeth in a fast, low patter. I imagine walking around with a .45 automatic tucked into my belt, and pistol-whipping any wiseguys who ticked me off.

That's the thing about the great iconic stars -- we instinctively want to like them, and be like them.

So what intrigued me while watching 1941's "High Sierra" is why we end up liking Roy "Mad Dog" Earle so much. He is, after all, a hardened killer who slaps people around and guns down innocent people who get in his way. Just released from an Indiana prison on a pardon that was bought and paid for, Roy's a gray and grizzled veteran con man.

Rather than looking to go straight, Roy's only intention is to nail one last big score so he can retire. Big Mac, a dying mob boss, arranged for Roy's release so he can head up a big job to steal half a million in jewels from a California resort. Roy's been given a couple of pinhead small-timers as his wing men (Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis) and he's none too happy about it. He also isn't thrilled with having to hole up in a camp up in the mountains, waiting to get the word the job is a go.

So why do we root for Roy, so much so that when the cops are on his tail and he's got a box full of hot jewels, we want him to get away with it?

Perhaps it's Roy's misplaced love for Velma (a 16-year-old Joan Leslie), a poor girl with a club foot he meets along the road to Los Angeles. Velma's grandfather -- played by Henry Travers, forever Clarence the angel from "It's a Wonderful Life" -- takes an instant liking to what he senses is a kindred soul, for Roy used to be just another Midwestern farm boy before he became a notorious gangster.

Roy arranges for Velma to have an operation to fix her foot, which he pays for, with a mind to marry the girl half his age. I think Roy convinces himself he's in love with her, rather than because of any real connection they share. She's goodness incarnate, and he knows he's bad, and maybe he thinks being around her will rub off on him. Velma represents an ideal Roy strives for but can never attain.

The flip side of the female coin is Marie (Ida Lupino -- who actually got top billing over Bogie), a two-bit moll who falls hard for Roy, without getting much of anything in return. She was brought along by one of the two small-time crooks, who fight like dogs over her, until Roy sets them straight and takes the girl under his protective wing.

The other notable player is Pard, a scraggly little mutt who starts following Roy around at the mountain camp. Algernon, the black handyman at the camp, relates that everyone Pard has taken a shine to has died -- which obviously doesn't bode well for Roy. (Willie Best plays Algernon in a shiftless, google-eyed depiction of servitude that is outrageous even by 1941 standards.)

Incidentally, a lot of people have mistakenly thought that Pard was played by the same dog that played Toto in "The Wizard of Oz," but in fact it was Bogart's own pet, Zero. Hopefully the star negotiated a decent contract for his mutt.

The last act of "High Sierra" is the least interesting, as all the little pieces of the Production Code-era morality lesson fall into place.

The two small-timers buy it in a car crash, and the inside man from the resort squeals like a stuck pig, resulting in Roy's mugshot on the cover of every newspaper. Velma, fixed of the problem that saw her labeled a cripple, becomes a party girl who loves to dance and drink. Roy decides to get hitched with Marie as some sort of consolation prize for Velma, and she immediately starts behaving like a whiny rhymes-with-witch.

Their downfall is, of course, the mutt Pard, who gets recognized by a motel manager, putting the cops onto Roy's trail. Roy helps them by stupidly giving Marie all his money so she can take a bus to Las Vegas, forcing him to hold up a drugstore for gas money, which begins a high-speed pursuit that ends with Roy trapped in the high mountains.

Marie, rushing to the media hoopla over public enemy one being cornered, is given away by Pard, who runs barking up to Roy's hideout spot. Hearing the dog, and realizing Marie must be near, Roy comes out from cover long enough to be taken out by a sharpshooter with a scope rifle. Roy's careening fall down the mountain side is pretty graphic for its time.

"High Sierra" was directed by Raoul Walsh from a script by John Huston and W.R. Burnett, based on Burnett's novel. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to label it film noir, especially with all the sunny location shots, but it's an early and above-average example of the hard-boiled heist film.

And, of course, it's got Bogart, doing that unexplainable and inescapably magnetic Bogart thing he does.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review: "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"

"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" is a big-budget action movie about a magic dagger that can transport its bearer backward in time. I can certainly think of 116 minutes I'd love to have back.

This bewilderingly bad offering from the house of Jerry Bruckheimer is based on a video game. The lineage of movies spawned thusly is not a noble one, and "Prince of Persia" competes for the top spot at the bottom of a deep trough.

How awful do things get? Well, let's start with the fact that star Jake Gyllenhaal does that annoying thing American actors do when they don't want to attempt a foreign accent: A generic English lilt that summons painful aural memories involving Kevin Costner and archery.

I guess Gyllenhaal can't be blamed, since he's the only Yank in an entirely British cast of principles. I'm hardly a disciple of political correctness, but methinks if you're going to have a movie called "Prince of Persia," you might want to have at least one actual Persian.

The video game (actually, a series) involved lots of sword-fighting and acrobatic jumping and tumbling, and director Mike Newell stages his action scenes (clumsily) to look like Gyllenhaal is in the middle of a really challenging level of the game, and we're directing him with our controller.

The intercutting between Gyllenhaal and his stuntmen is pretty obvious, as the professional busts some of those gravity-defying parkour moves, transplanted from an urban setting to pre-Christendom Arabia. Then we cut back to the star touching down.

The plot, courtesy of three screenwriters, is a whirling dervish of pseudo-history and made-up mythology.

Tus (Richard Coyle), the crown prince of Persia, orders his troops to invade the city of Alamut after discovering some trumped-up evidence they're secretly forging weapons. Dastan (Gyllenhaal), the youngest brother whom the king adopted as a street urchin, is the hero of the battle, even though he opposed the attack.

Dastan finds a magic dagger that contains the Sands of Time. When you press a button on the hilt, you travel backward in time one minute, and can prevent bad things from happening. The sands are consumed, but Tamina (Gemma Arterton), the Alamutian princess, is the dagger's guardian and knows how to get more.

The king is fatally poisoned, and Dastan catches the blame, forcing he and Tamina to flee for their lives, ratcheting up a standard-issue love/hate relationship. I won't reveal who the real villain is, other than to point out Ben Kingsley is hanging around, playing the uncle and wearing a lot of eyeliner. Just sayin'.

Alfred Molina turns up as a shady sheikh who runs an ostrich-racing operation, has a deadly African knife guy as his best friend, and delivers a lot of angry tirades about the government taking all his money through taxes to spend on stuff he doesn't like. I think the Tea Party just found its Adam.

Anyway, things devolve into a seemingly endless series of battles and acrobatics, with everybody trying to get their hands on the dagger -- and the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance, of course.

And speaking of that dagger: If the wielder goes back in time a minute, wouldn't the dagger also travel backward, and thus still have its sand? So theoretically you could just keep pushing the button over and over. Maybe even ... 116 times?

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "Sex and the City 2"

"Sex and the City 2" stumbles right out of the gate, teetering on too-tall heels with a title that, in addition to being unimaginative, can't even boast accuracy: The gals don't spend much time at all in New York City, hotfooting it instead to the desert for an Arabian adventure.

I guess "Sex and Another City" doesn't have quite the same ring.

There are some fun moments as Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda traipse around Abu Dhabi, buying up cheap shoes at the bazaars and setting turbans on fire with their brazen flouting of Islamic codes of conduct. And it's nice to see Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon, respectively, back in the familiar roles that they've come to wear with tailored precision.

But the sequel to the movie version of the beloved television series just doesn't have the fresh zing of two years ago. It feels like ... well, old clothes: Put on in a rush for comfort and convenience, rather than carefully pressed and matched to make an impression.
The ladies still look fabulous, but the script is stuck in the spin cycle.

Matching real time, two years have passed since expert single gal Carrie finally tied the knot with dream man Mr. Big (Chris Noth).

They're still madly in love, but the passing of time and fear of turning into a couple of dull old marrieds has Carrie fretting. Her nerves jump into high gear when she gives him a vintage Rolex for their anniversary, and his gift is ... a flatscreen in the bedroom.

At least there's another massively over-the-top wedding to kick off the party: This time it's the knotting of gay gal pals Stanford and Anthony in glam-tastic festivities that include Liza Minnelli reprising Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies," right down to the strutting dance moves.

It's so wrong, it feels kinda right.

Charlotte is frustrated with raising two high-maintenance daughters, and her new braless wonder of a nanny raises worries about a potential affair with her hubby Harry. Miranda's got her own domestic pressures, plus a new boss at work who makes her want to quit.

Samantha thinks she has the solution to their "mid-wife crisis" in an all-expenses-paid trip to Abu Dhabi, shining jewel of the "New Middle East," at the behest of a rich sheik. Things go well at first, with camel rides and a foursome of handsome butlers to wait on them hand and foot.

But then Carrie runs into an old flame, and Samantha's hot flashes -- her menopause-defying drugs were confiscated at customs -- threaten to overheat the natives.
Writer/director Michael Patrick King ladles on plenty of what "Sex" fans want: Bitchy dialogue, loads of hot young studs improbably slavering for women twice their age, and high-fashion clothes by the metric ton.

The cast and crew can't be blamed, but the characters' obsession with fashion and status quickly wears thin given our lean economy. King's camera lingers over Maybach limos, black diamond rings and opulent furniture with a voyeurism that, in a time of foreclosures and recession gardens, borders on pornographic.

I think what's missing most from "Sex and the City 2" is the Big Apple itself. The TV show had great characters, but was also quintessentially New York in its high-wire vibe. Taking the act on the road drains it of a primary flavor.

There's still a good time to be had hanging out with these city girls. But if there's a third date, let's make it Manhattan.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New podcast up on chick flicks

No review of "Exit Through the Gift Shop" -- it's been pushed back into June.

As a makeup, we've got a new podcast up at The Film Yap about chick flicks.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Video review: "The Road"

A Man. A Boy. We know they are father and son, because they call each other so, but we never learn their names. They're bedraggled and filthy, their cheeks caved in with dire hunger, as they push their meager possessions in a rusty shopping cart down an ash-strewn road, with the threat or horrendous death around every turn.

That's the bleak yet uplifting world of "The Road," one of 2009's best films -- which almost no one saw because it barely got released in theaters.

It's out on video now, and I urge people to give this spare, understated near-masterpiece a chance.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith-McPhee star as the pair struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Taking a cue from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") underplays the performances and the dialogue. Screenwriter Joe Penhall lets the emotional drama assert itself without superfluous embellishment.

We're not even sure what turned the world into such a forbidding expanse of death and decay. Nuclear war seems likely. It's not even clear where the man and boy are heading, other than trying to escape winter's grasp and endure another day.

They meet other humans, but most of the time it's not a welcome occasion. With nothing able to grow, much of mankind has resorted to cannibalism for food. It's a zero-sum game whose only conclusion is humanity's extinction.

But among all this crushing bleakness, there is joy and tenderness that is exhilarating.

Robert Duvall and Charlize Theron have brief but powerful roles as, respectively, an ancient man they meet along the road and the wife and mother who deserted them, giving up all hope and abandoning them to her despair.

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

There is a making-of documentary and several deleted scenes, as well as a feature-length commentary track by Hillcoat.

I'm actually rather perturbed at how "The Road" was received. Its release was delayed for about a year, perhaps because in the then-new economic devastation, the studio rationalized that audiences wouldn't greet such a downbeat film with much enthusiasm.

Prove them wrong.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, May 24, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Steel Magnolias" (1989)

I am secure enough in my manhood to proudly proclaim that I enjoy chick flicks -- good ones, at least. Two hours of maudlin sentiment and bitchy encounters may be some guys' idea of torture. But if it's well-executed and engaging, I'm there.

Somehow I'd missed "Steel Magnolias" in the 21 years since it came out. It's fair to say my teenage self was not as enlightened about feminine-themed movies, so I didn't catch it in theaters. And even the most ardent film lover will have a few seminal films they just never got around to.

I'm so glad to have rectified the oversight. What a wonderful pageantry of lively Southern womanhood. The film is based on Robert Harling's play (he also wrote the screen adaptation), which is a fictionalized account of his sister's death at a young age. Director Herbert Ross (who also helmed "The Sunshine Boys," featured here not long ago) has a wonderful touch with his huge cast of talented actresses.

This was Julia Roberts' big break-out role (she earned an Oscar nomination for supporting actress), but for me the film is notable for having so many great parts for actresses of a certain age: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis. It's hard to imagine a movie being made today with so many gray-haired spitfires.

And what great one-liners they get: "Steel Magnolias" is filled to the brim with crackling dialogue. They're delivered in a showy, punchy way -- so much so that you can practically hear the wind-up. But even if there's that bit of inescapable artifice whenever a stage work moves to the screen, we don't mind because the lines are so great, and delivered with such panache.


"The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize."
"I'm not crazy, I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years!"
"I'm just screaming at my husband; I can do that any time!"
"Well, you know what they say: if you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!"
"I think we should pray." "Oh, I'd rather eat dirt!"
"We went skinny dipping and we did things that frightened the fish."
The plot itself is pretty simple, centering around the mother-daughter relationship of M'Lynn Eatonten (Field) and her daughter Shelby (Roberts), who's about to get married. M'Lynn has spent her whole life fretting after he daughter because of her severe diabetes, and isn't quite ready to cut the apron strings.

Later, Shelby insists on having a child of her own, despite dire warnings from the doctors about the impact it could have on her health. Sure enough, her kidneys fail and she has to receive a transplant from her mother. But eventually she succumbs and dies.

The men stay on the sidelines, where they belong. (The stage version takes entirely inside a beauty shop, and the males are discussed but never seen.) Tom Skerritt has a nice turn as Drum, M'Lynn's exuberant husband, and Dylan McDermott plays Jackson, Shelby's new husband.

By the way, you can tell we're in the Deep South by all the character's names. There's also Truvy Jones (Parton), the town's best beautician and gossip; Annelle Dupuy Desoto (Daryl Hannah), the resident Bible-thumber; Clairee Belcher (Dukkakis), widowed wife of the mayor and number-one socialite; and Ouiser Boudreaux, the neighborhood S.O.B. who dresses like a charwoman but knows that "the only reason people are nice to me is because I have more money than God."

These names may sound made up, but anyone who's actually spent time below the Mason-Dixon Line knows that colorful monikers abound. Consider Tillie Tooter, the Florida woman who became famous a few years ago for surviving several days trapped in her car.

The story takes place in Chiquapin Parish, a fictional Louisiana town that is apparently devoid of black people. (Actually, one mother and her child crop up near the end.)

"Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion," one of the women says, and it perfectly sums up the wonderful appeal of this Southern-fried gem.

3.5 stars out of four

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Coming this week

I'll have reviews of new movies "Sex and the City 2" and "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time."

The video review will be "The Road."

I'll have classic film columns on "Steel Magnolias" and "High Sierra."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Spartacus" (1960)

"Spartacus" should have been a disaster. The original screenwriter, director and cinematographer were all fired off the project -- the latter two a week into filming.

It was more or less a vanity project for Kirk Douglas, who was angry he didn't get the lead in "Ben-Hur" and ordered up his own sword-and-sandals epic. Novelist Howard Fast was in over his head trying to adapt his novel about the Third Servile War of Rome for the screen, so Dalton Trumbo was brought in. Unfortunately, Trumbo was blacklisted at the time, and had to work under a pseudonym.

Douglas bravely insisted that Trumbo receive an onscreen credit, which led to the breakdown of the McCarthy-era blacklist.

But Douglas clashed with director Anthony Mann, and canned him after a few days of shooting. A 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick, who previously directed Douglas in the wonderful "Paths of Glory," was brought in.

Kubrick largely disavowed "Spartacus" later in his career, but mostly, I think, because of entering the project as a hired gun rather as the primary and unquestioned author of the film. The dark genius preferred to work in relative isolation, and to write and shoot his movies himself. (Russell Metty, pushed out by Kubrick, retained his credit for legalistic convenience, and thus won the cinematography Oscar for "Spartacus," even though he only worked on the film a little longer than Mann did.)

Far be it from me to call Stanley Kubrick stupendously wrong, but I think "Spartacus" is one of his finest films, and one of the true giants among the mid-century epics.

I won't belabor talking about the plot, since the story of the man who led a slave revolt against the Roman Empire is well-known.

What most interested me in watching the 50th-anniversary Blu-ray edition -- which is a marvel, with crisp lines and bold colors courtesy of the 1991 film restoration -- is the film's pace. At 3¼ hours, the film is certainly not in a hurry. And yet, it never feels like it's draggy or fat ... just taking its time.

It's amazing to watch simple establishing shots, or montages of marching armies. Or just the slow pan of the camera as it enters a Roman bath. It gives the audience a chance to breathe, soak up all the Oscar-winning sets, and sets the tone for the coming scene.

Nowadays editors would chop these moments by half or more. The movies have sped up in the last few decades, and have not improved in their quickness.

The fight scenes have held up fairly well, both the gladiator matched pairs and the huge battle featuring 10,000 extras. Content-wise, "Spartacus" was quite daring in the waning days of the old Production Code, before the Motion Picture Association of America starting giving out ratings. There's even a brief flash of Spartacus severing an arm, complete with twin arterial blood spurts.

The film was also bold sexually. Jean Simmons, playing Spartacus' slave wife Varinia, appears nude twice, although both times shot with a careful angle to avoid showing her breasts. There's a thrilling moment where they're cavorting in a meadow, and he is tracing her face with a bit of plant, and she opens her mouth to accept it. For 1960, this was pretty yowza stuff.

One of the most famous scenes did not make the cut, however. This was the bath scene where the Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier) asks his new slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis) if he prefers oysters or snails, calling it a question of taste rather than morality, and declaring that he eats both oysters and snails.

The barely-concealed reference to same-sex coupling was cut out of the original film, and only later restored. According to one account, the audio track for this scene had been lost. Curtis was still around to re-record his lines, but Olivier was dead by then. So Anthony Hopkins, once Olivier's understudy and a fearsomely good mimic, recorded the dialogue.

The cast is simply a marvel, although some of the smaller supporting performances (including Curtis) are a bit stiff. Peter Ustinov is a delightful scene-stealer as a mercenary slave trader -- he won the Academy Award, the only person to do so for a Kubrick film -- but the performance I keep coming back to is Charles Laughton as Gracchus, a Roman senator and political opponent of Crassus.

In less than perhaps 10 minutes of total screen time, he paints an indelible presence as a figure of integrity buried beneath a mound of corruption. Gracchus is a man of the people, both their virtues and their faults, and represents the last dying voice of democracy against the coming dictatorship of the emperors. Only an actor of Laughton's wit and weight (figurative and otherwise) could pull it off. I love this piece of dialogue in a scene between Laughton and Ustinov:
"You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?"
Douglas of course is great, playing a powerful man of destiny who still seems full to the brim with a distinctive humanity. I love the scenes where Spartacus is at the hands of some evil Roman or another, his limbs in chains and his life on the line, and he stares at them with an impudence that could enrage even an emperor.

4 stars out of four

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: "Shrek Forever After"

I'm not seeing blood red about having to sit through more ogre green -- mostly because the fourth installment in Dreamworks' 800-pound animation franchise, "Shrek Forever After," is reasonably entertaining. Certainly, it's a big improvement over the awful "Shrek the Third."

Still, it's clear the only reason this movie has for existing is also green -- the papery kind.

Consider this: Mike Myers (Shrek), Cameron Diaz (Fiona), Eddie Murphy (Donkey) and Antonio Banderas (Puss in Boots) haven't starred in a single non-Shrek hit movie between them in the last few years.

Heck, Myers doesn't even have much of a career these days outside of voicing the un-jolly green giant. (I don't count "The Love Guru," since in time I wrote this sentence, you could have counted its entire box office gross.)

Let's face it, the "Shrek" machine was already growing tired by the first sequel, which at least had a frenetic energy and a boatload of pop culture jokes to keep the momentum going.

By the fourth go-round, the filmmakers are left to rely on rimshot one-liners -- Puss and Donkey call each other a "cat-tastrophe" and "re-donkeylous," respectively -- and overly familiar character quirks: Donkey sings! Puss preens! Fiona frets! etc.

To recap: In the first movie, Shrek learned to set aside his beastly ways and fall in love. In the sequel, he got to meet the in-laws and fight for his, er, woman. In the third flick, he came to terms with becoming a responsible adult and daddy.

So what's the obvious logical step? Yep, the mid-life blues.

Shrek gets fed up with being tied down by a wife and kids and makes a dangerous magical bargain to get a taste of his bachelor days. Of course, he learns to embrace domestic bliss in the end.

What's next? "Shrek: Curse of the Prostate Exam"?

About the only thing that's fresh is the addition of a whole gaggle of ogres. It has seemed awfully suspicious that, up until now, Shrek and his brood have been the only green-skinned folk we've seen.

Shrek bumps into them while traipsing through an alternate reality he helped create. He signed a contract with the mischievous Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) to have one day in which everyone is scared of him again. Of course, the sawed-off trickster finds a way to turn the tables so he's the ruler of the land of Far Far Away.

In this universe, Fiona is the chief brigand behind the ogre resistance. Her lieutenant is Brogan (Jon Hamm), Craig Robinson is the chimichanga-spewing cook, and Jane Lynch is the (apparently) only other female ogre.

Turns out Shrek, who we've thought of as a burly behemoth, is actually rather undersized for his race.

Donkey's around, pulling wagons for the army of witches allied with 'Stilstskin. So is Puss, though he's put aside his boots to live the life of a plump, pampered pet kitty.
It's all one big fun -- but pointless -- caper with old friends.

Sum it up this way: Imagine if "Shrek Forever After" were not the fourth movie in a series, but the first. Based on its mild amusements, do you think anybody would be dying to make another, and another, and on? That's wishful thinking.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Programming note

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" had its Indianapolis release pushed back to next week (and possibly later), so I've decided to hold the review for now.

It kind of messes up the great cross-pollination thing we were doing, with a podcast today that discusses the film and other fake documentaries, and Monday's Reeling Backward column on "F is For Fake," which greatly influenced "Gift Shop."

Ah well.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Video review: "Invictus"

In the last decade or so, we've come to expect that everything director Clint Eastwood touches has a patina of Oscar gold. His movies have racked up so many Academy Award nominations, and wins, that each new film is greeted with the fanfare reserved for a masterpiece.

On that score, "Invictus" is a disappointment -- a fine, though hardly great film.

Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, the South African activist who was called a terrorist, jailed and kept in isolation for 27 years, released and elected president of the country that oppressed him. Matt Damon plays Francois Pienaar, the captain of the nearly all-white Springboks national rugby team, who became Mandela's partner in an unlikely quest to unite their fractured nation through sports.

Screenwriter Anthony Peckham, working from a book by John Carlin, explores how Mandela used rugby for explicitly political purposes, reasoning that just getting blacks and whites to cheer for the same team would do more than a hundred speeches or marches.

Eastwood stumbles a bit in presenting so much on-screen action of a sport few Americans comprehend. The climactic game seems to go on and on.

It's still an inspiring sports movie, but could have been much more.

Extra features are rather spare for the DVD version, but improve to spectacular upon upgrading to Blu-ray.

The DVD has a musical trailer and a 7-minute featurette about Damon buffing up and training to portray a rugby player. That's it.

In addition, the Blu-ray has a 28-minute making-of documentary that's most notable for video footage of Freeman meeting with the real Mandela. There's also a picture-in-picture commentary track totaling about 100 minutes that includes insights from Eastwood, his cast and a host of crew and technical advisors.

Falling into don't-miss territory is "The Eastwood Factor," a 22-minute featurette about Eastwood's career by film critic Richard Schickel (a shorter version of a feature-length documentary). It includes the revelation that more than 20,000 costumes from Eastwood's films are preserved on the Warner Bros. lot.

The Blu-ray also boasts a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reeling Backward: "F is for Fake" (1974)

I sought out "F is for Fake," the last feature film directed by Orson Welles, because of its thematic similarity to "Exit Through the Gift Shop," a new documentary about street art that will be reviewed here this week. Both films cast doubt upon the authenticity of acclaimed works of art that are sold for great prices -- and upon their own truthfulness as documentaries.

Welles at least has the good manners to reveal at the end of his film that he has "been lying my head off."

"Fake" is less a documentary than a personal essay by Welles, a meditation on art and authorship. Ostensibly it centers on Elmyr de Hory, the world's most famous art forger, who claims to have passed off thousands of his paintings as works by the masters. Many of his paintings hang in the most famous museums in the world, hailed as masterpieces, he says.

Also portrayed is Clifford Irving, a writer who wrote a biography of Elmyr that exposed and elevated him. Irving later claimed to be writing the autobiography of tycoon Howard Hughes based on interviews with the recluse himself, which he eventually admitted was a hoax.

He served jail time for his fraud, and his story became its own 2006 movie, "The Hoax," starring Richard Gere. (Appropriately enough, Irving disassociated himself from the film, calling it inauthentic.)

Welles happily identifies himself as a fellow traveler of these con men, showing himself performing magic tricks for children as the story opens, and recounting the hoax that launched his career, the infamous radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," which sent large parts of the country into a panic.

Early in the going, Welles solemnly pledges that everything he says for the next hour will be the unvarnished truth, or at least based on the best available facts. He then spends the last 20 minutes of the film fabricating a wild story about a beautiful woman named Oja Kodar, who supposedly posed for 22 nude portraits by Pablo Picasso on the condition that she keep the paintings when he was through.

This sets up a showdown between the great painter and Kodar's grandfather, who painted fakeries of the 22 works and passed them off as Picasso's own. Told with Welles and Kodar as the stand-ins, the two painters debate the value of "real" versus "fake" art, with the forger claiming he has not stolen from Picasso, but added to his legacy. Then he reveals that he has burned Picasso's original paintings upon which he based his forgeries.

At this point, Welles gaily jumps in and announces that the entire story is a ruse. Kodar, in fact, was Welles's companion and lover for the last quarter-century of his life, and his accomplice (and co-writer) for this film.

The movie veers wildly from puckishness to borderline pomposity, as in this moment when Welles contemplates the Chartres Cathedral:

"Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash -- the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die. 'Be of good heart,' cry the dead artists out of the living past. 'Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.' Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much. "
Much like "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the very authorship of "Fake" is somewhat questionable. A prominent figure in the film is Francois Reichenbach, an art dealer who interviewed both Irving and Elmyr for his own documentary about the swindlers, before turning the footage over to Welles, who anointed his predecessor as his cinematographer.

The editing of "Fake" is groundbreaking for its pace and the way it cuts off one thought by starting another, and its self-referential nature. Welles narrates from within a film editing bay where he's supposedly cutting the movie even as we watch it, with the frame we're seeing often jumping into the one seen through the editor's viewfinder and back again.

So even as we see interviews with Elmyr and Irving in which they appear to be in the same room addressing one another, arguing even, in fact they are not. Although we do see them together at a party at Elmyr's villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza, and Welles himself makes an appearance, drinking wine and enjoying the company of his brother hoaxers.

In one terrific moment, Elmyr -- who often burnt his paintings contemptuously moments after finishing them -- does a portrait of the man he calls the greatest forger in history, Michelangelo, who eventually went legit. Elmyr finishes by signing Welles' own name to the painting -- misspelling it in the process, perhaps intentionally.

Welles quotes Picasso: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." In that spirit, he argues, even forgers are not criminals but artists.

Or in the filmmaker's own words: "What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I'm afraid the pompous word for that is art."

3.5 stars out of four

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Coming this week

For new theatrical releases, I'll have reviews of "Shrek Forever After" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop."

The video review will be "Invictus."

I'll have Reeling Backward essays on "F is for Fake" and "Spartacus."

Look for a special guest star on this week's podcast!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Review: "Just Wright"

"Just Wright" is a love story that's a little bit old-fashioned, a little bit sweet and a little bit bitchy. It actually could have used more bitchiness.

It's sort of a modern take-off on "Cyrano" -- a less than conventionally attractive hero acts as matchmaker for his gorgeous friend to woo the ravishing lady of quality he himself secretly adores. Except the genders are switched around, and there's no feeding of poetry lines.

Queen Latifah plays Leslie Wright, a 35-year-old physical therapist who hasn't found the right guy. Laid back, a rabid sports fan (especially basketball) and self-confident, Leslie is the girl every guy wants to be best friends with -- just not fall in love with.

Her godsister Morgan (Paula Patton) is equally interested in basketball -- not for the game, but for the opportunity to land an NBA player as a husband. One senses that any player would do, so long as his bank account is fat. Morgan has no job and no interest in finding one: Marrying rich is her vocation.

One day after a New Jersey Nets game, Leslie bumps into Scott McNight (Common), the team's star point guard, at a gas station. He can't figure out where the fuel tank lid is on his new Maybach. After she hooks him up, he invites her to his birthday party. (Although I wondered how a gal driving a rusty old Mustang has any expertise about a brand of car that starts around $350,000.)

Morgan insists on tagging along to the party, of course, and the minute Scott lays eyes on her, he's in full pursuit mode. Leslie is clearly disappointed, thinking they had a spark between them, but is big enough of a woman to stay out of the way.

Then Scott blows out his knee, and it appears his season, and maybe his career, are over. Leslie is hired to help him with rehab and Morgan, sensing greener pastures elsewhere, dumps Scott via a note on his bedstand. She even returns her engagement ring, which I thought out of character.

It's not too crazy a guess that Leslie and Scott grow close during his grueling rehabilitation, and he starts to realize that having your best friend for a mate isn't such a bad idea after all.

After Scott is back tearing up the basketball court, Morgan makes an 11th-hour return to claim her man again. I'll leave the outcome to those who buy a ticket. One wonders, though, what Morgan was doing during the intervening months. Certainly not working, so what did she do for money? Was she giving try-outs to other NBA ballers for her one-woman team?

Director Sanaa Hamri and screenwriter Michael Elliot deliver a reasonably entertaining romance, and I certainly enjoyed all the cameos but real NBA players like Dwayne Wade and Dwight Howard. Common, a rapper by trade, looks fairly comfortable in the basketball scenes -- although the moments when he dunks are carefully framed so as not to show where his feet are.

Queen Latifah has a wonderful onscreen presence -- audiences instinctively like her and root for her. Common, however, just doesn't have the acting chops for a romantic comedy. He smiles a lot -- I mean a lot, almost Joker-like -- but the emotion never seems to reach his eyes. His line readings are stiff and clunky. Perhaps he's got a future in the movies, but right now I'm not seeing it.

I wish "Just Wright" could have been more a meditation on attraction versus substance. There are a lot of terrific women out there who are not considered beautiful by society's standards, and spend their days alone when they could make someone very happy. (Vice-versa the other way.) I would have loved to see some scene where Scott has started to act upon his feelings for Leslie, and some of his buddies rag on him for dating someone who's not model-gorgeous.

I suppose it's too much to ask for contemplation of substance-vs.-looks in a movie that just wants to entertain.

By the way, you know "Just Wright" is a work of fiction because it depicts the New Jersey Nets making it to the NBA Finals to compete for a championship. The real-life team flirted with the worst record in league history this past season, and was just sold to a Russian oligarch.

2.5 stars out of four

Reeling Backward: "Gattaca" (1997)

"Gattaca" is a great modern example of good old-fashioned "hard" science fiction.

Back in the day, sci-fi writers were obsessed with technology and the how-tos of things like space exploration and time travel. Only later did the genre become more concerned with how people existed psychologically in fantastical settings, what helped them emotionally navigate the stars.

Put it this way: "Star Trek" is a franchise that started out as hard science fiction, and got softer as time went on.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol's 1997 film is obsessed with minutia of a how a genetically inferior human -- an In-Valid -- passes himself off as one of the test tube-created Valid elites. We watch in fascination as Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) carefully scrapes his skin down every day, fills false finger pad prosthetics with blood and surreptitiously dumps capsules full of skin flakes and hair follicles at his work station.

All this is so he can pass himself off as Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), one of the anointed who was paralyzed in a car crash and is renting himself out as a "borrowed ladder." The term refers to the double helix that makes up the genetic code. Jerome stays at home, filling up specimen bags and vials with his blood, urine and surface detritus, which Vincent then uses to pass the frequent genetic scans necessary for access to the upper echelons of society.

It's a world in the proverbial not-too-distant future, where ancestry determines the future.

Vincent/Jerome is amazed when applies for a job at Gattaca, the mammoth agency that runs all the space missions that he yearns to voyage on, and is accepted after a scan of his urine. What about the interview, he asks, and is told that was it. "My real resume is in my cells," he narrates. "We now have discrimination down to a science."

Vincent is a "God child" -- one of the unwashed who was conceived naturally. Later his parents decided to have another son, Anton, using genetic screening. As a teenager, Vincent's father shoots down his dream of becoming exploring space in the harshest terms, pointing to the 99 percent chance the doctors foretold that his faulty heart will not allow him to live past age 30: "The only way you will ever see the inside of a spaceship is if you are cleaning it."

Undeterred by the total lack of parental faith, or the preening bigotry of his younger brother, Vincent takes a job as a janitor at Gattaca, spending his nights pumping up his frail body and studying to be a space navigator. But all his applications are a dead end as soon as he's asked for a DNA sample.

Then he meets a "degener" broker (Tony Shalhoub) who pairs up In-Valids with Valids. Upon meeting Jerome, glumly trolling around his swank modernist apartment in a wheelchair, Vincent complains that he can't pass as him since Jerome is British. "Blood has no nationality," the broker smoothly assures. "As long as it's got what they're looking for, it's the only passport you'll ever need."

And it works. Vincent/Jerome has spent the last few years working his way up the rungs at Gattaca, and is slated for the next mission to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, the next week.

Then all hell breaks loose when the program director is murdered, bludgeoned to death with his own keyboard. Despite his precautions, a single eyelash of Vincent's is found nearby, so all suspicion falls upon him. Of course, the authorities can't find him, because they don't know he's living as Jerome.

Alan Arkin plays a crusty police detective who wants to do scans of all the Gattaca employees, Valid and In-Valid, but his boss (Loren Dean) is worried at upsetting the company honcho (Gore Vidal) by disturbing their work.

Even though the story is set up as a whodunit, "Gattaca" is so much more enjoyable beyond the potboiler plot mechanics. It's wonderful to sit back and soak in the textures and the subtext.

For example, dating is tricky in a world based on eugenics. Uma Thurman plays Irene, a co-worker at Gattaca who takes a keen interest in "Jerome" as a potential mate. She steals a hair from his desk drawer (which had been carefully placed there) and takes it to a genetic boutique. There the clientele -- mostly women -- anonymously turn in bits of DNA they've collected on the sly for scanning (one woman has her lips swabbed after a kiss). Irene is complimented on her purloined hair: "A 9.3 ... quite a catch!"

Irene fesses up to her crime to Vincent/Jerome, and even admits that she has a slight imperfection with her heart that will keep her from ever blasting off into deep space. She plucks a blonde hair from her head and offers it to him for scanning, telling him to get back to him if he's still interested.

Sounds horrible, but is it really that dissimilar from today's dating world where prospects offer their vital statistics online -- often fudged, particular when it comes to male height and female weight -- and people run criminal background checks before the first date, and research credit history before getting in too deep?

Or consider the film's outright discrimination against the genetically inferior, or "genelism." The sorting of people into one walk of life or another based on a DNA scan is an extreme representation, but again, we can find parallels in our current society.

People are denied medical coverage, or charged exorbitant rates for it, based on mere predispositions toward certain conditions -- often determined by the health of one's parents, grandparents and siblings. And anyone who's ever shopped around for life insurance can attest to the ridiculous premiums demanded if something like diastolic blood pressure comes up a couple of blips above what is considered ideal.

I love the look of the film, which was nominated for an Oscar for art direction. It's sort of an early 1960s New Frontier meets 1940s film noir, flavored with a futuristic antiseptic look. The Valid women and men wear similar dark suits, and troll around with their hands grasped behind them. Cars resemble little classic European sports cars converted to electricity.

What's most disturbing about "Gattaca" is the way everyone seems to blithely accept this "DNA is destiny" mentality -- all except Vincent, of course. He seems driven as much to prove himself to be as good as any of the genetically pure humans as any actual desire for space travel. His real grasping for something beyond his human limitations occurs within.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: "Robin Hood"

When I first heard they were making a new Robin Hood movie, I wondered whatever for. After 100 years of cinematic depictions, from Douglas Fairbanks to Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner, from heroic icon to revisionism to parody and back again, what more is there to add?

Later I saw trailers for this big-budget extravaganza starring Russell Crowe, and couldn't puzzle out its purpose. Based on the grimy world depicted in the preview, I guessed it was aiming for that whole vérité man-behind-the-legend thing.

Now I've actually seen the film, and I'm still having a hard time figuring out what the hell it's about.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland deliver a befuddled fusion of Robin Hood mythology, history lesson and their own, mostly kooky, contributions. It starts out as a weary condemnation of war, briefly flirts with being a rowdy boys' adventure of looting and wenching (this is actually the most enjoyable part) and then grows bloated with Braveheart-esque self-importance.

"There's no difference between a knight and any other man, other than what he wears," Robin intones.

Instead of just "Robin Hood," you could have called it "Before the Hood," since it tells the story of how Robin came to be an outlaw, rather than what happened after. No robbing of the rich, and certainly no giving to the poor here.

(I have to add that Robin's looking a bit long in the tooth to be starting a new career. If I were feeling puckish, I might point out that Crowe is the same age Sean Connery was when he played the pathetic over-the-hill Robin in 1976's "Robin and Marian.")

Many other Robin Hood legends are given the boot. Instead of being the son of the poor but noble Baron Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), our hero is an anonymous archer in King Richard the Lionheart's army named Robin Longstride. He only impersonates Robert Loxley, Walter's son, in order to escape to England after deserting from Richard's crusade.

Marian (Cate Blanchett) is no maid but Robert's wife, perpetually dour at having been abandoned a week after her marriage, now widowed and faced with a common yeoman usurping her husband's status.

Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is here, a preening metrosexual wannabe monarch, wearing an aura of luscious black curls and a perpetual pout, conspiring against Richard and flaying the people for their taxes. The Sheriff of Nottingham also shows up, but as merely a bit player. (This is actually a return to roots; over the years the character kept getting inflated into the main heavy.)

The chief evildoer is Godfrey, played by Mark Strong, who apparently has become to big-budget villainy what Sam Worthington is to protagonists: Everybody's go-to guy. Godfrey is a childhood friend of John's who's secretly conspiring with King Philip of France to foment trouble and soften up England for the Gallic invasion.

William Marshall (William Hurt), Richard's loyal regent, oversees an army of spies and may be playing the sides off each other. John's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), appears to be a major player, but then she abruptly disappears about halfway through the movie.

More frayed story threads abound. There's talk about the barons forcing John to sign a charter, which seems to be a reference to the Magna Carta (which the real King John did endorse in 1215). Walter entices Robin with knowledge about his long-lost father, but then a perplexing flashback throws his tale into higgledy-piggledy.

Oh, and Friar Tuck is raising bees to supply his underground booze trade, Walter asks Robin to impersonate Robert, and there's some unexplained feral boys running around the forest wearing masks and stealing food and generally acting as if they wandered out of the story of another guy in green tights.

When it comes to needless remakes of legendary heroes, Hollywood never wants to grow up.

2 stars out of four

Review: "Letters to Juliet"

When you see as many romantic comedies as I do, you practically shiver when you spy one on your calendar. After a thousand Meet Cutes and a thousand 90-minute dances in which the couple pretends to hate each other right up until the moment they realize they're in love, one craves something with a modicum of originality and heartfelt emotion.

Blow some kisses to "Letters to Juliet" for having both, if in modest quantities. The cast is attractive and engaging and we like spending time with them (with one notable exception), and all the gorgeous Tuscan landscapes are almost worth the price of admission by themselves.

Amanda Seyfried is some kind of workaholic, appearing in five movies in the last two years in addition to starring in the HBO series "Big Love." Here she plays Sophie, an ambitious wannabe writer who finds a long-lost love letter while traveling in Tuscany, and resolves to reunite the lovers and rekindle the romance. Of course, she finds some of her own along the way.

That might sound nice, except that she's already engaged to Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), a chef who's about to open his own restaurant in New York, and seems to view the trip as an opportunity to meet with suppliers and scout out exclusive vineyards.

Bored, Sophie visits the Casa de Giulietta in Verona, supposed home of the family that inspired "Romeo and Juliet." There's a tradition of visitors (read: women) attaching letters about their romantic troubles on the wall, and Sophie stumbles across "Juliet's secretaries" -- women who collect the letters, and answer them.

Beneath a broken brick Sophie finds a worn letter written in 1957 by Claire, an English girl who ran away from Lorenzo, her Italian lover. She writes her back, and to Sophie's surprise Claire herself appears a few days later, with her grandson in tow. Claire resolves to find her soul mate, and Sophie, sensing a good story, tags along.

I'm don't think I'm giving away anything in saying that Claire eventually finds her Lorenzo. The trailer for "Juliet" happily gives away this information, and even if it didn't, the parameters of a film like this demand such a resolution. Vanessa Redgrave -- still a stunner at 73 -- invests the character with a shy sort of determination that's enchanting.

Less interesting is the romance on the main stage. Claire's grandson Charlie is a completely stock character -- the uptight British prig whose fussiness and constant annoyance at the female lead are supposed to mask the passionate heart beneath. Hugh Grant and Colin Firth milked this sort of role for years.

I don't blame actor Christopher Egan, who's just playing the cards screenwriters Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan dealt him. The trouble is, they spend so much time making Charlie an unlikable twit, that when Sophie starts to fall for him we don't understand what it is she's supposed to be seeing.

Director Gary Winick has a nice eye for capturing the rolling hills and dirt roads of the countryside, the pastoral outdoor feasts, and the colorful Italian folk who all seem to have an instinctive understanding of the emotional logic of Claire's quest for lost love, and never question it.

Except for Romeo being such a star-cussed jerk, "Letters to Juliet" is an agreeable romp. In romcom terms, it may not be a soul mate, but makes for a pleasant enough one-off blind date.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Review: "The Secret in Their Eyes"

The 2009 Oscar winner for best foreign language film lives up to its billing, with a labyrinthine plot that will keep even the most astute audiences guessing right up until the end.

Much like Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," which also came out last year, "The Secret in Their Eyes" has a story that flashes back and forth in time, with the present holding the secret to the past. It's a human drama that wears the clothes of a whodunit.

Director Juan Jose Campanella, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eduardo Sacheri based on his novel, craft a meditation on justice and revenge intertwined with a powerful unrequited love story. The parallel timelines, set in the mid-1970s and a quarter-century later, touch on some Argentine historical themes that may be fuzzy to American audiences.

Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is a retired assistant prosecutor who can't let go of the past. Everything leads him back to the Morales case, a brutal rape and murder of a young wife that was the high point of his career, and the cause of his downfall into obscurity.

He goes to talk with his old boss, Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), who's now the district attorney, for encouragement to write a novel about the case. From the moment their eyes meet, it's clear something monumental resides between them.

Flashing back to 1974, we watch as they are first introduced and he began work on the Morales murder. Irene comes from a wealthy, politically influential family, and was appointed Benjamin's superior despite being about 20 years younger.

The other figure in their tiny three-person office is Pablo Sandoval (a wonderful Guillermo Francella), a middle-aged alcoholic who spends most of his days avoiding work. He always answers the phone with the name of a fictitious business, and claims the caller has a wrong number. (My favorite greeting was for the sperm bank. "Deposit or withdrawal?" Pablo asks.)

The relationship between Benjamin and Pablo is just lovely. Benjamin's constantly being called to pull his friend out of a bar fight or some other scrape, and lending him money to fuel his binges. He tries to be hard-hearted, but always melts when his friend needs help.

The Morales case is closed for lack of evidence, but after meeting with the woman's husband (Pablo Rago), who seems stuck in time since the murder, he has Irene pull strings to reopen it.

Unlikely clues keep the case stumbling forward. It's Pablo who notices old photographs of the murdered girl with a neighbor who always seems to be staring intently at her. They eventually track down this man, Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), and try to link him to the crime.

This story unfolds through Benjamin's older eyes, so we're unsure if what we're seeing is unvarnished history or colored by his recollections and emotions. He isn't certain himself, and starts poking into the mystery he long thought resolved.

Others advise him to let it go: "Forget about it. You'll have a thousand pasts and no future."
Obviously, I can't say too much for fear of spoiling the twists. Suffice to say that they kept even this veteran deducer of plots pleasantly misdirected.

With its mix of mystery, romance and political intrigue, "The Secret in Their Eyes" is quietly thrilling.

3.5 hours out of four

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Video review: "Edge of Darkness"

Mel Gibson, in his first starring role in eight years, is effective and believable as a tough Boston cop out for revenge after his daughter is murdered. But the plot is such a discombobulated mess, the movie comes across as a disjointed set of knife fights and pummeling of suspects.

Gibson plays Craven, a veteran detective who becomes unhinged when his only child is gunned down on his doorstep. His investigation leads to the castle-like headquarters of Northmoor, the mysterious corporation where she worked. The cryptic boss (Danny Huston) gives elusive answers to Craven's questions. Meanwhile, a British spook (Ray Winstone) is dispatched to deal with Craven, but ends up befriending him.

Director Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale") knows how to construct action scenes. But the script contains abrupt shifts in mood and tone. We never get to know Craven prior to his daughter's murder, so he only exists as a vehicle for revenge. And the strange interspersing of humorous moments severs any connection the audience might have developed for Craven's pain.

Mel Gibson still has the juice. But he's going to need better material than this for his cinematic rehabilitation.

"Edge of Darkness" is available on DVD and in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that includes a digital copy of the film.

Extras are fair to middling. There are four deleted scenes totaling about five minutes. Watching them, one can see why they were left on the cutting room floor.

A nine-part set of featurettes contains a whole lot of glad-handing, but a few juicy tidbits are to be found. Gibson traces the film's roots to 17th century Jacobean revenge tragedies, in which the villains have names that describe their flaws and, as Gibson succinctly puts it, "everybody kills each other in the end."

Knowing he had a one-way-ticket, Craven's character was even supposed to pay for his own funeral, in a scene that was never shot.

Campbell describes the BBC miniseries he directed in the 1980s that formed the basis for this film. The TV version had more political overtones that were jettisoned.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reeling Backward: "My Darling Clementine" (1946)

"My Darling Clementine" is almost an art-house version of a Western, long before anyone thought to divide films into mainstream ones and "serious" ones.

Director John Ford lets his camera linger over the expanses of arid ground and the yawning openness of the Arizona sky. It's like a banner of freedom, possibility -- and threat. The Tombstone of 1882 was little more than a stopover for miners, lacking even a church or a school. Ford really makes the audience feel the lawlessness, and the possibility for to introduce some structure with the arrival of Wyatt Earp.

Earp, played by Henry Fonda, was one of the first cinematic good guys to wear black. Tall, lean and stern, he and his three brothers are just driving their cattle through the countryside when their herd is rustled and the 18-year-old brother murdered. Earp, who had just been offered the job of marshal for corralling an drunk Indian and turned it down, returns to take up the badge.

It's clear from the beginning that the Earps are not in it for the long haul. Wyatt already knows the Clantons are responsible for the crime; he just wants to hang around long enough to get his revenge. If it can have a patina of legitimacy through law enforcement, so much the better.

Wyatt spends most of the movie tangling not with the Clantons but with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), a self-loathing gambler and proprietor of the town's biggest saloon. There's something terrible in his past, which is never revealed, and he seems to delight in gunning down any man who dares challenge him.

The Clementine of the title (Cathy Downs) doesn't show up until nearly halfway through the movie, and is really a tertiary character. I'm not sure if she has more than a couple paragraphs of lines. She used to be Doc's girl before he ran off, and has spent years tracking him down. He abruptly orders her to leave town, though Wyatt intervenes to prevent this, taking a shine to Clementine himself.

Eventually, the conflict that led to the shootout at the O.K. Corral heats up again. This famous piece of history had been depicted on film many times before, and would be again several times after. Ford shoots it not as a cliched quick-draw standoff, but a nasty little business of hit-and-run tactics.

As was usually the case with Ford's Westerns, the supporting cast adds a lot of color and texture to the tale. The great character actor Walter Brennan, who usually played world-weary cynics with a heart of gold, is chilling as Old Man Clanton.

In one amazing scene, Clanton sits mournfully in a chair next to the bed containing the body of his youngest son, who has been gunned down by the Earps (after fatally shooting Chiuauha, Doc's Mexican saloon girl). Morgan Earp (Tim Holt), who chased the fugitive back to his home, tells Old Man Clanton he's sorry it turned out this way, and turns to leave. Without even getting up from his chair, the old man triggers the shotgun in his lap, shooting Morgan in the back. It's a moment of startling violence and contempt for human, and must have been shocking to audiences in 1946.

Ford mainstay Ward Bond plays Morgan Earp, Wyatt's well-fed brother who eats more for breakfast than most people do in a weekend.

History, of course, was very different from the movie. The instigating cause of the gunfight was all about some cowboys who refused to give up their weapons, and the shootout led to a series of reprisals and assassination attempts. The Earps were eventually run out of town, never to return to Tombstone.

But as they said in another great John Ford Western, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."

4 stars out of four

Friday, May 7, 2010

Reeling Backward: "National Velvet" (1944)

My biggest complaint about family films is that they usually aren't for the entire family. They're generally pitched at a child's level of comprehension, and adults find the movie predictable or silly. "Tooth Fairy" is a recent example.

"National Velvet" is a perfect example of a film that anyone of any age can enjoy. It's full of joy and youthful enthusiasm and boundless optimism. It's about a humble girl who has a dream, and perseveres in pursuing it, believing firmly when all the naysayers dismiss her, and who wins all the glory in the end.

How can a story about a girl named Velvet Brown who rides her horse in the Grand National race be compelling, when we know she's going to win? Mostly, with strong supporting characters, expertly played.

In 1944, Mickey Rooney was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, despite standing not much above five feet tall. He plays Mi Taylor, a ne'er-do-well former jockey who stumbles across the Brown family in a tiny English hamlet. His deceased father had Mrs. Brown's name in a memo book, but Mi doesn't know why. He traipses the land doing a bandy-legged jig, whistling a rakish tune and not a care in the world.

He intends to use his dad's connection to rob the Browns blind, and in fact finds where Mrs. Brown hides her savings in a coffee tin. But after hearing Velvet's unabashed, innocent belief in him, he relents and replaces the money before anyone was the wiser. Velvet convinces Mr. Brown to hire him in his shop.

Mrs. Brown is played by Anne Revere, who won an Oscar for her role. Wise and serene, she once was famous herself for becoming the first woman to swim the Channel. But while proud of her accomplishment, she recognizes it's in her past, and belongs there, fondly remembered but not obsessed over.

Mr. Brown (Donald Crisp) is the town butcher, constantly harping on the price of everything without recognizing its value. He sees Velvet's goal of entering her horse in the Grand Nationals as sheer folly, good money after bad. But he's smart enough to know that Mrs. Brown is smarter than he, and listens to her admonishments that everyone should have the right to pursue folly once in their life.

I really adored the relationship between the Browns, everything down to the fact that they address each other as "Mrs. Brown" and "Mr. Brown." I don't think they ever share anything more demonstrative than a pat on the arm, but their love for each other practically radiates off the screen. As someone who's soon to become a parent himself, I took special note of how they behave a certain way when the children are around, and the tone of their conversation changes when they're alone.

A teenage Angela Lansbury has a juicy little role as Velvet's older sister, who's something of the town tart. It's something to behold her as a young sexpot.

Oh yes, the girl and her horse.

It was Elizabeth Taylor's breakout role, all of 12 when she made the film. Still a cute kid and not the great beauty she would become, Taylor just seems to glow whenever Velvet is talking about horses. The family owns only an old nag they use for delivering meat, but a chance to drive the cart is still sheer heaven for her.

Then one day she meets The Pie, and it's love at first sight.

In the tradition of films of this sort, The Pie is a wild creature whose rebellious nature immediately quiets down once the one who loves him climbs on his back. Velvet wins him in a raffle when his owner grows tired of The Pie constantly leaping his pen, wreaking havoc. Mi spends months teaching Velvet how to jump The Pie over every hedge in the countryside in preparation for the daunting leaps at the Grand Nationals.

They're supposed to find a jockey, but of course the audience knows Velvet is destined to ride The Pie in the race herself. Mi cuts her hair and claims she's a Latvian youngster who speaks no English. Dressed in her bright purple-and-yellow jockey livery -- the film's colors really pop off the screen -- she looks so dainty and fragile.

The race is quite thrilling as staged by director Clarence Brown. Steeplechase is a hard sport to watch, since the threat of serious injury, or even death to riders and steeds is quite real. Amazingly, Taylor -- who was an accomplished young rider -- performed most of her stunts herself.

With its mix of a gutsy pint-sized heroine, an array of engaging supporting performances and the invigorating racing itself, "National Velvet" is everything a family film should be.

4 stars out of four

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review: "Iron Man 2"

This sequel was hyped as the dark-and-dreary Iron Man in which Tony Stark, having conquered the world in a red-and-gold super-suit, descends into the depths of inner turmoil.

Turns out it's more a milk chocolate coating of darkness. Stark's problems magically disappear about halfway through at the touch of a button. Bing! Oh well, this ain't Hamlet.

I mostly liked "Iron Man 2," but after the pure adrenaline kick of the first movie -- coupled with Robert Downey Jr.'s affable rake of a protagonist -- any follow-up was bound to be a comedown.

For those not up to speed: Brilliant billionaire/playboy Stark invented the Iron Man suit to escape from terrorists, and decided he liked the thrill. Rather than deal with the whole cumbersome alter-ego thing, Stark outed himself as a super-hero to all the world.

Fast forward six months, and tranquility has broken out all over the globe -- mostly because everyone's afraid to tangle with the golden boy. Stark haughtily refuses the government's attempt to appropriate his technology.

"I have successfully privatized world peace!" he declares at a freewheeling congressional hearing that even Joe "BFD" Biden might find a tad informal.

One guy who isn't thrilled is Ivan Vanko -- played by Mickey Rourke, chewing a heavy Cyrillic accent while looking decidedly un-Russian in long dreadlocks and gold teeth. Vanko's daddy co-created the energy technology behind the Iron Man suit along with Stark's pap, and isn't happy about getting kicked to the curb.

So Vanko fixes up his own power suit complete with energy whips, which he uses to nearly kill Stark at a grand prix in which he's driving.

(For comic book geeks, Rourke's character appears to be an amalgamation of the Crimson Dynamo and Blacklash villains.)

Vanko is defeated, but isn't down for long with the help of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a business competitor of Stark's who wants the top spot on the military-industrial complex pyramid.

Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, Stark's right-hand woman and wannabe love interest, and Don Cheadle takes over (from Terrence Howard) the role of James Rhodes, Stark's best friend and liaison to the military.

New on the scene is Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman, the mysterious new assistant at Stark Industries, who busts out a few nifty moves you couldn't draw up on a legal pad.

One-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who had a brief cameo at the end of the first flick, turns up again, still murmuring about putting together a team. Based on the speed at which Fury is gathering recruits, I can only imagine how long the clubhouse will take to build.

Director Jon Favreau has a good vibe for this material, somewhere between fanboy fetish for comic lore and recognizing the need to move the story along. With just two years between films, screenwriter Justin Theroux had to improvise on the fly, and as a result the plot often jumps from Point A to Point D without concerning itself much with B or C.

For example, the Stark-Rhodes relationship gets lost in the shuffle of finding some way to cram Rhodey into a modified version of the super-suit -- thus becoming War Machine, Iron Man's sidekick. It's hard to buy that Stark's oldest buddy, having stuck his neck out for him innumerable times, would acquiesce without a peep when his military bosses conspire with Hammer.

It's all a set-up, of course, for a showdown between the Iron Men and Vanko.

This duplication of suits summons a ponderable for the super-hero genre: What happens when super-powers reside not in the person but something they wear, which can be stolen or become obsolete? Stark himself reasons he's got a window of a few years to reign as top badass before the technological gap between his gear and everybody else's closes.

That's the problem with hardware, and movies that rely on it: What's cool today is scrap tomorrow.

2.5 stars out of four