Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse"

God help me, but I actually enjoyed a "Twilight" flick.

No, the mashup of teen romance and vampire mythology ain't Shakespeare, and it doesn't pretend to be. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg does a fairly decent job of translating the uber-popular novel by Stephanie Meyer about a glum girl and the immortal blood-sucker who loves her ... and the shirt-resistant teen werewolf who also loves her.

But even the Bard himself couldn't do much with dialogue like this: "Your alibi for the battle is all arranged!"

For the third installment, new director David Slade is brought in to replace Chris Weitz (who in turn took over for Catherine Hardwicke), and he brings a welcome harder edge to the material. He previously made "30 Days of Night," a truly hardcore vampire flick, and while the noferatu-vs.-lycanthrope action stays safely within PG-13 bounds, "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" at least can boast more visceral thrills than the first two movies combined.

And Team Edward gets to do battle with Team Jacob as well. Whenever the movie isn't concerned with the impending arrival of an army of newly-made vampires, all the attention is focused on Edward (Robert Pattinson) trying to prevent his human lady love, Bella (Kristen Stewart), from falling into the occasionally hirsute arms of Jacob (Taylor Lautner).

For those who haven't been following the score: Bella is in love with Edward, part of a coven of "vegetarian" vampires who only feast on animals in the area around the soggy town of Forks. After successfully fending off multiple attempts on Bella's life by a rogue vampire, all is more or less well.

Bella wants to have sex, but Edward doesn't because his vampire super-strength might kill her in the midst of their, uh, labors. Also he's an old-fashioned dude -- literally, since he's about a century old -- and demands marriage before coupling. (This, incidentally, is enough to tell you that Edward is the figment of a female imagination and a horde of adolescents lapping it up.)

Edward agrees to turn Bella into a vampire, but only after they're married. This doesn't sit well with Jacob, who loves Bella himself and is a leader of the local American Indian tribe, who can turn into wolves. The tribe and the Cullens honor an uneasy truce, which the squabbling over Bella threatens to overtune.

Trouble threatens with rumors of mass disappearances to the north in Seattle. The Cullens suspect someone is building an army of "newborn" vampires, and suspect Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), the mate of the foe they defeated in the last movie.

There's also the Vuluri, vampire royalty who lurk about the edges of the conflict.

But really, the main dynamic is the love triangle, and for once it seemed to have a little substance beyond a whole lot of Edward and Jacob strutting and threatening.

There's even room for a little humor, as when Edward and Bella meet with Jacob to discuss an alliance, and Jacob typically shows up bare-chested to show off Lautner's recently-acquired muscles. "Does he have a shirt?" Edward asks.

And who can resist the entendre when Bella is freezing to death, and Jacob offers to heat her up with his body -- something the undead Edward cannot. "Let's face it," Jacob insists. "I am hotter than you."

I also liked that some of the other Cullens, Rosalie and Jasper, are given a chance to show a little of their backstory and deepen as characters. Both stories are surprisingly dark and dreary.

Could it possibly be that, after three go-rounds, the "Twilight" movies are actually growing up a little?

3 stars out of four

Review: "Cyrus"

I don't really know what to call "Cyrus." From the presence of Jonah Hill as the title character, most people will probably take it as a comedy. But the humor is so dark and the mood so frequently unnerving that you don't much feel like laughing.

What I did feel was fully engaged, and enjoyment at drinking in some wonderful performances by Hill, Marisa Tomei and especially John C. Reilly. It's a movie that's not trying to provoke a reaction from the audience, but simply observes a small set of characters with sharp focus and a wry wit.

Reilly plays John, a sad sack who's finally pulled out of the tailspin since his divorce by starting a relationship with Molly (Tomei), a single mother to 21-year-old Cyrus (Hill), who's still living at home and doesn't show any inclinations about changing this fact. Cyrus sabotages their relationship, subtly at first but with increasing venom.

One scene sums up my reaction to this film. John has begun sleeping over at Molly's, which Cyrus accepts with a veneer of friendliness but clearly doesn't like. In the middle of the night, John gets up to find Cyrus standing in the kitchen nude from the waist down and holding a butcher knife. "C'mere," he says with a glazed stare, motioning with the huge knife.

I'll save you the trouble by letting you know "Cyrus" does not veer into slasher flick territory. But the sensation one gets in that moment -- nervous laughter that morphs quickly into fear and then melts into a profound discomfort -- is strangely enjoyable.

"Cyrus" is written and directed by sibling duo Jay and Mark Duplass ("Baghead"), part of the "mumblecore" indie movement. The dialogue has an ungroomed, improvisational feel, and the trio of stars give naturalistic performances without an ounce of ego.

Reilly, who's done a lot of lunkhead comedies lately but has shown serious acting chops in the past, certainly doesn't seem to have any vanity in his role. When we first see John, his ex-wife (Catherine Kenner) catches him masturbating in his slovenly wreck of a home.

She reveals that she and her boyfriend (Matt Walsh) are going to get married, which crushes him despite the seven years since they parted. To cheer him up, they invite John to a party where he gets stupendously drunk, and even the homely girl sitting alone on the couch blows him off.

Molly, however, overhears his moment of total vulnerability and is touched. Soon they're an item, but John quickly senses something wrong about her relationship with her son. Cyrus calls her Molly instead of mother, and they spend hours every day together wrapped in a cocoon of co-dependency.

Cyrus deeply resents any division of Molly's affections with another -- she tellingly reveals she hasn't had a serious relationship since Cyrus was born -- and sets about to use himself as a wedge between them.

In essence, John has walked into the middle of an Oedipal complex, with him taking on the role of the guy about to get whacked.

Hill is terrific, and what's most striking about it is that it isn't all that different from what he does in his comedic roles. He's become a master of the deadpan stare where he says seemingly benevolent things, but in a cutting way. His Cyrus is a sweet-faced emotional terrorist.

I really liked Reilly in this. He starts out as such a pathetic figure, we practically cringe for him. But he slowly gets his baggage together, and has enough self-respect to fight back against Cyrus' manipulations.

Tomei's role is a bit under-realized -- Molly acts as a vessel into which these two flawed men pour their emotions, good and bad. I kept wishing she would take a proactive role, and kick both of them out.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Video review: "The White Ribbon"

"The White Ribbon" makes for an interesting exercise in discriminating between American and European films. This highly stylized German drama was a top prize winner at Cannes, and an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film. It received good write-ups from most American critics, but wasn't much of a hit here, even by art house standards.

I consider myself pretty egalitarian in my cinematic tastes, but I admit I found this movie dense and off-putting. It seems to revel in its own mysteriousness, in confounding and misdirecting its audience, rather than taking them someplace.

Set in a tiny pastoral German town before World War I, "Ribbon" opens with the local doctor being seriously injured in a horse riding accident when someone strings a wire across his garden. As the folk grow more angry and fearful, more attacks occur with increasing violence.

The baron's son is kidnapped and whipped, and for awhile the unrest appears to be rooted in resentment between the classes. But answers never come with any sort of clarity.

Visually it's a dazzling film, shot in austere black-and-white by writer/director Michael Haneke. But if American films are often formulaic and predictable, "The White Ribbon" is just too ... foreign.

Extras are a fairly generous mix, though the emphasis on on-set footage grows a bit tedious.

There's a 38-minute making-of documentary, which is dominated by Haneke. He reveals that he first began thinking about the film 20 years ago, and at one point considered making it as a three-part television movie.

More than 7,000 children were considered for roles -- a casting process that took six months. In one interesting aside, Haneke reveals that they bused in Romanians to play the village extras, since German actors were too modern-looking for his taste.

Another tidbit: The manor house featured in the film was the only one in Germany that wasn't in ruins or fully restored.

There's also a 50-minute retrospective on Haneke's career, an 18-minute featurette on the film's debut at Cannes, and a solo interview with Haneke that runs 14 minutes.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars out of four

Monday, June 28, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" (1972)

It's said that Werner Herzog wrote the screenplay for "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" in less than three days. I believe it, since this 1972 German film eschews narrative for hallucinatory images and long takes that plunge you into the whirlpool of the main character's madness.

It's less storytelling, and a visually disturbing fever dream.

Francis Ford Coppola was clearly influenced by this film when he made "Apocalypse Now" several years later. Thematically, the movies are similar in that they take place on a nightmarish river journey whose destination grows more figurative they further they get.

Herzog based the film on actual historical figures and events, but has acknowledged that the story is entirely fictitious. In 1560 Spanish adventurers led by Gonzalo Pizzaro search the Andes for the mythical city of gold, El Dorado. Mired in the thick jungle and unable to make progress, Pizzaro organizes an expedition of 40 men to sail downriver to find food or help. Pedro de Ursua is appointed to lead, with Don Lope de Aguirre as his second-in-command.

Aguirre clearly has greater ambitions than his superiors, and will not let anything stop them. When one of the rafts is caught in an eddy and the men slain by Indian arrows, Aguirre blows it up with a cannon rather than allow Ursua to waste time recovering the bodies for burial.

Soon Aguirre overthrows Ursua, who is shot but not slain in the mutiny, so he can continue the journey. He forces the election of Fernando de Guzman, a fat and lazy nobleman, as the new leader, intending to use him as a puppet. They declare their independence from Spain, establishing a new kingdom of El Dorado. In a surprise to Aguirre, Guzman grants Ursua clemency and allows him to live.

After their rafts are borne away by the rising river, they build a new, larger one to carry the entire expedition. Eventually they leave the rapids behind and find themselves slowly floating down the river with little to do. Guzman sits on an erstwhile throne decreeing all the land they see as part of their new kingdom. At one point he gleefully estimates their nation is six times the size of Spain -- despite the fact that they are too afraid of Indians to even go ashore.

Aguirre is played by Klaus Kinski, the volatile actor who would have a long collaboration with Herzog. The two clashed during filming, with Kinski wanting a raving mad portrayal, while the director wanted something more restrained and creepy. Herzog won the argument by simply waiting until Kinski's rages had subsided, and then filming the quieter takes.

It's an amazing performance, one of pure venom and unbridled ambition. In the film's remarkable closing scene, with all of his men and his own daughter slain by arrows, Aguirre stumbles around the raft, which has become overrun by hundreds of monkeys. He vows to mate with his daughter and start a new, pure royal bloodline, and to conquer not only this land but the colonies of Spain.

One interesting thing about Kinski's performance is that he always seems to be looking at the camera sideways. He's constantly turning and twisting his body and head, as if trying to present the most oblique angle possible to the camera.

Another aspect that adds to the film's hallucinatory quality is the blurring of languages and nationalities. You've got a largely German cast portraying Spaniards, so their dialogue is in German. Except the dialogue was actually spoken in English on the set, since it was the only common language on a very multicultural crew. So you've got Germans speaking English pretending to be Spanish. Plus, Kinski refused to re-dub his lines in German without considerably more money, so another actor was brought in to do his dialogue.

"Aguirre, The Wrath of God" remains an often mesmerizing tone poem, about man's folly and lust for wealth, power and fame.

3 stars out of four

Friday, June 25, 2010

Review: "Grown Ups"

"Grown Ups," the new Adam Sandler comedy, is about what you'd expect. A quintet of childhood buds reunite 30 years later to recapture a bit of their glory days, in between hassling with their wives and kids and razzing each other mercilessly.

There's potty humor, there's sexual put-downs galore, there's inappropriate ogling of each other's daughters and/or wives. The humor is crude and broad, the hearty laughs few and far between.

In other words, it's another thingamajig stamped out by the Sandler assembly line.

You'll note I call it an Adam Sandler movie, despite the presence of co-stars Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider -- all "Saturday Night Live" alums like Sandler, except James, who had his own lowbrow TV show. Sandler wrote the screenplay (with Fred Wolf) and brought along his pet director, Dennis Dugan.

It's not very funny, but as the mob tough in "The Untouchables" said about their illicit booze, it's not supposed to be good, it's supposed to be bought. Sandler has a built-in audience that will show up for anything he does. Occasionally, something decent ("50 First Dates") slips past the machine.

Sandler plays Lenny, the leader of the 1978 summer basketball champs who've gone their separate ways. When their old coach dies, it brings them back for his funeral and a weekend at the old lake house.

Lenny's a Hollywood super-agent, married to Roxanne (Salma Hayek Pinault), a famous fashion designer. Their two sons are borderline brats addicted to their Playstation and ordering the nanny around.

The rest of the crew: Eric (James) is the funny fat guy, married and with a couple of kids of his own. Rock plays Kurt, a house-husband who receives a daily tag-team henpecking from his wife (Maya Rudolph) and her mother. Marcus (Spade) is the boozy swingin' single dude. And Rob (Schneider) has gotten all New Age-y and uptight.

They're stale, unimaginative parts, but let's face it: Spade, Schneider and Rock's film careers have gone ice cold lately. It's almost sad how they always run home for supporting roles in Sandler's lame flicks.

(If that's not bad enough, fellow SNLers Colin Quinn and Tim Meadow are trotted out for walk-ons in the obligatory rematch of the big game. Meadows' part is so small, I actually felt sorry for him.)

I found a handful of chuckles here and there. I liked Maya Rudolph, very pregnant, doing a little booty-and-belly dance and chanting, "Baby got front!" And there's some doofy slapstick scattered about.

But mostly the jokes are one-note, or quickly grow tiresome with repetition. Some examples:

Rob's wife (Joyce Van Patten) is much older than him, and their constant sexual fervor for each other grosses out the rest of the gang. It's funny because she's old!

Eric tries to water ski, but the boat can't budge his heft. It's funny because he's fat!

Rob's giving his (old!) wife a heated-rock massage, and burns his hands on one that stayed in the steamer too long. Then he drops it on her back and she screams. It's funny because it's hot!

Eric's improbably gorgeous wife (Maria Bello, slumming) still breast-feeds their son, even though he's four years old. It's funny because it's boobies!

I could go on, but let's save each other the trouble. We both know "Growns Ups" is the very definition of a critic-proof movie. But I'll bet the $9 you're thinking about plunking down for this moronic flick that there's something better playing at the cinema.

Well, not "Jonah Hex." Yech. But something.

1.5 stars out of four

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review: "Mother and Child"

Karen and Elizabeth are two fractured souls living in Los Angeles, connected by a bond of pain and love that neither one of them can sense.

Karen (Annette Bening) is 50ish, a physical therapist who demands an impossible level of perfection from everyone around her, and herself. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is in her late 30s, a powerful lawyer who doesn't connect with other women, and uses men as sexual playthings.

Though in very different ways, these two women push back against interpersonal relationships and intimacy. They live apart from others in prisons of their own choosing.

When a handsome new nurse at Karen's work (Jimmy Smits) makes overtures of romantic interest, she reacts with hostility. Elizabeth begins a sexual fling with her older, dashing boss (Samuel L. Jackson) after two days at her new job, but when he shows indications of wanting something deeper, she slips away like a breeze.

"The wind changed, didn't it?" he asks, guessing well.

Karen and Elizabeth are mother and child, which is also the title of this powerful, superbly acted drama from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia. "Mother and Child" is about mothers who give their daughters up for adoption, or are trying to adopt a child of their own.

The film explores uncomfortable themes. One could read it as a condemnation of women who let their children be adopted, judging by the irreparable wound it has inflicted on Karen.

Giving her daughter away, even though she was only 14 at the time, literally ruined Karen's life. Elizabeth's own life seems well on its way to disaster, despite her seemingly impenetrable shell of self-confidence.

"The adoption thing is so unnatural. Why don't people just say it?" one of the characters says.

But I think while Rodrigo flirts with this notion, he ultimately is arguing that love is something that you grow in time, and is not something automatically granted through a quirk of fate and biology. Consider Karen's non-existent relationship with her own elderly mother, who hopes for death every day.

Layer upon layer, Rodrigo builds his story, adding more characters and relationships, which (ultimately) intersect.

There is Lucy (a terrific Kerry Washington), an ambitious young woman who owns her own bakery and desperately wants to adopt. She and her husband -- who seems onboard with the plan -- meet with Ray (Shareeka Epps), a 20-year-old expectant mother who has already turned down several couples who wanted to adopt her baby. Ray puts them through such paces Lucy says it's like being taken to the principal's office.

Karen has a housekeeper/caretaker, Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo), who brings her own young daughter to work with her, much to Karen's consternation. She grows even more upset when she learns her mother gave Sofia's daughter a cherished necklace, and seems closer to these strangers than her own daughter.

"Mother and Child" is well-made and heartfelt, though not perfect. The story tends to get stuck in eddies needlessly; for example, Karen has a reunion with the father of her child, her first (and one suspects only) boyfriend. The encounter is brief, emotional and doesn't fit with the rest of the film.

I also wanted to spend more time with Elizabeth. Watts draws such an intriguing character, we want to penetrate the mystery a little deeper. The film concludes -- a little too tidily -- before we get a chance.

But that's a complaint wrapped in a compliment: We're left wanting more.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review: "Knight and Day"

What a fun, fun ride "Knight and Day" is. Yes, it's totally a summer popcorn movie, empty cinematic calories forgotten almost as soon as they're consumed. But Tom Cruise reminds us why we used to like Tom Cruise so much -- before the couch-jumping and the creepy interviews and all the other stuff that gave his star a sour taint.

This new action-comedy features Cruise doing the stuff he was born to do on the big screen: Seeming larger than life, dangerous but charming, flashing that Klieg light smile and making a girl's eyes positively twinkle at his attentions.

The girl in question is Cameron Diaz, whose own career has seemed on autopilot lately. She plays June Havens, a sweet gal from Boston who restores old cars for a living. June is traveling through the Kansas City airport with a suitcase full of carburetors and other parts, which makes her a perfect target for Roy Miller, the mystery man of the hour.

(By the way, I'd like to believe that a woman who looks like Diaz could be a mechanic, but I just didn't buy it. First of all, her hands are too smooth and clean to have had them inside the guts of a Pontiac on a daily basis. Ever looked at a mechanic's hands? They look like gorilla mitts. And who flies across the country to pick up car parts when UPS will ship them for a fraction of the cost?)

It turns out Roy and June are on the same flight back to Beantown. When it appears she'll be bumped from the flight, he comments that maybe some things are for the best. Then she gets on at the last minute, and he seems kind of disappointed. They talk, flirt some, and when she decamps to the lavatory to freshen up, Roy kills everybody on the plane, including the pilots.

Turns out Roy's a super-agent gone rogue -- or at least that's what the authorities tell June when she wakes up the next day back at home. Roy landed the plane safely (well, they both survived) and then promptly drugged her.

The rest of the movie is a nearly non-stop game of chase-chase, kiss-kiss. It seems Roy is in possession of a new kind of battery that can run an entire city, forever -- "the first source of perpetual energy since the sun." Various parties, including a Spanish arms dealer and the U.S. government, want it for themselves.

The battery is a classic MacGuffin -- an object that is critical to the plot despite remaining a total mystery. How the battery was built or how it works are unimportant (it sort of resembles an old camera film roll, before everything went digital) except to say that everyone wants to get their hands on it.

Rookie screenwriter Patrick O'Neill obviously understands about MacGuffins, and treats it as such. His clever script plays with the conventions of the action/thriller genre, throwing winking nods to the audience -- especially in the playful banter between Cruise and Diaz, who manage to invest their characters with a little soul in between the many car chases and gun battles.

Director James Mangold, not exactly known for lighter fare ("Walk the Line," "3:10 to Yuma"), does a nice job of keeping things in happy-time mode. His action scenes are crisp and stupendous without seeming totally implausible.

I admired how Mangold and O'Neill treat theirs stars like stars, but still invest the minor characters with distinctive presences. Paul Dano has a deer-like innocent quality as the brilliant young inventor of the battery, and Peter Sarsgaard sneers admirably as the heavy. Marc Blucas has a tiny but hilarious turn as June's doofy-but-decent ex.

But mostly, "Knight and Day" will be seen as Tom Cruise's comeback role -- though I doubt he'd acknowledge he went anywhere. He'll turn 48 a couple of weeks after this movie comes out, but if he wasn't Tom Cruise, just a guy on the street, I think most people would peg him at about 32.

Based on this flick, his career is certainly looking fresh again.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Video review: "The Last Station"

In the last years of his life, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was the subject of his own religion-slash-cult. He died not at his comfortable rustic home but a remote railway station.

These two historical facts are the jumping-off point for "The Last Station," a fictionalized account of Tolstoy's last months.

It's quite doubtful that Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the leader of the Tolstoyans, actually sent Valentin, a young disciple (James McAvoy), to spy on the writer's family. Or that Tolstoy's wife, Sofya, was quite the fuming cauldron of anger and self-pity that Helen Mirren portrays her to be.

But as unlikely as writer/director Michael Hoffman's version of events is, it does make for a wonderful setting for this talented cast to rage and weep and otherwise emote expansively.

Tolstoy himself is something of a minor player in his own story. He's played with sly wit and veiled egotism by Christopher Plummer. Late in life, Tolstoy came to reject the comforts his riches had earned his family, and embraced a pastoral philosophy based on love and communal property.

Sofya, though, sees his desire to name the Tolstoyan movement as the main beneficiary in his will as an abandonment of their nearly 50 years of marriage.

Meanwhile, Valentin finds romance with Masha (an enchanting Kerry Condon), a Tolstoyan who especially believes in the movement's attitude regarding free love. He's equally charmed by the attention Tolstoy lavishes upon him, as well as finding Sofya a sympathetic figure.

Giamatti also has an interesting role, positioning Chertkov as a man who built a movement based on love, but doesn't seem to have much of it to express.

Extra features are a pleasing array of deleted scenes, outtakes and a featurette tribute to Christopher Plummer's career. The great actor also teams up with Mirren and Hoffman for a feature-length commentary track.

It's wonderful to see actors participate in these commentaries, which so often are boring recitations by the director working solo.

Extras are identical for Blu-ray and DVD versions.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars out of four

Monday, June 21, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Limelight" (1952)

Charlie Chaplin was 63 years old when he made "Limelight," and most people (including him) expected it would be his last film.

Thematically, it certainly seems designed to serve as the great silent filmmaker's swan song. It's about a once-beloved tramp comedian whose audience has forgotten about him -- not too different from the real Chaplin -- who falls in love with a much younger dancer. Chaplin was infamous for his affairs, and marriages, to women decades younger than himself.

The theme is about the old stepping out of the way to make room for the young -- ceding the limelight because it's time.

Chaplin would, of course, go on to make two more films, 1957's "A King in New York" and "A Countess in Hong Kong" in 1967 -- starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren! -- neither of which I've seen, and I hear I'm lucky for it. Like most admirers of Chaplin, I consider "Limelight" to be his "true" last film.

The film is set in 1914, which not coincidentally was the first year Chaplin appeared in a movie after great success on the stage. It was also the outbreak of World War I, considered by many the beginning of the modern era, with all the triumphs and horrors technology has brought to mankind.

It's a story about beginnings and endings, and quite consciously so. Chaplin plays Calvero, once the king of comedy but now a forgotten has-been. One night he comes back to his building staggering drunk, and smells gas coming from the ground floor apartment. Its occupant, Terry, has tried to kill herself after failing to recover from illness to resume her ballet career. Calvero saves her and installs her in his apartment as his charge.

At first Terry is paralyzed from the waist down, but the doctor concludes it's psychosomatic. When Terry tells Calvero about the tragedy of her life -- parents dead, her sister a prostitute, the only love of her life a penniless composer with whom she's barely exchanged a word -- Calvero exhorts her not to throw her life away. Summoning the humanist philosophy that dominated Chaplin's films, Calvero extols the human brain as the greatest creation in the universe.

"What can the planets do? Nothing! Just sit on their axis," he says, still looking for a laugh even in the grim face of death.

Terry does, of course, regain the use of her legs and begins dancing again. By this time she's convinced herself that she loves Calvero. He clearly returns the affection and delights in having a companion for his waning years. But Calvero considers it unfair to burden such a young girl with a misplaced romance with a man who could be her grandfather, and abruptly departs.

Now a star, Terry finds Calvero again months later earning a living playing music on the streets for coins. She's appalled, but he claims to be happier than he's ever been. "It's the tramp in me," he says.

Calvero's outfit and makeup for his clown act are, of course, very similar to the Little Tramp he immortalized in dozens of films. But Chaplin bid adieu to the tramp in 1936's "Modern Times." Interestingly, Chaplin continued making essentially silent films even with the advent of sound, vowing that the world would never hear the tramp speak. (He did in his "Times," but fittingly it was only gibberish.)

Perhaps "Limelight" is our chance to hear what the tramp has to say.

Terry is played by Claire Bloom, who's become something of a celebrity in this space, having been featured in a number of Reeling Backward columns: "Richard III," "The Man Between" and "Clash of the Titans." "Limelight" was her first major film role, and nearing 80 she's still working regularly today. Her ballet scenes were doubled by Melissa Hayden.

The score -- by Chaplin and two associates -- won an Academy Award, but notably not for 1952. Due to his left-leaning political sympathies, Chaplin was denied re-entry into the U.S. in 1952 -- as McCarthyism took a brief, but indelible hold on the nation's psyche -- and as a result the film was banned from nearly all theaters. It finally got a wide release in 1972, and earned an Oscar for musical score after a special dispensation of the rules from the Academy allowed it to compete 20 years after it was made.

Buster Keaton also makes an appearance as Calvero's onstage partner for the big final act, the only time the two great comedians starred in a movie together. Keaton was at rough time in his life, financially and otherwise, and got a hand from his old rival.

"Limelight" seems stuck in time, even for 1952. The un-ironic pathos and sentimental humanism seems almost quaint in the post-Hitler world. But that's Chaplin for you -- a man who lived by, and wrote, his own rules.

3.5 stars out of four

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Coming this week

I'll have reviews of "Grown Ups" and "Knight and Day."

The video review will be "The Last Station." I'll only have one Reeling Backward column a week until further notice -- the run-up to Indy Film Fest has just proven too time-consuming. This week's will be "Limelight."

Over at The Film Yap, look for a podcast on Wednesday about the career of Adam Sandler.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Review: "Jonah Hex"

The standard for this summer's crop of flicks is already depressingly low, with one high-profile disappointment after another. But even if we lower our standards so that our entertainment merely has to be coherent, "Jonah Hex" seems cursed.

When I was writing my summer movie previews, I spotlighted this Western-oater-meets-supernatural-thriller as one of those I was most looking forward to. Based on the dark-and-dreary previews seen earlier in the spring, it looked like an adaptation of a graphic novel much in the same vein as "The Dark Knight."

But then another trailer emerged a few weeks ago, much lighter in tone -- full of the scarred, taciturn anti-hero (Josh Brolin) casually shooting people and tossing off comedic one-liners. It was Dirty Hero meets Arnold Schwarzenegger, with spurs on its heels. This, unfortunately, was a much more accurate preview of the film.

Perhaps I should have been tipped off that the comic books (by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga) were adapted for the screen by the execrable filmmaking duo that calls itself Neveldine & Taylor (the first names they so eschew are Mark and Brian, respectively). Their credits include the "Crank" movies and "Gamer," and that tells you pretty much all you need to know about what "Jonah Hex" is like: Fast-paced to the point of ADD, jumpy editing and characters drawn with the broadest brush available.

The director is Jimmy Hayward, whose only other credit is the strange "Horton Hears a Who!" from a couple years ago. His action scenes are muddy and confusing, to the point that we have trouble understanding exactly what is going on. Josh Brolin, a talented actor, gives a more or less one-note performance as Jonah Hex. Megan Fox does little but pout and flash her ubiquitous cleavage. And John Malkovich, whose intensity as an actor is best when reigned in by a strong director, is allowed to burn through every scene he's in.

The story is a straight revenge flick: Confederate turncoat Jonah, who defied an evil general's order to destroy a hospital, suffers a terrible punishment. Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich) wreaks his vengeance by killing Jonah's wife and son in front of him, and branding his face with his mark. Jonah is left (after a little self-adjustment) with the entire right side of his skull a web of ruined flesh.

Turnbull is believed dead, but when his men appear to be stealing the plans to make the ultimate weapon the U.S. government designed but feared to build, President Grant assigns his men to track down Jonah -- now a bounty hunter -- to help capture or kill Turnbull.

Jonah has special powers that allow him to communicate with the dead by touching their bodies. It's never explained exactly how he acquired this power, although there's a reference to some American Indian magic hokum. Because he came so close to death himself, or something like that.

Anyway, the dead reconstitute themselves to the way they looked when they were alive, but they start to burn painfully the longer Jonah holds them in this state. He can ease the hurt by pouring soil on their heads -- see, "the dead need the dirt, and the dirt wants the dead." One long-dead corpse, whom Jonah slew with his own hand, immediately starts fighting with him the moment he's resurrected. Although resurrection isn't the right word, since to everyone but Jonah, the corpses remain still.

Jonah likes to carry an arsenal of fancy weapons that are entirely implausible, but at least look like they were manufactured in the film's era, much like the gear in "Van Helsing." Jonah rides around with two hand-cranked machine guns strapped to his horse (even though they must weight a few hundred pounds) that he uses to mow down some nasty townfolk who refuse to pay a bounty in the film's opening scene.

There are also these funny-looking pistols that show up. Apparently they have sticks of dynamite stacked underneath like a magazine of bullets, and when Jonah fires one of them is lit and flung by a mini-crossbow at his enemies. Of course, they explode upon impact, no matter what point the fuse has reached in its burning. After blowing away a few dozen men with them, he then drops these unique weapons that he just paid a lot of money for on the ground.

Megan Fox shows up as Lilah, a knife-wielding prostitute who wants Jonah to settle down and build a house with her. Lilah must not be very sharp herself if she thinks a man with half his face burned off and an obsession with death is the best the Old West has to offer in a mate. It's never even mentioned how such a gorgeous woman can look past Jonah's gruesome visage.

Even the prosthetics Brolin wears on his face aren't very convincing. It's supposed to appear that Jonah has a huge hole in his cheek -- even if we hadn't seen him drawn that way in the comics, the movie's animated exposition depicts him so. Brolin just looks like they added an extra strip of skin over the side of his mouth that forces him to mumble all his dialogue. Hell, "Darkman" did a better job of this 20 years ago.

Barely 80 minutes long, "Jonah Hex" is an interminable, dusty disaster.

1.5 stars out of four

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review: "Toy Story 3"

It's been 15 years since the first "Toy Story" came out, and it's not an exaggeration to say it changed the face of animation forever.

Back then, it seemed a new golden age of hand-drawn creativity was upon us: "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Lion King." Then some folks at a little upstart company called Pixar decided computers could do the job even better.

Within a few years -- certainly by 1999, when the wonderful "Toy Story 2" came out -- it was clear CG was the new king. Flash another decade later, and it was actually a novelty when Disney made a new hand-animated movie, "The Princess and the Frog," released last winter to modest success.

But with "Toy Story 3" now gracing theaters -- and coming not a moment too soon to save us from one of the most dismal summer of movies in memory -- we're reminded that it isn't the canvas or the paint that matters, but the vision of the artist. It's not about dazzling us with coolest new visual technique, but crafting a story and characters that touch us and take us somewhere unexpected.

In short: The wizards at Pixar have done it again.

It's been 11 years since we hung out with Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie the Cowgirl, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and the rest of the gang. Seeing them again is both nostalgic and exciting, like old friends come to visit after a lengthy absence.

The toys haven't changed much, of course. But their child, Andy, is all grown up and ready to leave for college. In the hubbub of moving out, the toys get put into the wrong bag and nearly are thrown out before the timely intervention of cowboy leader Woody (voice by Tom Hanks).

Instead, they end up donated to Sunnyside, a daycare center that at first looks like toy heaven on earth. There's tons of toys already there, but also dozens of kids to play with them. Even though, like Andy, the children will grow up and grow bored with them, every year brings a new batch.

"No owners means no heartbreak," intones Lotso (a terrific Ned Beatty), the cuddly old bear -- his name is short for Lots-o-Huggin' -- who runs the show at Sunnyside.

Woody, though, wants the gang to return to Andy so they can "be there for him," even if that means being consigned to the attic for awhile. And it turns out daycare has a nasty pecking order straight out of Orwell's "Animal Farm."

I guess some toys are created more equal than others.

One of the main subplots involves Barbie (Jodi Benson) being introduced to Ken (Michael Keaton). They were literally made for each other, of course, but in their universe they've never met before and instantly fall in love. Though Barbie does have reservations about Ken being Lotso's right-hand toy -- not to mention having an obsession with fashion accessories that's unbecoming even for the original boy toy.

Buzz (Tim Allen) kind of gets shunted to the side in this outing, though an accident triggers some special powers even he didn't know he had.

Mr. Potato Head is sent on a mission that involves detaching all his limbs, eyes, mouth, etc. and using other objects as a temporary host for his consciousness. This has all sorts of metaphysical implications begging for a serious philosophy dissertation: Does the soul reside in the heart? Or the mustache?

"Toy Story 3" is a great new adventure with a grand old gang, and I for one would love to have another -- just don't make us wait another 11 years for it.

I do have to add a note of caution: Despite the G rating, the film contains a scene of genuine terror, when it appears the toys will meet their doom, that may prove disturbing to little ones. Several tykes at the screening I attended visibly recoiled -- heck, I got a bit of the shivers.
All kidding aside, a PG probably would've been more appropriate.

Also, "Toy Story 3" is preceded by a 6-minute animated short, "Day & Night." It's a fun little diversion about two creatures whose bodies are windows to the same scene at different times of day. But I'd say it was done mostly for the amusement of the animators who created it, and isn't up to the usual, high standard for Pixar shorts.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D"

Professional surfers are people who turned goofing off into a sport and a career.

I don't say this to be dismissive of surfers like Kelly Slater, considered by many the best surfer ever and the star of the new IMAX film, "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D."

Just as there are now folks who make their living playing video games, and even a few people (though not nearly as many as a few years ago) watching movies as a livelihood, Slater and his kind found something they loved to do and willed it into more than a pastime.

On the surface, "Wave" is the story of some surfers looking for really gnarly tubes off the beaches of Tahiti. But it's also about the friendship between Slater and Raimana Van Bastolear, a native who helps elite surfers find that ultimate wave.

Van Bastolear had the talent to be a world champion, Slater says, but chose to stay near his family and his people, who feel a spiritual connection with the ocean that combines respect and fear.

Director Stephen Low, an IMAX veteran, uses his high-resolution cameras to capture the amazing action, including some shots that were photographed with a camera mounted to the surfboard itself.

The action is familiar: We've seen these sorts of shots of surfers racing through a closing wormhole of water, or shredding the wave with fancy acrobatic patterns. But having it come at you on the big screen in 3-D is something else.

Low also uses computerized graphics to show how waves form in the ocean, and how the special geography of places like Tahiti bends them into "The Demon Wave," as the locals call the man-crushing liquid tornadoes that can dump 20 tons of water onto anyone unlucky enough to slip off their board.

The movie gets a little hippy-dippy with some animated sequences about the special relationship between the Tahitians and the island, using the big ceremonial masks as cartoonish stand-ins for the pioneers who first settled there centuries ago.

I'd love to see a documentary about their journey and history, but this sequence feels shoved into the middle of a movie about surfing. The really serious wave-riding doesn't start until about halfway through the film's 45 minutes, and it arrives not a moment too soon.

But we're soon caught up in the magnificent footage of Slater, Van Bastolear and others cutting through the surf with expert grace, and we forgive the film for dallying. "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D" is the best water ride around that won't leave you soaked.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Programming note

I won't have a second Reeling Backward column on Friday like usual. I've been buried with viewing movies for the upcoming Indy Film Fest, for which I'm a jurist, which has amounted to about a movie a day over the last week and a half.

I'd hoped to keep up with my usual schedule on top of that, but it's just proven too burdensome. I usually work two or three weeks ahead on those old-movie columns, giving me time to find, watch and contemplate the films. Lately I've been banging something out just in time for the next post, and frankly I haven't been satisfied with the quality of my work.

To allow me to catch up, I'm going to just do one Reeling Backward a week for the next two or three weeks, and resume my normal two-a-week in July.

On the plus side, I will have a review of "Jonah Hex" on Friday!

Review: "Please Give"

The people we meet in "Please Give" are almost uniformly unpleasant in some way or another. But they hide their meanness behind a veneer of beneficence that is so dear to them, they actually believe they're nice.

Take Kate, more or less the main character, played by Catherine Keener. She's middle-aged, successful, with a husband and teen daughter. Kate literally cannot pass a homeless person on the Manhattan street without giving them money -- her need to be generous is so consuming that on occasion she mistakenly offers cash to regular people minding their own business.

See, Kate is not attached so much to giving as the feeling of superiority she derives from helping total strangers. For her, pity is a like a drug.

Perhaps it's the guilt she feels from the business in which she and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) are partners. They buy old furniture from the children of old people who have died, and then resell it at a considerable markup as vintage treasures.

They're essentially upscale ambulance chasers, cheating the bereaved who don't know what they've got.

In fact, Alex and Kate have bought the apartment next door to theirs from Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), a sour-pussed 91-year-old, with the intention of knocking through the walls to expand whenever the old lady kicks off. They act nice to Andra, offering to make trips to the drugstore for her. But everyone, including Andra, knows they're just counting the days until they can finally have their master suite.

Andra's granddaughters are Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), who live together in quiet conflict. Mary is a cosmetologist who doesn't believe in hiding her antipathy toward her grandmother, who has the elderly habit of saying incredibly hateful or racist things.

Andra may indeed be a nasty old bitch, but Mary has a few decades' head start.

Rebecca, on the other hand, is sweet to her core, even if she's a bit distant to those around her. Rebecca works as a radiology assistant, spending her days squishing women's boobs into the scanning machine. She shares such intimacy with her patients, Rebecca finds little zeal for it in her own life.

Kate and Alex have a 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), an awkward kid with a terrible acne problem and a lust for a $235 pair of jeans. Kate's generosity to strangers is galling to Abby, who at one point snatches a $20 bill out of a homeless man's hand, furious that her mother is more giving to a street person than her own daughter.

"Please Give" is written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, who's previously made three other movies with Keener, including "Lovely & Amazing" and "Friends with Money." Like her other works, it's a highly personal film about women and their relationships, their flaws and complexities.

I was thoroughly engaged the entire time I spent with this terrific cast, who deliver sensitive and brave performances. But I kept feeling the movie pushing me away, as if I did not belong inside the circle of people I was observing.

It's hard to say exactly what the film is about. There's an exploration of the New York City mindset, in which people seem to be in a constant, unspoken competition with each other, scrapping for the biggest apartment with the nicest things in it -- and not necessarily even things they like, just stuff that other people will think is nice.

Mostly, though, the unstated theme touches on how even when people offer a hand to others, they're sometimes still being selfish. I just wish "Please Give" could have been a little more generous with itself.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Video review: "The Book of Eli"

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

This post-apocalyptic drama from the Hughes brothers directing duo (Allen and Albert) features a wasteland so bleak and bled of color, the film is nearly monochromatic. Its spareness is practically sumptuous.

But the script (by Gary Whitta) is filled with so much idiocy and silliness, we grow distracted from all the great visuals.

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

Denzel Washington plays the title character, a wandering badass who possesses the last Holy Bible on Earth. Most of humanity was wiped out 30 years ago, and the few that are left roam the desert preying on each other, or gather into chaotic enclaves.

Eli strolls into one of the latter, a town led by an intelligent, diabolical man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who sees in the Bible a weapon with which he can tie the rabble to his yoke.

The last two-thirds of the movie devolves into a series of chases and fights as Carnegie's men seek to wrest the book from Eli's grasp. Eli, armed with a freaky-looking machete and preternaturally fast moves, filets them to bits.

It's a cool, withered world the Hugheses have painted for us. And I’m a sucker for stories about mankind squabbling over the flotsam of their dead society.

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

Video extras are spare for DVD, but terrific in the Blu-ray version.

The DVD has four brief deleted or alternate scenes, and a 5-minute animated comic book story about Carnegie's origins.

In addition, the Blu-ray edition has a pop-up commentary track by the Hughes brothers, which you can pause to watch an additional 34 minutes of "Focus Points" covering all levels of production.

I found it fascinating that the Hugheses commissioned a complete graphic novel version of the story before filming began.

There's also a featurette on the soundtrack, a digital copy of the film, and two documentaries totaling 30 minutes that explore the spiritual implications of Eli's world and mission.

Movie: 1.5 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Mystic Pizza" (1988)

A few weeks ago I featured "Steel Magnolias" in this space as an example of a good chick flick. It made me curious to see another early Julia Roberts movie I'd heard good things about, 1988's "Mystic Pizza." I wouldn't call it a bad chick flick, but it's closer to the cliche of a flick aimed exclusively at a female audience.

To put it bluntly, "Mystic Pizza" is more or less a movie version of a soap opera, layered in with some quirky humor and gigantic '80s hair. Roberts has a couple of moments in the film where her 'do seems as tall as her entire head. There are other moments that distant memories of being stuck home sick as a kid with the warbling music of "Days of Our Lives" in the background were brought to the fore.

Roberts, Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish were all 20-ish starlets just starting out, and the main enjoyment to be had in the movie is watching them emerge as actresses. Roberts plays Daisy, the bad girl offspring of a family of fisherman in the seaside town of Mystic, Conn. Gish is her goody sister Kat, who's saving money to attend Yale. Taylor is Jojo, the scrappy friend who gets cold feet at her wedding in the film's opening scene -- actually, she gets knocked cold when she passes out on the altar.

All three work at the Mystic Pizza restaurant, a downscale place that just happens to have the best pizza around. The proprietor, Leona (Conchata Ferrell), guards her recipe like nuclear missile codes, and vows to pass it on only after retiring.

This is the sort of movie in which a local dining critic is watched dispensing his views on the restaurant's television, and we just know it's inevitable that he'll show up at the Mystic.

The film's title, by the way, was based on a shop screenwriter Amy Holden Jones saw in the real Mystic, and she made up a story around it. Inevitably, the restaurant has become a tourist attraction -- though who knows if the pizza is as good as Leona's.

Anyway, all three girls juggle relationships during the fateful fall in which the story takes place. Jojo resists her fiance's attempts to get her to go through with the marriage. At one point, Bill even refuses sex until they are married. Bill is played by Vincent D'Onofrio, incredibly lean and in blue-collar hunk mode. Jojo confesses that even the sight of his manly wrists drives her into a sexual frenzy.

Daisy's guy is Charles, scion of a local rich family. He has one of those great introduction scenes where he and his preppy friends waltz into a rough fishermen's bar and start slinging money around for drinks and bets. Daisy catches his eye, and the next day he presumptuously shows up at her house, informing Daisy's mother that they have a date. Beats having to ask.

The fiery Daisy enjoys the attention, but is seasoned enough to know Charles probably just wants a fling with a townie. In one of the big comedic scenes, she spots him at a local restaurant with another woman, and dumps a pickup truck full of bait fish into his red Porsche. Of course, the other woman turns out to be his sister.

Kat's fling is with the father of the little girl she's hired to babysit. Tim's wife is away for a few months. He's an architect, about 30 and a fellow Yaley, and soon the good-hearted Kat is casting moony eyes at him. We know it's doomed before things even start, but in this sort of movie Kat is obliged to find that out for herself.

Matt Damon makes a very brief cameo in a dinner scene as Charles' younger brother. "Hey Mom, do you want my green stuff?" is his only line. It was his first role, and four years later he would make a bigger impression in "School Ties," a film like this one that gathers a lot of undiscovered talent in one place.

"Mystic Pizza" was directed by Donald Petrie, and he's still around making similar middlebrow stuff with a romantic comedy bent -- "How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days," "My Life in Ruins," etc.

2.5 stars out of four

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reeling Backward: "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954)

Keeping with the nautical theme for this week's classic film columns, today I'll be taking a look at Disney's 1954 version of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

Not long ago in this space I commented that I didn't think Golden Age Hollywood divided movies up so neatly into kids' movies and adult ones as they are today, and I think this adaptation of the famed 19th century science fiction novel helps prove my point.

"Leagues" is from Walt Disney, one of the first live-action films he produced himself, and there certainly are light-hearted moments meant to appeal to children. Most of these are centered around the character of Ned Land, a happy-go-lucky mariner played by Kirk Douglas. He sings, he carouses with women, he gets into fistfights ever 20 minutes or so, and befriends Captain Nemo's pet seal -- even singing a duet with it.

But watch James Mason's portrayal of Nemo, the mad submariner who's taken to the sea as his refuge from the evils of mankind. It's a hard-edged, dramatic performance, with no winking nods or cartoonish layers. You could transport Mason whole into a much darker movie with R-rated violence, and he would fit like a glove.

The other two main characters Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre (grown old and thick) as his servile assistant, Conseil. I'm sure most people are familiar with the basic gist of the story: Arronax and his two companions are captured by Nemo, who makes them guests/prisoners aboard the Nautilus, his amazing submarine.

I just love the stupendous arrogance of Mason's Nemo, as seen in this exchange with the professor:

Arronax: "I'm afraid that I don't understand."
Nemo: "At the moment, I don't intend that you should."

Verne's novels were notable for their (often amazingly accurate) portrayal of the technology of the future, as seen from the mid-1800s. So it's interesting when filmmakers with another century of scientific advancement under their belts try to portray a futuristic past. All of the amazing stuff aboard the Nautilus -- diving suits, electrified hulls, periscopes -- were old hat by 1954.

Although Nemo's invention is not terribly advanced in weaponry: He doesn't have any torpedoes or guns -- he takes out offending ships trolling his seas by simply ramming them.

The production values of the film, directed by Richard Fleischer, hold up pretty well more than a half-century on. The art direction aboard the Nautilus has a splendid brass-and-iron look to it. Of course, the ship itself is a wonder of imagination, with its two large viewing windows resembling eyes, and overlapping hull plates that give it a crustacean look.

Like a lot of people my age, I first encountered the story of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" by visiting the ride at Disney World. I was heartbroken, even well into adulthood, when they shut it down in 1994.

The film deviates quite a bit from the book, which featured a rash of other adventures never portrayed, including visits to the South Pole and the lost city of Atlantis.

The big battle with the kraken is the centerpiece of the movie, and it's still an energetic and swashbuckling scene. Reportedly it was originally supposed to take place in daylight on a calm day, but the technicians were worried the cables used to control the massive squid would be visible. So they changed it to a stormy scene at night -- adding hundreds of thousands of dollars (a fortune then) and six extra weeks of shooting to the production.

It's grown a little hokey with years, and there's now denying the film is pitched more to audience members who measure their age in single digits. But "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" is a rousing adventure story with dark undertones that all ages can savor.

Notably, although there were several film versions prior to this one, it's stood for more than a half-century as the quintessential adaptation of Verne's book. (A few TV versions have come and gone.) Now Hollywood has two remakes in the works, racing to get into theaters first in 2012 or 2013. I enjoyed the Disney version, but I'd love to see a grittier take.

Too bad James Mason isn't around to star.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: "The Karate Kid"

I guess this is just the week for unnecessary but good-natured remakes of 1980s stuff. After the goofy but fun "The A-Team," now we have a new version of "The Karate Kid," which was a hit in 1984 and spawned several sequels, including a female version with a teenage Hilary Swank.

Now the role moves to preteen territory with young Jaden Smith as 12-year-old Dre Parker, a cool kid from the Detroit 'hood who has to readjust big time when his mother is transferred to Beijing. I liked Smith in the role, even if he is obviously being coached by dad Will Smith to take on some of the superstar's non-threatening, hip mannerisms.

Smith, who's actually still 11 years old, is small for his age and frightfully thin, which makes him an even more sympathetic figure when he's getting beat on by a gang of native bullies, led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), the star pupil of the local martial arts super-dojo. There Master Li instructs his students not to forgive weakness or grant mercy, and Cheng and the gang seem to be taking the lesson to heart.

Now, the style of fighting depicted the movie is explicitly stated to be kung fu, not karate. At one point Dre even corrects his mother when she mistakenly calls it karate. And the Mr. Miyagi role, as the quiet but powerful Japanese instructor, has obviously transformed into a Chinese one with Jackie Chan. But I guess no one would buy tickets for "The Kung Fu Kid."

It's a good role for Chan. Though in his mid-50s he still looks quite capable of laying down some serious kick-ass, but Chan plays the role older, adopting a stiff-legged amble and puffing purposefully during his fight with Cheng and his crew. Chan also seems to be intentionally speaking English with a thicker accent than we've heard him use in recent films.

Taraji P. Henson plays Dre's mom, looking exasperated and worried when necessary and otherwise disappearing for long stretches so her boy can learn to stand like a man. Wenwen Han plays the love interest, Meiying, a violin-playing student at Dre's school whom he befriends mainly because she speaks English.

Interestingly, Dre never seems to make any progress in learning the native lingo, despite the admonishment of another American expatriate kid: "Dude, it's China ... might be a good idea." Helpfully, even the local kung fu competitions are emceed in English.

Dre and Mr. Han, the local maintenance man who takes him under his wing, travel to remote areas to observe the sorcerous ways of kung fu masters who can charm a snake and other nifty tricks. Mr. Han also seems able to heal any injury through some little trick with a burning cotton ball -- one wonders why he doesn't put a shingle for that instead of fixing toilets for a living.

"The Karate Kid" is directed by Dutch filmmaker Harald Zwart, which seems to be in keeping with the Smith clan's disdain for working with name directors. The screenplay is by rookie Christopher Murphey, and I thought he did a good job of updating the story while keeping the bones of the conflict intact.

The final showdown at the kung fu tournament is a virtual repeat of the original film, right down to the evil instructor ordering his students to intentionally cripple the upstart's knee, leaving an opening for a jaw-dropping kick at the end.

There's a few other cues from the 1984 flick. Instead of "wax on, wax off" we have Dre forced to put on and remove his jacket a million times. And instead of Mr. Miyagi's collection of vintage automobiles, Mr. Han has a single 25-year-old Volkswagen Scirocco that he keeps in his living room and constantly tinkers with. We just know it has some sort of significant to his life because, well, nobody is that in love with a VW.

I'd also like to comment on the cinematic portrayal of bullies. In the movies, all you have to do is stand up to a bully and he will instantly transform into an OK person. The original "Karate Kid" made this explicit, with villain Johnny Lawrence wresting the trophy from the judge so he can hand it to the victor himself, saying "You're all right, Larusso!" -- despite having spent the previous two hours trying to beat the holy snot out of him.

In the new film, Mr. Han states the old saw that "There are no bad students, only bad teachers." So Cheng has a last-minute change of heart after Dre defeats him, abandoning his sadist instructor to give Mr. Han some very public props.

All this sounds well and good, but the truth is that bullies bully because they like doing it -- they enjoy having power over others. In real life when a dweeb stands up to his tormentor, he usually gets his ass handed to him. And on the rare occasion when he wins, or at least makes a decent show of it, the bully simply finds someone else to pick on.

But again, these complaints belong to the real world, not the fantasy one of "The Karate Kid." I'd like to live in it, even if for just long enough to land a few drop-kicks.

3 stars out of four

Review: "The A-Team"

"The A-Team" surprises by not being completely awful. The idea of remaking a cheesy television show from the 1980s is one based on dollars and not any sense of creativity. The results are predictably silly, self-referential and soon to be forgotten.

But not, for even a moment, ever boring.

Director Joe Carnahan launches right into one action scene after another, so we feel dizzy at the amount of stuff that's always happening. Even the talkie scenes where the team makes their intricate plans are split up with shots of them actually executing it, so we never feel like the movie has any down time.

If you don't remember the TV show: An elite military squad is wrongly court-martialed, and turns freelance in order to clear their names. The movie opens with the group's first meeting, in an unlikely adventure south of the U.S./Mexican border. All I can say is that for members of the military, they seem to have rather long haircuts and a lot of free time on their hands.

They're led by Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), a crafty veteran who says that if you give him enough time, he'll come up with a plan to defeat anyone. His right-hand man is "Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper, clearly having a lot of fun), a confidence man and acquirer of valuable commodities.

Hannibal literally stumbles into Bosco Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) in the middle of the desert. Nicknamed B.A. for his bad attitude, Baracus is a mechanical whiz and expert wheel man. Hannibal shoots, then recruits B.A. after they discover they have identical Army Ranger tattoos.

The last member of the team is Howling Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley), a genius pilot who can fly anything with wings or rotors, but is a bit lacking in the sanity department. Hannibal gets Murdock sprung from a military hospital for the insane, and they're off.

Flash eight years to the future, and the A-Team is now the toast of the military, having single-handedly won the war in Iraq (or so the movie seems to imply). General Morrison (Gerald McRaney, an '80s TV exile himself) greenlights Hannibal for one last job to steal back the engraving plates Saddam stole from the U.S. Mint, allowing him to print his own money.

Somewhere in the background is Lynch (Patrick Wilson, ladling on the smarm) as a CIA boss who's got his hand in the pie.

On the opposing side is Pike -- played by Brian Bloom, who also co-wrote the script with Carnahan and Skip Woods -- the sneering head of a Blackwater-esque private military outfit. He's got his eyes on the engraving plates and pinning the blame on Hannibal and company.

I won't belabor further plot developments, since it's just one big convoy of chase-chase, bang-bang.

The action scenes are heavy with computer-generated assistance, to the point that some of the action was spat entirely out of a computer rather than photographed with any of those actor thingees. But they're so over-the-top daffy, we can't help but smile.

All four of the A-Team seem to be doing a little homage to their predecessors in their respective roles (George Peppard, Dwight Schultz, Mr. T and Dirk Benedict). Neeson delivers all his lines in a combination snarl/grumble, and Copley seems to be doing a South African accent by way of Tennessee.

The world really didn't need a big-budget film version of "The A-Team." But at least they have the good sense to plant their tongue firmly in cheek while grasping for the easy bucks.

Make sure to stick around after the credits for an Easter Egg with some familiar faces.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Review: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is a documentary about a fake documentarian, who segues from chronicling street artists to becoming one himself.

These artists, who work guerilla style with spray cans and such in public places, then observe with resentment as the faux filmmaker they thought was making a movie about them usurps their style and becomes rich and famous.

Of course, there's also the possibility that the entire enterprise, including this film, is a hoax.

Whatever it is, this highly engaging film directed (we think) by the anonymous street artist known as Banksy will provoke thoughtful discussions about what is art, as well as the film's own veracity.

Try to keep this straight: We open with the mysterious Banksy, hiding his face and voice, who says the project started with a guy purporting to make a documentary about the street art scrawled on walls in cities all around the globe, often to be scrubbed away or painted over in a matter of hours.

At some point, Banksy says, this filmmaker -- a Frenchman living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta -- decided he was more interesting than the artists he was recording. So he set down his camera and started imitating their work.

Left unsaid is that Banksy then decided to make a documentary about the guy who was supposed to make a documentary about him, but turned out to be a faker.

Got all that? Yes? Then let me confuse you further.

Guetta -- now calling himself Mr. Brainwash -- happily admits in interviews that he never intended to make a documentary out of the thousands of hours of footage he shot of Banksy and other street artists creating their works. He was just obsessed with videotaping everything he saw, and became fascinated by these underground outlaws whose subversive work straddles the line between art and vandalism.

However, Mr. Brainwash did eventually make a film out his years of tapes. It's called "Life Remote Control," which we're shown a few snippets of, and it's ... well, imagine experimental performance art vomited out of the belly of an MTV editing bay.

So the faker who only wanted to chronicle, but lied and told the street artists he was making a documentary about them, did in fact eventually make a film, of sorts.

Still with me? Alright, then let me flip everything on its tail.

This whole thing could well be a complex ruse engineered by Banksy, with a host of other street artists brought in as unknowing accomplices. A lot of people think so. They believe Banksy is perpetuating a grand joke about the commercialization of street art by inventing a persona who will become famous and whose works will sell for tens of thousands of dollars, even though they're just knock-offs of other artists.

There's some credible evidence to support this idea. For example, Mr. Brainwash is never actually depicted creating any of his paintings. They're manufactured by employees at his direction, and then he'll blob some paint on them or whatever to make them distinct.

The best argument against fakery is Guetta's video footage, more than a decade's worth, of him accompanying the artists on their midnight raids spraying and plastering city walls. The excitable Frenchman grows noticeably older and chubbier, so unless Banksy had millions to spend on CG effects, that footage is genuine.

My guess is this film is an amalgamation of truth and untruth. It could well be that Guetta was simply a fan who followed the artists around like a puppy, recording their creative process. Banksy then used Guetta's tapes to stage a colossal practical joke by turning this nonentity into a star of the art world, and making a movie about it.

What you can be sure of is that somebody's got egg on their face. Whoever the joke's on, it's one worth laughing -- and then thinking -- about.

Though I must wonder: What would happen if somebody went into an exhibit of street art and started spray-painting all over it? Should we arrest, or compensate him?

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hollywood doesn't prefer blonds

Let's play a game: Quick! Name a current male film sex symbol who is blond!





Don't worry, you're not just drawing a blank: These days, Hollywood's notion of handsome invariably means dark.

(Tall is good, too, though movie stars tend to be shorter than you'd think. But that's another column.)

Alright, you've had another minute -- still haven't come up with a towheaded star who sets the girls' (and some boys') hearts aflutter?

That's because there aren't any.

And no, we're not counting Robert Redford or Steve McQueen. I said a modern movie star, meaning their heyday is 2010, not 1970.

If you guessed Brad Pitt: Thanks for playing, but you lose. Although he's worn blond wigs or dye jobs for the occasional role ("Troy," "Legends of the Fall") the reigning embodiment of male beauty has a naturally brown head. (Check the eyebrows, they don't lie.)

As a film critic and owner of flaxen vestigial fur, I've long been dismayed by the dearth of actors who are considered sexy and also happen to look like me. (Well, except with good cheekbones and a strong chin.)

On a primal level, it's discomfiting that celluloid depictions of the panoply of human diversity leave me feeling marginalized. One thinks: Where am I? Don't I matter?

It may sound strange for an Aryan type to claim solidarity with African-Americans and other minorities who have long cried foul about movies reflecting them poorly, or not at all.

But with year after year of George Clooneys, Will Smiths, Johnny Depps, Tom Cruises and other pigment-blessed stars taking turns dominating the box office, I'm starting to wonder if Hollywood and the movie-going public have it in for blonds.

(Quick aside: The proper usage is to say "blonde" for women and "blond" for men, it being one of the few English terms that has feminine and masculine forms. Although many people, including me, mistakenly use the extra "e" for everybody.)

I'd almost grown resigned to the fact that when any given actor is held up as the new model of desirability, he would always have brown or black hair. But in recent years, things have grown even worse.

On the rare occasions when blond men do appear in popular films, they fall into one of three highly stereotyped roles: The goofball, the gay pal, or the psycho.

Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell typify the first pigeonhole: Guys who butter their bread with comedy, dancing for their dinner by playing the fool. To put it bluntly: We are not meant to take them seriously.

It's notable that Wilson, despite being quite good-looking in dude-ish way, has never played a romantic lead.

When it comes time to portray a (usually minor) character as effeminate, it's no coincidence that he's usually fair-haired. Look to the backgrounds and throwaway jokes of mainstream movies, and you'll see a lot of blond guys expressing over-the-top gay mannerisms.

The last category is the scariest (literally).

When sadistic killers occupy the screen, respected actors like Stanley Tucci ("The Lovely Bones") and Robin Williams ("One Hour Photo") love to trade in their dark locks for pale ones.

Sometimes it seems like the nastier the murderer, the blonder he gets: Look at the rash of nearly colorless killers such as the twin assassins in "The Matrix Reloaded," Jake Busey's religious bomber in "Contact" or Paul Bettany's killer monk from "The Da Vinci Code."

Although there have been some rugged midcentury blonds to grace film -- McQueen, Alan Ladd, Van Johnson -- almost from the dawn of cinema, dark hair has been associated with manliness and virility. Blonds have been relegated to the role of "the other."

The bias may have some basis in nascent film technology: Black-and-white cinema had a high amount of contrast in its early decades, so blond hair would tend to get washed out against lighter backgrounds. Similarly, those with pale eyebrows have a harder time projecting their facial expressions, especially to the back of the theater.

And the brutal truth is that, when it comes to commonly held standards of male attractiveness, most women just prefer dark hair.

Consider this from someone calling themselves Hairwatcher in an online chat: "It's something about the way the dark hair frames the face, giving it more presence. The eyebrows being dark also make them more pronounced, which emphasizes the eyes and all of this makes the face look stronger."

So the sad (for us blonds) conclusion may be that Hollywood is simply giving audiences what they want.

Still, that doesn't completely explain the way yellowheads are routinely dissed and dismissed at the movies.

Recently, brown-haired actor Chris Evans was cast in the lead role for 2011's "Captain America" movie, despite the comic book hero's alter-ego Steve Rogers always being drawn with platinum locks. This is old hat for Evans, who previously turned another blond super-hero, Johnny Storm -- aka The Human Torch -- to the dark side in the "Fantastic Four" flicks.

For me, the final straw was when they turned on Ken.

Or rather, when they turned Ken.

In its eagerly awaited film "Toy Story 3" hitting theaters May 18, the animation geniuses at Pixar have taken the inexplicable step of transforming the Ken doll -- y'know, of Barbie & Ken? -- into a brunette.

Despite decades of iconic blondness -- with that distinctive molded plastic hairstyle that looked like it'd been combed with a push broom -- Ken has gone to a coppery brown for his big screen debut.

Of course, Ken has always been a bit swishy, with a thing for brightly-hued scarves that was positively metrosexual before they even invented that term.

Oh, and he lacks genitalia. That fits, since Hollywood treats blond humans with a penis as if they didn't have one.