Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore"

It has been nine years since "Cats & Dogs" first exposed us to a secret underground war fought between talking canines and felines, with super-spy agents facing off with James Bond-esque gadgetry.

Now we have a sequel, of sorts, which has improved the sleekness of the computer-generated antics, but not the bone-headed approach to making kiddie flicks.

As near as I can determine, nobody involved with the first movie had anything to do with this one, other than Sean Hayes, Michael Clarke Duncan and a couple others reprising small roles voicing critters -- essentially, they're vocal walk-ons. Even the humans have been swapped out.

By the title, "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," we might be led to believe that a dastardly arch-villain has returned to wreak more havoc. But no, Kitty Galore is a new creation, a hairless cat voiced by Bette Midler, and with an origin story that's an homage/rip-off of the Joker's.

Kitty wants to broadcast "The Call of the Wild," a nefarious high-pitched recording that will drive all the world's dogs mad, thus estranging them from their human companions, and leaving cats free to take over as, er, top dogs.

Nick Nolte provides the voice of Butch, the veteran dog agent (voiced by Alec Baldwin last time around) forced to partner up with Diggs (James Marsden), an accident-prone police dog recently recruited into the doggie agency. They've got fancy comm links in their dog houses, collars hiding lasers and lockpicks, and subterranean rocket transit tubes for high-speed travel to Dog World Headquarters.

Turns out the cats have their own spy outfit, Mousers Ensuring Our World's Safety (I'll let you figure it out), and Catherine (Christina Applegate) is their top agent. After briefly tangling with Diggs and Butch, she decides to join paws to foil Kitty's evil plot.

Tagging along is Seamus (Katt Williams), a dodo-headed dove who turns out to be an unwitting stool pigeon, but mostly is one jive-talking turkey.

There's a few occasional inspired moments. I liked the trapped room slowly filling with kitty litter. And a houseful of catnip-tripping kittens. And there's a cookie after the end credits worth sticking around for.

But this is low-wattage entertainment aimed at very small children -- kindergartners would likely grow impatient with it. It's an unimaginative collection of shiny things, cute critters and goofy action meant to distract tykes for 82 minutes.

Call me catty, but I think we can do better by our kids, and our pets.

The 3-D effects are decent, but not worth the ticket upgrade. Though "Coyote Falls," a new Road Runner cartoon preceding the movie, is a nostalgic treat.

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "Dinner for Schmucks"

"Dinner for Schmucks" is a pretty darn funny comedy. Not laugh-a-minute funny, as the good bits are spread a little thin. When it hits, though, it hits on all cylinders.

Mostly I think this is due to an extraordinarily strange performance by Steve Carell. But we'll get to that in a minute. First I'd like to discuss the title.

"Schmuck" is Yiddish, a pejorative for the male sex organ, and is generally considered to be a swear word. If it weren't the title of a mainstream Hollywood movie, it's unlikely any newspaper would allow me to use it in print (or even the wild, wild Web).

The interesting thing is that nobody in the film is identified as being Jewish. In fact, the rich businessman who organizes the titular dinners -- in which his lackeys compete to see who can bring the biggest idiot as his guest -- is about as WASP-y as you can get.

No one even uses the word "schmuck" at any point in the movie. So while I'm all in favor of using foreign swear words for the coy naughtiness, I'm a little confused as to how they arrived at this title. Anyway.

The straight man is played by Paul Rudd, a perpetual cinematic wing man finally getting a shot at the lead. (If only we could cast him and Judy Greer together in a romantic comedy, the world would feel right.)

Rudd plays Tim, an analyst at a company specializing in buying up distressed companies, stripping and selling them. He wants to move up to the seventh floor where the big boys play, leapfrogging each other to impress the top dog, Fender (Bruce Greenwood).

The boss likes Tim's gumption in pursuing a deal with an eccentric Swiss tycoon, but has a condition for the promotion: He must take part in the monthly dinner competition. But where is he to find an idiot?

Then Barry arrives, as if sent from above. Played by Carell with a bad haircut and some prosthetic teeth, Barry is an IRS agent whose real passion is taxidermy. In his case, Barry likes to collect dead mice, stuff them and pose them in romantic little dioramas -- having picnics, riding bikes, etc.

Tim runs Barry over with his car, and immediately senses that something is amiss when Barry offers to pay him to make the whole thing going away. Clearly, the patsy has arrived.

Carell gives Barry a dim-witted sweetness that's hard not to like. It's not so much that he's stupid, but his experience with meaningful human interaction is so limited, he's like a kindergartner among surly eighth-graders.

For instance, Barry has a boss who has convinced him he can take control of his mind through hypnosis, even though he's only marginally more sophisticated than Barry. He's played by Zach Galifianakis in hilariously self-serious turn -- at one point, he turns his face dark purple and then back to normal again, like switching a light. They don't teach that at the Actor's Studio.

The actual dinner happens rather late in the game. Barry shows up at Tim's a day early, and in a matter of hours has managed to estrange his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostack), a sensitive artistic type who's appalled that Tim would participate in the cruel game.

This sends her running into the hirsute arms of Keiran (Jemaine Clement), a pretentious artist whose works all involve depictions of himself. Keiran envisions himself as some kind of wise, horny satyr with the lower half of a goat, but the real hindquarters he resembles belong to a horse.

Things really get rolling with the arrival of Darla (Lucy Punch), a stalker ex-girlfriend of Tim's. She tries playing a sex game with Barry, who remains colossally clueless.

"Would you like to lick cheese off my naked body?" Darla teases. "Oh, I'm sure Tim has plates," Barry responds.

Directed by Jay Roach from a screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, "Dinner" is a fast-paced farce with a decent helping of big laughs. Oh, and it's based on a French comedy called "Dinner for Idiots" ... so still no clue on where the schmucks came from.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: "Winter's Bone"

"Winter's Bone" has a sharp authenticity like a leather strap to the face on a marrow-freezing night. It's a bracing, thrilling cinematic experience -- its tragic charms are not to be missed.

Watching this mesmerizing drama from director Debra Granik, which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, I'm reminded of "Frozen River," another stark indie about a rural woman pushed to extremes by looming destitution.

Except in this film, the heroine is not even full-grown.

Ree Dolly is a 17-year-old wise beyond her years -- a necessity when you've dropped out of school to raise your younger siblings because your father has run off to cook meth and your mother has absorbed so much heartbreak, there's only a shell of a woman left.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree in a performance with weight and conviction. Despite her unlined face, she lends Ree a weary, aged soul.

Early on, there's a scene where she wanders through her old high school, peering in on the home ec classes and ROTC drills she's left behind. It's a wordless, wistful look back over the shoulder for a girl who's been robbed of decisions about her own life. There are no forks in her road ahead.

At their ramshackle home, Ree's brother watches their neighbor butchering a deer and wonders if he should ask for some meat. "Never ask for what ought to be offered," she instructs.

Ree's glum, dirt-poor existence is at least stable, until the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) arrives with the news that her father Jessup has jumped bail after putting the family home and plot up for collateral. If he doesn't show up in court, they lose what little they have.

Hedged in by the cloistered countryfolk, with their secretive ways and ancient codes of honor, Ree has little choice but to go around knocking on doors asking after her dad. Many of these terse, unhelpful encounters are with fellow Dollys, and she learns that if blood is thicker than water, it doesn't always flow as freely when it comes to familial kindness.

"Some of our blood at least is the same," Ree says to one disobliging woman. "Ain't that supposed to mean something?"

"Ain't you got no man to do this?" the relation (a solid Dale Dickey) responds.

This exchange highlights a key aspect of Ree's world: Women are automatically assumed to be subservient to men. They're caretakers and gatekeepers to their husbands and brothers. It's something even smart ones like Ree accept without question -- it's baked into the family bread.

At one point Ree is beaten to a pulp for her transgressions, and when her uncle, Teardrop, shows up to claim her, the only question he asks is to make certain that only women laid hands on her, not men. This, by the way, is the same uncle who choked Ree a day earlier.

The implication is that among their kind, violence against women is perfectly acceptable as long as it's kept in the family.

Teardrop is played by John Hawkes in a layered performance of veiled menace, and something else hidden even deeper.

Despite seeming small and spindly, Teardrop's reputation is such that lawman and drug kingpin alike take a step back when they see him coming. Teardrop is aware of their fear, cradles and nurtures it, and wields it when necessary; he accepts who he is without relishing the brutality that often travels with him. It's an Oscar-caliber turn.

What I admired most about Granik's approach is that she never for a moment looks down on these people. Though Ree may shoot squirrels to put meat on the table, and be ashamed of her father's involvement in drugs, there's a stubborn pride that runs through like a backbone.

With all the cold receptions she receives on doorstep after doorstep, the only time she becomes offended is when it's suggested she might talk to the authorities about the family business. And when someone claims her father blew up a meth lab, Ree responds with indignation: "He's known for knowing what he's doing."

"Winter's Bone" is a film that knows what it's doing, and does it with chilling expertise.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Mid-August Lunch"

I'd love to be a European, at least for the summer. Our chums across the pond know what it means to get away: Their vacations last a month. Sometimes two. And everybody takes off at once.

This means whole regions and industries close up shop while everyone's away, which leads to a problem: What are all the devoted Italian sons to do with their elderly mothers while they're on vacation?

"Mid-August Lunch" is a gentle observational comedy about a middle-aged man stuck looking after four old women for Ferragosto, a traditional Italian holiday. Held on Aug. 15, centered around a meal with religious overtones -- isn't every holiday in Italy? -- Ferragosto is a national excuse to stretch a long weekend into a full-out escape.

Except Gianni isn't going anywhere. He looks after his aged mother, and they have serious financial troubles. The electricity bill has not been paid in three years. The condominium membership wants to kick them out over uncollected fees.

The administrator offers a deal: He'll forgive most of their debts if they take in his mother for Ferragosto. He doesn't bother to mention that his aunt will be joining them, too. Then the family doctor begs them to look after his mother as well.

Suddenly it's Gianni stuck in a hot apartment with four squabbling old ladies, toiling away in the kitchen and acting as peacemaker when their conflicts crescendo.

Gianni is played by Gianni de Gregorio, a veteran screenwriter also making his debut as a director. Handsome, 60-ish and with a put-upon charm, Gianni is an affable host. He may resent his lot, and lubricate his complaining with a copious amount of white wine, but he takes his role as caretaker seriously.

Like de Gregorio, the female actresses -- Valeria De Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Calì, Grazia Cesarini Sforza -- all use their given names for their characters. They're acting novices, too, which lends their bickering and rambling chats an unforced charm.

Plot-wise, there isn't much to speak of: Gianni's mother and the administrator's mother ensue a power play over control of the one barely-working television, and the doctor's mother has strict dietary restrictions that she treats as an annoyance.

At 73 minutes, "Mid-August Lunch" is agreeable light fare, pleasing to look at and drink in. It's a pleasant little cinematic aperitif, to cleanse the palate and refresh us. That it does.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Video review: "Clash of the Titans"

Despite arriving in April, in many ways "Clash of the Titans" was the first big summer movie of 2010.

The remake of the kitschy 1981 fantasy adventure is fast-paced and slick, with Ray Harryhausen's clunky stop-motion animation critters replaced by sleek computer-generated ones.

Perseus has undergone his own transformation, from Harry Hamlin's feathered-hairdo favorite son of Zeus to a snarling Sam Worthington, buzz-cut and seriously P.O.'d at the gods for using humans as their playthings.

Directed by Louis Leterrier, "Titans" is a mash-up of Greek/Roman mythology so addled, Edith Hamilton must be crying somewhere in Olympus. But the story doesn't have an ounce of fat, and captures the over-the-top fun of the original while dumping most of the schlockier elements.

The story: Zeus (Liam Neeson) and the other gods are furious that humans aren't praying to them like they used to, sapping their strength. He taps the original underworld boss, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), to strike terror into their hearts by threatening to unleash the Kraken, a powerful sea titan.

Perseus, the half-human son of Zeus, must find a way to defeat the Kraken by visiting the Stygian Witches, but not before fighting off some oversized scorpions and running afoul of Calibos, cursed into demon form by the gods.

And Medusa is still out there, in need of a close shave.

Video extras -- at least with the Blu-ray version -- are truly top-notch, providing hours worth of entertaining and insightful peeks behind the camera.

The DVD comes only with deleted scenes, but they're pretty hefty: Totaling about 18 minutes, they include much more intrigue between the gods, which I for one loved about the first film.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack comes with a host of other features, including an alternate ending that is much angrier in tone than the theatrical one -- not to mention Perseus ends up with a different lady love.

There's also a featurette on Worthington's growing reputation as the go-to action hero of his generation. "He's better than a stuntman," Leterrier says.

The centerpiece is a "Maximum Movie Mode" that combines 11 featurettes about nearly every aspect of production, plus 40 minutes of picture-in-picture commentary.

One takeaway nugget: Originally, the planned to have Hades as a female character!

A digital copy is included.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, July 26, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Odd Man Out" (1947)

Before "The Third Man" and "The Man Between" -- the latter of which also starred James Mason and was featured in this column a few months ago -- director Carol Reed made "Odd Man Out."

This film influenced and was influenced by American film noir, especially the first act where some IRA gunmen rob a mill and the getaway is botched. But the movie grows progressively more dream-like and surreal, and becomes less about the heist than one man's stumbling walkabout through the seedy side of Belfast.

Mason plays Johnny McQueen, local chief of the IRA -- though the film itself is careful never to directly label it so. Officially, the film is neutral about "the troubles," even going so far as to proclaim in a title card that it is only concerned with the innocent people caught in the fray.

But with the noble struggle of Johnny and those who help him, assisted by the sinister, steely presence of the police inspector (Denis O'Dea) on his trail, it's not difficult to see where the film's true sentiments lie.

"Odd Man Out" was based on the novel by F.L. Green, who co-wrote the script with veteran film scribe R.C. Sherriff.

Johnny, having holed up in a house for six months after escaping from prison, leads the heist to fill the coffers of the organization despite the protest of his men that he's gone soft. He insists on going anyway, rebuffing the warnings of Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan, in her first screen role), the woman who runs the house where he lives, and who clearly has fallen in love with him.

Sure enough, Johnny swoons during the job and is wounded by one of the guards at the mill, shooting the man dead in return. The getaway car driver speeds away too fast before Johnny is pulled all the way in, and he falls out. The accomplices drive on, leaving him to his fate.

At this point the movie takes an odd turn. Shot in the shoulder and slowly oozing life, Johnny becomes the object of a massive manhunt by both the police and locals interested in turning him in for the reward money of 1,000 pounds. A few people help him, or at least see him on his way before they get into trouble themselves.

Two middle-aged women help Johnny into their house and start to dress his wounds, but when the man of the house returns home and they start squabbling about whether to turn him in, Johnny slips out the door.

He falls asleep in a horse-drawn cab, which by chance carries him safely through the police checkpoint. One copper, familiar with the old cabbie, asks him who he's got in the back, and the fellow sarcastically replies, "Johnny!" They share a laugh and the cab is let by.

The cabbie later deposits a delirious Johnny in a lumber yard, where he's discovered by Shell (F.J. McCormick), a mousy old hobo. Shell would love to turn him in for the reward, but is cagey enough to know the IRA would target him for collaboration. Instead, he turns to the local priest, Father Tom (W.G. Fay). They have a long rambling conversation about Shell's compensation for bringing Johnny in, which Father Tom insists will be a greater reward in Heaven rather than a monetary one.

As things turn out, Johnny ends up at the dilapidated building where Shell lives with two other men. The three argue about his fate as Johnny slips in and out of consciousness.

Shell wants to receive something for turning Johnny in, he doesn't care to whom. Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones), a failed doctor, fixes up Johnny's arm but insists that he'll die without a blood transfusion at a hospital, which of course would mean his capture. Most extreme is Lukey (Robert Newton), a mad painter who wants to capture Johnny's dying moments on canvas.

Meanwhile, Kathleen roams the streets looking for Johnny. She's arranged passage on a boat overseas where they can be together, away from the troubles.

What's interesting about this rotating circus of strange characters is that everyone wants to get their hands on Johnny for their own, ultimately selfish purposes.

Shell wants a reward; Lukey wants to create art out of death; Tober wants to use wasted medical skills to save his body; the inspector wants to see justice satisfied by Johnny's execution; even Father Tom is less concerned with Johnny's fate than with saving his soul, offering him a chance for a final confession of his sins.

The only person who truly cares about Johnny, the whole of his body and soul, is Kathleen.

Things end gruesomely. Kathleen finally finds Johnny near the harbor, near death. She struggles to help him to their escape as the police close in. Realizing they won't make it, and rather than let the authorities carry out their judgment, Kathleen shoots at the ground, forcing the police to return fire, killing them both. (In the novel, she shoots Johnny herself, but this ending wouldn't pass muster with the censors.)

I really enjoyed the dark atmospheric cinematography, and a wonderful, large cast. The movie kind of wanders away from itself in the second half, but I mostly enjoyed the places where it rambled.

3 stars out of four

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: "The Kids Are All Right"

"The Kids Are All Right" is a movie about families. In this case, a family with two lesbians, but that's not what director Lisa Cholodenko's delightful comedy/drama is about. Rather, it uses the particular circumstances of a clan with two women at the head of the household to explore how people can grow apart, even while they still love each other.

The thing that stands out about Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) is not that they're gay, but how spectacularly normal they are. They're middle-aged, been together since their 20s, have a couple of teen kids: Joni (Mia Wasikowska), 18, whip-smart and about to go off to college, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), 15 and still figuring himself out. That often comes with having a name like Laser.

Nic is a doctor, precise and comfortable with routine, while Jules is a bit of a dreamer and drifter, career-wise. She studied to be an architect, tried a few jobs that didn't take, took a decade or so off to manage the kids, and is now looking to start a landscaping business.

Nic is used to being in charge at work, and we see how that's inexorably carried over to home life. Jules isn't content with just being someone's housewife, and subtly rebels with little digs about Nic's (over)fondness for wine and tendency to micro-manage.

Their existence gets turned inside out with the unexpected arrival of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the anonymous sperm donor who fathered both Joni and Laser. Laser wants to find out who is dad is, but gets Joni to call the lab since he isn't yet of age.

In a quirk, Joni ends up taking an immediate shine to Paul, while Laser feigns profound indifference. Paul is in his late 30s, rides a motorcycle, and runs a bohemian little restaurant featuring food from his organic farm. Played by Mark Ruffalo in ultra-cool mode, Paul's the lovable rebel every teen would die to have as their father.

But the integration of Paul into this alternative family isn't destined to be smooth. Nic takes one look at his scruffy leather jacket and listens to his story about dropping out of college, and decides Paul isn't the best role model for the kids. Laser could use a father figure, but clearly wants to have Paul jump through a few hoops to audition for the job.

Cholodenko, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, veers the tone of the film around wildly but not unintentionally. At first, I got the sense she was having some fun with the lesbian couple's bourgeois ways and New Age-y talk: "I know I haven't been my highest self." "We wonder if he's the type of person who's going to help you grow."

And early on, it sure seems as if Nic is being set up to be the fall guy. Her brittle uptightness and the way she benevolently dominates Jules is meant to be off-putting for the audience. When she goes to Defcon 2 over Paul giving Joni a ride on his motorcycle -- with a helmet, slowly -- it sets off a full-blown conflict about not letting her girl become her own woman.

But through careful observation, and a crisis that threatens to drive the family apart, the film helps us realize that Paul, while undeniably charismatic with his twinkly pirate smile, isn't ready for the responsibility of a family suddenly foisted upon him.

Paul thinks he is; he's so skilled at being a charmer, he even fools himself.

Nic has it nailed when she dubs Paul an interloper: He's somebody who merely visits in people's lives -- including his own.

Bening and Moore are their usual selves, giving performances with presence and dimension. We don't for a second question the idea that they're longtime companions and lovers, people who have built a life together and are shaken by the cracks revealed in the foundation.

"The Kids Are All Right" starts out being a movie about the kids, and slowly pans over so the relationship of their parents becomes the main focus. It's a finely-drawn, rich examination of love and disaffection, and how they can exist side-by-side.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: "Salt"

"Salt" could've been like a hundred other super-spy movies, except for three things: Angelina Jolie, Phillip Noyce and Kurt Wimmer.

You may have already heard that this thriller originally was supposed to be about a male character, until someone had the idea to cast Jolie in the lead. As an American CIA agent suspected of being a turncoat for the Russians, Jolie exploits the duality of her star persona -- fringe rebel/U.N. goodwill ambassador, man-stealing harpy/loving mother.

Like the shifting tabloid portrayal of Jolie, we never quite know exactly who Evelyn Salt is, but we find ourselves identifying with her and instinctually cheering her on as she wades through elite security forces like a hot knife through butter.

Lacking clear loyalties, her sheer dangerousness becomes her identity.

There's a great scene early on where Salt, on the lam from her American colleagues, quickly changes her appearance. She pulls out a false dental front, removes colored contacts, and dyes her flowing blonde locks obsidian. Then we realize she's not putting on a disguise, but removing one.

Director Noyce is an old hand at cloak-and-dagger material ("Patriot Games," "The Quiet American") and again shows a confident expertise at keeping the audience misdirected. He keeps the plot moving at breakneck speed, and then slows up just enough to reveal that everything you've seen may not be what it seems.

One day a crusty old Russian agent (Daniel Olbrychski) wanders into Rink Petroleum, a front for the CIA, and announces that during the Cold War days, hundreds of children were raised to be deep-cover moles spread throughout the corridors of power in the West.

On a fateful Day X, the best of those double agents will assassinate the Russian president, setting off a nuclear confrontation between the former enemies, now wary allies.

That agent's name: Evelyn Salt.

Salt's longtime partner, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), doesn't believe this wild story and wants to give her a chance to defend herself. But Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the counter-terrorism boss, is a by-the-book man and demands Salt be put in lockdown. While the spooks are distracted by other events, Salt makes good on her escape, demonstrating incredible daring and ingenuity in the process.

At this point, Wimmer's original screenplay -- yes, they really do still exist -- becomes one big game of chase-chase. Except we never know if Salt is running away from the American authorities or toward some other, possibly nefarious goal.

Wimmer plays with the audience's expectations cunningly. We keep hoping Salt will reveal herself as a white knight caught in very bad circumstances. And then she does a really bad thing from which there would appear to be no going back.

As soon as you think you've got the convoluted knot of intrigue puzzled out, another sharp turn sends you deeper into the labyrinth.

Jolie is a convincing action star as she punches, kicks, shoots and otherwise dispatches her entirely male adversaries. In this age of hyper-quick editing of disembodied appendages impersonating hand-to-hand combat, Noyce proves a delightful throwback in actually depicting who did what. It grounds the action in reality, which gives it an authenticity MTV editing never will.

Clever, fast-paced and filled with neck-wrenching twists, "Salt" adds plenty of spice to a tired spy genre.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky"

"Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" is the second recent film about the life of the fashion icon. It and "Coco Before Chanel" actually debuted in France around the same time last year, but this movie is just now coming to American shores.

Strange how people like Coco and Truman Capote are ignored for decades, and suddenly filmmakers are fighting over themselves to do a film biography.

I will say I much preferred Anna Mouglalis' Coco Chanel to Audrey Tautou's. With her brazen stare and low rumble of a voice, her Coco effortlessly brushes aside society's conventions, whether it has to do with the clothes women wear or the independence she savors.

She's the sort of woman who can say to her lover, Igor Stravinsky: "You think a man is worth two women? I'm as powerful as you are, Igor ... and more successful."

It's debatable whether Chanel and the great Russian composer actually had an affair, but it's the sort of legend that is more salient than the truth. Chris Greenhalgh wrote the screenplay based on his fictional novel.

The story opens, briefly, in 1913 Paris for the debut of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." The audience was so torn by his cutting-edge use of rhythm and dissonance that it literally started a riot. Stravinsky and Chanel share but a glance.

Cut to 1920, and much has changed. Chanel is now a famous fashion designer, and her affair with Arthur "Boy" Chapel has ended with his tragic death. Stravinsky is virtually penniless, cramming his wife and large family into a hotel room.

Seemingly on a whim, Chanel invites the composer and his brood to stay with her in her luxurious villa outside Paris. Proud but destitute, he accepts.

I loved the scene where the Stravinskys are given a tour of their new home, which is decorated fashionably but monochromatically. "You don't like color, Mademoiselle Chanel?" asks Katarina, Igor's wife. "As long as it's black," she dryly responds.

Stravinsky is played by Dutch actor Mads Mikkelsen, probably best known to American audiences as the bleeding-eye villain in "Casino Royale." His performance is much more internal than Mouglalis'; we sense that the affair never would have started without Chanel making the first move. His devotion to his wife and family is genuine, but he can't escape her gravitational pull.

Mikkelsen's command of several languages in the film seemed genuine to me, and I consider it a compliment when I say that his mien is authentically Russian.

It's quite a thing to carry on an affair with the woman of the house while your wife and kids are sometimes literally in the next room, and director Jan Kounen clearly but subtly demonstrates the rotting effect it has on familial relations. The children play and pout like regular youngsters, but their eyes see the dying of the grace between their parents.

Yelena Morozova plays the wan Katarina, in a beautiful performance of sadness and dread. She's smart enough to recognize and even appreciate the bold way Chanel has ordered her life in defiance of patriarchal constraints, but herself is trapped in a prison of her own making. Katarina loves Stravinsky the artist, possibly even more than the man, and her greatest fear is not that she will lose her husband but that the affair will corrupt his musical gift.

"She collects people," she tells Igor, pleadingly but accurately.

"Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" never quite convinces us of any deep soulful connection between the two -- it's more a lust story than a love story. But it's an absorbing tale of the intersecting orbits of two 20th century giants who each changed the world in different ways.

Even if it isn't true, we'd like to think it could be.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Video review: "The Runaways"

There's a great scene in "The Runaways" that captures the essence of the 1970s girl rock band, and the movie about them.

Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and the rest of the recently assembled group are practicing inside a rundown trailer on a steamy California afternoon. Their eccentric producer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), thinks their performance isn't edgy enough. So he hires a bunch of local boys to pelt them with dog poo and garbage as they play.

Needless to say, the teen girls are soon pretty P.O.'d, and it shows in the anger they put into the music.

The Runaways were not a band of young women who came together to sing about rebellion, but a group assembled by a cynical, brilliant hitmaker who thought jailbait rockers could be the next big thing.

Briefly, they were.

The film, based on a memoir by lead singer Currie, focuses on her character and Jett almost to the exclusion of the other band members. The most compelling thing about it is the transformation of Currie from 15-year-old wallflower into a snarling sex siren of the stage.

Inevitably, the band becomes a sensation, starts doing progressively harder drugs, begins fighting among themselves, and we can practically start the countdown until their breakup.

There isn't a lot of soul here, but writer/director Floria Sigismondi keeps things moving along at an upbeat tempo, and the energy of old songs like "Cherry Bomb" still boasts plenty of spark.

Despite a boatload of clichés, "The Runaways" rocks on.

The Blu-ray and DVD versions come with identical extras, highlighted by a feature-length commentary by Joan Jett (who executive produced the film), Stewart and Fanning.
I haven't yet heard it -- the studio couldn't ship a review copy in time -- but just the concept of matching up the rock legend with the actress playing her sounds amazing. Too bad they couldn't recruit Currie, too.

There are also featurettes about the making of the movie and the history of the band.

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

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Sugarland Express" (1974)

In 1974 Steven Spielberg was a nobody and Goldie Hawn was a bonafide star stuck in a rut of ditzy blonde roles. They tag-teamed to launch the career of arguably the most successful -- depending on how you want to define it -- director over the last 40 years.

Coppola had a heyday that few will ever match, and Scorsese has made a handful of films that will stand the test of time as cinematic watersheds. But nobody in the modern era has been as prolific and as consistently good as Spielberg.

I cannot name a single Spielberg picture I do not like. Even stuff that many people disparage, like "Hook" and "1941," I can find something to like about them enough to recommend. At his worst -- say, "The Terminal" -- he's left me merely indifferent. My favorite, incidentally, is the one most people have never heard of: 1987's "Empire of the Sun."

With "The Sugarland Express," I can now say I've seen all 24 of his feature film directorial efforts (not including movie sequences, TV shows, etc.). His first effort at the age of 28, one year before "Jaws" would change the map of Hollywood forever, is a sweet cross-country caper with a tragic undertow.

It's not terribly original -- "Bonnie and Clyde," "Badlands" and "The Getaway" are indelibly marked in its DNA -- but shows an already dazzling young filmmaker honing his skills and vision. Spielberg came up with the story, based on a real-life event in 1969, along with screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins.

Hawn plays Lou Jean Poplin, a 25-year-old who busts her husband out of jail so they can go rescue their baby boy, who's been handed off to foster care. As they drive around creation in a Texas Highway Patrol car, with the patrolman held hostage, they become instant folks heroes for breaking the law to keep their family together.

A few caveats, though. Lou Jean lost custody of their boy because was in jail herself on petty larceny counts. And hubby Clovis (William Atherton, forever "dickless" from "Ghostbusters") is actually held in a Pre-Release Center -- in other words, he's been selected for parole and is in a barely incarcerated state before getting out in four months.

But Lou Jean insists that Clovis bust out right now, even though there's no reason to believe the baby is going anywhere soon. She wears some of Clovis' clothes on top of her own, they switch out in the men's restroom, and they walk right out the gate. The guards aren't lax -- it's just that breaking out of pre-release is like throwing a race right before you cross the finish line.

They catch a ride with some old folks, who drive so slow on the highway they're pulled over by Patrolman Maxwell Slide, an eager young officer. After a chase and crash, Lou Jean lifts Slide's gun while he's carrying her out of the wrecked car, and soon the long chase is on.

Slide is played by Michael Sacks, who had a short but busy acting career in film and television. Two years earlier, he starred as Billy Pilgrim in "Slaughterhouse-Five," and he was also in "The Amityville Horror" and "Hanover Street" with Harrison Ford, but by 1984 he was out of showbiz. He runs an online bond trading company now.

Slide is a quasi-willing victim, not making much of an attempt to wrest the single pistol and shotgun (both his) away from Clovis and Lou Jean, who are less than vigilant in keeping the cop covered. When the bandits become famous, drawing television crews and other media coverage, Slide gawks joyously at his picture in the newspaper, and even passes out kisses through the car window as they travel through a town of adoring fans.

The dynamic between Lou Jean and Clovis is interesting, and not entirely healthy. It's pretty clear that Clovis, while canny, is nowhere near his wife's match when it comes to getting what she wants. Lou Jean pushes Clovis' every button to get him to escape from prison, hold a gun on Slide, and pretty much every other nefarious activity. Of course, the police view him as the instigator and give deference to Lou Jean when it comes time to get rough.

In real life, Lou Jean -- all the characters' names were changed for the film -- served only five months in jail after they were captured, and eventually got her baby back through due process with the authorities. Clovis, if he really was her happy dupe, paid for it with his life.

The other main character is Captain Harlin Tanner, played by the great Ben Johnson. After a career of playing sidekicks and villainous cowpokes, Johnson won an Oscar for 1971's "The Last Picture Show" and suddenly found himself getting meatier roles. He plays Tanner as a tough old veteran who cherishes his role as a law enforcement officer, but also values human life and is reluctant to trade it away without exhausting every option.

At a time in history when the general public was tiring of youthful rebellion and ready for the cops to crack some skulls, Tanner is something of a gentle relic -- or a groundbreaking pioneer, depending on how you look at it.

"I've spent 18 years on the force without having to take a human life, and I'd just as soon keep it that way," he says.

Tanner calls in a pair of Texas Ranger snipers to take out the culprits, but calls them off when they tell him they only have 90 percent chance of success without hitting his officer. "Those are good numbers," his right-hand man insists, but Tanner is willing to gamble that he can talk Clovis down via the CB radio.

In one memorable bit, Tanner calls in a port-a-john to be brought into an empty field so Lou Jean can tend to her business. Of course, he plants an officer inside in an attempt to put an end to things. Clovis figures it out and puts an end to the attempted capture without violence, but doesn't bear any grudge against Tanner for trying.

It's telling that Tanner and Clovis reach a sort of understanding where the hunter and hunted respect each other's role while erecting certain lines of decency neither will cross.

Spielberg strikes a tone of fun-and-games, with clear portents indicating things will end badly. He plays with the audience's expectations -- at one point Clovis, who had been riding in the passenger seat, takes the wheel and wears Slide's hat and sunglasses. As they draw closer to the trapped house filled with marksmen, we expect the gunmen will shoot the patrolman by mistake. But no -- the sunglasses and hat disappear, taken by some roadside fans as souvenirs, and the tension eases.

John Williams provided the mournful score, as he has for all 24 Spielberg features -- an unprecedented collaboration between composer and director.

"The Sugarland Express" is a derivative film, but still an enjoyable one. Goldie Hawn proved she could handle grittier roles, and the movie was successful enough for Spielberg to get a greenlight for "Jaws." That was a disastrous shoot, but as is usually the case for the gifted filmmaker, he turned chum into screen gold.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review: "Inception"

Here's why I think "Inception" is going to make a boatload of money, beyond the fact that it's one of the most original screen visions we've had this year: Most people who buy tickets will want to watch it again to see if they can figure the thing out.

Mind-blowing, sometimes bewildering, always engrossing, breathtakingly ambitious -- the new reality-bending mystery/thriller from writer/director Christopher Nolan is like a multi-faceted Chinese finger trap. As soon as you think you've got the puzzle worked out, it reveals another layer of complexity to baffle and astound you.

The level of intricacy in Nolan's storytelling is so dense, it makes the alternate-reality world of "The Matrix" -- or even the fevered amnesiac's dream of Nolan's own "Memento" -- seem like a child's toy.

All I know is I was completely caught up in the film for every moment of its 2½ hours.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads an elite team of "extractors" who can enter another person's mind while they dream, with the help of a special device housed in a steel briefcase. He's essentially a mind thief, stealing into the darker recesses of consciousness to pilfer corporate secrets for their rivals.

As the story opens, Cobb and his crew are trying to tap the mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe), head of a multinational corporation. The virtual heist fails, but leads to a much bigger job: Inception.

Inception is different from extraction in that you're not stealing information, but implanting it. The target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), son of an ultra-powerful businessman, who is on his deathbed and about to pass on the mantle. They want to implant an idea in the son's dream that will clear the way for the competition, while making him think it was his own.

As you might guess, inception is dangerous; in fact, as far as most people in the know are concerned, it's merely theoretical. But Cobb, who's been down in the limbo of "dreamspace" deeper and longer than anyone, has some tricks up his sleeve.

He sets about recruiting a dream team of dream-tappers. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is his right-hand man and enforcer. Yusuf (Dileep Rao) keeps the dreamers safely sedated. Eames (Tom Hardy) is the forger who impersonates others in the dreamscape.
The newest addition is Ariadne (Ellen Page), an "architect" -- she's the one who constructs the fake worlds where the dreamers interact.

Ariadne's a newbie, but she soon figures out that Cobb has personal issues that will imperil their mission. His wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) keeps appearing in his dreams as a projection of his subconscious -- as are all the other people populating these imaginary worlds. For reasons I can't share without spoiling, Mal, or at least Cobb's vision of her, keeps sabotaging his missions.

The film is filled with astonishing scenes of CG-assisted hallucinations. In Ariadne's training session, Cobb shows her how to rearrange entire city blocks at will, flipping them like Lego pieces. But there are rules to be followed, tricks that must not be attempted, lest the dreamer fall into a well of chaos from which they may never emerge.

In another memorable sequence, Gordon-Levitt has a series of fights where the laws of gravity are constantly in flux, so the ceiling becomes the floor which becomes the wall, and so forth.

Sound freaky? Well, I haven't even told you about the fact that the best extractors can put themselves to sleep inside the dream, creating whole new levels of constructed reality.

Though "Inception" may not add up to anything beyond a ripping yarn that will keep people talking and arguing, this audacious blend of science fiction and jaunt through the layers of consciousness certainly never fails to grip the audience.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

I know what you're thinking: A live-action feature film version of a sequence from a 70-year-old cartoon starring Mickey Mouse and a bunch of ensorcelled brooms?

With Nic Cage in glib blockbuster mode? Reteamed with "National Treasure" director Jon Turteltaub? And Jerry "boom baby" Bruckheimer producing?

It almost sounds like a practical joke. But don't forget Disney previously leveraged a kitschy theme park ride with cheesy animatronic pirates into a multi-billion-dollar franchise.

The good news is the resulting movie is anything but cynical. It's a goofy, silly thrill ride without a thought in its pretty little head.

The fun parts of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" are really, really enjoyable. The parts that aren't fun really make you wish they would get back to the good stuff. The ratio of fun to not-so-fun isn't quite high enough for me to recommend the movie, but it's a lot better than first impressions might suggest.

Cage plays Balthazar Blake, an ancient sorcerer and one of three apprentices to the great Merlin, who was undone by his arch enemy Morgana (Alice Krige) with the help of Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), another of Merlin's pupils. Horvath went turncoat when his affections for the third apprentice, Veronica (Monica Bellucci), were rebuffed in favor of Balthazar.

In 740 A.D., Veronica trapped her soul along with Morgana's in the Grimhold, a prison inside a magic nesting doll. Over the years, Balthazar has imprisoned many of the evil Morganian magicians inside successive layers of the doll. He's spent the last millennium searching for the Prime Merlinian, the greatest sorcerer in history who will take up Merlin's dragon ring and put an end to Morgana forever.

Balthazar thinks he's found his candidate in Dave Stutler, a physics student with a severe confidence problem. Played by Jay Baruchel, Dave is a collection of tics and shrugs who can't even summon the courage to ask out his dream girl Becky (Teresa Palmer), let alone wield powerful magic in battle against evildoers.

Dave becomes a student to Balthazar, who teaches that science and magic are essentially the same thing, just focused by a sorcerer wearing a special ring. Dave's a screw-up at first, his spells fizzling or bouncing off the walls.

Turteltaub and his trio of screenwriters do include an homage to the animated sequence from "Fantasia," in which Dave zaps a bunch of mops into cleaning up his dank underground laboratory, with predictable results. You know it's coming, but I'm still glad the filmmakers included it.

Cage and Baruchel have a nice chemistry together, with Dave subtly mocking Balthazar's taste for long leather coats and pointy "old man" shoes. Dave's been told he's a loser his whole life, so when this strange guy pops out of nowhere and starts talking about him being mankind's savior, he can't quite swallow it.

Despite only a few days (apparently) of training, Dave soon turns into a half-decent sorcerer, and even gets Becky to notice him. Meanwhile, Horvath recruits his own sidekick, a Chris Angel-type magician/metrosexual who traded his meager sorcery skills for fame and fortune.

Everything builds toward a showdown with Horvath and the resurrected Morgana, who plan to raise an army of the undead, blanketing the land with evil, yada yada.

Was "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" necessary? No. The spell it casts over the audience is a silly one, but it doesn't totally fizzle.

2.5 stars out of four

Review: "The Girl Who Played with Fire"

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was a vibrant, mesmerizing Swedish thriller about a brilliant and damaged woman who hit back at the men who had tormented her. The sequel is gawky and forced, a rambling narrative that is more interested in perpetuating the tale of Lisbeth Salander for its own sake rather than because it has a compelling story to tell.

"The Girl Who Played with Fire" -- the second in a cinematic trilogy based on the late Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" novels -- does gather itself together for a smashing finale that, if predictable, still packs plenty of visceral punch.

Director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg take over from, respectively, Niels Arden Oplev and the team of Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. Why the filmmaker switcheroo I cannot guess -- only observe that the change was not for the better.

"Fire" picks up one year after the events of "Dragon." Having assisted investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist in uncovering a morass of secrets belonging to a rich family, Lisbeth has absconded with an embezzled fortune to find some measure of peace on a sunny beach.

With a long criminal history and incarceration in a mental institution, she eschews emotional relationships, but left a chink in her armor big enough for Mikael to slip through.

Lisbeth returns to Stockholm when she hacks the computer of her probation officer, Bjurman (Peter Andersson), to see what he's up to. After being violently raped by Bjurman in the last film, Lisbeth exacted a horrifying revenge that included his coerced agreement to falsify glowing monthly reports about her.

(Why she needs this, when she's successfully disappeared off the grid with her millions, is never made clear.)

Meanwhile, Mikael and his magazine staff are preparing an explosive expose about men in positions of power trafficking in sex slaves. Soon, the young journalist writing the piece and his girlfriend are shot execution-style. When Bjurman also turns up dead, Lisbeth becomes the prime suspect.

The trail leads to a mysterious figure known only as Zala, who somehow is tied in with Lisbeth's childhood troubles.

A handful of new characters turn up. There's Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), an old friend/lover of Lisbeth's who watches over her old apartment. The two share a roll on the hardwood floor that's very steamy, but which also has an obligatory feel to it, as if the filmmakers felt the movie needed to have a sex scene, and figured making it a lesbian one would amp up the heat.

(Hollywood is frantically working on a much-anticipated -- and totally unnecessary -- American remake of "Dragon Tattoo," which I'm sure will dramatically tone down the frank European approach to nudity.)

There's also a famous professional boxer who somehow gets entangled in the web, then disappears as quickly as he popped up.

The most forbidding figure is a blond giant (Micke Spreitz) who seems impervious to pain, and badly wants Lisbeth in his fearsome clutches.

The story arc wobbles all over the place. As in the last movie, Mikael and Lisbeth spend most of the film apart, pursuing the mystery from different angles.

At some point the investigation into the sex scandal fades from attention, and the inquiry turns to Lisbeth's dark past. It's a strange shift, especially since people have died to bring this story to light, and yet we never even know if it was published.

Noomi Rapace still has a hefty, steely presence as Lisbeth, though she seems strangely unfocused. It's as if Lisbeth is continuing to burrow into computer networks and turn up secrets because that's all she knows how to do, not out of any burning need for vengeance.

As far as I can tell, the entire plot machinery of murders, investigations, etc. is set off only when Lisbeth leaves her Caribbean hideaway to return to Sweden for reasons that remain murky at best. For a girl who plays with fire, this disappointing sequel doesn't generate any.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Video review: "Greenberg"

"Greenberg" wants desperately to be a 1970s Robert Altman film, but it fails. Altman, for all his stylistic flourishes with naturalistic, overlapping dialogue and ensemble casts, always relied on a narrative through line to bind things together. He didn't just like to observe characters for their own sake; he wanted them to do things.

Roger Greenberg, the protagonist of this black comedy/drama from writer/director Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), doesn't do much of anything. After being released from a mental hospital and moving to Los Angeles to stay at his brother's home while they're away, he hooks up with an old girlfriend.

"Right now I'm trying to do nothing for awhile," he says.

"That's brave at our age," says the ex, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who also co-wrote the story).

Roger is self-hating and occasionally abusive to those around him, like his brother's assistant Florence (a vibrant Greta Gerwig) and his old pal Ivan (Rhys Ifans). Roger was in a band with Ivan 15 years earlier, but walked away from a record contract. He didn't want to compromise his integrity, but didn't grasp it would end the dream for all of them.

Roger hangs around the house, drinks a lot, looks after the family dog when it takes sick (though clearly annoyed at having to do so) and begins a fumbling, hot-and-cold romance with Florence.
He's an unlikable guy, but Ben Stiller plays him with an emotional center that carries us through the film's meandering course.

Video extras are, in a word, pathetic.

I was excited at first to see three featurettes included (extras are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray versions). There's a making-of featurette, another about the role of Los Angeles in the film, and a third about Baumbach's literary influences.

Then I actually popped them in, and found they total less than six minutes of combined running time.

They're essentially extended trailers, with short snippets of the stars and filmmakers thrown in for hype.

It's quite disappointing. It reminded me of a moment in the film when Greenberg learns that his friends think he doesn't make much of an effort at anything. We can certainly say that about Baumbach's approach to video releases.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Men of the Iron Lady"

As I've been investigating Golden Age war movies, I'm repeatedly struck by how anti-war -- or at least anti-propaganda -- some films of the 1940s and '50s could be.

"Men of the Fighting Lady" has the look and feel of a pro-war picture, but the soldiers seem awfully glum about it.

The two major opposing viewpoints are espoused by Paul Grayson (Frank Lovejoy), the commander of the flight unit, and Ted Dodson (Keenan Wynn), one of the most veteran pilots. Grayson is a hot-dogger who believes in taking his planes in as low as possible to inflict maximum damage on the enemy. As he puts it, "I like dirt on my windshield." Unfortunately, this also means they take more casualties.

Dodson has an equally heroic record from World War II, but doesn't see the sense in their endless missions to bomb the same North Korean railway station day after day. As one observer surmises, the bombs themselves cost more to manufacture than the railway cars they're blowing up.

"There are no heroes this time, and no Ernie Pyles to write about 'em," Dodson says of the conflict in Korea. "This isn't a war, haven't you heard? It's a police action. And nobody back home wants to read about it."

Pretty cynical stuff for 1954, when the action in Korea had just wound down.

Caught in the middle are the rest of the pilots. Young Kenny Schechter (Dewey Martin) takes Dodson's advice to "look out for No. 1" and not do anything above the call of duty. Howie Thayer (Van Johnson), though, understands that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and even those who profess to have no patriotism or bravery change their tune when one of their buddies is down on his luck.

Dodson himself proves this theory true when he turns his plane around to help another pilot who has become lost, and ends up dying in a fiery wreck aboard the aircraft carrier when he tries to land his damaged plane.

Not even 80 minutes long, "Men of the Fighting Lady" is filled with stock footage provided by the U.S. military, and yet it's woven fairly well into the scenes filmed for the movie. Some of the canned stuff was even in black and white, and they hand-painted it frame by frame to match the vivid colors of the film.

The tone in many ways reminded me of "Top Gun," which would come out three decades later: Callow young pilots learn to rely on their fellow fighter jocks and act as a team. Although here the commander is the hot dog and his subordinates are the ones who worry he's too in love with combat.

The film is based on James Michener's article, "The Forgotten Heroes of Korea," in which he interviewed soldiers on the front lines, and another piece by Harry A. Burns called "The Case of the Blind Pilot." The last 20 minutes or so are taken up by the latter story, in which Howie Thayer talks Schechter back to the aircraft after the latter is blinded by some flak that penetrated his cockpit. It's thrilling stuff.

Van Johnson's been featured in this space before, and a couple of other Reeling Backward favorites return. Louis Calhern plays Michener in the framing story, and Walter Pidgeon plays the ship's doctor, who acts as Greek chorus and father figure to the men.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review: "Despicable Me"

I like the idea of "Despicable Me" -- an animated world in which there are super-villains but no heroes -- more than the final product. It's cute, and the under-10 crowd will doubtlessly find it a delight, what with the generous helping of adorable critters and gastrointestinal sounds.

I just wish the filmmakers could've found some less obvious territory to troll. Gru (voice by Steve Carell, doing a Slavic accent), the bald and pointy-nosed un-hero, learns there's more to life than villainy when he adopts a trio of little girls as part of his mad scheme to steal the moon.

Cue a bunch of scenes of Gru's eyes misting over as his Grinch-like heart grows three sizes while reading the tots a bedtime story, or rearranging his dastardly deeds to make their ballet recital.

I much preferred the stuff about the competitiveness between super-villains -- for instance, Gru's envy spikes when someone steals one of the Great Pyramids, when all he can boast is burgling the JumboTron from Times Square.

Or the Bank of Evil, which appropriately resides in a dark cavernous pit underneath the regular bank, and solely funds criminal enterprises. ("Formerly Lehman Brothers," a sign reads, in a zippy throwaway joke.)

I confess that when summer began and I was surveying the season's offerings, I lighted upon "Despicable Me" as one of the most promising, and now I'm disappointed with it. It's like waiting months for that special toy you wanted so badly, and then you open it up Christmas Day and it's not nearly as much fun as you thought it'd be.

It's not a bad toy, but maybe some other kid would enjoy it more.

But the first rule of film criticism is that we shouldn't criticize a movie for what it is not, but what it is. So if I throw my expectations for something snarkier out the window, I deem "Despicable Me" a moderately entertaining tumble.

Personally, I'd rather take in "Toy Story 3" in for a third time than this one once, but that's me.

The story opens with the prospect of Gru being put out to pasture for a younger generation of villains. The Bank is hesitant to front the money for his moon-stealing caper because an upstart has stolen the shrink ray that Gru himself had just lifted, with which he intended to downscale the lunar body.

What profit or purpose there is in a basketball-sized moon I don't know, though I admit I enjoyed the gag where a werewolf turns back into a human when it gets shrunk.

Gru's nemesis is Vector (Jason Segal), who resembles a young Bill Gates but whose fortress and other hardware all have an antiseptic Apple look to them. (iLair?)

Vector nabs the shrink ray, and soon after places a large cookie order from a trio of cute orphans: Margo, Agnes and Edith (Miranda Cosgrove, Elsie Fisher and Dana Gaier, respectively). Gru plots to adopt the girls and replace their Coconutties with cookie-shaped robots when they make delivery.

The girls don't really have distinctive personalities beyond yearning to be wanted, though Edith, the youngest, has a passion for unicorns that borders on psychoses. ("He's so fluffy I'm gonna die!!")

The CG animation is sleek, but the 3-D is take it or leave it. Directors Pierre Coffin -- which is a great name for a super-villain, by the way -- and Chris Renaud are both new to feature films, and seem to have more flair for the action sequences than the mushy stuff: Gru's complicated relationship with his emotionally absent mother (Julie Andrews) is under-explored territory.

Oh, and Gru has a grumpy old assistant (Russell Brand) and an army of little yellow minions who bear more than a passing resemblance to the aliens from the "Toy Story" movies ... hey, did I mention that "Toy Story 3" is probably playing in the very next cinema?

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: "I Am Love"

Tilda Swinton is marvelous in "I Am Love," playing a woman married into a wealthy Italian family who is desperate for meaningful affection. The film itself, though, is a lavishly-decorated soap opera masquerading as a deeply-felt human drama.

Emma is a Russian who married Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono), scion of a dynasty of textile manufacturers from Milan. Though an accepted part of the family, she consciously distances herself subtly from the Recchis -- even from her three adult children.

She is a woman playing the part of gracious hostess without ever having really joined the party. And the Recchis love to throw parties: As the story opens, they are celebrating the birthday of the family patriarch. Emma oversees the extensive preparations, but retires to her bedroom just as the festivities are kicking into high gear.

Director Luca Guadagnino, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has a distinctive oblique way of shooting his subjects. We're continually seeing them from odd angles, extreme close-ups, or long shots where they meld into the Italian environs.

Technically it's brilliant, but I admit my Americanized brain found his style overly ornamented for its own sake. The languid pace as Guadagnino's camera obsesses over mundane details of food preparation and expensive clothing will thrill European cinephiles, but the words that repeatedly came to my mind were "quit dawdling."

This film seems less directed than designed.

Swinton speaks both Russian and Russian-flavored Italian in this movie, and it sounded flawless to my ear.

She plays Emma as a woman who's been hiding herself for the last 20-odd years, and it's only a matter of time before her buried passions burn through her careful facade and find a way out.

Opportunity presents itself when her son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) introduces her to his new friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellini), a quiet, intense chef. Emma arranges to bump into him in a remote town, and their sun-dappled coupling is depicted with intoxicating sensuality.

Other members of the Recchi family float around in the background, occasionally coming to the fore. Emma's daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) cuts her hair short and confides her new love affair to her mother, which only seems to encourage Emma's own yearnings. Edoardo's girlfriend (Diane Fleri) hesitates as the Recchis slyly judge her as a potential mate; her experiences likely mirror those Emma had a generation ago, but Guadagnino strangely never acknowledges this obvious connection.

In a film that centers on an extramarital affair, not depicting the rift lines in the marriage cheats the audience. Tancredi, though, remains a bit player in this melodrama. Guadagnino tacks on a nasty, indignant moment near the end to make the husband seem like the bad guy, but the truth is he's the wronged party in this equation.

"I Am Love" is exactly the sort of film that critics tend to adore and audiences tend to ignore. In this case, I throw my lot in with the masses.

2 stars out of four

Review: "Micmacs"

"Micmacs" is French for "shenanigans," and there certainly are plenty of them in this farce about a troupe of riffraff giving the middle finger to evil corporations.

It's a sweet and funny confection, with some biting satire swirled into the batter.

Dany Boon plays Bazil, who lost his father to a mine in Afghanistan in 1979. Thirty years later, he's working at a cruddy video store when a bullet from a random drive-by shooting lodges in his skull. Doctors couldn't pull it out safely, so now "any minute my brain could pop," he confides.

Bazil's not exactly the confrontational type -- he's more like a street mime perpetually out of costume, sometimes punctuating his words with intricate little hand claps and snaps, or speaking in excited gibberish. But it seems to him that the two arms manufacturers who caused (in his mind) the twin tragedies of his life ought to pay for their crimes.

Penniless and jobless after his long recuperation, Bazil is "adopted" by a group of junk collectors who live inside a fortress of scrap metal. They collect salvage and fix it up, or turn it into bits of mechanical art. This motley crew launches a series of carefully orchestrated practical jokes designed to pit the two companies' arrogant CEOs at each other's throat.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie"), who also co-wrote the script with Guillaume Laurant, infuses the action with a puckish humor and a generous helping of slapstick. There's an almost silent-movie quality to the high jinks, and Boon has a little bit of Buster Keaton in his mopey expression and passive-aggressive stubbornness.

Imagine a heist movie directed by Terry Gilliam in French, and you've got a good idea of the vibe of "Micmacs."

(Incidentally, the entire original title is "Micmacs à Tire-Larigot," which means "non-stop shenanigans." I guess they had to stop for the English version.)

Bazil's chief co-conspirator is La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist who develops a crush on him -- I think I felt my back crack watching her unbelievable bending and twisting.

There's also Placard (Jean-Pierre Marielle), an elderly con man; Fracasse (Dominique Pynon), a stuntman who celebrates his many injuries; Remington (Omar Sy), an African with strange speech patterns; a mousy little woman who can calculate the dimensions of anything she sees; and a mousy little man with the strength of an elephant.

The heavies are Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (André Dussollier), a politically-connected arms dealer whose hobby is collecting celebrity body parts -- nothing starts a party like offering to show Marilyn Monroe's molar -- and his younger upstart competitor, François Marconi (Nicolas Marié), whose voice reaches a screeching decibel when he's upset.

"Micmacs" isn't anything terribly original or clever, but it's a modestly enjoyable caper. Maybe with more heart than brains -- if I were Bazil, I'd be hassling the guy whose gun shot me, and not the company that made the bullet.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Video review: "A Single Man"

Great directors are made, not born. But every now and then someone takes up the chair late in life, and proves a natural.

Tom Ford is one of those.

Nearly 50, he is best known as a fashion designer, for Gucci and then his own line. Before he directed "A Single Man," Ford was probably best known for a photo shoot on the cover of "Vanity Fair" of a nude Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley. Rachel McAdams was supposed to complete a trio, but got cold feet at dropping trou, and Ford substituted himself (fully clothed) into the picture.

An affinity for design is rarely limited to a single discipline, as Ford shows. He proves an adept novice at filling the cinematic frame with lush details, and photographing stars Colin Firth and Julianne Moore with Golden Age Hollywood glamour -- not to mention eliciting some top-notch performances from his cast.

Firth deservingly earned an Oscar nomination for his riveting performance as George, a closeted English professor in early 1960s California. Shattered at the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, George has decided to commit suicide. The film follows him over the course of his last day, at the end of which he intends to blow his brains out.

Julianne Moore plays Charley, a fellow British expatriate and onetime lover, with whom George enjoys a sumptuous last meal. Charley offhandedly dismisses George's love for Jim as illegitimate, and we sense that the two old friends share affection but not understanding.

George is also tempted by recurring run-ins with a former student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who slyly attempts to seduce his teacher. The screenplay, by Ford and David Scearce, is based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, one of the first serious literary depictions of homosexuality.

"A Single Man" is a bitter, but delicious cinematic dish.

Extra features are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions, are modest in scope but hefty in substance.

Ford provides a feature-length commentary track, and there is also a making-of featurette that touches on various aspects of production.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, July 5, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Becket" (1964)

"Becket" is a terrific example of the historical play or novel turned into a cinematic drama crackling with whip-smart dialogue. I imagine actors must go mad with delight when they read a script that has page after page of dialogue this good. This sort of film was very popular mid-century, though it's fallen out of favor with studios and audiences over the last 40 years.

Peter O'Toole is King Henry II of England, and Richard Burton is Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. It's based on a French play by Jean Anouilh, adapted for the screen in an Oscar-winning screenplay by Edward Anhalt, and directed by Peter Glenville, who also helmed the original stage version.

Despite a nearly three-hour run time, the plot is extraordinarily straightforward and simple. Henry is the power-mad king who wants to subjugate the mighty Church of England to his will. His greatest ally in this is his friend Thomas Becket, whom he appoints Chancellor to enforce the king's will in wresting property taxes from the church.

When one of the bishops points out that this has never been done before, Henry bellows, "I've never been this poor before!!"

This exchange is typical of O'Toole's performance, whose Henry has a slithery charm that can suddenly erupt into volcanic expulsions of blind fury. Henry is a boor who loves drinking, hunting and wenching more than ruling. But he's smart enough to recognize that Becket is smarter than himself, and all of his enemies.

In one scene Henry muses that Becket, if he were on the side of his opponents, would be just as ruthless and efficient in his political maneuvering. Becket concedes the point, saying that he takes pride in performing his duties, whatever they may, to the best of his capabilities.

This proves Henry's undoing, when the Archbishop dies and he picks Becket to be his successor -- despite not even being an ordained priest. As soon as the miter is upon his head and the silver cross in his hand, Becket becomes a thorn in the king's side, opposing him on a point of principle that will lead to the verge of the entire country of England being excommunicated.

Henry loves Becket, as perhaps he adores no other human being in his life, and it hurts him to the core that Becket chooses honor over their friendship.

As played by Burton, Becket is a self-aware man who is cognizant of his own limitations. As a Saxon who serves and befriends a Norman monarch, he is man apart with no home of his own. Henry's barons dismiss him as a "Saxon dog," and a young Saxon monk tries to assassinate him for betraying his people.

He believes himself incapable of loving or being loved, which is why he throws himself with such zeal into whatever endeavors are placed before him. When Henry takes Becket's mistress, Gwendolen, as his sexual plaything, the rift between them takes root. She stabs herself through the heart rather than be separated from Becket.

Glenville directs with an ostentatious hand, and his scenes inside the grand churches and castles occasionally drag on as he lingers too much over processions in ornate costumes passing before stunning sets. But mostly he lets these two amazing actors have free rein, and the results are often glorious.

The only downside of watching "Becket" is realizing how impossible it would be to get such a movie made today.

As is often the case with historical fiction, much of the actual record is muddied or altered.

For example, the central conceit of the film -- that Becket was a Saxon who became the king's confidante -- is false. All historical evidence indicates he was a Norman. Playwright Jean Anouilh were supposedly told of his massive inaccuracy before the play opened, but essentially shrugged his shoulders and decided he liked the story the way it was.

Also, the movie portrays the previous Archbishop, Theobald, as being appalled at Becket's appointment as chancellor. In point of fact, he was Becket's mentor and the one who recommended him to the king.

Interestingly, the roles of Becket and Henry were originally played by Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn onstage. But when it came time for the film, the producers decided they were too old. The younger, more handsome pair of Burton and O'Toole were brought in to pretty things up. In actuality, Olivier and Quinn were much closer to the actual ages of the real men in question.

O'Toole would go on to play Henry II again in 1968's "The Lion in Winter," set years later in his life when the aging king is beset by his ambitious sons. (Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, then whippersnappers, portrayed Richard the Lionheart and King Philip, respectively.) O'Toole received Oscar nominations for both turns as Henry -- part of his pool of eight nods without ever winning (though he did receive an honorary statuette).

3.5 stars out of four