Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Video review: "The Lottery"

The issue of charter schools has moved back and forth from front to back burners on the crucible of modern American politics, and the new documentary "The Lottery" by 27-year-old director Madeleine Sackler is bound to crank the heat back up.

This decidedly opinionated but undeniably illuminating film looks at the case of the Harlem Success Academy, a series of schools that is succeeding in educating children in one of New York City's toughest neighborhoods. The title comes from the annual lottery held to determine which new students will be admitted. For 2009, there were 3,000 applicants for 475 slots.

Getting into the school or not can literally mean the difference between success or failure in a child's education, and Sackler puts a very human face on this dilemma by following four young applicants and their families in the months leading up to the lottery.

All their stories are wrenching, but particularly moving is the plight of Gregory Goodwire Jr., whose father is serving a life sentence in prison.

"The Lottery" also takes a broader look at the clash between charter school advocates and teachers unions -- in particular, an effort by the Academy to take over space from a public school that is being shuttered. Even though, as Harlem Success founder Eva Moskowitz notes, that PS194 had been designated a failing school since she was a child herself, nothing has changed.

As is often the case with political docs, "The Lottery" is ill-served by having fingers on the scale in its effort to present a balanced portrayal. Sackler's pro-charter leanings are made clear in the occasionally cartoonish way union backers are presented.

It would also have been helpful if some of the bucketful of frightening statistics thrown around -- such as 58 percent of New York's African-American fourth graders being functionally illiterate -- had been balanced with recent findings that charter schools on average perform no better than public ones.

Still, this documentary is a powerful look at the debate over how this nation educates its children.

I should note that Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for his documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," has his own film coming out on this same subject, "Waiting for Superman."

DVD extras are a bit skimpy. There's a Q&A with Sackler, Moskowitz and others from a film festival, and four "deleted scenes" that are actually more like teaser trailers. Plus, links to press coverage the film has received.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Aliens" (1986)

"Aliens" holds a special place in my heart. It was around its release in 1986 that my love of movies escalated from a childhood fascination into a lifelong passion. Not coincidentally, that was also the summer I got my first official job -- at a movie theater, not surprisingly.

This was in the day when popular movies would hang around in cinemas longer than two weekends, and I remember we were still selling plenty of tickets for "Aliens" in its six month. This also gave me an opportunity to watch the movie over and over again, and learn to anticipate the audience's reaction to the various frights and laughs (and yes, there are plenty of them).

Conservatively, I've seen the movie at least 100 times, but not for a few years. I decided to pop it into my player and see how it looked on my new LED TV.

The film holds up really well in terms of the characters, the suspense and the ultra-creepy alien creatures -- which are so black and spider-like, they seem less like organisms than null space brought to life.

I was surprised to realize that some of the special effects don't hold up as well -- in fact, some of the shots of the drop-ship approaching and leaving the infected planet of LV-426 look downright hokey. But don't forget, writer/director James Cameron was not yet the box office king he would become, and the studio saw fit to invest him with a budget of only $18.5 million. Even in today's dollars, that's less than $37 million -- peanuts by summer-movie standards.

It's interesting that the film, a sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 atmospheric horror-film-in-space, is generally regarded as an action movie. Go through it, and you'll realize the character and dialogue scenes far outweigh the kablooey stuff.

I made some notes while watching the film. The first 30 minutes is concerned with the rescue of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and setting up the outbreak on LV-426. The second 30 minutes is all about establishing what ultimate badasses the Colonial Marines are, and observing their infiltration into the wrecked colony.

It's almost all suspense-building, as Cameron expertly draws out the audience's mounting anxiety. Consider this: The first full-grown alien does not appear until after the one-hour mark.

A director's cut of "Aliens" is now widely available, and for the most part I think the additional scenes add richness to the film (while ratcheting up the ratio of dialogue-to-action even higher). With one exception: There's an early scene of the colony before the aliens infested them, and it's a total disaster for the movie-watching experience.

Here's why: It shows you the colony, the people, and the beginnings of the alien encounter. In other words, LV-426 becomes a known quantity. When the Marines arrive, you have a pretty good idea of what they're getting themselves into. The movie is so much more effective when the crew shows up, and we're completely bewildered about where they are and what happened.

Anyway, the actual first encounter with the aliens lasts about 15 minutes. Then there's another 30 minutes as the survivors figure out how they're going to get off the planet, and intrigue with the corporate toady, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), who wants to take the aliens back to Earth for military research. The last 45 minutes is the chase as Ripley's gang is picked off as they try to hot-foot it to the rescue ship, and her final showdown with the alien queen.

I still love the interaction between the marines, and how distinctive the characters are despite not a whole lot of individual screen time or dialogue. People most remember Bill Paxson as nervous-nelly Hudson, Michael Biehn as the butt-kicking Hicks, and Jenette Goldstein as the muscle-bound Vasquez. ("Have you ever been mistaken for a man?" Hudson teases her. "No ... have you?" she cracks back.)

I admit that the character of the android Bishop (Lance Henrikson) has receded in my mind's eye. I seem to remember him as being much more in the middle of things, but he spends most of the movie stuck in a lab or sent off on a mission to summon the other drop-ship. He only really has two substantive scenes: The knife trick with Hudson in the mess hall (still a hoot) and getting split in two by the alien queen in the final sequence.

Narratively, Bishop essentially acts as a red herring, making us think he'll wig out and start killing people like the android from the last movie.

Other than "Avatar," most of Cameron's films have featured female protagonists, and the feminist themes of "Aliens" are pretty plain to see. The childless Ripley gloms onto the colony orphan Newt (a terrific Carrie Henn, in her first and only film role) out of maternalistic instinct.

(In a bonus scene in the director's cut, we learn that Ripley did have a daughter, who died of old age while she spent decades wandering space in hyper-sleep.)

It's a more mature vision of the action hero, as a woman who fights for her (adopted) family rather than some testosterone-fueled need to assert dominance.

Ripley was hailed as cinema's first bona fide female action hero, and we can see her footprints in more recent films such as this summer's "Salt."

For my money, "Aliens" remains the perfect summer movie.

4 stars out of four

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Coming this week

Looks the only new movie I'll have a review of is "Wild Grass," a little art-house flick opening this week. Turns out "Going the Distance" actually got pushed back to this Friday, but since I already posted the review I don't have anything else for this week.

We're getting into the dark days of September, historically the slowest time of the year for film. The rest of the fall/winter season is looking really strong, though, so stay tuned.

The video review will be "The Lottery," a new documentary about a Harlem charter school. The classic film column is about "Aliens."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: "Going the Distance"

"Going the Distance" is this year's "(500) Days of Summer" -- something that superficially resembles a genre film, but is hipper, edgier and about 40 I.Q. points smarter than the average romantic comedy.

Justin Long and Drew Barrymore make for a terrific couple trying to keep a West Coast-East Coast romance alive. Long in particular has developed a really sharp sense of comic timing, and elevates the role just through his quizzical reactions and off-center line deliveries.

But I think it's the creative team that brings a vibe of freshness to a stultifyingly stale genre.

Geoff LaTulippe makes an audacious debut with his original screenplay, and documentarian Nanette Burstein -- she made the wonderful but little-seen "American Teen" a couple years ago -- directs her first narrative film.

The pair behave like a couple of eager kids who don't yet know the romcom rules they're not supposed to break, and deliver a better movie because they fail to acknowledge the boundaries of the familiar boy-meets-girl tale.

For instance, one of the telltale signs of the romantic comedy is the couple's inevitability. Some kind of challenge or set of obstacles is placed in their path, and the entire movie becomes a mechanism to delay that which the audience knows is bound to happen.

In "Going the Distance," we truly don't know if Erin (Barrymore) and Garrett (Long) will end up together. The barriers in their way are not simple hurdles that can be overcome by the telling of an uncomfortable truth, or some other quick fix. They're deep, life-changing conundrums about how much of your own life you're willing to give up in order to share it with someone else.

Burstein and LaTulippe use the form of the raunchy comedy as a prism through which to glimpse some heavy issues.

And there is plenty of raunch. On Garrett's end, he has a couple of excellent wingmen to lubricate the way with dirty jokes and inappropriate behavior. Dan (Charlie Day) is Garrett's roommate, who's not big on the whole person space thing, and cynical Box (Jason Sudeikis) works with Garrett at a New York record label.

Yeah, the music business ... is there any industry facing such a monumental paradigm shift and soul-crushing downturn? Oh wait, I know: Newspapers! Turns out that's Erin's gig. She's just finishing up a summer internship (at age 31) at the New York Sentinel, where she can barely get anything into print.

(Matt Servitto nails the harried, hectored nonchalance of her editor, having to put off eager beavers like Erin asking about permanent jobs when they're about to lay off a hundred veteran journalists.)

Erin and Garrett hook up for a quick six-week romance, after which she has to go back to San Francisco to wait tables while living with her sister and her family. But things go so well, they decide to give the long-distance relationship thing a try.

Their first, desperate coupling after months of separation happens on the sister's dining table. Christina Applegate is priceless in the role of the fussbudget sibling who scrubs the table all day, and probably would burn it if she could afford to.

The film drags a bit about two-thirds of the way through, but it's possibly unavoidable as Erin and Garrett transition from puppy love to the more troublesome, mature kind that requires sacrifice. They struggle and snipe, and the movie turns sadder but wiser.

There are so many dumb movies out there about falling in love. "Going the Distance" is one smart flick that's not afraid to ask what happens next.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: "Flipped"

"Flipped" layers on the nostalgia, with a dollop of ambition. The final soufflé falls flat, but I admired it for aiming higher than movies of this ilk usually do.

This heartwarming 1960s coming-of-age film from director Rob Reiner seems like a self-conscious sequel to "Stand by Me," about a foursome boys undertaking a quest to find a dead body. This time it's about a single boy, and with an even more daunting challenge: Girls.

More specifically, one very special girl.

Juli Baker is the quintessential girl next door: Smart, sweet and button-cute. As played by Madeline Carroll, she's got a lot of gumption and substance for a seventh-grader, and doesn't have much patience for the chatter of gossip or status-seeking. Juli is slightly socially outcast, but doesn't seem to mind, or even notice.

Across the street, Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) would seem to have everything going for him. Blond and good-looking, he's popular with the girls and liked by the other guys. His parents are affluent, at least compared to the Bakers, who rent their home and don't do much to improve its ramshackle appearance.

Bryce spends most of his young life disliking Juli, who glommed onto him when they were 7 years old, and continues to cause him much embarrassment with her constant mooning over him.

Over time, though, Bryce comes to see her true worth, not just as a potential romantic partner but as a person. Meanwhile, her opinion of him withers just as his ardor finally starts to bloom.

Narratively, "Flipped" is interesting because it's essentially a series of vignettes played out from each of their perspectives. First we see how things went down from Bryce's point of view, with him narrating the action, and then we rewind and see how the same scene looked from her end.

So, for example, her habit of climbing to the top of a huge sycamore tree to scout out the progress of the school bus looks like an exercise in weirdness to Bryce, but is a joyful daily release for Juli. When a work crew comes to cut down her beloved tree, she's as upset by Bryce's refusal to help her as the actual loss of her favorite perch.

Reiner wrote the script with Andrew Scheinman based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen. They tell their story simply, with little embellishment, or flair.

The adults in the kids' lives are allowed a little more complexity than usual. Juli's folks (Aidan Quinn and Penelope Ann Miller) fight over their lack of money and ostracism by the neighborhood, but love each other and their children fiercely.

Bryce's father (Anthony Edwards) is a judgmental boor, though his mother (Rebecca De Mornay) has a sweet streak beneath her brittle housewife demeanor. His grandfather Chet (John Mahoney) clearly thinks Bryce should give Juli more of a chance, and manipulates events to make it happen.

"A girl like that doesn't live next door to everyone," advises Chet, who also calls her "iridescent." If the movie were set in modern times, the neighborhood would be keeping a watchful eye on Chet.

I liked the places "Flipped" tries to take us, but the movie revs up without really getting out of neutral. Juli and Bryce repeatedly trade places as the admirer and the grudgingly admired, but we know they'll end up at the same place eventually.

This is the movie version of comfort food from your grandmother: Familiar, wholesome and rather bland.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Video Review: "Lost" Season Six and Complete Collections

When it debuted in 2004, "Lost" was immediately recognizable as groundbreaking television.

Here was a huge, high-budget network show with an excellent cast and an ambitious, sprawling narrative -- the sort of thing that previously had only been attempted on HBO, or theatrical film series like "Lord of the Rings."

Like millions, I was entranced by the riddle of a mysterious island on which a disparate group of passengers from Oceanic Flight 815 crash-land.

The first season introduced us to a roster of engaging characters -- stoic doctor Jack Shephard, escaped convict Kate Austen, tortured con man Sawyer, and tracker John Locke comprised the core of a cast that eventually numbered in the dozens -- and slowly unveiled the layered mysteries of the island: Marauding jungle monster, crazy French scientist-turned-hermit, and a strange hatch buried in the ground.

Also like many others, I felt the series lost its way in its second year -- personified by Mr. Eko, a would-be priest whose redemptive journey dominated that entire season, but who, after his abrupt death, was never mentioned again.

"Lost" sporadically regained its focus in subsequent seasons -- especially a strong third year buoyed by the introduction of the slithery, charismatic leader of The Others, Ben Linus -- but never recaptured the magic of that first outing.

I, for one, found the show's conclusion to be a disappointing, not to mention predictable, variation on (spoiler ahead) the tired old "it-was-all-just-a-dream" deus ex machina.

The sixth and final season is now available as a collection, and there's a pricey -- but exhaustively complete -- series collection.

The season six collection contains a host of extras. The DVD version includes commentaries, bloopers, deleted scenes and features about the show's conclusion, heroes' journey and "flash sideways" narrative. Plus, a "new chapter" about the island. The Blu-ray comes with all these plus a "Lost University: Masters Program" feature.

For the hardcore "Lost" fan with plenty of bucks to spend, the Complete Collection is not to be missed. Expect to pay, though: Around $150 for the DVD version, and 200 clams for the Blu-ray.

In addition to all 121 episodes, it includes the bonus material from all six season collections, plus one extra disc of never-before-seen footage. And there's toys: A replica of the island, black light, ankh -- even a special edition of the board game played by Jacob and the Man in Black!

Show: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, August 23, 2010

Reeling Backward: "An American Crime" (2007)

Although Reeling Backward has come to be known as the classic film column, I've stated several times that I reserve the right to reel back as far -- or as near -- as I want. In this case, I'm only going three years into the past.

"An American Crime" was a big story in Indianapolis when its production was announced in 2006. The torture murder of Sylvia Likens remains the city's most notorious crime, and has been the subject of a number of books, magazine articles and even other movies. In the same year it was released, "The Girl Next Door" also came out, with names changed and more of a horror film bent, but clearly based on the Likens case.

And for good reason: The 16-year-old girl was beaten, starved, burned, sexually assaulted and tied up over the course of several weeks in 1965. For good measure, the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" were branded onto her stomach with a hot wire. Horrifically, many of these despicable acts were carried about by neighborhood children, who were convinced they were merely participating in an elaborate "punishment" meted out for a wayward teen.

The making of the movie made local news -- including an A1 story for The Indianapolis Star by film critic Bonnie Britton that I edited -- but for all the wrong reasons. Chiefly among those was that the film, despite being set explicitly in Indianapolis and directed by native son Tommy O'Haver, was shot elsewhere for financial reasons. (Indiana has film incentives, but they're among the lowest of any state that offers them.)

Another reason "Crime" drew the bad kind of notoriety was that it couldn't get a theatrical release, despite starring Ellen Page after her big breakout in "Juno," not to mention indie queen Catherine Keener and other name actors such as James Franco, Bradley Whitford and Michael O'Keefe. I think the film is flawed, but certainly is of sufficient quality to warrant more than the paltry television debut it received.

The final and most insidious reason for the film all but dropping off the face of the earth is the depiction of Gertrude Baniszewski, the caretaker who directed the assault against Sylvia and was responsible for her death. I remember when Bonnie was working on her story, she said something about the movie being sympathetic to "Gertie."

In Indianapolis, saying you're sympathetic to Baniszewski is akin to saying you think Stalin got a bum rap. People say it's wrong to demonize others, but sometimes the bill fits.

"An American Crime" couldn't be called a celebration of Baniszewski, but maybe a feminist defense of her actions. The film goes out of its way to depict her as a victim of abuse by men that she internalized and passed on to the girls under her care.

The depiction is reminiscent of Charlize Theron's portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in "Monster," which also drew accusations of treating a female killer with kid gloves. The unifying theme here is a cycle of abuse that women may perpetuate but not originate.

I do have to say something about the casting of Keener as Gertie. While not a classic Hollywood beauty, Keener is certainly easy on the eyes -- even disheveled and with little or no makeup during most of her screen time. The real Gertrude Baniszewski was one of the most fascinatingly ugly creatures you ever laid your eyes on.

If you Google her image, you'll see that somehow she looked even more frightening when dolled up for her court appearance. Compare that with Keener's put-together look on the stand, and I think it's fair to say a good deal of misplaced Hollywoodization has gone on.

The problem with the filmmakers' approach to such a well-known crime -- O'Haver co-write the script with Irene Turner based on the court transcripts -- is that it's so hard to comprehend such unspeakable acts, the audience can't relate to the people on the screen. The majority of Sylvia's torture at the hands of other children is related in a montage sequence of little power.

By instead focusing more on the character of Baniszewski, the film relegates Sylvia Likens to a cypher with no real identity -- she's simply a vessel for abuse. As depicted by Page, Sylvia is a nice church-going girl who is falsley accused of spreading rumors about Paula, the eldest daughter of the Baniszewski clan. Sylvia and her sister Jenny had been left in Gertie's care by their parents, who were itinerant carnies.

Sylvia never rails against her "punishment," even as it quickly escalates from paddling to burning her arms with cigarettes, and then growing much worse. She's not a person; she becomes a thing that others maltreat. We never understand why she does not protest when accused of doing something of which she is innocent.

"An American Crime" had one notable effect. The house at 3850 East New York Street had lain vacant for most of the time since the Likens murder, but interest renewed when word about the movie got around. Vandalism and break-ins, not exactly isolated given the building's infamy, ramped up. Eventually, authorities saw fit to have it torn down last year.

2.5 stars out of four

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Coming this week

I'll have reviews of "Flipped," "Going the Distance" and probably "Takers."

The Reeling Backward column is "An American Crime" -- which came out in 2007, so we're not reeling back too far this week.

The video review is of the "Lost" TV show Season Six and Complete collections.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: "The Switch"

"The Switch" is a lot smarter and sweeter than its premise, which sounds like something out of a horndog sex comedy: A guy swaps his sperm out for the donor's when his best friend decides she wants to get pregnant sans marriage. I can just see this movie being made by the Judd Apatow crew, with Seth Rogen as the clueless ersatz dad.

But instead the movie stars Jason Bateman, whose comic sensibilities are more nuanced. He plays Wally Mars, a sad-sack who secretly pines for gal pal Kassie, played by Jennifer Aniston. Officially this is a Jennifer Aniston movie, but Bateman is the real star. And it's less a romantic comedy than a humorous character exploration of Wally.

I particularly liked the scenes between Bateman and Thomas Robinson, who plays his son Sebastian (though neither of them knows this initially). Wally got raging drunk at the Kassie's insemination party -- apparently there really are such things, at least in New York City -- and spilt the spunk delivered by hired gun (pun intended) Roland (Patrick Wilson). Desperate, he decided to, ahem, grasp hold of the situation and substitute his own offering.

Wally remembers none of this due to his extreme inebriation that night, which eventually brought him to the doorstep of his boss, babbling something about "trading Diane Sawyer to the Vikings." (Watch the movie; it actually makes sense.) The boss is played by Jeff Goldblum, in a small but delicious turn filled with terrific comic timing.

Fast forward seven years. After decamping to Minnesota, Kassie has decided to return to the Big Apple with her son, Sebastian, who's like a mopey little Mini-Me of Wally. Sebastian collects picture frames for a hobby (keeping the sample photos of strangers, for whom he constructs elaborate backstories) and frets about the dogs held at the kill shelter. He even does the same little moan-y thing Wally does when he eats.

Wally immediately notices these similarities, despite having just met the kid, while Cassie, who's been around him for every day of his six years, somehow does not.

The interactions between Wally and Sebastian are the best thing about the movie, favorably recalling "About A Boy," where a tenuous relationship grows between a child and a man who is many ways still one himself. Recognizing that Sebastian is super-smart, Wally speaks to him like a regular person, rather than that condescending "I'm-the-grown-up-here" tone most of us unconscious take.
Wally: "You want to tell me about your new school?"
Sebastian: "Why?"
Wally: "Because you're a kid and I don't know what else to talk about."
Despite having her name first in the credits, Aniston is really the supporting role here, and she fills it out nicely despite there not being much there on the page. (The screenplay is by Allan Loeb, based on a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides.)

Of course, there is the inevitable moment when Wally, having finally convinced himself of the truth about Sebastian, must confess his deed to Cassie. This is where the movie does conform to tired convention, as the plot becomes a series of delaying tactics until the truth is revealed, at which point, like a snowball rolling downhill, it has acquired so much weight that cataclysmic occurrences must result.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck previously helmed the dimwitted Will Ferrell (but I repeat myself) movie, "Blades of Glory." "The Switch" may look like another dopey comedy, but it walks and talks like a bird of an entirely different feather.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Review: "Nanny McPhee Returns"

Just a few weeks ago I was reviewing "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" and lamenting that movies made for the very youngest children always seem to aim so low. It's almost as if because the intended audience is small, filmmakers feel like their ambitions must likewise be puny.

And then along comes another sequel, "Nanny McPhee Returns," to demonstrate how family films can actually be enjoyable for the entire family.

In case you didn't catch the first movie from five years ago, Emma Thompson wrote both screenplays (based on a series of books by Christianna Brand) and stars as the stern and horrendously ugly titular character. Always sent to the worst families in England, Nanny McPhee goes where she is needed but not wanted, but as soon as she is wanted but not needed, off she goes again.

McPhee is part Mary Poppins, in that her nanny skills are augmented by supernatural powers, but no spoonfuls of sugar to be found here. She doesn't sing either, preferring a stern look and a grunt to get her point across.

If things really get out of hand, she bangs her magic walking stick on the ground, and higgledy-piggledy ensues, usually followed by life lessons. (The film was originally titled "Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang," which is much better.)

The first film took place sometime in the 1800s, and for the sequel the action has moved up to World War II. Young mother Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal, doing a snappy British lilt) is up to her neck running her husband's farm while he's off fighting in the war, looking after their three children, Vincent, Norman and Megsie (Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield and Lil Woods).

Things go from chaotic to unmanageable when Isabel's rich niece and nephew, Cyril and Celia, come to stay (played by Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson). "We're in the land of poo," Cyril observes from their limousine upon surveying the Green farm. Things between the cousins grow worse from there.

Nanny McPhee soon arrives -- ostensibly dispatched by the Army -- to take charge of the situation.

There's a lot of charming antics going on. The prize piglets escape from their pen and must be rounded up, but not before engaging in a little synchronized swimming. Isabel's scheming brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) is out to sell the farm, because he's got a pair of hitwomen (you read that right) after him for gambling debts.

Maggie Smith shows up as Isabel's forgetful employer, who has a tendency to sit in cow patties and fill up filing cabinets with syrup. And I got a kick out of the helpful manual published by the War Department, "Defusing Your Bomb: Three Simple Steps to an Explosion-Free Day."

The gag is that Nanny McPhee's warts, snaggletooth and other gruesome features disappear as the children learn to behave. There's even a suggestion that she's been at this for some time (watch for Maggie Smith to flash a familiar token).

This film is rated PG, though I cannot conceive of it offending anyone, unless you consider a burping bird to be risqué material.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" may not be the most original material, but director Susanna White pitches the tone just perfectly, a combination of fairy and morality tales. Compared to so much of the dim-bulb rubbish churned out for tots, it practically qualifies as enchanted.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: "Get Low"

"I built myself a jail and put myself in it for 40 years," is how renowned hermit Felix Bush describes his self-imposed exile. Now grown old and feeling Death's hand tightening its grip, he wants one last furlough so he can throw himself a huge funeral, with himself as the (living) guest of honor, before it's time to "get low."

In olden days -- or at least the cinematic reflection of them -- every town had someone like Bush: He's far more spoken about than spoken to, with dark stories of his deeds building upon each other, one generation to the next.

We'd call them outcasts, except hermits like Bush have removed themselves from society voluntarily. Absent any concrete reason for shunning them, people create their own, until the truth is buried under a slow avalanche of whispers.

Robert Duvall got his start in movies nearly a half-century ago playing one such recluse, Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "Get Low" completes the circle.

Imagine if Jem and Scout had never met Boo, but grown up continuing to feed his mystery, and bequeathed their fears and questions to their own children: The result would be Felix Bush.

Stories about him abound: That he's secretly rich, or that he once killed several men with just his fists. One day in the 1920s Bush hitches up his mule and wagon and rides into town, and the folks of Caleb County act as if Ichabod Crane has come to call. He's a ghost, and a legend. People have grown so comfortable with the mythology surrounding Bush, they have no idea what to do when the actual man presents himself.

But Bush has business to conduct: He wants to arrange his own funeral, where people can come together to share their stories about him. Finding no satisfaction with the local reverend (Gerald McRaney), he turns to the local funeral home, owned by recent transplant Frank Quinn.

Quinn, deliciously played by Bill Murray, is disturbed by his clientele's reluctance to avail themselves of his services: Business is slow. "One thing about Chicago, people knew how to die -- shot, drowned, run over ... whatever it took."

Quinn is at first put off by Bush's unusual request to attend his own funeral, but is something of a flimflam man and desperately wants the business. "Ooooo ... hermit money," he chants as they first drive up to Bush's remote shack.

But his young protégé, Buddy (a solid Lucas Black), has qualms. As he gets to know Bush, his fears settle into something like sympathy for the ornery old coot. He grows especially worried when Bush announces that he will raffle off his prime 300 acres, and cash starts deluging the funeral home. "Money makes people do funny things," Buddy says, and we can feel him inwardly turn toward Quinn when he says this.

Two other notable characters, wonderfully played by veteran actors, crop up: Mattie (Sissy Spacek), whose history with Bush goes back far enough to pierce his shroud of mystery, and Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), an old preacher who is his only friend and confessor.

Director Aaron Schneider and screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell recognize this is an actor-driven film, less about a narrative progression than the richness of individual scenes shared by a handful of interesting characters. I enjoyed the film's bleak look and period authenticity, though its conclusion feels too tidy.

It's the complex, yet grounded performance by Duvall that gives the movie its weight and grit. When he first appears, Bush is nearly monosyllabic and impenetrable, but as he grows used to being around people again, a more layered creature emerges from this shell.

Duvall shows us the man who has reveled in being a hermit and is terrified of letting anyone in, but craves the peace he knows he will only find in the company of others.

There's a great scene at the very beginning where, after being pestered by some local boys, Bush takes down his old "No trespassing" sign and puts up a new one: "No damn trespassing! Beware of mule." The oddity of that threat hides an invitation.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Video: Discs vs. Downloads

We're in a dry spell for new video releases, so I'm using this week's column to discuss the future of home video.

A lot of very smart people think the video market is moving away from a physical object you keep on a bookshelf and insert into a player -- aka DVD or Blu-ray discs -- and toward all-digital libraries you store on a hard drive or stream whenever you want.

They've got some good evidence: DVD/Blu-ray sales were down 7 percent in the first half of 2010, while video rentals shrank nearly 5 percent, according to The Digital Entertainment Group. Meanwhile, downloads and on-demand were up 23 percent.

While there's no doubt hand-held devices like smart phones, iPods and iPads are a great match with downloaded movies, for the home theater aficionado who wants the biggest and best picture possible, discs still have the upper hand.

In order to squeeze file sizes down so they don't take a day and a half to download or stream, a movie's image suffers tremendously. A film that looks great on a four-inch iPhone would look horrendous on a 50-inch LCD.

Then there's the question of video extras, which are almost never included with downloaded and streamed movies. For many like myself, getting a behind-the-scenes peek at the filmmaking process or deleted scenes is an added value we've come to expect with Blu-ray/DVD.

And, more and more discs are including a digital copy to load on your personal device -- so you get the best of both worlds.

Personally, I'd rather pay $15 or $20 for a disc that looks great anywhere, comes with extra goodies and is hard to destroy, versus paying a few bucks less to download some ephemeral cloud of bytes that's only viable on a tiny screen, includes no extras and could get zapped by the next electrical storm or computer virus.

Not to mention: With discs, you can borrow a movie from a friend. Try that with iTunes' proprietary noose.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Les Misérables" (1935)

I would not want to be a filmmaker faced with the daunting task of translating Victor Hugo's mammoth, epic novel "Les Misérables" onto film. The scope and sweep of the book are simply too huge to be diminished into a movie running two (or three, or four, or even five) hours.

Still, plenty have tried, with varying degrees of success. IMDb lists nearly 20 versions, including television movies. Perhaps it's due to the severity of the challenge that none of them are considered the standard, so more keep getting made.

The 1935 film with Fredric March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as Inspector Javert is perhaps the most recognized iteration. It's a powerful version, centering on the antagonism between Valjean and Javert -- though the filmmakers had to jettison much of Hugo's pages to set up this dynamic.

I won't belabor every way in which a 1,500-page novel is redacted in order to fit into a 108-minute movie, though if you're curious the Wikipedia page has a pretty thorough rundown of the discrepancies.

But director Richard Boleslawski and screenwriter W.P. Lipscomb made one monumental alteration: Removing the villain of the piece, Thenardier. In fact, the entire Thenardier clan has been purged from the story, other than a very brief glimpse when Valjean rescues Cosette from indentured servitude at their inn.

From a movie-making standpoint, the choice makes sense. The rivalry with Javert has more narrative juice, and with Charles Laughton in the role, the film had to shrink down to better contain their antagonism.

I assume everyone is familiar with the bones of the story: Valjean, released from prison after 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread, has his soul enlightened by a kindly bishop. He endeavors to do good deeds, even as Javert and the hard hand of justice continue to pursue him. Valjean takes up the guardianship of the young girl Cosette, and they try to forge a new life together.

The travails of Cosette's mother Fantine are mostly dropped, which is too bad because the book establishes its tragic tone largely through her story. I mean, who could forget a woman who's forced to sell her own teeth? She's played by Florence Eldridge, who was Fredric March's wife.

It's not one of March's best performances. He gives Valjean a sort of flat nobility -- we see him struggle with his conscious, but not for long. Compared to Laughton's mesmerizing turn filled with fire and ice, March is more or less blown off the screen in their scenes together.

One of the earliest attempts to film "Les Misérables" was a series of movies starting in 1909 that followed the book's sections fairly closely. Though I enjoyed the 1935 film, one feels like they're watching the pale shadow of a great story, whispered over a tremendous distance.

I think the only way to do Hugo's masterpiece justice would be a "Lord of the Rings"-style approach, with multiple films and a huge budget. I doubt that will ever happen.

3 stars out of four

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Coming this week

Coming this week: Reviews of "Nanny McPhee Returns," "Get Low" and "The Switch." I may slip in for a Friday show of "Vampires Suck" if I can find the time.

No video review this week; instead, a column about the future of discs vs. downloaded video. The podcast at The Film Yap will touch on that same subject.

Classic film column is "Les Miserables" with Charles Laughton and Fredric March.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"

"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is like the entirety of American youth culture crammed into a single package: It's about love, alienation, video games, comic books, chord-grinding indie/punk rock, texting, dead-end jobs and evil ex-boyfriends.

Mostly, video games and ex-boyfriends.

Michael Cera, Generation Y's poster boy of angst-y charm, plays Scott Pilgrim, an itinerant bass player with a Toronto band called Sex Bob-omb.

Say it out loud and fast and the band's name, if not exactly making sense, at least becomes a cool, quirky statement. You could say the same about the movie.

Scott's mission: He must defeat the seven ex-boyfriends of Ramona Flowers, his new-new girlfriend. (As opposed to his old-new girlfriend, Knives Chau. In other words, she's his ex, but doesn't know it yet.)

Each of the battles is played out as an arcade-style brawl of superpowers, with the scrawny Scott able to leap and punch like the avatars of the video games he plays. Why he's suddenly able to summon these abilities for the fights with Ramona's exes, but is an everyday schmo otherwise, is a subject never broached.

Other people can also perform amazing feats when called upon, which makes a little more sense, in the sense that it doesn't. As near as I can figure, it's like everybody in the movie's universe can hit a button on their personal game controller and transform into a super-hero, while never leaving their alter-ego behind.

Other people in this world -- which is populated entirely by those under age 30 -- accept these battles as a matter of course and settle in to spectate, even though they tend to interrupt the concerts and dance clubs they were attending.

I enjoyed myself watching "Scott Pilgrim," at times immensely so. But I wonder if anyone who's not intimately tapped into its peculiar vibe, built largely around the Mario Bros. oeuvre, is going to embrace (or even understand) the film.

(For example, if right now you're thinking Mario Bros. refers to a pizza chain run by siblings, then this movie is not for you.)

Cera has become the unlikeliest movie star -- a movie star being different from a film actor in that while an actor plays many different roles, a star always plays himself. In Cera's case, he's a mumbling, self-doubting drink of water who finds his resolve when the girl of his dreams appears.

His pursuit of Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who favorably recalls a young Winona Ryder) is fumbling and pathetic, but inexplicably successful. Soon he and the pink-haired (for now) Ramona are an item, which is destined to put a damper on the bubbly mood of Knives (Ellen Wong).

The story -- the screenplay is by Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright, who also directed, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley -- is framed around the ex-boyfriend fights. Each one has its own loopy rules and energy, and pop-up messages appear just like in a video game to let us know when people have gained new abilities or earned an extra life (never hurts to have one of those).

The boyfriends tend to be played by recognizable actors like Chris Evans and Brandon Routh (both of whom also moonlight in other movies as super-heroes -- Captain America and Superman, respectively).

There's no real danger to the action, of course -- if you die in an arcade game, you can always drop in another quarter to continue. (I say "quarter" figuratively, since it's been awhile ... what do those things cost now, like a buck-fifty?)

"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" doesn't really add up to much more than high score on a screen. But it achieves it with a fresh, brash style that demands, "Are you really cool enough to like this movie?"

3 stars out of four

Review: "Eat, Pray, Love"

Here's my six-word review of "Eat, Pray, Love": I wish they'd stopped at "Eat."

This new Julia Roberts star vehicle is based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert about the year she spent traveling the globe to rediscover herself following a painful divorce. She spends four months each in Italy, India and Indonesia seeking nourishment -- for, as the title suggests, her body, soul and heart.

It's a more ambitious role than Roberts has tackled in the decade since her Oscar-winning turn in "Erin Brockovich," and one centered around a woman of refreshingly mature years. I admired Roberts' grasping for something meatier, but this film sticks her with an unrelatable character that even her coltish smile can't beautify.

Director Ryan Murphy, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with Jennifer Salt, spends an excessive amount of time setting up Liz's life in New York prior to her trip. In these sequences Liz is established as a successful but skittish woman who doesn't seem to belong anywhere, or to anyone -- even herself.

She quickly, and callously, decides to divorce her husband Stephen (Billy Crudup). Despite his flightiness, he does seem very determined about his desire to stay together and attempt to work things out. When she won't even try, our sympathy for her wanes.

Sooner than would seem appropriate, or even comprehensible, Liz ends up in the arms of David (James Franco), a much younger actor who turns her on to meditation and Hindu scripture. She soon decides that she needs to learn to love herself before she can love another again, though she at least packs her newfound spirituality for the trip.

The first sequence in Rome has an uplifting energy as Liz searches for the perfect pizza, learns the lingo, and absorbs the Italian devotion to beauty and pleasure without any American veneer of guilt. It's here that she seems to tame her self-absorption a bit, finds some new friends and truly grows as a confident individual.

The spiritual section in India shifts into a seriously downbeat gear, as Liz lives at a Hindu temple, prays and meditates, and verbally jousts with Richard (Richard Jenkins), a fellow American -- well, he's Texan, which to the typical New Yorker is far more exotic than the Far East.

Richard, who looks like James Taylor and talks like Obi-John Wayne, calls her "Groceries" for her healthy appetite and counsels her to clear her head of self-doubt and regret, or it will ruin her life. Richard knows this through personal experience, as he lays bare in a rooftop scene that's supposed to be revelatory and emotionally cathartic, but just makes the audience want to tiptoe down the stairs and escape.

The vistas are perhaps the most beautiful in Bali, but Liz's journey of discovery grows less genuine with every step. She romances a Brazilian businessman (Javier Bardem) who's also been through a painful divorce, and studies with a medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto) who looks like Yoda, but with a worse dental plan.

I confess that I found Liz's New Age-y proclivities a dreadful bore -- I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole Guru Gita thing, which involves a bunch of people chanting at a painting of a woman, as near as I can figure. At 139 minutes, the movie feels sprawling and self-indulgent.

And I'm always suspicious of memoirs in which people ditch their entire lives for parts unknown and unexpected adventures -- and, it turns out, for good reason.

After seeing the movie and doing a little Googling, I learn that the real Elizabeth Gilbert pitched the idea for her book to a publisher before embarking on her journey, and used the advance to pay for it.

"Eat, Pray Love" seems less like a year of wild abandonment to indulgence and exploration of the inner soul, and more a calculated mission to land on Oprah's Book Club. It's mass-produced gruel, dressed up as native cuisine.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Video review: "Date Night"

By my count, "Date Night" has about five or six decent laughs in it. Most of these are throwaway jokes, fleeting in their amusements. So the question you have to ask is, is it worth sitting through 1½ hours of stale comedy in order to get to those sporadic chuckles?

My answer is no, but maybe you have a higher tolerance for mediocrity.

What's most disappointing about this lame comedy is that its two stars, Tina Fey and Steve Carell, are some of the sharpest comedic tools we have in the shed these days. But their talent for funny television ("30 Rock" and "The Office," respectively) has translated into uneven careers at the movies.

Here they play Claire and Phil Foster, a middle-aged, middle-class couple struggling to stay connected with each other amid the hectic distractions of jobs and kids. Their solution is a magic date night in New York City to wash away their troubles.

Unfortunately, some criminals confuse them with another couple, resulting in a night on the run from both hoods and cops, and a bunch of encounters with strange people. Mark Wahlberg shows up as a helpful security expert with a one-joke spiel about never wearing a shirt.

It's an idiot plot based on mistaken identity, complete with a classic MacGuffin: A computer memory card that contains the key to ... something important.

Let's put it this way: If "Date Night" were somebody's first date, I doubt there'd be a second.

Video extras for "Date Night" continue a disturbing trend I've noticed lately: Good movies arriving with a paucity of goodies ("Avatar"), while the drek comes with loads of features ("The Book of Eli").

The DVD version has an audio commentary by director Shawn Levy, an extended car chase, scene, gag reels, public service announcements and a couple of featurettes about Levy directing the film.

In addition to these, the Blu-ray has several deleted and extended scenes, Fey and Carell's camera tests, snippets of the cast reflecting on disaster dates from their real lives, and a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, August 9, 2010

Reeling Backward: "A Price Above Rubies" (1998)

The title of "A Price Above Rubies" comes from the Song of Solomon. In the most common version, it reads: "Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies."

But there's another reading: "A woman of fortitude who can find? For her price is far above rubies."

Virtue and fortitude are hardly the same thing. In the Biblical reading of virtuous, it basically means a woman who is humble, takes good care of her husband and children, and is utterly subservient in her marriage.

Fortitude means strength of mind -- specifically the ability to endure hardship. It's very much in this second vein that writer/director Boaz Yakin's film explores the cloistered world of New York Hasidic Jews.

Renée Zellweger plays Sonia Horowitz, a young wife who's just given birth to her first child, a boy. She has an arranged marriage with Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), a serious religious scholar who literally lives and breaths his Judaism. So serious, in fact, that he resists Sonia's attempts to make their lovemaking a shared experience, instead of the very one-sided, sacred (for him) affair.

(It's a great racket: "Sorry, hon, foreplay is against my religion.")

Sonia rebels, subtly at first but with increasing willpower. She confides her questioning of God's laws (as interpreted by the Jews) to Rebbe Moshe (John Randolph), who is so inspired by this passionate young woman that he goes to his wife (Kim Hunter) to tell her how much he loves her, and how he regrets not showing her any appreciation for the past 20 years.

Unfortunately, Sonia ignited a flame of passion that the old rabbi's body could not contain, and he dies that very night.

Sonia, who was raised by a master jeweler and has the gift herself, is recruited by her brother-in-law Sender (an intense Christopher Eccleston) to work for him. Three days a week she goes into the city to buy the best pieces she can find at a considerable markdown. Three days she works in Sender's "shop" -- a basement establishment that caters to a private clientele on a very exclusive (i.e., untaxed) basis.

Sonia grows in her new role, even as it fuels the split between her and Mendel. It gets to the point where she hardly looks after her son, instead leaving him with her sister-in-law (Julianna Margulies). She also finds herself having an affair with Sender, though it seems less about lust than a transaction -- he grants her some measure of the independence she craves in return for sex.

One day at a shop run by a Pakistani who wouldn't know quality jewelry if he sat on it, Sonia discovers a magnificent gold ring: Hand-crafted and one of a kind. She eventually learns it was made by Ramon (Allen Payne), a lowly assistant at that shop. Sonia tracks him down to his studio, and discovers a great artist in need of a sponsor.

Needless to say, such activities are frowned upon in the Hasidic community, and Sonia finds her self increasing, and eventually completely, ostracized.

I'm a big fan of Yakin's early work -- I repeatedly recommend "Fresh" to any and all who have likely never heard of it -- though he's segued into mainstream pap lately ("Remember the Titans," "Uptown Girls," the screenplay for "Prince of Persia").

"A Price Above Rubies" isn't a particularly good movie, though Zellweger shines in a tough, gritty role that foreshadowed her more serious acting ambitions. This movie came out two years after her breakout role in "Jerry Maguire," and it's a bold and non-commercial choice for an aspiring young performer. (Though one must admit, the pixie-faced actress is about as goy as they come.)

Made by Miramax when the Weinstein brothers were just emerging as a Hollywood powerhouse, "Rubies" reminds me in some ways of "A Serious Man": A painstaking exploration of the nature of Judaism, and how men and women try and often fail to live up to its precepts. I didn't particularly like "Serious Man," either.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review: "The Other Guys"

"The Other Guys" is less a buddy-cop movie and more just a comedy where jokesters play around with guns. "48 Hours" and the "Lethal Weapon" flicks had plenty of laughs, but you never doubted Nick Nolte or Mel Gibson as legitimate cops who could bust heads (or shoot them) if called upon.

The entire joke of "Guys" is premised on the assumption that Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are entirely implausible as police detectives. With Ferrell, I think that pretty much goes without saying, but Wahlberg actually got an Oscar nomination for playing a cop in "The Departed."

The solution director Adam McKay (who co-write the script with Chris Henchy) came up with is to turn Wahlberg's character, Terry Hoitz, into a failed badass. He's still got the snarl and the hand-to-hand moves, but he's become a laughingstock for shooting Derek Jeter while working a Yankees game.

For his sins, Terry is stuck with a pencil-pushing dweeb as a partner. Allen Gamble (Ferrell) came up in the accounting department, and always begs off going out on exciting calls for murders or bank robberies because there's so much paperwork to finish.

That happens when you're constantly volunteering to handle the scutwork for the department's undisputed stars, Highsmith and Danson.

Played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson in all-too-brief cameos, the duo star in an over-the-top chase sequence to open the film, including crashing their car into a city bus, and then taking over the bus to continue the pursuit, with the car still stuck inside it.

Alas, the hot dogs are soon sidelined by fate, leaving an opening for the losers, Hoitz and Gamble, to step up.

The movie is more plot-heavy than I would've liked -- something about a shady investor (Steve Coogan) plotting nefarious activities involving illegal scaffolding, and a billionaire who's been bilked, and an Australian black-ops guy (Ray Stevenson) -- the pieces of which never really fit together.

But the back-and-forth between Ferrell and Wahlberg has some real spit to it, with lots of great throwaway jokes and ad-libbed one-liners.

I especially liked Terry's left-field accusation that "the sound of your (pee) hitting the urinal sounds feminine." Or, "You want to disarm that guy? Take the batteries out of his calculator!"

I laughed when Allen, after being egged on by the other detectives into shooting a hole in the squad room, has his gun confiscated by the captain (Michael Keaton) and replaced with a wooden one. Later, this is downgraded to a rape whistle.

There's also a running joke about the geeky Allen being irresistible to improbably hot women. Eva Mendes plays his wife, who's so gorgeous and brainy that upon being introduced to her, Terry keeps insisting, "No, really. Who is that?"

It's scattershot comedy, spewing a thousand jokes against the screen to see what sticks. Some of it doesn't -- an excursion to see Allen's ex-girlfriend keeps setting up a gag that never arrives -- but plenty of it does.

Even if they're totally unbelievable as cops, Ferrell and Wahlberg are convincing as comedians pretending to be cops.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: "The Wildest Dream"

It is accepted historical fact that Sir Edmund Hillary was the first person to climb to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. But was he really the first?

The new IMAX film "The Wildest Dream" explores the attempt nearly 30 years earlier by George Mallory, who disappeared on the final ascent with his young partner Sandy Irvine. It also chronicles a modern attempt to re-create Mallory's climb, and suggests that Mallory achieved the summit, and died in some mishap on the way back down.

In 1999 climber Conrad Anker found Mallory's body on the north face of the mountain, eerily well-preserved by the freezing climate. A re-creation of this is shown in the documentary -- I assume it's a recreation, since by all accounts they buried the body after finding it.

It was known that Mallory carried a picture of his beloved wife Ruth with him that he intended to plant on the top of Everest. Since the photograph was not found on the body, even though letters and other personal effects were all accounted for, many observers are led to believe that he kept his promise.

Anthony Geffen, a veteran producer making his directing debut, balances historical footage and records of Mallory with the modern tale of Anker, who wants to tread in Mallory's footsteps to see if it's possible.

In particular, they want to see if Mallory and Houlding could best the "Second Step," a sheer cliff face near the summit. Modern climbers use a metal ladder bolted to the mountain, but for their attempt Anker and his young partner, Leo Houlding, have the ladder removed and try to free-climb the cliff.

Geffen captures the spirit of adventure that motivated explorers in the early 20th century -- vibrantly tapped into by the animated Pixar film "Up" -- Westerners who desired to conquer every challenge the globe had to offer. Mallory made two previous attempts to explore and climb Everest, and his fatal attempt in 1924 was to be his last before retiring to hearth and home.

Mallory is most remembered for the answer he gave when asked why he was trying to climb the highest peak in the world? "Because it's there," he said.

Narrated by Liam Neeson, with recreations using the voices of Ralph Fiennes, the late Natasha Richardson, Alan Rickman and Hugh Dancy, "The Wildest Dream" is an often gripping account of the men who dare to climb toward heaven, and sometimes pay the ultimate price.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Video review: "Kick-Ass"

Was there a more polarizing film this year than "Kick-Ass"?

Roger Ebert called it "morally reprehensible." A.O. Scott of the New York Times said it "turned my stomach." I admitted the film left me disturbed, but also entertained, and "disturbed by how much I was entertained."

Fourth months after its theatrical release, the British/American send-up of the super-hero genre is looking like one of the boldest cinematic visions of 2010.

Aaron Johnson plays the title character, a high school loser who wonders why everyone loves super-heroes, but nobody actually dons a costume and goes out and fights crime. He buys a green wetsuit, wields a couple of billy clubs, and calls himself Kick-Ass.

The only ass initially kicked is his own, but after a few false starts the fledgling hero makes a name for himself, via YouTube video of his exploits.

Soon a whole lot of supes come out of the woodwork, notably Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), a pint-sized package of blood-spurting destruction, and her father/mentor/enabler Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage).

If Kick-Ass is a pathetic wannabe, this frightful duo are the hair-raising real deal. Hit-Girl shoots and slices her way through bad guys, and insults them with the foulest language you've ever heard coming out of the mouth of an 11-year-old.

This is, after all, based on a comic book whose teaser line was "Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!"

Love it or loath it, this movie smashes Hollywood conventions.

When it comes to video extras, "Kick-Ass" does just that.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack includes a digital copy, and a host of features that shed light about the production. The centerpiece is a making-of documentary that, at 113 minutes, is only slightly shorter than the film itself.

The doc touches on absolutely every aspect of conception and shooting, including director Matthew Vaughn's pushback at those who flogged the movie as exploitative. One revelation is the filmmakers gave the role to Johnson before they knew he's British.

Vaughn also provides a feature-length commentary track, including the tidbit that Marvel Comics forced him to change logo of his longstanding production company, MARV, even though those are simply his initials. (His obeisance must have paid off; Vaughn is now slated to directe the "X-Men" reboot.)

Additionally, there's an "Ass-Kicking Bonus View Mode" that includes tons of behind-the-scenes video footage (which also incorporates some of Vaughn's commentary).

Plus, a 20-minute featurette on the comic book origin, and a gallery of stills.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, August 2, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Beauty and the Beast" (1946)

Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is probably my favorite animated film of all time, and I've been meaning to watch the 1946 live-action French film that heavily influenced it for some time.

It's really geared more as a children's fairy tale -- I saw it on Turner Classic Movies as part of a bloc of kiddie flicks. I think the animated version has much deeper themes that it explores more fully -- especially the beastly nature of men.

You already know the basic fable: A beautiful young woman is forced to live as the prisoner of a hideous Beast in order to spare the life of her father. Over time the gruesome creature grows to love young Belle, and she returns the affection. Their love breaks the spell that was cast upon him, and he is revealed as a handsome, rich prince who will take his lady love far away to live happily ever after as his queen.

Director Jean Cocteau, who also wrote the screenplay based on the fairy tale by 18th century writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (which she adapted from an original story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve), created a visually stunning world in which to populate his characters. Even seen today, the technical and artistic achievements of the film are quite impressive.

Let's start with the amazing make-up for actor Jean Marais to portray the beast, which reportedly took five hours to put on, and another five hours to take off. What's really amazing about it is that it covers his face without completely disguising his facial features and expressions. His eyes, in particular, are still able to emote beautifully.

Cocteau's conception of the Beast is a little more canine in appearance and behavior than subsequent versions like the animated film and 1980s TV show, which bent toward a leonine mien. Although you can clearly see the similarities to the Disney Beast, especially in the ballroom dance scene where he dresses up in formal wear, which the French beast wears all the time.

The disembodied servants in the Beast's magical castle are there, although they remain wordless hands and faces appearing and disappearing out of the walls and furniture. No Mrs. Potts singing songs about being our guest, unfortunately. Still, the sight of stony faces peering out of the fireplace mantle, slowly tracking Belle with their eyes, is enchanting ... and haunting.

The magical rules regarding the Beast and his curse are quite different. Here his furred, taloned hands smoke every time he kills -- though this is merely implied, since we never actually see him hunt animals, or in fact commit violence of any kind.

He still has the magic mirror that allows the bearer to gaze upon anyone near or far, and also has a glove that instantly transports the wearer wherever they want to go. In one unintentionally funny bit, Belle zaps herself from her father's house to the Beast's castle, realizes she forgot the key he entrusted her with, blinks back to look for it and then back to the castle again.

I really enjoyed the self-loathing Marais brought to the role, though I must say I found Belle (Josette Day) a dreadful bore. She's simply a reflection of a feminine ideal here -- beautiful, humble, devoted -- rather than a distinctive individual.

Belle has evil sisters (no step; they share the same father) who constantly plot against Belle and humiliate her. It's interesting how in fairy tales and mythology sisters are almost always at war in some way, and never have a deep and meaningful bond.

She also has a layabout brother, whose best friend is Avenant, who wishes to marry Belle but is continually rebuffed. He's also played by Marais, who additionally appears as the Prince that the Beast turns into when Avenant is shot dead by an arrow while trying to break into the Beast's treasure trove. Avenant then turns into the Beast, and the Beast, who had just died, turns into the Prince, who happens to look exactly like Avenant.

I confess the metaphysical logistics of the story left me baffled. Especially when you consider the final dialogue between the Prince and Belle, in which she confesses that she really had loved Avenant, and only refused him out of loyalty to her father. I thought the whole point of the fable was that True Love conquers all; apparently, it's actually True Love needs another True Love to die before it can live.

At the risk of offending film purists, while I cherish the stupendous beauty of Cocteau's version, I still much prefer Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." It's just a more ambitious, fully realized version of a riveting piece of mythology.

3 stars out of four

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Video review: "The Dungeon Masters"

"The Dungeon Masters," a documentary that was partially shot at GenCon in Indianapolis, is not really an exploration of Dungeons & Dragons and other forms of role-playing games (RPGs). Instead, it's an intimate, in-depth portrait of three individual gamers.

I admit that I was expecting a broader look at the gaming phenomenon, and if that's what you wanted, then director Keven McAlester's film will likely disappoint you.

It starts out leading you down this path, as we're introduced to the world of tabletop gaming at GenCon -- one of the biggest gaming conventions in the world -- in Indy in 2006. We get to see a lot of people dressed in funny costumes, huddled around a table listening to descriptions of fantastical worlds, with a fistful of odd-looking dice waiting to determine the fate of their actions.

Briefly, the film explores the appeal of creating characters with amazing supernatural abilities, and role-playing them through challenging scenarios. It's entering a world where you can become any kind of hero -- or villain -- you ever dreamed about.

But it soon becomes clear that McAlester was just using the convention as an open casting call to find interesting people. And he certainly found a trio of them.

Elizabeth Reesman stands out as the most instantly memorable, for obvious reasons: The 23-year-old often goes around with her skin stained an ebony black and her hair hidden under a stark white wig. Reesman likes to live-action role play -- or LARP -- as a drow elf, an evil underworld version of the creatures of light and goodness seen in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

She's unemployed, lives with her parents, and seems to trip from relationship to relationship without ever putting down some solid roots. Reesman spends much of her time playing online RPG like "World of Warcraft." (One aspect I do wish the film spent more time on was the relationship between old-fashioned tabletop gaming and the online kind.)

I haven't played D&D for about 20 years now, but I do know that if I still did, Richard Meeks is exactly the sort of Dungeon Master I wouldn't want to have. DMs, also called Game Masters, act as referees, arbiters and architects of the games through which they guide players. You might guess that the position lends itself to the potential for abuse, and Meeks epitomizes the pitfalls.

Meeks doesn't just want to call the shots, but be the center of attention. He seems to take the greatest delight in killing his players' characters. He constructs difficult -- some would say impossible -- challenges, and punishes players for not behaving in the way he thinks they should.

He recounts one of his most infamous episodes, where he thought the players were being "too greedy," so dreamed up a "sphere of annihilation" to instantly, and permanently wipe out the characters they'd spent years playing.

As we get deeper into Meeks' story, we learn that he's a seemingly regular middle-aged guy with a nondescript job in the sanitation department, an Air Force veteran who abandoned his first family with hardly a backward thought. He grew up in a fractured home full of abuse, and in some ways he's spent his life saying good-bye.

By far the most compelling DM is Scott Corum, another middle-aged guy with a wife and family. Corum is witty and has a droll, charismatic presence. He works (barely) as an apartment complex manager. But Corum's real vocation is hobbies. He's constantly flitting from one creative outlet to another, never sticking with any long enough to make it his true calling.

He's a Christian puppeteer, certified master hypnotist, and currently is trying to make it as an author. Corum has just finished the rough draft of a book he's been working on for two years, and his attempts to get it published are achingly naive. And yet, somehow his pathetic pursuit ennobles him, since it gives him a purpose he seemed to lack.

Unfortunately, when things don't happen immediately, Corum soon finds a new hobby: Creating a cable-access TV show about a failed super-villain.

I've always said the best thing a documentary film can do is introduce you to community of people who may seem strange and even laughable, and help you understand who they are and why they do the things they do.

"The Dungeon Masters" fails as a journalistic exploration of gaming. But as a glimpse into the lives of the people behind the dungeon master's screen, it rolls high. (Not a 20, but enough to score a hit.)

"The Dungeon Masters" DVD comes with a modest but entertaining package of video extras.

There's a set of outtakes, mostly discarded moments following our trio of main characters. Mostly these scenes announce their own reasons for being left out of the film, but there's several pretty hilarious moments -- mostly involving Corum, who has a lot of funny stories, and tells them well. If he had a cable access show in my neighborhood, I'd watch it.

Additionally, there's some more material, mostly random bits of interviews from GenCon that didn't make the final cut. The most interesting are interviews with three other people who were apparently considered as main subjects. I would happily watch another documentary feature about this second trio.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars