Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest"

The Swedish trilogy about Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant but disturbed woman striking back at a system that abused her, trundles to a wobbly finish with "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest." The final installment is heavy on plot and cheap theatrics, but light on the dark, mesmerizing energy that made the first film so watchable.

Noomi Rapace is back again as Lisbeth, now in custody for the attempted murder of her father (Georgi Staykov), a former Soviet agent who defected to the West and became a shadowy merchant of arms and information.

The main thrust of the story builds to her trial, and Rapace is given very little to do over the film's overlong 2½-hour run other than stay in her hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, or fidget in a prison cell.

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is back at the center of the action after being somewhat sidelined in the last movie. Lisbeth previously saved his bacon, and now he's out to return the favor, digging into the sordid past of shadowy government figures and their lackeys who want to see her declared criminally insane.

Mikael wants to publish the whole grimy tale in his magazine Millennium -- which is also the name of the trilogy of books by late author Stieg Larsson upon which these films are based -- but his partner/lover Erika (Lena Endre) gets cold feet when the government thugs ratchet up the threats.

The film tries unsuccessfully to balance a burgeoning array of characters and plot lines, ladling on complexity without adding clarity.

There's Ronald Niederman (Mikael Spreitz), a hulking blond giant who is literally impervious to pain. He's also Lisbeth's half-brother, and is out to make her pay for what she did to daddy. He doesn't say a word the entire movie, but shows up every 20 minutes or so to randomly kill somebody so we'll remember how scary he is.

A group of ex-government spies in their 70s return to active duty to cover up their administration's nefarious dealings with Lisbeth's father. Of course, it's not long before they decide she's too much of a liability to let live.

Blomkvist gets unexpected help from a shadowy organization calling themselves Constitutional Defense, who are supposedly investigating the first shadowy group on behalf of the current government.

Blomkvist's sister Annika (Annika Hallin) is tapped to be Lisbeth's attorney, which she does adeptly, though she's perturbed at her client's unwillingness to show Blomkvist any appreciation for sticking his neck out so far for her.

Peter Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom), the nefarious psychiatrist who committed Lisbeth to an institution when she was 12, returns as the prosecution's star witness.

The film's ending is strange and truncated, as Lisbeth and Blomkvist reach what is obviously the end of their journey together. While I grant that a big mushy Hollywood finale wouldn't work in the more restrained Swedish mode, the conclusion goes beyond minimalist to emotionally vacant.

If this pair can't even think of anything notable to say to each other by way of farewell, it makes us wonder why we bothered watching them for three movies.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Video review: "Winter's Bone"

As we edge closer to year's end, film critics have started work on The List.

The List, of course, is the best movies we've seen this year. With 2½ months left to go in 2010, I feel confident "Winter's Bone" will have a place among my Top 10.

This sharp, authentic drama from director and writer (with Anne Rossellini) Debra Granik still grips me. From the spot-on, Oscar-caliber performances from Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes to the severe beauty of the Missouri terrain that frames the characters, "Winter's Bone" bleeds its way into an audience's soul.

Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a smart, willful teenager who dropped out of school to look after her younger siblings and mentally impaired mother. They survive the cold in a ramshackle cabin, relying on squirrel meat and the charity of neighbors.

One day the sheriff shows up to inform Ree her drug addict father has jumped bail after putting the family plot up for collateral. If he doesn't show, they'll be put out.

Much of the plot is taken up with Ree's journey, on foot, to visit her scattered kinfolks in search of her dad. Suspicious of outsiders -- even those with whom they share blood -- the mountain people are unwilling to help beyond the offer of a little cash and menacing warnings.

Even her uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), who's feared by lawman and criminal alike, rejects her pleas for help -- at first.

Expect "Winter's Bone" to show up on a lot of critics' lists.

Video extras -- the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions -- are terrific, and easily turn this disc from a rental to must-buy.

Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough team up for an excellent feature-length commentary track. They talk not just about how they composed individual shots, but touch again and again on the happenstance that continually blessed the production.

A number of the principle actors were non-professionals they ran into and cast in the film. In the 43-minute making-of documentary, William White is asked on his last day of shooting what he'll do next. The next morning, he says, he'll head back to his factory job as a wirecutter.

The same feature also includes audition footage for several of the actors, which is intercut with the final scene from the movie -- thrilling stuff.

There's also an alternate opening sequence, four deleted scenes, theatrical trailer, links to songs and musicians featured in the film, and a lovely musical sequence set to "Hardscrabble Elegy," the main theme composed by Dickon Hinchliffe.

The lack of a digital copy is the only downside.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras :3.5 stars

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1988)

As a confirmed Terry Gilliam fan, I'm always discovering new things in his movies every time I see them. His films are such dense cauldrons of imagination, it's easy to miss all the ingredients he puts into every strange (but usually wonderful) brew.

For instance, after seeing "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" for the first time in many years, I learned that Sally Salt, the young girl who accompanies the baron on the aforementioned adventures, was played by a wee Sarah Polley.

Polley would go on to become a well-regarded queen of indie films, along with the occasional mainstream one (like last summer's "Splice") and directing "Away from Her" (which is a lovely film, but as I've pointed out before, the story of a woman with Alzheimer's growing distant from her husband should properly have been titled, "Away from Him").

"Munchausen" was regarded as a special-effects extravaganza when it first came out (barely -- in a dispute over the changing of studio regimes, the film was only released on 117 screens). More than 20 years on, the effects already look a bit dated, but I think this only adds to the film's antiquated charm.

Like many of Gilliam's cerebral, impish films, "Munchausen" toes the line between rationality and fantasy, gleefully incorporating both into the same story. Trying to describe a Gilliam narrative is like trying to catch the amorphous tail of a passing zephyr.

The story is set in the 1700s -- "The Age of Reason," an opening title helpfully informs us. In this case, monarchs and politicians enable a 30-year-long war governed by rules and laws that only serve to prolong the suffering. Because it's Wednesday, the soldiers of an (unnamed) European city are compelled not to fight back against the Turks laying siege. The sultan and the European leader (Jonathan Pryce) argue about whose turn it is to surrender

The Pryce character, The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, orders one of his soldiers (a cameo by Sting) beheaded for heroism, since his extraordinary actions will make the other soldiers feel bad about themselves. It's a mindset that twists rationality into a trap that further debases humanity.

Into this carefully ordered madness steps the Baron, played by John Neville in an underrated performance of wit and bravado. Neville had mostly been known as a stage and television actor until then; Gilliam casting him in the lead role while in his early 60s rejuvenated his film career.

Based on a real historical figure known for exaggerating his exploits, Baron von Munchausen is a fantastic liar who claims to be the greatest truth-teller the world has ever known. He's an emissary of imagination, urging those around him to abandon their reasoned thoughts -- even if but for a little while -- and let their minds wander.

Aged and decrepit, the baron stumbles into a theater troupe performing the story of his life and interrupts the play, howling at the inaccuracies. He proceeds to tell the real story ... or at least the one he has just made up.

It's interesting that the story, by Gilliam and longtime collaborator Charles McKeown, is essentially one long attempt to gather up the Baron's old team. The actual battle with the Turks is barely more than a coda.

There's Gustavus (Jack Purvis), a dwarf -- Gilliam's fondness for Little People is evident in the fact he always includes at least one in his movies -- with extraordinary hearing, and lungs so powerful he can blow down a regiment of enemies at a gust. Albrecht (Winston Dennis) is huge and strong, but secretly yearns to be subservient and dainty.

Berthold (Eric Idle) can run halfway across the world in an hour -- his legs are so powerful, he must wear a ball and chain on each lest he take off like a shot. And Adolphus (McKeown) is the greatest marksman in the world.

Sally is the daughter of the theater troupe director, who stows away on the baron's air balloon. As is often the case in Gilliam films, the child represents the innocent nature of mankind, not yet weighed down by rationality and workaday concerns.

The various sequences veer wildly in tone and look. There's the strange sliding cityscape of the kingdom of the moon, where the king and queen seem to be the only occupants, and whose heads tend to come unstuck from their bodies. The head of the king (Robin Williams) can't stand his body, being forced to endure crass things like flatulence and orgasms, but is flummoxed when he gets an itch on his nose.

One of the most memorable sequences is when they land in the underworld of the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed), a petulant ogre dealing with labor problems from the cyclops union. An 18-year-old Uma Thurman, in one of her first screen roles, plays Venus, emerging nude from her clam shell in a stunning, indelible moment that blends mythology, lust and bon vivant romance.

I really enjoy how the Baron ages back and forth according to how well the adventure is faring -- after arriving on the moon, he is rejuvenated back into a man in his prime. After Vulcan tosses them out of his realm, he reverts to an old codger.

It's an apt metaphor for watching Gilliam's films, which always make me feel like a child again. Would that real life could flow the way it does in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: "Conviction"

"Conviction" is a well-meaning drama that contains absolutely zero surprises. Hilary Swank gives another strong, stubborn performance as a working-class woman who essentially put her life on hold for two decades to get her brother sprung from prison on a wrongful murder conviction. We know even before the arrest that he will eventually be let go, because why else would they bother making this movie, based on a true story?

Tony Goldwyn directs in a resolute, straightforward manner that never allows any doubts about who the good and bad guys are. Melissa Leo, playing the ambitious cop who made the arrest, is denied even a sliver of humanity. There's one scene, years later, of Betty Anne Waters (Swank) confronting the cop, and she makes some weak excuse about being the only woman on the force in the early 1980s.

Tales of this officer's misdeeds continue, but she's never seen or heard from again. If she's supposed to represent the villain of the piece, then screenwriter Pamela Gray does a poor job of setting her up as a worthy antagonist.

The story begins with the arrest of Betty Anne's brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell). Because he has a criminal record, the local police harass him over every misdeed committed in the community. But officer Nancy Taylor (Leo) seems to hold a special grudge against him. Kenny is depicted as a rebellious spirit who loves his sister fiercely, but just can't back down when he's pushed.

After it's clear no lawyer will touch the case, Betty Anne resolves to go to law school herself so she can represent her brother. Lacking even a high school diploma, this process takes years and years, during which time her marriage (Loren Dean plays the husband) dissolves and her relationship with her two sons grows strained.

What makes it a great role for Swank is that Betty Anne just won't take no for answer and won't give up -- even when Kenny does. Rockwell gives a genuine performance of measured power, as Kenny's will is slowly sapped out of him by the passing of time and the fading of hope. Rockwell makes us feel the years.

Minnie Driver plays a fellow older law student who offers her friendship and assistance, and Peter Gallagher plays Barry Scheck, the head of the Innocence Project, which provides a hand in getting Kenny freed. Juliette Lewis has a small, (unintentionally?) comic turn as one of the witnesses who helped seal Kenny's fate, and now provides a key break in the case.

As a legal drama, "Conviction" doesn't really have much plot to churn over. Betty Anne isn't portrayed as some kind of blue-collar Eliza Doolittle who suddenly transforms into a legal savant. Their case is built entirely around the slim hope of finding some blood evidence that wasn't destroyed so they can have it DNA tested.

I don't know how many scenes there are of Betty Anne and her cohorts phoning, pleading, looking through storage rooms in search of the elusive DNA. Of course, we know it will eventually turn up. Once it's found, though -- a little more than an hour into the film's run time -- the story keeps finding ways to delay the inevitable, and milk the dramaturgy.

As is to be expected in a Hollywood movie, certain liberties have been taken. The film portrays the time between which the DNA evidence turned up until Kenny's release as more than a year, when in fact it was something like two weeks.

Strangely, in the inevitable title cards right before the end credits that explain what happened to the various people, it doesn't mention that Kenny Waters died in a fall a few months after getting out of prison.

As a film that got a lot of early mentions for Oscar contention, there's no denying "Conviction" registers as a disappointment. Swank and Rockwell still give fine performances, almost enough to recommend the movie on that basis alone. The stubbornness of Betty Anne, though, is mirrored in the script's tunnel-vision approach to storytelling, which doesn't leave much room for nuance or complexity.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: "Hereafter"

"Hereafter" is not a typical Clint Eastwood film. But then, is there even such a thing anymore?

North of 80, Eastwood continues to be the rare filmmaker who takes genuine risks, trying different genres and approaches to directing with seemingly every new turn. Perhaps it's because he was so pigeonholed in his acting career in the 1960s, '70s and '80s that he's spent the last 20 years throwing changeups from behind the camera.

Here's a guy who made a stolid World War II picture ("Flags of Our Fathers") and then followed it up with a better one, in Japanese subtitles, that portrayed the same battle from the perspective of the enemy ("Letters from Iwo Jima"). He also directed Oscar-caliber performances out of Angelina Jolie in the under-appreciated "Changeling" about an obscure 1920s child disappearance case, and Hilary Swank in a movie about girl boxers ("Million Dollar Baby") that packed a sneaky, sentimental haymaker.

Eastwood even starred as a crotchety retiree facing off with hoodlums in a film ("Gran Torino") that was essentially a rebuke of his own tough-guy star persona.

Even when the results are plodding and predictable -- "Invictus," the wildly overrated "Mystic River" -- we never lose the sense we're watching a talent perennially in search of new stories to tell, and new ways to tell them.

"Hereafter" will go down as one of Eastwood's minor works, but it's still a worthwhile one.

It's a tender, probing drama about an international trio dealing with death -- and what comes after. The original screenplay by Peter Morgan is deliberately paced and even languid at times, as the audience awaits the inevitable denouement when their storylines will intersect.

Matt Damon plays George Lonegan, a real-deal psychic who ditched budding fame and fortune for an anonymous job at a factory because he couldn't handle the emotional turbulence that follows in the wake of his readings. "A life that's all about death isn't any kind of life at all," is how he put it to his opportunistic brother (Jay Mohr), who wants to cash in on the gift George considers his curse.

It's an intentionally cramped, interior performance by Damon as a guy with an extraordinary ability who yearns for a mundane life. George purposefully fills his days with distraction, from listening to audio books of Charles Dickens to taking an Italian cooking class, where he stumbles upon an attraction with another student (Bryce Dallas Howard) that lights a tiny spark of hope in his ascetic existence.

The second leg of the plot revolves around Marie LeLay (Cécile De France), a famous French television anchor who is nearly killed by a tidal wave while vacationing in South Asia, in the film's pulse-quickening opening sequence. Actually, technically she was killed, traveling through a wispy world of light and indistinct figures before being revived.

It sets her off on a wild jaunt to explore her near-death experience, and take on an establishment that dismisses such tales as hokum. As a result, she finds herself being elbowed out of the mainstream success she craves, both professionally and romantically.

The weakest third of the movie centers on Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren), a British boy whose twin brother was killed in a car accident. They're clever lads who used their wits to outsmart the social services investigators who wanted to take them away from their junkie mother (Lyndsey Marshal).

When he's assigned to foster care after the tragedy, Marcus seeks out a string of bogus psychics to find some way to continue their sibling bond beyond the grave.

"Hereafter" is less concerned with the metaphysics of existence after we die -- contrasted with the celestial, CGI-assisted playground of Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" -- than the earthly tribulations of people still alive who struggle to cope with the brush of Death's hand.

While George's ability to reach across that divide drives the story, the conclusions the film reaches are unsettled and may be unsatisfying for audience members who crave crisp closure. Only Eastwood is daring enough to make a movie more concerned with raising niggling questions than answering them.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Video review: "Please Give"

Kate, a thriving New York City businesswoman, offers a man her dinner leftovers, plaintively asking if he is hungry. He is late middle age, African-American, and his clothes have seen better days.

The beatific expression of pity on Kate's face is shattered when the man nods toward the swank restaurant in front of him. "I'm waiting for a table," he says haughtily.

This delicious scene represents the essence of "Please Give," a black comedy from writer/director Nicole Holofcener about how sometimes even charity is selfish.

Kate, well-played by Catherine Keener, is hooked on pity. She doles out $20 bills to the homeless, but won't buy her teen daughter the expensive pair of jeans she's dying for. Kate volunteers at a nursing home, but is asked to leave after a few hours because her fretful concern for the aged residents brings them down.

She and husband Alex (a spot-on Oliver Platt) run a business selling vintage furniture they bought off the bereaved offspring of the recently dead, who didn't know what they had. Perhaps Kate's runaway giving is an unconscious offset for their outrageous markups.

Their next-door neighbor is 91-year-old Andra, whose space Kate and Alex will take over whenever she kicks off. Andra has two granddaughters: Rebecca and Mary (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet, respectively) who are mirror images of altruism. Rebecca gives so much of herself there isn't much left for a real life, while Mary is following in Andra's nasty, self-centered footsteps.

"Please Give" is filled with delightful performances, but I found it hard to connect with any of the characters. The film's deeper theme seems to be about how people can be generous on the one hand and cutthroat on the other.

For Kate, everything's a competition -- even who can be the nicest to the less fortunate.

Video goodies are not so good.

The extras are rather minimal. There's a roundup of outtakes from production, a behind-the-scenes tour on the set, and clips from a Q&A with Holofcener.

Anyone else see the irony of a movie called "Please Give" being released with measly set of bonus features?

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951)

The two gold bouillon thieves in "The Lavender Hill Mob" are criminal novices -- a workaday salaryman and a manufacturer of cheap souvenirs. That's how they manage to pull off the perfect crime -- by combining their unique set of skills and circumstances with the appearance of being the unlikeliest of suspects.

Alas, as rookies they manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, leading to their eventual capture.

The trouble for Henry "Dutch" Holland (Alec Guinness) and Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) arrives after they've gotten off scott-free, having successfully smuggled a million English pounds worth of gold across the Chanel, melted down into the form of Eiffel Tower souvenirs.

While preparing to unload the goods, they spot a group of British schoolgirls who have inadvertently bought the little gold towers after the shopkeeper carelessly opened the wrong box.

Now, if Holland and Pendlebury had kept their wits about them, they would have let the girls go and chocked the loss of 30,000 pounds or so as an acceptable loss. Instead, they go into a frenzy of activity, convinced the towers must be reclaimed or else they'll be found out.

They chase the girls all over Paris and then London, drawing attention to themselves in a way that simply letting those six souvenirs gather dust on a shelf somewhere never would have.

Of course, screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke sets up an impossible chain of events, in which one of the girls intended to give her Eiffel Tower to her policeman friend, and it just so happened that the detective on the gold case was standing right there when she gave it over, and he had a handy-dandy chemical test ready to prove it was gold, etc. It's a pretty tall Jenga tower of unlikely events. Anyway, Holland and Pendlebury could've just hopped a flight to South America directly from Paris.

"Lavender" is an enjoyable caper, even if one does mind the contortions of the plot. Director Charles Crichton keeps things moving at a brisk pace -- even at a mere 81 minutes, the movie never seems like it's in a hurry.

The main appeal of the film is that Holland and Pendlebury are regular Englishmen who probably never would've thought of committing the heist of the century if they had never met. Pendlebury moves into Holland's boarding house, and after Holland learns his new friend has a foundry at his warehouse, it gives him an idea.

Holland has spent the last 20 years supervising the transfer of gold bouillon from foundry to bank every day, earning a reputation as a meticulous and scrupulously honest employee. Ironically, even though he's directly responsible for a tremendous amount of his company's wealth, Holland is dismissed by his supervisors as an unimaginative drone, and his tiny paycheck reflects their disdain.

The real joy of the movie is less about the caper than these two invisible men discovering the thrills of attempting something extraordinary -- even if it is felonious.

The film ends with Pendlebury captured by the police and Holland having made his escape to Rio de Janeiro and setting himself up as a wealthy playboy. It's all a ruse, though, since he only escaped with the six gold souvenirs, which funded one year of "a life to which I had been unaccustomed."

A young Audrey Hepburn can be glimpsed giving Holland a kiss at the beginning; even screen legends got their start playing nightclub girls, hotel receptionists and Frieda the cigarette girl.

3 stars out of four

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: "Nowhere Boy"

"Nowhere Boy" distinguishes itself as much more than a drippy "before they were stars" biopic of John Lennon, and manages to wade into some actual soulful territory. How accurate a depiction it is of Lennon's teen years is impossible to say. But even if we can't assess its historical genuineness, the movie is faithful to its own truth.

It succeeds as a moving story of a boy, expressively played by Aaron Johnson, whose life would have been interesting enough to justify a movie about it even if he'd never gone on to be one of The Beatles.

Johnson, who affected an American accent so believable in this spring's "Kick-Ass" that many of us were shocked to discover he's British, nails the Liverpool speech patterns of Lennon and his peers. His features are a far sight too pretty to resemble the pinch-faced Lennon, but more importantly we believe he could be Lennon -- particularly later in the story when he acquires a swelled head bigger than the pompadour he copied off Elvis.

His Aunt Mimi is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, doing that rigid, emotionally closed-off British thing that few do as well as Scott Thomas. Early in the story she loses her husband George (David Threlfall), who encouraged John's playful side, leaving the disparate pair stuck together in the cramped confines of Mendips house.

John has lived with his aunt and uncle as long as he can remember, though there are some hazy recollections of trouble involving his parents. When his mother Julia (a marvelous Anne-Marie Duff) shows up at George's funeral, it's an excuse from them to reconnect.

John is shocked to learn his mother lives just a short walk away. At first, he's enthralled with the renewed relationship. His mother, red-haired and vibrant, is passionate about life and music. Soon he's ditching aunt Mimi to spend more and more time with his mum.

Eventually, dark secrets about Julia and his own past rise up to complicate things, and John finds himself estranged from both his aunt and mother. He funnels that anger, of course, into music.

Julia introduces John to rock 'n' roll and teaches him to play the banjo. The scene where she sings him "Maggie May," a ribald tune about a whore that is something of an unofficial anthem of Liverpool, is pure magic. At that moment, with John's eyes twinkling, we can see the boy's fate is sealed.

John launches a band called The Quarrymen that plays a few local gigs, and soon attracts the attention of 15-year-old Paul McCartney, a musical prodigy whose expertise on the guitar puts their three-chord progressions to shame. I'd have said Thomas Brodie Sangster was too baby-faced to play Paul, but if you look at photos from the era the resemblance is actually fairly spot-on.

Although it's not the central dynamic of the film -- John's relationship with his two mother figures is -- the interaction between John and Paul is interesting. Despite being younger and subservient to John's leadership of the band, Paul manages to subtly influence John about both his musical and personal direction. He even introduces a friend, George Harrison (Sam Bell), into the band.

"Nowhere Boy" is based on a memoir by Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, adapted for the screen by Matt Greenhalgh. It was skillfully directed by Sam Taylor-Wood -- who is engaged to her star Johnson, despite being more than twice his age. (I'm not judging, just reporting that which is interesting.)

I should note that Johnson did his own singing for the film. He doesn't quite sound like Lennon, but he sounds good enough to have become Lennon. One scene, where The Quarrymen are recording "In Spite of All the Danger" at a two-bit studio, is a delightful aural feast.

Ultimately, "Nowhere Boy" is less about the artistry of John Lennon than the boy who had a yawning hole in his life that he desperately needed to fill. Music just happened to fit the bill.

3 stars out of four

Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"

I'm enough of a Woody Allen fan to say there's no such thing as a bad Woody Allen movie. The problem with "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is not that it isn't good, but that it feels like we've already seen this movie too many times before.

The narcissistic writer, the ambitious career woman trapped in dead-end marriage, the workplace flirtation that turns into (maybe) something more -- we've encountered these characters many times before in various iterations over Allen's 40-plus years of filmmaking. The only thing that changes is which actors play them.

Allen is a famously prolific writer/director, cranking out about a movie a year. There's bound to be repetition of themes and plots across such a huge body of work, but lately it seems he sticks to a formula with interchangeable parts.

Even the plain, spare black-and-white title sequences and old-timey musical score feel less like the affectations of a stubbornly independent artist than the rut of someone who can't find anything fresh to say.

That's also the plight of Roy (Josh Brolin), an American novelist living in London with his wife Sally (Naomi Watts). Roy gave up a career in medicine to write, and after one modestly successful book he's been unable to come up with anything publishers want.

They depend on financial assistance from Sally's mother Helena (Gemma Jones), who recently was abandoned by her husband of 40 years, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). He didn't seem to have any real reason for divorcing Helena, other than fear of getting old, and she took it rather badly -- first attempting suicide, and then turning to a fourth-rate psychic for spiritual help.

Sally has recently taken a job working for successful art gallery owner Greg (Antonio Banderas), and it's not long before she's longing for the attention of her sexy boss. Roy, meanwhile, has become enamored with the young Indian girl (Freida Pinto) who moved into the apartment across the way, allowing him to play peeping tom.

Helena takes to popping in at Roy and Sally's any hour of the day, chattering away about her latest revelation from the psychic. She believes she's destined to meet a new love, and that Alfie won't be nearly as happy with his new wife as he was with her.

That psychic may just be stringing Helena along, but proves prescient about Alfie's new relationship. Charmaine (Lucy Punch) is half his age and a prostitute -- that's actually how Alfie meets her. But the old dodderer convinces himself she's got a the proverbial heart of gold, instead of just being a digger of it.

When Allen is really clicking -- say, with "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "Annie Hall" -- these self-deluded creatures seem, for all the ridiculousness of their relationships, at least believable. But here, the characters are mere comedy constructs, built to be laughed at.

Is Alfie such an aging lothario that he'd hand over his life to an obvious tart? Could Roy be any more obvious and piggish in his overtures to his lovely neighbor? Would level-headed Sally really throw herself at a man who makes no pretense of returning her affection?

Only Jones, as the increasingly discombobulated Helena, has any real weight or plausibility to her character. She's wallowing in self-pity and half a loon to boot, but we at least deem her a real person we could pass on the street.

"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is cookie-cutter Woody Allen. His fans will savor the familiar taste, while the rest of us wish he'd seek out new recipes.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: "Red"

"Red" is an agreeable piffle, a fun action/comedy that's silly without being moronic. When I found out it was about retired CIA agents being hunted down by their former agency, I immediately thought a better title would have been "Old Spies Like Us."

"Red" actually stands for "Retired and Extremely Dangerous" -- the designation given to characters played by Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren. They range in age from Willis' Frank Moses, who's probably in his mid-50s, to Freeman's Joe Matheson, who's 80 and dying of liver cancer to boot.

Freeman is aged up convincingly and looks a bit frail, but Willis is lean and sleek, and still appears capable of laying down some serious hurt. Why would the CIA forcibly retire someone seemingly still in his prime? The question is never asked or answered, but this is not the sort of movie to dally with logistics.

The film is based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, though director Robert Schwentke and screenwriter siblings Jon and Erich Hoeber ditch the gritty tone for a light fun 'n' games feel. The comic book centered on Frank, but the movie adds new characters to make it an ensemble.

Malkovich plays Marvin Boggs, a wild ex-agent hiding out in the Florida swamps, whose paranoia about the government spying on him is tempered by the fact that he actually was secretly drugged with daily doses of LSD. Marvin has a nice bit where he squares off gunslinger-style with an opponent wielding a rocket launcher, and he shoots the missile out of the air.

Mirren is a delight as Victoria, a British retiree who breaks up her routine of gardening and cross-stitching with the occasional assassination contract. Mirren is kittenish and playful, and hell on wheels behind the eyesight of a large-caliber rifle.

Joe, meanwhile, fritters away his waning days in a New Orleans retirement home, ogling the nurses.

Frank lives in drab suburbia, putting up Christmas decorations simply because that's what his neighbors do. He receives monthly pension checks from the government that he rips up so he can call the accounting department to complain that they never arrived. This allows him to speak with Sarah, a worker drone with dreams of an exciting life.

Frank is sweet on her and longs for a normal life -- until a squad of black-ops types turn up at his home and try to kill him.

Sarah is played by Mary Louise-Parker in a turn so vibrant and likeable that it doesn't occur to us that her character is completely unnecessary to the story. After being kidnapped by Frank -- he figures if the government is gunning for him, they'll target Sarah, too -- she spends most of the movie literally standing around in the background while Frank, Victoria, Joe and Marvin ply their violent trade.

The plot is a twisting affair that you need not pay much attention to -- something to do with some nasty business down in Guatemala long ago. It's just an excuse to set up action scenes and humorous encounters.

Other figures in the mix include Richard Dreyfuss as a wicked arms dealer; Brian Cox as Frank's old Russian adversary; and Karl Urban as a young CIA agent tasked with taking down Frank, and finds himself getting schooled.

"Red" reminded me a bit of "Sneakers," a 1992 caper with Robert Redford about a bunch of washed-up, written-off spooks who get together for a new job. Both are well-made escapist entertainment, signifying nothing other than a good time.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Video review: "How to Train Your Dragon"

Don't get me wrong, "Toy Story 3" was terrific. But for my money, the best animated film so far in 2010 was "How to Train Your Dragon."

This marvelous computer-animation effort from DreamWorks combined exciting action sequences with slightly subversive humor, wrapped in a subtle life-lessons subtext about overcoming disability.

Jay Baruchel provides the voice of Hiccup, a wimpy teenage Viking who'd rather tinker with gizmos than fight the plague of dragons that constantly attack his village. But when your old man is the battle-scarred chieftain (Gerard Butler), your future is pretty much laid out for you.

Hiccup reluctantly enrolls in Dragon Training class, learning how to combat the various types of beasties breathing fire, spitting noxious gas and spewing lightning bolts. But his real education comes when he befriends a wounded dragon he dubs Toothless, and learns they're not the mindless killers his people have made them out to be.

Toothless has a maimed tail that won't allow him to fly without Hiccup's technology wizardry. And Gobber, the local blacksmith, is missing a leg and a hand. These and other story elements underscore the theme of celebrating our differences, without any of the usual pat smarminess.

Directed by Dean DuBlois and Chris Sanders, the same team behind "Lilo & Stitch," "Dragon" is the sort of smart, sassy kiddie flick that parents secretly slip into the video player after the children have gone to bed.

Extras range from measly to quite good, depending on which version you buy. The single-disc DVD comes with only a behind-the-scenes featurette with cast and crew.

The double DVD edition includes three deleted scenes, a message from author Cressida Crowell, and several games like a "Viking Personality Test," "Learn to Draw Toothless" and so forth.

On top of these features, the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack boasts a filmmakers' commentary track, a featurette on the artistry of dragons, pop-up trivia, and an interactive picture-in-picture feature with storyboards, video and interviews.

Plus, a new animated short: "Legend of the BoneKnapper Dragon."

"How to Train Your Dragon" hits video stories Friday, Oct. 15.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, October 11, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972)

I would not have thought any film version of Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" could capture the off-kilter genius of that unique, seminal book. Reading it is such a profoundly literary experience, as Vonnegut himself continually reminds us through a jumping bean storyline and even inserting himself (briefly) as a character. The book deconstructs itself even as you turn the pages.

Consider that the 1972 movie directed by George Roy Hill from a screenplay adaptation by Stephen Geller does not contain either of the signature lines that appear repeatedly throughout the book: A bird chirping "Poo-tee-weet" at the senselessness of war, and the Tralfamadorian observation on death and destruction, "And so it goes," which Vonnegut employed 106 times.

And yet I found the film captured the essence of the book even while diverging from it. Vonnegut himself always claimed to be extremely pleased with it. That should be good enough for me.

I confess that I hadn't even known there was a cinematic version of "Slaughterhouse-Five." I only came across it while researching another Reeling Backward film, "The Sugarland Express," and found that actor Michael Sacks made his film debut in the starring role as Billy Pilgrim.

In the book, Billy is almost a completely passive entity -- he reacts to things, rather than acting to influence people and events around him. Sacks, though, brings a little more authority and independence to the role.

As a time-traveler who jumps around in his own life, he has a perspective on events -- including foreknowledge of his own death and the end of the universe -- that lends him a preternatural calm. Sacks' Billy Pilgrim is a man who is an observer in life, but that's because it's the role he chose.

The movie, at a crisp 104 minutes, wisely focuses on the two pivotal events of Billy's life: His capture by the Germans during World War II and presence at the fire-bombing of Dresden; and his kidnapping and display in a zoo on the planet Tralfamador.

The aliens are unseen creatures who live in the fourth dimension of time, and experience all events simultaneously. Even though they know an accident by one of their scientists will wipe the universe from existence, to them it is the same as the past -- something they cannot change.

When Billy asks them why they won't let him leave their benign prison of his own free will, the Tralfamadorians respond that Earth is the only planet where the concept of free will exists. All the ugliness of existence -- including the charred, rotting devastation of war -- is uncontrollable, and therefore not really to be regretted.

The film boasts some really fine supporting performances. Eugene Roche plays Edgar Derby, a fellow war prisoner who becomes Billy's protector and mentor. An older teacher who joined the Army because of all the students he'd urged to get into the fight, Derby is a man of goodwill and common sense. We can see Derby's influence in Billy's postwar life, settling down with a fat wife and a booming career in optometry -- even though he seems to have little real passion for either.

Valerie Perrine, in her first credited film role, is sweet and saucy as Montana Wildhack, a Hollywood starlet also zapped to Tralfamador to be Billy's mate in captivity. She probably spends at least 50 percent of her screen time in the nude.

Ron Leibman brings a twitchy energy to Paul Lazzaro, Billy's lifelong nemesis. For imagined slights during their captivity, Lazzaro repeatedly promises to assassinate Billy when he leasts expects it. Since he knows the future, Billy has already learned that Lazzaro will eventually make good on his threat.

The music is an elegant collection of piano pieces by Glenn Gould -- one of only two film scores he ever wrote.

The Dresden scenes have a spare, raw beauty that lingers. I appreciated the layered portrayal of the Germans -- imperfect in their own human frailties.

I give enormous credit to George Roy Hill and Stephen Geller for translating a book I thought would never receive a worthy reflection on the big screen.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review: "Secretariat"

"Secretariat" is a horse tale like "Seabiscuit," but the movie it better resembles is "The Rookie," another sports-themed film from Disney about an underdog taking on the world. Despite the title, the subject is not the thoroughbred who won the 1973 Triple Crown and is widely considered the greatest racehorse ever, but his owner, Penny Chenery.

It's a solid performance by Diane Lane in a movie that's just a little bit too slick for its own good, where all the pieces fit together with premanufactured precision. Still, when that horse starts to run, we can't help cheering for him, and for the willful woman who believed in Secretariat so much she bet the farm (literally) on him.

There's a neat scene early on where Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), assesses the colt's many faults -- too fat, lays back in the gate, etc. -- while recognizing that he's got a winner on his hands. I could say the same about this movie.

Movie critics are much like horse traders in that way: You can check the teeth and press the horseflesh all you want, but you don't really know what you've got until the animal runs his race.

On paper, "Secretariat" is riddled with problems, but the sum is much more than its wobbly parts.

The screenplay by Mike Rich (who also penned "The Rookie") unspools with machine-like exactness, hitting story beats with predictable rhythm. When Secretariat loses a race right before the first leg of the Triple Crown, it's the classic Darkest Before the Dawn moment.

Malkovich's loopy Lucien dresses like a plaid pimp and mumbles a stream of advice and curses in French. He's a standard-issue cinematic outsider, secretly yearning for mainstream success in the winner's circle.

When Penny's husband (Dylan Walsh) shows up every 20 minutes or so to lament all the time she's spending away from their family, we know it's only a matter of time before his big denouement where he tells her what an inspiration she is.

Director Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers") lets his cast wander off into hagiographic pronunciations about how each of them is wonderful in their own way.

Consider this line from Penny, after she refuses to let her dad's (Scott Glenn) noble-but-unsuccessful horse farm be sold off: "My father's legacy isn't money. It's the will to win, and to live with it if you can't."

There's a barely-concealed religiosity to the proceedings, what with all the talk about "lifting up," and a gospel-heavy soundtrack. Loyal groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) even sanctifies the Kentucky Derby track before the race.

Secretariat's nemesis was a brown stallion named Sham, but it's hard for a horse to play the heavy. Ditto for Sham owner Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano), who's portrayed with such cartoonish boastfulness and male chauvinism -- dismissing Penny as a "housewife" -- that he doesn't feel particularly threatening.
The real villain of the movie is estate taxes.

After the government demands $6 million after her father's passing, Penny is pressured by her husband and brother (Dylan Baker) to sell Secretariat. Instead, she comes up with an innovative plan to franchise the horse's breeding rights to a select group of investors, at a then-unheard of price of nearly $200 grand a pop (so to speak).

The catch: It was the ultimate pay-for-performance deal. If Secretariat failed to win any leg of the Triple Crown, the Chenery farm would have been liquidated.

This is where "Secretariat" really sparkles, as the story of a unique woman who was willing to bet all her chips and defy the establishment. The tale may have been executed in a cookie-cutter fashion, but this rousing yarn still breaks away.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Video review: "The Karate Kid"

First of all, the style of fighting depicted in the remake of "The Karate Kid" is explicitly stated to be kung fu, not karate. At one point American expatriate Dre (Jaden Smith) even corrects his mother, who has brought them to China for her job, when she dubs it karate.

And the Mr. Miyagi role from the original film has shifted from Japanese to Chinese, with Jackie Chan playing Mr. Han, the local handyman hiding a bowl of whoop-tush behind his sad, enigmatic facade.

In fact, in everywhere but America, this movie was titled, "The Kung Fu Kid."

Directed by Dutch filmmaker Harald Zwart from a script by rookie screenwriter Christopher Murphey, the reboot does a good job of updating the story while keeping the bones of the conflict intact.

Smith, who seems to be channeling the hip-yet-unthreatening mannerisms of superstar dad Will, is a terrifically likeable presence as Dre, target of the local bullies.

After he begins instruction under Mr. Han, the film builds to a big showdown with his tormenter at a kung fu competition that's a virtual copy of the first film -- right down to Master Li, the sadistic opposing teacher, instructing one of his thugs to cripple Dre's knee, requiring him to pull off a fantastic one-legged maneuver.

It's feel-good pap, but well-done and entertaining.

Video extras are pretty good, though the lack of a commentary track leaves something of a hole in the offerings.

The DVD has a 20-minute making-of documentary, which includes the tidbit that Chan was the one who came up with the "jacket on, jacket off" training exercise mirroring the "wax on, wax off" one from the original film.

There's also an interactive feature teaching the basics of speaking Chinese, and a music video by Justin Bieber.

On top of these, the Blu-ray edition includes production video diaries hosted by Chan, and an interactive feature about the geography of where the film was shot.

Juiciest extra: An alternate ending in which Mr. Han fights it out with evil Master Li! Think of it as a spicy little fortune cookie.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, October 4, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Dark Passage" (1947)

"Dark Passage" wouldn't have been a particularly notable film noir, except for three things: Bogie & Bacall, Bogie's face swap and first-person camera perspective.

It was, of course, one of several onscreen pairings of offscreen couple Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. They met on the set of "To Have and Have Not" (profiled in this column some months back) and soon became a permanent item. Even though she was much younger than him, somehow their faces just fit well together on the screen.

Another interesting thing is that Bogart, whose distinct face is indelibly etched into the iconography of American cinema, does not show his mug until about halfway through the movie. When we do see him, his face is all bandaged up like the Invisible Man. Bogie has to do a lot of acting with just his eyes, and gives a softer, more sensitive performance than his usual tough-guy routine.

For the first third or so of the movie, we don't even see Bogart at all, bandaged or otherwise. That's because director Delmer Daves shoots from a very unusual perspective, as if the audience is seeing through Bogart's eyes. We see his hands coming into the frame, but that's it.

If indeed they are Bogart's hands -- they look more beat-up and hairy-knuckled than I would have thought. It seems more likely that they rigged up a special camera to an operator, who walks around and pretends to be Bogart, sticking his own hands in front of the lens when necessary.

Bogart's voice narrates his thoughts as his character, Vincent Parry, escapes from San Quentin, where he's been imprisoned for a bum murder rap after supposedly killing his wife.

Young painter Irene Jansen (Bacall) picks him up in her car, saving him from being recaptured, and keeps Vincent in her apartment until he can figure things out. He goes to see an old friend, trumpet player George, and bumps into a helpful cab driver (Tom D'Andrea) who, rather than turning him into the authorities for the $5,000 reward, suggests he visit a plastic surgeon instead.

Plastic surgery is something depicted in Golden Age movies as some kind of magic process by which people's faces can be completely altered in the matter of 90 minutes under the knife, followed by a mere week of recovery.

The doctor, who makes vague threats about turning Vincent's face into that of a monkey if he takes a dislike to him, ends up doing his job very well indeed. Interestingly, he suggests making Vincent look older and with a few scars, which seems to serve no purpose other than to justify Bogart's distinctive look.

The movie abruptly shifts from the first-person perspective after Vincent is sedated, the camera turning around to show us Bogart's face in all those bandages.

He tries to return to George's to lay up while his new face heals, but finds him dead, bludgeoned with his own trumpet. Out of options, Vincent returns to Irene's.

The second half of "Dark Passage" is not nearly as good as the first, as the plot devolves into a mix of gobbledygook and double-crosses. A small-time crook that Vincent bumped into earlier turns up again to blackmail Irene and Vincent. Madge (Agnes Moorehead), a friend of Irene's who also was the star witness against Vincent at his trial, also makes an appearance, along with her once-fiance Bob, who now has an eye on Irene.

I have to say the romance between Bogart and Bacall is not terribly convincing. Irene seems to have talked herself into believing she loves Vincent without ever really having a reason for doing so. There's a few moist eyes, but not much real passion.

The ending is notable in a few ways. Having figured out that Madge was the one who framed him, Vincent confronts her, trying to force her to confess. When she refuses, he seems completely stumped as to what to do next. Was his entire plan to get a murderer to admit to what she did, even though there's no proof to substantiate it?

Anyway, Madge falls through the window to her death. Vincent describes it as her stumbling, but I think the real implication is supposed to be that she threw herself against the pane. Either way, Daves shows her entire fall from several angles, including her body lying on the pavement far below -- fairly gruesome for 1947.

Vincent and Irene talk on the phone from the bus station, where he's crossing the Mexico border on his way to Peru. Their conversation is reminiscent of the one between Red and Andy in "The Shawshank Redemption," where the person on the run tells the one they've left behind what little remote town they'll be in, even making Irene repeat the name back to her. In the last shot, they're reunited in a beach-side club.

"Dark Passage" isn't a particularly good film -- there's a lot of disparate elements that never quite sew themselves together. It's like a crazy patchwork made up of different pieces of other movies. Still, the audacious camera work alone make it memorable.

2.5 stars out of four