Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Video review: "Knight and Day"

Audiences were unkind to "Knight and Day." Maybe it's because they've collectively decided they're so over Tom Cruise. If so, I wouldn't blame them.

If someone were to construct a how-to guide for the world's biggest movie star to systematically alienate most of Hollywood and ticket-buyers, Cruise's actions over the last few years would look shockingly familiar.

But that doesn't diminish the fact that this is his most purely entertaining movie since "Jerry Maguire." He's a suave, dangerous and mesmerizing onscreen presence. As I wrote in my review at the time, "Tom Cruise reminds us why we used to like Tom Cruise so much."

He plays Roy Miller, a rogue super-spy on the run. He hooks up with June Evans (Cameron Diaz), a mechanic from Boston, to help get through airport security. Later, he flirts with her on the plane, and while she excuses herself to the lavatory, he assassinates everyone aboard.

Soon they're hopping all over the globe, with Roy's loyalties constantly in question. The never-mind plot has something to do with a new type of battery that can power an entire city, forever.

It's a classic movie MacGuffin -- it doesn't matter what it is, other than everybody wants it.

It's a fun thrill ride of a movie, with a tight, clever script by rookie screenwriter Patrick O'Neill. Director James Mangold ("Walk the Line") keeps the tone light, and stages the action scenes impressively without going over the top.

Give Cruise, and "Knight and Day," a second chance on video.

The movie is available as a single-disc DVD version or a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

The DVD comes with modest extras: A making-of documentary, a couple of featurettes and a Black Eyed Peas music video.

The combo pack ups the ante with several more behind-the-scenes features, and a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Wings of Desire" (1987)

"Wings of Desire" is one of those modern foreign classics that every serious movie lover is told they simply must see, and adore. I'd heard about it going as far back as my tenure in the cinema studies department at NYU in the early 1990s, and always meant to get around to it.

I did admire it, without really liking it all that much.

This is one of those films where the idea behind the movie is much stronger than the one they actually made. Wim Wenders' romantic (supposedly) fantasy about angels envying mortals is a lovely storytelling frame, particularly the angels' ability to read the thoughts of every human they meet. They exist to observe and catalogue the wondrous diversity of mankind's existence. Angels are the ultimate voyeurs.

Unfortunately, in Wenders' conception the interior monologues of every person is filled with poetic, sing-songy existentialist gobbledygook. It's like peeking over the shoulder of some Goth teen scribbling the worst kind of self-involved, morose verse imaginable.

Bruno Ganz -- familiar to American audiences for playing Hitler in "Downfall," a wonderful drama  known for its many YouTube re-edits -- plays Damiel, an angel tempted by the people he watches. In Wenders' screenplay (co-written with Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger), Damiel has grown tired of always observing and wants to experience life for himself. He confides to Cassiel (Otto Sander), a fellow angel surveying Berlin for all eternity:

It's wonderful to live as a spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people's minds. But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence. I don't want to always hover above. I'd rather feel a weight within, casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth.
I loved the device of  how the angels go about their business. Clad always in black trench coats (their wings are invisible), the angels move about unseen among the humans, pausing to listen in on their inner thoughts. Though they're never shown flying, we know they have this ability since we often see Damiel or Cassiel perched high up on a building -- preferring to congregate near statues of angels.

Occasionally, an angel will actually touch the human they're observing, which has the effect of calming them and even improving their mood. Cassiel performs this act on a man on a subway in a black mood, who is suddenly filled with resolve to start his life anew.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three humans these angels are following. The least interesting is Homer, an ancient man who spends most of his time at the library contemplating the end of his existence. He is a storyteller who has been forgotten by his audience, but isn't particularly bitter about it. At first there's a suggestion this is the actual Homer of antiquity, but he spends too much of his time musing about peace to be that spinner of war tales.

Another is Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a young trapeze artist in the dying circus on the edge of town. Marion is desperately lonely, and in observing her Damiel is convinced they are soul mates. Marion worries about having to go back to waitressing after the circus is closed by the local authorities, and spends her off time in her trailer home listening to Nick Cave records. (His band, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, makes a brief cameo near the end.)

The last person being watched is Peter Falk -- the actor, playing himself. He's in Germany to shoot a World War II film, and spends his down time drawing sketches of the extras. "These are extra humans," he muses in his inner thoughts.

Damiel is surprised when Falk seems to be able to sense his presence, and even begins talking to him. Later it is revealed that, like Damiel, Falk was an angel who grew bored with his spiritual existence and traded it in for a corporeal one. There's a funny joke about the angels arriving with their suit of armor after they turn into humans. Damiel pawns his for 200 marks, and Falk tells him he was robbed -- he got $500 for his at a New York shop 30 years earlier.

The cinematography by Henri Alekan is simply astonishing in its spare yet lyrical quality. Using a perspective employed in other films, including "A Matter of Life and Death," the heavenly visions are in black-and-white (with a slight sepia tone) while the earthly view is in color. In this case it fits, since the life of an angel is studious and even-keeled, while humans are filled with messy emotions.

This being a German art film, it wouldn't be complete without a ton of stock footage of Nazi atrocities, as Wenders' probes the nation's psyche tormented with guilt and remembrance. "Wings of Desire" is as much a meditation on Germany as heaven and earth.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the movie terribly boring at times. The languid scenes of the angels moving from human to human to listen to their thoughts are so lovely visually, but then we have to listen (or read in subtitles) to the pouty, self-obsessed interior lives of these people, whose thoughts bear little relation to those of actual humans.

"Wings of Desire" ends with an explicit invitation of "To be continued," but few people remember the 1993 sequel, "Faraway, So Close!", in which Cassiel checks in on Damiel with his new partner, Nastassja Kinski. There was also a 1998 sorta/kinda/quasi Hollywood remake starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, "City of Angels," which plays up the sappy romance angle.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review: "Faster"

There's actually a lot of things to like about "Faster," but the final mixture of dissimilar elements leaves us with a strange creature whose head doesn't quite know what its tail is doing.

This new revenge drama at the very least brings Dwayne Johnson out of his self-imposed exile in kiddie flicks ("Tooth Fairy," "The Game Plan") and back into rougher fare. Let's face it, when one resembles the former pro wrestling star dubbed The Rock, he just naturally fits better in vengeful badass mode.

At first, we think director George Tillman Jr. is going for a parody, so over-the-top is the opening sequence.

Johnson plays a prison inmate who's just been sprung after 10 years hard time. After enduring a sanctimonious speech from the warden (Tom Berenger, in a throwaway cameo) he marches impatiently out of the prison gate into the desert sun. No one is there to greet him, so he literally runs to town. Waiting for him there is a souped-up Chevrolet Chevelle SS, with a gun under the seat and a list of names and addresses of people he is supposed to kill.

But screenwriting brothers Tony and Joe Gayton are actually going for something a little more sophisticated here -- a morality tale about vengeance and forgiveness, and a future enslaved to the past. Maybe that's why the principal characters are never given names, just titles. Johnson's is "Driver," since he was the wheel man on a bank robbery that went bad, leaving his brother dead and his mind fixated on slaughtering those who did it.

(The film's title is a little unclear. There are two nifty chase sequences, but I would hardly call this a car picture. And, if anything, the pace of the killings slows down the longer the movie goes on.)

Driver marches into a local telemarketing office, and without a word blows away the guy who played the bad kid in "Children of the Corn." Personally, I'm in favor of wiping out everybody that had anything to do with that movie.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Cop, a high-strung detective who's something of a laughingstock in the department. The hotshot in the squad (Carla Gugino) isn't too happy about being partnered up with a loser, who's even got the proverbial two weeks until retirement to boot.

Then there's Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a British assassin with some personal issues. Rather than being a cold executioner, he's an angsty Gen Y kid who pops prescription meds and talks to his therapist over the phone while he's on the job -- in this case, taking out Driver.

Killer also has a beautiful girlfriend (Maggie Grace) who wants him to give up the assassination game -- though, for a while we think she might have a hand in it too: After a quickie wedding, they decamp to a barren patch for couples' target shooting.

All these loopy pieces spin around each other -- Driver's methodical killings, Killer's neurotic self-absorption, Cop's mumbling and dithering -- before intersecting in the finale, in ways the audience long ago guessed at.

Johnson's the steadying influence, with a face full of scars and haunted eyes, and we want the movie to be about him and his obsession with slaying those who done him wrong -- even when one or two of them express genuine remorse. But "Faster" keeps wandering off.

Thornton's Cop is such a drag, and the whole strange package of an assassin who kills out of a need for validation feels like it was plucked from another movie and sewed onto this one, Frankenstein-style.

2 stars out of four

Review: "Tangled"

"Tangled" is a delightful amalgamation of new and old animation traditions. It's a slick computer-generated movie available in 3-D, but has an old-school approach with a classic fairy tale at its foundation, coupled with Broadway-style musical numbers.

The movie it most reminded me of is Disney's own "Beauty and the Beast" -- and that's a pretty wonderful thing to be reminded of.

Based on the Rapunzel fable by the Grimm brothers, "Tangled" is a far cry from the story about a long-haired maiden trapped in a tower awaiting rescue from an obliging prince. In screenwriter Dan Fogelman's version, Rapunzel is a feisty teen hungry for adventure, and her supposed rescuer is a thief who was just looking for a place to hide from the king's guards, and gets knocked cold by a frying pan-wielding Rapunzel.

There's more magic and mystery added to the tale, too. Rapunzel's mother the queen, deathly ill while pregnant, was healed by a magic flower that bequeathed its spell to the baby's girl's golden hair. Mother Gothel is an enchantress who needs the magic to keep herself young, so she steals the princess from her royal parents and locks her away in a tower.

Rapunzel grows up believing Gothel is her mother, who keeps her protected from a nasty, brutish world eager to exploit her magical hair. The locks take on a life of their own, cascading behind her like an endless bride's train, which she uses to tie her intruder, Flynn Ryder, into knots.

Flynn's a notorious bandit who's just made off with the royal crown -- unknowingly, it's the one Rapunzel was meant to wear -- and climbs the tower to put his pursuers off the scent. He's a cad who thinks too much of his ability to charm others, but agrees to Rapunzel's demand that he accompany her into town to solve the riddle of the mysterious lights that appear in the sky every year on her birthday. (It's actually the king and queen, lighting lanterns in the hope of one day finding her.)

There are some familiar Disney cues. Rapunzel's sidekick is a chameleon named Pascal who doesn't talk, but makes his intentions known through changing colors and mime. Maximus, the best horse in the kingdom, at first is Flynn's nemesis but comes to be a grudging ally.

The trio of principal voice actors are terrific. Mandy Moore gives Rapunzel an earnest-yet-centered quality -- not to mention some terrific singing pipes. Zachary Levi lends Flynn a rapscallion twinkle, and Donna Murphy nails Mother Gothel's screechy high notes, as well as the slithery charm of the low ones.

Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett and Richard Kiel provide the voices of some thugs who turn out to be not so scary, and Ron Perlman is a treat as the Stabbington brothers, Flynn's partners-in-crime-turned-enemies.

I wouldn't go so far as to call "Tangled" a musical, but there are at least three knockout tunes. I especially liked "I've Got a Dream," a jaunty bar song with a sweet core. Alan Menken, who composed music for "Beauty and the Beast" and many other Disney flicks, teams up with lyricist Glenn Slater.

Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard start out emphasizing action and adventure, but as time goes on the film gains heft and substance. One wordless scene, where the king and queen console one another over the loss of their child, is spellbinding in the gut-punch power of their grief.

Pixar has come to dominate the animation wing of Disney, but "Tangled" portents well for the future of fairy tales. This is one of the best princess stories from the House of Walt, since ever and ever.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Love and Other Drugs"

Here's a fairly conventional romantic drama that does a fantastic job of showing off the charms of two very attractive performers, Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal. It's almost a throwback to an old-fashioned type of movie-making in which stars were stars, and it was the job of the director, screenwriter and crew to make them look as good as possible.

"Love and Other Drugs" is set in the late 1990s when Viagra first hit the market, and Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Randall, the salesman who was born to hock it. Good-looking and with a rogue-ish charm that he uses to great effect, Jamie has a twinkly smile that melts the heart of the orneriest receptionist guarding access to the doctors he needs to pitch.

Jamie comes from a family of physicians (George Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh play the parents) but was a med school washout. Even his slovenly younger brother Josh (Josh Gad) is a dot-com millionaire.

He's eager to please -- "I'm very trainable" is his pet phrase -- and hides his self-loathing behind a charismatic veneer built on can-do ambition.

Jamie's not above playing dirty. A Pfizer man, he dumps the drug samples from his chief competitor from Lily (Gabriel Macht) into the dumpster, and bribes an influential doc (Hank Azaria) to let him tag along on patient rounds, posing as an intern.

There he meets Maggie Murdock (Hathaway), a waitress with Parkinson's and an attitude. After baring her breast during the exam, she clocks Jamie in the head upon learning he's a pharmaceutical rep.

In classic meet-cute form, in moments he transforms her anger into admiration for his magnetism. Soon they're in bed, but Maggie lays out the rules: Just empty sex, no relationship. I don't think I have to tell you this rule gets shattered.

Director Edward Zwick, who co-wrote the script with Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz, is better known for testosterone-laden flicks with a martial bent ("Courage Under Fire," "Glory"). His touch is light and sure, and he knows how to give Hathaway and Gyllenhaal that extra bit of star sparkle.

Maggie's disease, which is merely a reason for them to meet initially, takes on more weight as the narrative adopts an increasingly somber tone. The similarity to "Love Story" -- about a young cad who grows up when his lady has a life-changing illness -- is more than passing.

They're a solid pair of performances, as the actors show us layers to their characters we might not have initially guessed at.

They're also revealing in another way -- as in both actors show off an astonishing amount of skin. I can't remember the last time I saw two mainstream stars partaking in this much nudity.

The supporting performances are tidy and worthwhile. Oliver Platt plays Jamie's senior partner, who's hoping to ride his coattails to a spot in the Chicago office. Judy Greer is a slightly awkward receptionist who falls prey to Jamie's charms.

Azaria gets one nice scene where the doctor laments dealing with HMOs, drug companies and litigious lawyers instead of just making people's lives a little better.

Gad is the go-to man for comic relief, moving in with Jamie after his own marriage fails. Although, as Jamie himself finally thinks to ask, why does a multi-millionaire need to shack up with his brother?

"Love and Other Drugs" is sweet, funny, sad and occasionally even moves us a little. Despite the title, it doesn't really have anything insightful to say about drug companies making a profit by having doctors pump us full of medicine that may not even help us very much.

Call this movie a pleasant little placebo -- it may not make the world a better place, but it tastes good going down.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Video review: "Eat Pray Love"

It's good to see Julia Roberts back in serious-actress mode a decade after "Erin Brockovich." But "Eat Pray Love" was not the right movie to cement her comeback.

Based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, it's the story of an early-middle-aged woman who goes through a nasty divorce and decides to spend a year traveling the world. She spends time in Italy searching for the perfect pizza, in India getting in touch with her new-found spiritual roots, and finally in Indonesia where she falls in love with a Brazilian businessman played by Javier Bardem.

It's all a little too rote, and no wonder: Gilbert came up with the idea for the book beforehand, and used the advance money to finance her trip.

Those who've read it (unlike me) say the author is very upfront about the calculated nature of the whole enterprise, but the movie doesn't offer a peep. She's supposed to just leave her home in a whirlwind of passion and soulful discombobulation.

She meets a variety of characters, including a toad-like little holy man, a drawling Texas who shares her faith in Hinduism, and the aforementioned Latin lover.

It's a beautiful-looking movie without much really going on in its head, or its heart.
Bonus features are served in rather modest helpings.

Oddly, the centerpiece of the offerings is an extended version of the film. At a sprawling 139 minutes, the last thing this movie needed to be is longer.

The DVD comes with the extended version and a single featurette following director Ryan Murphy's journey to make the film.

In addition, the Blu-ray edition boasts a trio more featurettes: A making-of doc, and two more on Finding Balance and Praying in India.

For the true videophile, that's hardly adequate nourishment to justify buying your own copy.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 2

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Dodes'ka-den" (1970)

"Dodes'ka-den" nearly ended Akira Kurosawa's film career -- and his life.

The great Japanese auteur was so devastated by his first color film's failure that he attempted suicide, slashing himself dozens of times with a razor. He recovered, and eventually resumed making movies ... but not for five years.

This gentle drama-comedy about the denizens of a garbage-strewn shantytown is certainly one of Kurosawa's minor works, but I still count myself blessed for having seen it. I saw a brief clip of it years ago in a retrospective of the director's work, and knew I had to see it.

No ronin or samurai or ancient codes of battle honor here. This was one of Kurosawa's rare films set in modern times -- though it still has a lyrical, almost fairy tale quality that makes it feel like it could have been plucked out of ancient mythology.

It's a timeless tale about the disadvantaged and the downtrodden, a celebration of humanity's differences and glorious imperfections.

The title is the Japanese sound for a train or trolley car in motion -- roughly the equivalent of "choo-choo" in English. It's chanted repeatedly by Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi), a mentally challenged boy who lives with his mother in a landscape of hills and valleys shaped by the refuse of humanity.

Roku-chan fantasizes that he is the conductor of one of the trolleys that pass by their house/store every day. He puts on an imaginary hat, lovingly inspects his non-existent train, inserts his key and guides it on a path through the junkyard, shouting "dodeskaden-dodeskaden-dodeskaden-dodeskaden."

The other denizens, of course, consider him insane, and his long-suffering mother repeatedly scrubs graffiti dubbing him "train freak" off their walls. Roku-chan is oblivious, though, and prays to Buddha to "make my mother smarter" -- obviously parroting some of the prayers he's heard her make about him.

I was really intrigued by this pair, and disappointed to learn that they only appear fleetingly in the film, more or less as a framing device for a host of other stories and characters. I would have loved an entire story about just them.

There are too many names and faces for this non-Japanese speaker to keep straight. As is often the case with films featuring a large, ensemble cast and a host of intersecting storylines, we find ourselves intrigued by some and impatient with others. The tale of a grocer whose gaggle of children doubt their own paternity, for example, goes nowhere.

I never could quite understand the tale of the strange, wordless older man who stalks about the shantytown like an apparition, talking to no one and appearing to see nothing. The local harlot once tried to seduce him, but was unnerved by his groaning in his sleep. One day a woman named Ocho shows up and makes herself at home in his shack. She begs him repeatedly for forgiveness, but for what is never made clear. We guess that this is his wife, returned after a long self-imposed exile for the crime that turned him into a walking dead man. But her mission is fruitless, and she eventually leaves without ever being acknowledged.

Also bemusing is the tale of two workmen who return home every day so they can drink themselves into a stupor and complain about how their wives don't treat them right. Kurosawa uses a playful trick with his new medium of color, dressing one man in red and the other in yellow, and even decorating their houses in the same shades. One day the yellow man passes out drunk in the red home, and vice-versa, and they essentially swap wives for awhile. The wives seem content with the change of pace, but the local women who gather at the junkyard's lone faucet to do laundry -- and act as the film's Greek chorus -- are shocked.

The most heartbreaking tale is that of the young girl who lives with her aunt and uncle. Thin and plain, she is compelled to make paper flowers day and night to support her elders. Her uncle is a lazy tyrant, and uses his wife's absence for surgery at the hospital as an opportunity to force himself on the girl. Soon she is pregnant and facing a terrible choice. Her only relief is the kind boy who delivers sake to their home, and sneaks her candy and compliments.

There's also a beggar and his young son who live in the shell of an old automobile. They are slowly constructing an elaborate house using only their imaginations as tools and materials. The man loves to tinker with various styles and ideas, changing things around on a whim. His son is not really an active participant in the building the dream house, only agreeing obediently with his father's latest suggestions and choices.

The boy supports them by begging for food at restaurants in town. One time the father refuses the cook's instruction to boil the fish before eating it, insisting it is sour mackerel pickled in brine, and they both become quite ill. The wise old man who acts as the conscience of the community, and is something of a medicine man, counsels the beggar to seek out a doctor, but is refused. He is not proud, the old man surmises, merely weak.

There are a few other story threads -- a businessman with an embarrassing tic and a harpy of a wife among them -- but there really isn't a central theme or coherent plot in the traditional sense. We're merely peeking in on these vignettes among the garbage, where life is messy but thriving.
And so it goes.

3.5 stars out of four

Friday, November 19, 2010

Holiday movie preview

We're past the seventh-inning stretch in the cinematic season, and now is the time of year when films bear down, get serious, and swing for the fences.

The arrival of the penultimate "Harry Potter" film this week more or less marks the beginning of the awards season. Not that there aren't a few just-for-fun flicks -- Jack Black's humorous reboot of "Gulliver's Travels" comes to mind -- but for the most part the mood is a more somber this time of year.

Here's a look at what to expect in the coming weeks as we build toward the Academy Awards and those other, lesser prizes.

Please note, release dates are subject to change.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I -- Harry, Hermione and Ron have dropped out of Hogwarts and declared all-out war on evil Lord Voldemort, so expect some serious magical arse-kicking. Plans to present this film in 3D were shelved, though expect Part II next summer to include it.

The Next Three Days -- This prison break movie stars Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks and Liam Neeson, and is directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis -- and yet the buzz on it is practically non-existent. Never a good sign.

Nov. 24

Love and Other Drugs -- Set in the 1990s, this romantic drama stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a gigolo pharmaceutical salesman hocking the hot new drug, Viagra. Anne Hathaway is his equal in one-night stands, but then things get serious.

Burlesque -- "Chicago" was supposed to bring the musical genre back, but the record's been spotty since then. This little number stars Cher and Christina Aguilera in the classic (i.e., stale) tale of a small-town girl who gets her big break.

Faster -- Dwayne Johnson lays off the kiddie-friendly Disney fare and gets back to his butt-kicking roots in this R-rated revenge action/drama.

The King's Speech -- A whole lot of Oscar buzz is building for this drama starring Colin Firth as King George VI, who led England through WWII despite a severe speech impediment.

Tangled -- The new Disney animation flick is a new, boisterous take on the Rapunzel fairy tale. Substitute slo-mo martial arts action for protestations of undying love.

Dec. 3

Black Swan -- This ambitious drama from director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler") stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as ballerinas battling for the spotlight. Early reviews are enthusiastic.

I Love You Phillip Morris -- Has nothing to do with the tobacco company. Instead, this is Jim Carrey in his daring "Man on the Moon" mode. He plays a homosexual con man who finds the love of his life in prison, played by Ewan McGregor. Could be subversively sublime, or could be a disaster.

The Warrior's Way -- Kate Bosworth, a former It Girl who sorta disappeared for awhile, makes an unlikely comeback in a chop-socky Western that pits ninjas against gunslingers. With Danny Huston as the bad guy, because Danny Huston is always the bad guy.

All Good Things -- Of actors under the age of 40, I can't think of one more talented than Ryan Gosling, who stars in this mystery-drama based on a true story about a wealthy scion who weds working-class girl Kirsten Dunst, to the consternation of daddy (Frank Langella).

Night Catches Us -- A gritty drama set amid the Black Panther movement and inner-city crime world of 1970s Philadelphia. Starring Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington.

Dec. 10

The Fighter -- I'm dubbing this the "The" week: Every movie's title begins with "the." This one stars Mark Wahlberg in a biopic about a boxer who made his name by never going down. Christian Bale plays his brother and trainer.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader -- The third movie based on the book series by author C.S. Lewis faces an upward climb. After the second film tanked, a new studio bought up the rights and brought in a new director and creative team.

The Tempest -- This ambitious, effects-laden take on Shakespeare's play shakes things up by casting Helen Mirren in the traditionally male role of Prospero. With Russell Brand, Djimon Hounsou, Chris Cooper and Alfred Molina.

The Company Men -- This drama's release date was pushed back from earlier this fall, which bodes ill. Ben Affleck, riding high again after the critical and box office success of "The Town," plays an upwardly mobile executive who gets laid off and must rediscover himself.

The Tourist -- Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie star in this thriller about an American in Venice who gets mistaken for an international killer. From the director of Oscar winner "The Lives of Others."

Dec. 17

Yogi Bear -- In the "Garfield" mode of CGI critters paired with regular humans, the cartoon about a talking bear with an addiction for picnic baskets gets a big-screen treatment. With the voices of Dan Aykroyd as Yogi and Justin Timberlake as Boo-Boo.

How Do You Know -- James L. Brooks only directs a movie about once a decade, but it's usually a good one. This comedy/drama stars Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd as a couple who meet on the worst day of their lives: She breaks up with her dim-bulb baseball player boyfriend (Owen Wilson), while he's being investigated by the government. With Jack Nicholson.

TRON: Legacy -- Geeks are practically vibrating in anticipation for this sequel to the 1982 box office flop that became a cult classic. Jeff Bridges reprises his role as a video game designer who gets sucked into the computer matrix, and son (Garrett Hedlund) follows him into adventure.

Dec. 22

Country Strong -- Some say last year's "Crazy Heart" was just a remake of "Tender Mercies," so this drama about a washed-up country singer making her way back could feel like a retread. But the country music biz seems to be genuinely embracing star Gwyneth Paltrow.

Little Fockers -- It's the sequel to the sequel to "Meet the Parents," a one-joke movie that somehow spawned a franchise. Now Ben Stiller has kids, but father-in-law Robert De Niro is still on his case.

Gulliver's Travels -- Jonathan Swift meets Jack Black in this special effects showcase about a wannabe travel writer who goes from nobody to the next big thing.

Somewhere -- Writer/director Sofia Coppola looks to have recaptured the sad grace of "Lost in Translation" with her character study about a party-boy movie star (Stephen Dorff) getting his act together with the help of his daughter (Elle Fanning).

True Grit -- I'm starting to warm to the idea of this remake of the John Wayne classic from the Coen brothers ("No Country for Old Men"). Jeff Bridges takes on the role of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed U.S. Marshall who shoots first and asks questions whenever he damn well feels like it. Co-starring Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

Dec. 29

The Debt -- Three young Israeli agents pursue a Dr. Mengele-type Nazi, but their successful mission haunts them 30 years later. Starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington.

January and beyond -- Expect these films to get minimal theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for the Oscars, and arrive in local theaters in early 2011.

Blue Valentine -- A Sundance favorite, this romantic drama stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple who struggle to stay together through the years.

Frankie and Alice -- Halle Berry plays a stripper with multiple personalities -- the kicker being that one of them is a racist.

Rabbit Hole -- Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play parents dealing with the death of their child. Directed by the guy who made "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (!).

Casino Jack -- Kevin Spacey stars as lobbyist/conman Jack Abramoff.

Another Year -- English auteur Mike Leigh's latest is about a collection of unhappy older couples. With Jim Broadbent.

Biutiful -- A reportedly strong performance by Javier Bardem anchors this wide-ranging drama with an international perspective.

The Way Back -- Excellent Aussie director Peter Weir ("Witness") made this drama about soldiers who escaped from a Siberian gulag during WWII. With Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review: "127 Hours"

As the lights came up over the end credits of "127 Hours," I looked at the hand with which I'd been taking notes and asked myself, "Could you do it?"

Before this extraordinary film from Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"), I would have said the answer to that question was "no." But then, I also was dismissive of Aron Ralston, the real-life adventurer who hacked off his right arm with a dull knife after being pinned by a rock in a slot canyon for five days in 2003. The sort of people who risk their lives for (in my mind) no good reason, and often lose them in the process are selfish and undeserving of my sympathy, I felt.

What's amazing about the most transformative movie-going experience of 2010 is that, in the end, Aron feels the same way. Not about climbing mountains and canyoneering -- which the real Aron still does fervently, with a prosthetic arm -- but about the connection with other people he had previously eschewed.

Ultimately, "127 Hours" is not about a man who cuts off his own arm, but one who discovers a reason for living that is far more important to him than a mere limb.

"This rock has been waiting for me my whole life," he realizes.

There's a scene near the end where Aron, splendidly played by James Franco, has a vision of his future that could be. (I won't reveal what it is, other than to say it brought tears to these eyes, which do not shed them easily.) The desire to grasp that future is what gives him the resolve to snap the bones of his forearm and saw through his own skin, muscle, nerves and tendons with a cheap multi-tool.

That's the biggest surprise about this film, indisputably one of the best of the year: You think you're going into "127 Hours" for the story of one extraordinary man, and come to realize its message about the indomitable spirit of humanity inside each of us is universal -- as Boyle underlines in his opening and closing montages of bustling crowds from around the globe.

The setting stays largely in a tiny split in the ground in Utah's Blue John Canyon. Aron, an adrenalin junkie who quit his job as an engineer for Intel to climb rocks, is scrambling along alone when a boulder dislodges and pins his hand against the canyon wall.

But Boyle -- who wrote the screenplay with Simon Beaufoy based on Ralston's book, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" -- continually sends his camera spiraling out of that dark place as Aron's imagination and longing soar. At first his mind turns to mundane but critical things, like the bottle of Gatorade glistening with condensation waiting for him back in his truck parked miles away. But inevitably he ponders the family he's kept at arm's length, and the girl (Clémence Poésy) he pushed away.

Franco's vanity-free performance lets free all his character's selfishness and self-obsession for display. He so clung to his self-image as a hardcore adventurer, photographing and videoing his every triumph and tumble, that he never even bothered to tell anyone where he was going. By the time he's declared missing, Aron calculates, he'll already be dead.

Yes, the scenes of the actual amputation are depicted with graphic honesty, and are hard to watch. But this not some cheap movie that fetishizes gore, but in fact one of the most life-affirming films you'll ever see.

At the end of "127 Hours," not only did I see that Aron Ralston needed to cut off his arm, I believe that I -- or anyone -- could have done it, too.

4 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1"

Right off the bat, the final chapter of the Harry Potter saga -- well, the first half of it, anyway -- broadcasts that its mood will be substantially darker than its predecessors. War is come, and wizards, witches and non-magical muggles alike are battening down the hatches.

For me, the seriousness of the outing was underlined when Hermione cast a spell to "obliviate" herself from her muggle parents' memories, in order to protect them from reprisal at the hands of Lord Voldemort's forces. Watching her portrait fade from the family photographs, and knowing what she's giving up, is unsettling and grave.

I also appreciated that the blooming of teenage romance, so annoyingly pushed on us during "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," is appropriately tamped down. Harry and new love Ginny Weasley share one quick snog, and then she's thankfully given the boot for the rest of the movie. Even the Hermione/Ron Weasley quickening is mercifully kept at a low boil.

It didn't even occur to me until after "Deathly Hallows" was over -- and I should point out its 2½ hours fly by at a brisk pace -- that Hogwarts School, which has been the focal point of the entire series, is never glimpsed, or even mentioned.

The wand-wielding kids are all grown up, and school is most definitely out.
If you're not up to speed on the chronicle of the boy wizard, his friends and his evil nemesis ... well, then head to the video store or fire up your Netflix account, because you've no chance of catching on at this late date without seeing the other movies.

The last film ended with the death of benevolent schoolmaster Dumbledore, and the revelation that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, in slithery makeup) has divided his soul into several objects called Horcruxes. It's up to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) to find the rest of them, and destroy them.

Meanwhile, Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters have taken over the Ministry of Magic -- the central government for the wizarding world -- and begun a reign of terror designed to weed out those wizards and witches not of pure blood, and to trap Harry and friends.

For non-readers of the books by J.K. Rowling (like me), it's difficult to keep track of the dozens of tertiary characters who flit in and out of the background. Pretty much all of them who aren't dead show up at some point, and a few of them are killed off.
One doomed character, whose name I won't reveal, hasn't been seen since about the third Potter movie. So to suddenly bring them back and then off them deprives their death of any emotional impact.

Director David Yates, who's helmed the last three Potter movies, and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who's penned all but one of the series, keep things moving along at a zippy tempo that focuses on the relationship between the Big Trio. The only place the story bogs down a bit is toward the middle, when the three are wandering in exile. The simmering conflict between Harry and Ron over Hermione's affections feels ginned up.

I will confess I'm not a big fan of Rowling's shoddy storytelling. Her imagination is great -- too great, in fact. Whenever the kids are presented with a problem, there's always a new spell, or a new magic object, or a new ally that pops up to aid them. Her story construction doesn't have an airtight feel because she always invents a new backdoor for her characters to wiggle out of.

For example, somewhere in the last couple of movies they've introduced a spell to "apparate," or teleport instantly from one place to another, along with those touching the caster. If so, why do they bother with broomsticks to get around? For that matter, why did Harry and all the kids have to climb aboard a special train to get to Hogwarts that first time? Wouldn't it be much easier to send a few wizards to poof all the kids there instantly? 

But that's just my muggle mind talking.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Video review: "The Kids Are All Right"

Here's a well-drawn movie about two lesbians raising a pair of teenagers, but it's not a "gay" film.

By that, I mean that the homosexuality of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) is not the central motif of director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko's comedy/drama, "The Kids Are All Right." It's a story about a family, a non-traditional one to be sure, but the challenges they face are similar to those experienced by the folks in a Norman Rockwell portrait.

The main dynamic is about how Nic and Jules discover fissures in their relationship, even though they've been together 20-odd years and have raised two great kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The catalyst for this discover is the arrival of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a leather-jacketed free spirit who provided the anonymous donor sperm for the children.

Joni tracks down Paul, who gets a kick out of the idea of being somebody's dad. He's a bohemian type who emotionally is a renter, not a buyer -- he just visits in other people's lives.

Jules finds herself drawn to him, setting up a showdown that threatens to split the entire family apart.

Sneakily smart, "Kids" gently pokes fun at a whole slew of social mores and character flaws. At first, the uptight Nic is the main target, but eventually we learn that none of these people are without blemishes.

Extra features, which are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions, are decent without impressing.

Three featurette are rather disappointing in their brevity, falling more into the realm of Web-friendly video teasers than true glimpses behind the production.

One is about how Cholodenko came to work with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, which clocks in at just over two minutes. The big takeaway there is that Blumberg himself was a sperm donor back in college.

A making-of doc runs three minutes, and another about casting the film is just over four minutes long.

The real centerpiece is a feature-length commentary track by Cholodenko. It's moderately insightful, though I'm of the firm opinion that tag-teaming two or more people makes for livelier banter.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944)

"Hail the Conquering Hero" is widely praised as one of Preston Sturges' best films, and it earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. But I found it tedious and mawkish -- the 1944 equivalent of a dopey sitcom.

Eddie Bracken -- who bore a startling resemblance to Donald O'Connor, another song-and-dance man who broke into movies -- plays Woodrow Truesmith, a Marine Corp washout who impersonates a war hero when he returns to his idyllic hometown.

It's one of those stories built on a lie, and somehow the lie keeps getting repeated and embellished, despite the perpetrator's best efforts to tell the truth. That's what I meant with the sitcom comparison: An entire plot built around a misunderstanding that could be solved with a few words of dialogue, but somehow the chance never presents itself.

Now think about that. How often has a misunderstanding reached such epic proportions in your own life? And even if it did, would you wait hours and days to correct it? Even if the notion didn't strain credulity, it's an overused comedy device.

The set-up is Woodrow buys some beers for a group of six destitute Marines. They're led by Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demarest), a crotchety older soldier. They thank him for the drinks, and learn Woodrow's tale: The son of a Medal of Honor-winning Marine, he was bounced from the service after one month for chronic hay fever.

When Bugsy (boxer Freddie Steele, in his first screen role), the shell-shocked, slightly scary member of the group, learns that Woodrow has been lying to his mother for the past year, having a buddy send her letters from overseas so she'll think he's fighting in the war, he insists that Woodrow board the next train home.

The hi jinx continue from there. The sarge insists Woodrow put on one of their uniforms so his mother will be none the wiser. But she tells the whole town her son is returning a hero. When the group sees hundreds of people assembled at the train station to greet Woodrow, they hastily pin some of their medals on his chest, too.

It's off to the races from there. There's loud speeches, four marching bands (playing the title song, of course) and a contingent of local politicians looking to recruit Woodrow to run for mayor against the self-aggrandizing incumbent, Everett Noble (Raymond Walburn). Walburn has perhaps the only consistently funny role in the movie, since he's always either in the midst of giving a blowhard speech or composing his next one.

Woodrow had a girl, too: Libby, played by Ella Rain es. He broke it off with her during his year away, during which time she became engaged to the mayor's son, Forrest (Bill Edwards). She reasons that Forrest is tall, handsome, rich and has many prospects -- in other words, everything a girl could wish for. He is the jealous type, though, and soon it becomes clear he has good reason to be.

Even as Woodrow struggles to tell somebody that he's a phony, Libby keeps finding excuses not to tell him about her engagement. It all builds to a big finale in which they reunite, of course.

Sturges made a lot of great, smart comedies. But for me, "Hail the Conquering Hero" is false gold.

1.5 stars out of four

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Video review: "Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition"

When "Avatar" was initially released on video in April, I praised James Cameron's visionary film even as I harshly criticized him for giving us such a bare-bones disc -- lacking any kind of commentary track, making-of documentary, anything. It was a major disappointment, and an abandonment of the film's fans to give the top-grossing movie of all time such a meager and, frankly, lazy video release. I stand by those words.

But I also predicted that Cameron would eventually issue a special director's cut or special edition, as he has done with his other seminal films like "Aliens," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "The Abyss" -- though not, notably, with 1997's "Titanic." These special collections boasted all the behind-the-scenes goodies one could ask for, as well as an extended cut of the film.

What I really liked about these previous discs was that they also came with the theatrical version, so you could switch back and forth to the director's cut with the touch of a button.

It wasn't any sort of sorcerous act of prognostication, but I've been proven right: "Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition" follows in the wake of Cameron's other terrific special video editions -- and even puts them to shame.

I can't even begin to describe the amount of extras contained in the three-disc Blu-ray edition. There's hours -- no, make that days worth of material to go through. I've only had time to experience a small portion of them, and they have left me deeply impressed.

Start with the fact there are three versions of the film: The original version; the theatrical re-release edition containing eight additional minutes of footage; and the Collector's Extended Cut that adds another 16 minutes -- bringing the total run time to just a hair under three hours.

The additional footage is seamlessly edited into the existing version, but one great feature allows you to immediately jump to the bonus material for those too anxious to wait to see what's new. (I know I was.)

The extended version includes a haunting new opening sequence of Jake Sully's life on Earth, which has a hard-boiled dystopian flavor reminiscent of "Blade Runner." There's also quite a bit more backstory on Sigourney Weaver's character.

After watching the film, it's time to flip over to the other two discs crammed full of stuff. Start with even more movie to watch: 45 deleted/extended scenes totaling 67 minutes of screen time. If for no other reason, they're interesting to watch for the various levels of completion of the special effects combining live action, motion capture performances and CGI.

A making-of documentary runs 98 minutes, tracking Cameron's first thoughts about making "Avatar" even before he started shooting "Titanic." Cameron says the idea for the fantastic world of Pandora didn't come from any single spark of creation, but an entire childhood filled with a fascination with nature, coupled with an adult's fondness for art and science fiction.

Then there are production videos: Animatics, conceptual videos and early versions of the story told in comic-book style. That's another 84 minutes right there. There's also a 20-minute long feature "A Message from Pandora," which is essentially Cameron's personal plea for conservation of the environment.

The centerpiece of disc three is "Opening Pandora's Box," which includes 68 minutes worth of the most CG-heavy scenes. By clicking buttons on your player's remote, you can instantly shift the view to see how the scenes were put together one layer of animation at a time.

Seventeen production shorts running a few minutes each touch on every topic imaginable, from stunts to music to costumes. I was astonished to learn that Cameron had actual copies of every piece of clothing worn by the Na'vi manufactured for real, and even dressed actors tinted blue for video capture. (The skimpy Na'vi outfits somehow look even more daring on real humans.)

There are also hundreds of production still photographs, a copy of Cameron's original screenplay, and even "Pandorapedia" -- an encyclopedic description of Pandora, its inhabitants and interconnected ecosystem. It's 449 pages long!

I might quibble about the lack of a commentary track, but frankly with this astonishing amount of material I'm not sure what else Cameron would have to add.

One genuine criticism: For some reason, the Extended Collector's Edition does not include a digital copy of the film for loading on portable devices. This was actually the only extra included on the original video release of "Avatar," so to exclude it here is puzzling indeed.

Perhaps we'll have to wait for the Super Special Limited Director's Cut to get that thrown in.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 4 stars

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: "Unstoppable"

I enjoyed "Unstoppable" much more than I thought I would. It's a slick, efficient thriller built around the enormously charismatic screen presence of Denzel Washington. It doesn't set any standards for originality and is about as subtle as a sledgehammer -- or a runaway train.

But as popcorn-munching entertainment, its proficiency is undeniable.

Washington plays Frank Barnes, a 28-year veteran railroad engineer. Frank is a prototypical Washington protagonist: He's good at what he does but doesn't flaunt it. He's friendly without being obsequious, and doesn't take guff from anyone. A widower, Frank loves his two teen daughters, and pretends that their working at Hooters doesn't bother him.

When Will Colson (Chris Pine) presents himself as his new trainee, Frank is all business: "If you don't know something, ask me." He goes about showing Will the ropes without animosity, even though the company is in the process of putting old-timers like him out to pasture and replacing them with whippersnappers like Will.

Each man has some static in his personal life. Will is currently separated from his wife and son, and there's even something about a court hearing and a restraining order. Meanwhile, Frank has forgotten his daughter's birthday, and is getting the cold shoulder from her.

When a careless rail yard worker (Ethan Suplee) lets a train get away unmanned, it sets off a chain reaction of events, building to a statewide emergency. It turns out the train, dubbed "Triple-7," is loaded with some nasty chemicals that could destroy an entire town. Frank and Will at first are on a collision course, and then volunteer themselves to stop the runaway.

The secondary characters present themselves as distinct and colorful. Connie (Rosario Dawson) is the dispatcher back at headquarters who acts as the voice of reason. Kevin Dunn is Gavin, the corporate honcho who plays the heavy, failing to listen to the people in the field who know what they're doing. Kevin Corrigan plays Werner, an inspector who was supposed to give a presentation to some school kids but instead adds his encyclopedic knowledge to the rescue effort.

I especially liked Lew Temple as Ned, an odd railroad worker who's sort of the X factor, blazing around in his huge red truck. Ned's the type of guy totally lacking in social skills, who bores people to death talking about the technical details of his job, but you want him around in a crisis.

This is the fourth movie director Tony Scott and Washington have made together, and the second in a row after another train movie, "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." Scott's an old, expert hand at this sort of adrenaline-fueled material, and knows just how to hit the action beats for maximum impact.

The original screenplay by Mark Bomback is an exercise in lean storytelling: Just enough detail and background to give the main characters some layers, but jettisoning anything that detracts from the boiling plot.

The movie is loosely based on the "Crazy Eights" train incident from 2001. Interestingly, that happened in Ohio, while "Unstoppable" is set in Pennsylvania -- but was filmed largely in the Buckeye State.

"Unstoppable" is evocative of the economically depressed Midwest, and celebrates the type of no-nonsense blue-collar manhood that's been hardest hit by the Great Recession. It's an  engaging action/thriller in which no one pulls out a gun or throws a punch, and that's something.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: "Morning Glory"

"Morning Glory" is basically "Broadcast News" flipped on its head. Instead of valuing hard-edged journalism over TV showmanship, "Morning Glory" champions the fluff.

The set-up is that Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, a hard-charging young executive producer brought in to turn around the moribund "Daybreak" morning show. She hires a downfallen Dan Rather-type anchorman, crustily played by Harrison Ford, to shake things up. They spend the rest of the movie battling over lightweight vs. substantive journalism.

As someone who started out covering politics and couldn't wait to jump to the features side of the newsroom, maybe I'm just a soft touch. But I found this movie delightful and often raucously funny, with sharp performances by McAdams and Ford.

McAdams draws a character as distinctive as Holly Hunter's Oscar-nominated turn in "Broadcast News," playing Becky as a borderline neurotic woman whose career consumes her whole life. After she's laid off from her job on "Good Morning, New Jersey," her mother unceremoniously dumps cold water on her dream of one day producing the "Today" show.

"At 8, it was adorable. At 18, it was inspiring. At 28, it's officially embarrassing. I just want it to stop before it becomes heartbreaking," she says.

But a harried network boss (Jeff Goldblum) gives her a shot at "Daybreak," figuring he's got nothing to lose. The show is perpetually in fourth place in the ratings, is stuck with a tiny budget and a shoddy studio where all the doorknobs fall off, and the on-air talent looks like the castoffs of every cheesy show that ever got cancelled.

Becky sends a signal by firing the creepy co-anchor (Ty Burrell) and encouraging veteran Colleen Peck to let loose a little during the cooking sessions and exotic animal segments. But she really lands her white whale when she convinces -- well, strong-arms, actually -- Mike Pomeroy into joining the show.

As Mike never fails to remind everyone, he's had one of the most storied careers in TV news: eight Peabody Awards, a Pulitzer and 16 Emmys. He only agrees to be on "Daybreak" so he can collect millions over the last two years of his contract, and oozes dripping condescension during his every interaction, on-air or off.

With his slicked-back hair and melodious grumble of a voice, Ford gives Mike some depth beneath the growl. Here's a man who's given his entire life over to his job, to the detriment of his personal relationships, and he's been rewarded by getting the boot.

When he watches his successor on the evening news, swilling pricey scotch from a tumbler, Mike glares at the screen and fumes, "That's my chair!" Ford shows us the man's bile.

Director Roger Michell ("Venus") keeps a delicate but firm hand on the film's tone, which combines generous helpings of funny and sad. The original screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada") is clever and zippy, though it apportions too much screen time to some things and not enough to others.

For example, I was disappointed that Diane Keaton has a much skimpier role than previews suggested. We only see Colleen's on-set diva act, and nothing more. There's one scene where she and Mike engage in some acid banter on the show, and we expect it to go somewhere, but it's quickly dropped.

Becky's romance with another producer (Patrick Wilson) similarly feels short-shrifted, trotted out just long enough to remind us what she's missing out on with her crazy work life.

Still, the strong far outweighs the weak in this spirited flick that, like its warring journalists, realizes that sweet and sour mix together quite nicely. See? You're reading a movie Web site right now, so obviously you enjoy a little fluff.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Inside Job"

What an angry, angry and opinionated documentary. Regular readers will know I prefer my docs rational and objective, favoring journalistic exploration of a topic over passionate diatribe.

But even though "Inside Job" belongs firmly in the latter category, it's still a highly illuminating look at the financial crisis of 2007-08, its causes and consequences.

It's easy to read news accounts about sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps without ever really grasping what it's all about. Most people still don't, beyond a vague notion of "bad debt" bringing our economy to its knees.

Writer/director Charles Ferguson neatly lays out how our financial system has grown increasingly complex over the past 30 years, and how it was rigged to favor high-risk investments with little repercussions for those gambling with other people's money.

Unfortunately, the film also contains a lot of scattershot arguments, cheap theatrics and the unfair casting as dastardly villains of people like Lawrence Summers and Hank Paulson. The movie reaches a grubby low point when a Wall Street shrink testifies that the use of drugs and prostitution is rampant among his clients. (As opposed to, say, the entertainment industry?)

But there's enough clear-eyed elucidation to balance out the spit-flecked invective -- and perhaps even justify some of it.

A key piece of narration (by Matt Damon) introduces: "This is how it happened." But soon after comes this bit: "This crisis was not an accident." Together, they make clear that the motivation behind "Inside Job" is not just to explain, but to assign blame.

I think the movie nails the "how," but sputters aimlessly with rage on the "why." It's one thing to say that U.S. Treasury secretaries, Federal Reserve chairmen and bank CEOs were negligently careless in setting the economy up for a fall. It's another to suggest it was an intentional byproduct of their inherent greed.

Ferguson -- who also directed the similarly partisan "No End in Sight" about the Iraq war -- combines talking-head interviews featuring dozens of economists and experts with colorful graphs and charts to show us how the numbers stack up. To the titans of finance who claim this stuff is too complicated for regular folks to comprehend, the film makes its strongest argument simply by laying it all out in a clear, understandable format.

The short version includes something with the oxymoronic name of securitization. The rise of unregulated trading markets called derivatives allowed debt to be packaged and sold, and even bet on by third parties with no stake in the actual loans. The theory was that by spreading out the risk, it would help prevent economic downturns.

The only problem was, deregulation allowed companies to leverage their debt to dozens of times their assets, so even a slight dip in their valuation tipped companies like Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy. And since the people making the loans were disconnected from those on the hook if they defaulted, it incentivized things like home mortgages to people who clearly couldn't pay.

Ferguson also points fingers at the rating agencies like Moody's that gave the highest ratings to the companies holding the largest amount of debt. Since they made more money by giving out more and higher ratings, the supposedly impartial judges were complicit in the process.

The film takes an interesting look at the academic side, pointing out how so many economics professors at universities like Harvard and UC Berkeley make many times their annual salaries by consulting for finance companies. One encounter with a Columbia dean grows so acrimonious that he testily informs his interviewer he only has three minutes left, "So take your best shot."

By including these sorts of overheated moments, Ferguson devalues his own credibility as an arbiter of truth. He also doesn't help his case with title cards informing us of the many people who refused to appear on-camera, always preceded by a list of the millions of dollars they've made -- the clear implication being that they have something to hide.
Meanwhile, figures of dubious integrity like ex-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and financier George Soros are held up as unimpeachable sources.

I don't care for Ferguson's methods, but I can't deny the powerful clarity of the message "Inside Job" delivers. We live in an economic climate where the people making all the decisions are completely sheltered from any consequences if they guess wrong.
It's a nasty game, and a rigged one.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Video review: "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"

 "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is one of those movies that divides people into groups: Those who loved it and those who couldn't care less about it (and probably never saw it).

Despite generally glowing reviews and a lot of excitement from its geekeratti target audience, "Scott Pilgrim" died at the box office. The saga of a Toronto dweeb who must fight the seven evil ex-boyfriends of his new lady love -- all done with video game-style super powers and an indie hard rock soundtrack -- must've seemed too far out for most ticket buyers.

I thought it was fun and fresh, and certainly one of the more visually inventive films of the year.

Michael Cera plays Scott, an impish slacker who meets Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the ultimate cool girl. Scott makes it his mission in life to become her boyfriend, which he accomplishes in short order.

Alas, Ramona has those seven nasty exes, who have sort of pact to destroy anyone who would replace them.

Director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Bacall based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, uses each of the fights as natural chapters in the plot. The evil boyfriends are played by stars such as Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh and Chris Evans.

Ultimately, "Scott Pilgrim" may have been too cool for its own good.

If you're a fan of this movie, you're going to want to buy your own disc just for the extra features, which are among the best I've ever seen.

The extras are the same for single-disc DVD and Blu-ray editions. There are four separate feature-length commentary tracks, including one by Cera and the other principal actors. There's also a blooper reel, still photo gallery, and 27 minutes worth of deleted scenes -- including an alternate ending where he and Ramona don't end up together.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is where things really get awesome.

On top of the stuff listed above, there's the standard goodies: A 50-minute making-of doc, a 16-minute feature on the various musical acts (including Beck) who wrote songs for the movie, and other featurettes on subjects like visual effects and sound design.

But they're just getting rolling.

A collection of pre-production video, including audition reels, animatics and rehearsal footage, runs 87 minutes all by itself. There are director's production blogs, music videos, and an Adult Swim cartoon based on Scott Pilgrim.

My favorite goody: "Scott Pilgrim vs. the Censors," a "TV safe" version of the film -- the joke being that it's only four minutes long.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 4 stars

Monday, November 8, 2010

Reeling Backward: "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946)

I love the idea of "A Matter of Life and Death." It's the movie they actually made I'm not wild about.

David Niven plays a British bomber pilot who was supposed to die, but files an appeal in the court of heaven for more time. Stories of this kind are pretty familiar, from "A Guy Named Joe" to "Heaven Can Wait" to "Always." Even Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life" -- a criminally underrated film, in my humble opinion -- contains similar notes about an orderly afterlife, complete with a celestial, fallible bureaucracy and innocent souls striving against its capricious strictures.

It's a tantalizing notion, which is probably while filmmakers keep returning to it.

But this well-regarded film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- the writing/directing team better known as The Archers -- is a daffy, dippy rendering that ends up defending True Love as its central theme. The big court trial in heaven, which was what made me interested in seeing the movie in the first place, is a disappointing and bizarre affair in which British and American ideals are weighed against each other.

Niven plays Squadron Leader Peter Carter, a 27-year-old budding poet who knows he's going to die. As he pilots his flaming wreck of a plane back across the Chanel, with all of his crew dead or bailed out, he speaks to an American girl on the radio. In these few minutes of insistent chatter -- in which Peter does almost all of the talking, I might add -- we're to believe they formed a lifelong bond that cannot be broken.

The official story is that Peter's angel, otherwise known as Conductor 71 -- a foppish French Revolution-era aristocrat played by Marius Goring -- lost him in the fog and failed to transport him to heaven. As a result, Peter ends up alive on the beach, where he comes across a girl riding a bicycle and lo! It's June (Kim Hunter), the gal he fell in love with over the phone.

Conductor 71 appears 20 hours after the oversight to collect his charge, but Peter objects on the grounds that he fell in love as a result of a heavenly mistake. The conductor agrees to file his appeal up the chain of command.

The military medical staff thinks Peter's gone bonkers, of course, led by an unctuous doctor named Frank Reeves, played by Roger Livesey. Frank humors Peter's story, determining he needs a brain operation or he'll die. On the way to the hospital, Frank is killed in a motorcycle accident during a violent storm, which conveniently allows him to be appointed Peter's counsel for the trial.

The metaphysics of the story are beyond silly. An angel can't find his soul because of fog? Pretty shoddy work for divine beings. I also found silly the trick of Conductor 71 stopping time whenever he's on earth, allowing him to do things like plucking a tear from June's cheek to use at the trial.

What I really couldn't stand, though, was the mawkish idea that two people can fall irrevocably in love in a matter of hours. And that this would be the entire basis upon which Peter's case stands. He can't leave Earth because he loves a woman? What about the millions of women (and men) who lost their true love during the war? Don't they get an appeal?

The actual trial is a just plain weird affair. The prosecution is taken up by a Boston patriot who died during the American Revolution, Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey). His arguments are based entirely around his hatred of the English, referring to the many nations around the globe who have suffered in wars of the British empire. His pride veers beyond American exceptionalism into outright bigotry and Anglophobia.

"A Matter of Life and Death" still stands for its excellent cinematography and special effects. The Archers used Technicolor for the earthbound scenes, while the heavenly sequences are in a twinkling black-and-white -- essentially a reverse of the technique used in "The Wizard of Oz." The film was titled "Stairway to Heaven" for its American release, a reference to the stunning image of Peter and his conductor riding a massive escalator up into the sky.

Although it's undeniably a great-looking film, I just found "A Matter of Life and Death" to be too harebrained to take seriously as a piece of important cinema. I was astonished to learn via the film's Wikipedia page that it was named the second most important British film ever in a 2004 magazine survey of critics.

All I can say is they must have also suffered a conk on the head, resulting in overly ambitious delusions.

1.5 stars out of four

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review: "Heartbreaker"

"Heartbreaker" is a French attempt at an American romantic comedy. At this endeavor it is a total success -- in the sense that it's as trite and contrived as most of our romcoms.

The gag is that Alex Lippi (Romain Duris) is a professional heartbreaker. His job is woo a woman in a committed relationship into dumping her current boyfriend or husband. The method is seduction, but he does this not so much by making them fall in love with him as showing them how much better they deserve.

As you might guess, Alex is usually hired by the woman's father, brother or best friend, who sees what a cad she's stuck with, if only she would realize it for herself. Alex does not see any of the women after the job is finished, and his rules also include not having sex with them.

So far, he has a perfect record: None of his targets have ever gone back to their old flame.

Any student of romantic comedies can probably guess the rest themselves: Alex gets hired for a big job, guarding a rich girl named Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) who's set to get married in 10 days. This is the toughest nut he's ever had to crack, and at first he finds the independent-minded girl immune to is charms. Eventually, of course, she falls for him and -- gasp! -- he finds that after years of faking love, he's stumbled upon the real thing.

Juliette has decamped to Monaco to prepare for her wedding to the perfect man (Andrew Lincoln). Usually Alex and his team -- consisting of his sister Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and her dimwitted husband Marc (Francois Damiens) -- have plenty of time and resources to set up elaborate schemes. In fact, they spend so much on bribes and such that they're dead broke, and Alex has a nasty loan shark on his tail.

Improvising, Alex poses as Juliette's hired bodyguard. It's the perfect ruse to spend all day next to her. His standard M.O. is to find out what his mark likes, and pretend they have that in common. Juliette's a high-end wine buyer, but her tastes in pop culture run to the crass: She loves George Michael songs and her favorite movie is "Dirty Dancing."

Of course, the inevitable scene where he and Juliette mimic Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey's iconic dance scene is just around the corner.

There's also Juliette's troublesome best friend Sophie (Héléna Noguerra) who shows up looking for a good time -- preferably in Alex's pants -- and the groom himself arrives early.

Director Pascal Chaumeil is a TV veteran who has the sensibilities of television comedy -- big, broad jokes, a plot built on happenstance and overheard conversations, and a little smarmy romance.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But seeing idiot American movies reflected back at us in French is just plain depressing.

1.5 stars of four