Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Video review: "Hostel: Part III"

The Tuesday after Christmas is a notoriously awful spot for releasing video, and a strange tradition has sprung up of releasing grade-Z horror flicks on this date. This year is no different: audiences can take their choice of "Hostel: Part III," "Final Destination 5" or "Zombie Apocalypse," along with a couple other low-profile films ("A Good Old Fashioned Orgy") that barely got theatrical releases.

So while admitting that we're scraping the bottom of the home video barrel here, why review "Hostel: Part III"? Because it's indicative of a couple of cinematic trends.

The first is how certain types of movies can become the "flavor of the month" ... or the year. A while back, at the height of the quagmire in Iraq, it was the so-called "torture porn" subgenre of horror, kicked off by "Saw" and brought to its gruesome, bloody pinnacle with Eli Roth's "Hostel" series.

With a fetishistic obsession with the cruel mangling of the human body -- rendered in unflinching, splattered special effects -- these flicks brought the reality of war home to a largely disconnected audience that lapped it up with voyeuristic relish. The first movie, shot in 2006 on a shoestring, made $80 million in worldwide ticket sales, and was followed by an obligatory sequel the next year, which wasn't nearly successful.

Four years hence arrives the third go-round, minus the involvement of Roth, with the action transplanted from the remote dankness of Eastern Europe to the neon buzz of Las Vegas, accompanied by a familiar roster of handsome young people looking for a party and finding themselves strapped to a gurney in a torture chamber, their tender flesh grist for the mill of a very elite form of twisted entertainment.

I count myself a horror fan, but there just isn't much about "Hostel: Part III" that's truly terrifying.

The other trend this movie is indicative of is revealed by the fact that it arrives straight to video. Sequels are rarely as good as the original film, because the animating urge to make a good movie is overridden by the desire for more or less guaranteed success, and the associated dollars. This process continues, with or without the assistance of the original team of filmmakers and stars, so long as the moneychangers calculate there is enough profit to support the endeavor.

Much like antiquated businesses that seek only to manage decline, maximizing short-term gains by giving up on the prospect of long-term viability, movies franchises like "Hostel" are rarely innovative because those in charge have essentially already given up.

Video extras for "Hostel: Part III," the same for DVD and Blu-ray, consist entirely of a commentary track by director Scott Spiegel and star Kip Pardue.

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 star

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Roots: Parts I-III" (1977)

Something that's been on my bucket list for quite a long time is to see "Roots," the iconic 1977 television miniseries based on the best-selling novel by Alex Haley. Even today, its finale ranks as the third most-watched TV episode of all time. Missing out on it for someone of my generation is akin to never seeing the last episode of "M*A*S*H*" or the movie "Grease."

Yes, I know this is a website for movie criticism, but I have made television exceptions for Reeling Backward before. And such a huge storytelling arc, unfolding over seven episodes running more than 10 hours (sans commercials), has an epic, cinematic feel to it worthy of serious consideration.

Plus, it's my damn column, so neener-neener.

I'm watching "Roots" via DVDs from Netflix -- no streaming available -- so I'm wrapping them up into three separate columns.

The first thing I want to note about "Roots" is that I have seen it -- at least a tiny bit. I saw part of the episode where African warrior-turned-slave Kunta Kinte is captured after an escape attempt, and the slave hunters cut off part of his foot to ensure he can never run away again.

I was a little kid, first grade probably, and was pretty horrified (I remember the scene being much more graphic than it really is). I don't recall if I stopped watching "Roots" because of that, or if my parents quietly ushered me out of the room and made sure I didn't see any more. That was the third episode, and I know I hadn't seen either of the first two episodes with LeVar Burton as young Kunta Kinte.

The thing I most remember about it was the next scene cuts to Kunta lying in bed with his mangled limb wrapped in bloody bandages, and Mr. Brady, playing a doctor, tends to him. Of course, it was actor Robert Reed playing the doctor, but in my young mind I instantly identified him as the kindly patrician of "The Brady Bunch." 'Mr. Brady will put this atrocity right,' I thought.

But Mr. Brady, while perturbed at the injury, only grumbles about the hunters "ruining a perfectly good piece of property." In that moment, I was gobsmacked. How could anyone see the way Kunta was cruelly maimed, and call it destruction of mere property?

But that, of course, is the lesson of slavery, the darkest stain on American history.

My own family, early transplants to the Americas, have a long history of slave ownership -- including, for a time, Frederick Douglass. We also have abolitionists on my grandmother's side of the tree. I can't claim any sense of personal guilt over my ancestors owning slaves, but "Roots" brings home the degradation and subjugation of an entire people.

LeVar Burton, just 20 when the show aired, is a revelation, bringing a mix of childlike wonder and mature nobility to the role. The scene where he is captured by slavers near his village and struggles against the chains lashed to him has an iconic, enduring quality.

I can't say that John Amos, who takes over the role of Kunta when he reaches the age of about 30, is a particularly good match for Burton. Physically, they look almost nothing alike, with the strapping, hook-nosed Amos seeming an unlikely inheritor of Burton's wispy, angelic good looks.

It also seems strange that Kunta makes almost no progression in his command of the English language in the intervening decade or so between episodes two or three.

Louis Gossett Jr. is terrific as Fiddler, an older slave who is a father figure to Kunta, teaching him the hard lessons of life on a plantation. Fiddler harbors a boiling deep anger over the fate of himself and his fellow slaves, but knuckles under to the stern overseer and causes no trouble. Still, he helps Kunta in his first escape attempt, knowing it will bring himself hardship and loss of privileges as the acknowledged leader of the slaves.

Shot for a total budget of $6 million, the production values on "Roots" are somewhat lacking at times. But for television in the mid-1970s, it probably looked astonishingly grandiose.

Obviously, I have lots more to say about "Roots," but it'll have to wait until I've watched a couple more episodes.

3.5 stars out of four

Friday, December 23, 2011

Review: "The Artist"

Love, love, love!

For the first time in 2011, I have fallen, madly, for a movie. "The Artist" is a French film (but about, and largely of, Americans) that is in black-and-white and silent (!) to boot.

Never fear -- this is not a snooty art-house film intended only for people wearing black turtlenecks. It's a rapturous movie full of passion and artistry, self-aware but not self-absorbed. "The Artist" is about movie-making, in the way that great Hollywood movies have turned a loving (yet acerbic) gaze at themselves, like "Singin' in the Rain."

I cite "Singin'" because star Jean Dujardin reminded me very much of Gene Kelly in that film, with a heavy dash of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. thrown in. With a pencil mustache, slicked hair and rascal smile, he plays George Valentin, an aging matinee idol of silent films who finds his star falling with the advent of "talkies," or sound pictures.

At the same time, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) -- love that name -- the sparkly young ingénue who literally bumps into Valentine at one of his premiers and causes a stir, becomes the biggest light in Hollywood's new age of sound.

When I say that "The Artist" is silent, it is not of course absolutely lacking sound like the films before 1929, which were accompanied by a live orchestra or recorded music. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius had the ingenious idea of showing us one of Valentin's movies first, operating under the familiar principle of demonstrative acting broken up by title cards for dialogue.

But then the camera pulls back to show the movie-within-a-movie being made -- but the people's mouths still flap soundlessly, and written dialogue provides their words for us.

Hazanavicius retains this charade throughout ... with two notable exceptions that fidget with the film's internal conventions.

The wonderful original score by Ludovic Bource is essential to the story, since virtually every second of film is accompanied by music. Bource also mixes in samples of scores from other movies -- the great Bernard Herrmann's eerie/gorgeous theme from "Vertigo," one of my favorite pieces of movie music, is employed beautifully in one pivotal scene.

There is a love affair between Valentin and Peppy, but it's pure and chaste. He's married, unhappily -- Penelope Ann Miller plays the wife, and the dissolution of their relationship is shown in a montage that pays homage to "Citizen Kane" -- and isn't the type to stray.

Although Valentin is undeniably a ham, and is overly fond of himself, he isn't a cad. He just loves the limelight, so when it's yanked away he folds into himself, like a flower denied the sun.

A number of recognizable American actors take supporting parts in the film, and it's a hoot to watch them attack silent acting. James Cromwell plays Valentin's doting chauffeur, who sticks by him even when his wages disappear. John Goodman is the chief at Kinograph Studios -- not an entirely bad fellow, but one who always knows where the greenbacks are. Missi Pyle plays a starlet tired of being upstaged by Valentin's showboating.

When the talkies invade, Valentin refuses to make the jump, insisting that audiences never needed to hear him talk before. It's stubborn pride, and even he knows this, but nothing can push him to compromise his artistic integrity.

It's an interesting exercise to consider exactly how serious an artist Valentin was. Truly, he made daffy little pictures in which he always played the handsome adventurer, accompanied by his smart little dog (who is his best friend in real life, too). Essentially, he starred in adventure serials that were already getting stale before sound pictures came along.

Hazanavicius harkens back to the first decades of movies -- even using the old-fashioned 1.66 aspect ratio -- with a mix of reverent nostalgia and modern ingenuity. "The Artist" isn't really a deep meditation on art and movies, but a joyful celebration of filmmaking and filmmakers.

4 stars out of four

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Best and Worst Movies of 2011

It’s hard to describe 2011 as anything other than a disappointing year for movies. Most years start out slow, see a few pleasant surprises in spring, the usual mix of mega-budget hits and misses during the summer, followed by the doldrums of fall, and a busy holiday season of Oscar contenders and blockbuster tentpoles.

But 2011 never achieved liftoff. A deserted February through April gave way to a particularly weak summer. And the late-year pickup in quality never materialized – not when the second Friday in December welcomed the fugly one-two punch of “The Sitter” and “New Year’s Eve.”

Still, some fine filmmaking took place, though audiences sometimes had to hunt around for it. Here is my take on Cinema ’11.

The Best
  1. The Artist – The only movie to which I gave my top rating, “The Artist” is French, black-and-white and silent to boot, but it’s anything but a snooty art film. It’s a highly enjoyable ode to old-fashioned Hollywood, and the most purely rapturous emotional experience I had at any movie this year.
  2. A Better Life – I very much enjoyed this little immigrant story by director Chris Weitz and writer Eric Eason when it first came to theaters – leaving quickly with hardly a trace – and it’s only grown in my estimation since. It’s an homage to “The Bicycle Thief” that leaves aside the politics of illegal immigration for a very human story.
  3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- A late addition to this list, the adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel about a precocious boy dealing with the death of his father (Tom Hanks) in 9/11 is one of the most emotionally gripping journeys of the year.
  4. Moneyball – Another movie I don’t think got its due, this terrific look at the numbers men behind baseball contains what is probably the best performance of Brad Pitt’s career, and the best screenplay of the year. An in-the-park homer.
  5. The Skin I Live In – Pedro Almodóvar’s most unique, vibrant film in years, this kinky potboiler about a plastic surgeon and his very special patient is simultaneously disturbing and thrilling. Alfred Hitchcock would be jealous.
  6. Rango – A weird, twisted animated film ostensibly for kids, “Rango” was easily one of the most original movies of 2011. Johnny Depp voices a lizard caught up in a Western spoof with a little (OK, lot of) Salvador Dali stirred in.
  7. The Descendants – Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) seems to be making films on a Kubrickian time table, but this black comedy starring George Clooney as a father vexed by familial trials was well worth the wait.
  8. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes – What looked to be a hammy spin-off of an antiquated film franchise turned out to be the best movie of the summer, a cerebral prequel to a world of damned, dirty apes. With a terrific CGI motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis.
  9. Margin Call – Unlike some critics, I don’t relish picking obscure films just to show off my snooty bona fides. But this little-seen drama by rookie director/writer J.C. Chandor, which gives a fictional take on the economic crash that launches the Great Recession, is top-notch. Think “Glengarry Glen Ross” moved up to the executive suite.
  10. War Horse – Steven Spielberg returns to form with this sweeping epic about a horse who must suffer through the atrocities and vagaries of World War I, separated from the boy who loves him. I dare you not to shed tears.
The Others

Making lists of favorite things is fun, but it also means leaving off worthy films that didn’t quite make the cut. Here, in alphabetical order, is my lucky 13 of the rest of the year’s best.

“The Adventures of Tintin,” "Anonymous," “Arthur,” “The Beaver,” “Coriolanus,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Drive,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” “The Help, “The Iron Lady,” “Larry Crowne,” “Sarah’s Key,” “Welcome to the Rileys,” “Win Win.”

The Worst

Amid any triumphs, there are always catastrophes. The truth is I don’t see many of the absolutely worst movies of the year, since the studios don’t screen them for critics. And, frankly, I prefer not to take time out of my weekend to catch up on “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.”

But here are 10 of the most inadequate films I saw in 2011.
  1. Green Lantern – An abject lesson in how not to make a super-hero movie. Start by trying to wrap decades of comic book mythology around the smirking star persona of Ryan Reynolds.
  2. The Smurfs – This cringe-worthy remake of the 1980s TV cartoon follows in the “Garfield” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks” mold.
  3. Fright Night – A terrible remake of a not-particularly-good ‘80s vampire flick. That’s a whole lot of suck.
  4. Red Riding Hood – A sexed-up take on the classic fairy tale. They lost me during the medieval lambada scene
  5. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 – I’m no tween vampire hater; I actually gave a positive review to the previous “Twilight” flick. But this penultimate film is all exposition with no payoff.
  6. Your Highness – Stoner comedy meets sword & sorcery. What an epic downer, man.
  7. Friends with Benefits – Am I the only one who thinks Mila Kunis is a horrible actress? Her pairing with Justin Timberlake in this flaccid romcom didn’t bring sexy back.
  8.  Kung Fu Panda 2 – I will always remember “Kung Fu Panda 2,” because before I could brag that I never walked out of a movie and never fell a sleep during one. At least I can still say I never walked out.
  9. I Am Number Four – This YA sci-fi/romance is like a bad mash-up of “Twilight” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
  10. Cowboys and Aliens – Certainly not a bad movie, but tops my list for biggest disappointment. Audiences wanted tongue-in-cheek fun; we got a dreary Western with lasers.

Review: "War Horse"

For a male weepie, "War Horse" doesn't shy away from what it is. Most such films hide behind a veneer of sports or other manly pursuits in spinning a tale that is designed to reduce every guy watching it to sobs.

But Steven Spielberg's new drama has all the ingredients: fathers and sons struggling to relate, brothers caught up in conflict, soldiers trading kindness amidst the bloodletting, gentle grandfathers and, especially, boys and their beloved animals.

Tears, commence being expertly jerked.

(This is not to imply that women won't weep at it -- I'm sure they will, in bucketfuls. It's just this is the rare weepie specially designed to stimulate Y-chromosome tear ducts.)

What "War Horse" does not have is a romantic component, and for that I am grateful. It's so tiresome to sit through Hollywood movies that seem to throw in a love interest for no reason at all other than brazen demographic appeal (see "Captain America: The First Avenger" for an especially egregious example).

Despite its nearly 2½-hour run time, the movie does not dally unnecessarily, on pitching unneeded woo or anything else.

The titular horse is Joey, the finest thoroughbred in all of England, who was bought for a princely sum by a broken-down old drunk of a farmer (Peter Mullan). Alas, as a result of shelling out 30 guineas for the dappled colt, the farmer does not have the money to pay his sniveling landlord (David Thewlis), who desired the horse for himself.

Of course, wiry thoroughbreds are not terribly useful for plowing fields, but the farmer's headstrong son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) insists he can train Joey to pull a tiller. This sets off the first of many great love affairs, with Joey the perpetual object of affection.

World War I arrives, and Joey is sold off to the British cavalry, breaking Albert's heart. Luckily, the lieutenant who purchases the horse to be his personal mount (Tom Hiddleston) is fine and upstanding, and promises to honor Joey with the same affection Albert did.

Alas, many things go awry during wartime. Over the next four years, Joey finds himself changing masters frequently, with prospects that rise and fall with the capricious whims of war.

For a time he is under the charge of a kindly teenage German soldier (David Kross) and his underage brother. Later, he comes into the embracing arms of a young French girl (Celine Buckens) and her wise, nurturing grandfather (Niels Arestrup).

But Joey also gets conscripted into toting massive cannons, a duty where most horses only last a month or two before collapsing and receiving a merciful bullet. And he becomes trapped in the horrors of the trench war -- a nightmarish landscape of mud, barbed wire and blood.

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, the screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis -- which also draws inspiration from the Broadway play that won a raft of Tony awards earlier this year -- hits all the expected beats. But despite these rarely arriving without much surprise (one knows exactly how the film will end the entire way), they still hold a rapturous emotional pull -- assisted by John Williams' stirring score of lush strings.

Visually, "War Horse" is quite arresting. Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, intentionally strike an audacious note, composing scenes of suffused color and almost painterly beauty. The effect is theatrical, with the artifice of the visuals drawing the movie out of the grim reality of war and into something like fairy tale lightness.

Because, ultimately, "War Horse" is a children's movie, or something very much like it. It appeals more to the senses and the heart than the mind. Eventually, one has to choose whether to submit to its blatant, wonderfully sad manipulations. I'm glad I did.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: "The Adventures of Tintin"

A crazy quilt of over-the-top action and cartoon wonders, "The Adventures of Tintin" is the first animated film by Steven Spielberg, and hopefully not the last.

This giddy, fast-paced thrill ride defies gravity and logic as the titular character, a boy adventurer, and his pals get into one unbelievable scrape after another.

Spielberg employs 3-D motion capture technology similar to what his contemporary, Robert Zemeckis, has used in his last three films (with results varying from the wonderful "The Polar Express" to the woeful "A Christmas Carol").

The animation is absolute terrific, hitting that sweet spot in between a near-photographic representation of reality and just enough cartoony distortion to keep things above the rim of the "uncanny valley." Peter Jackson, whose Weta studio handled the animations, is a producer and reportedly will direct the next "Tintin" movie with Spielberg producing.

(It is being released in 3-D, and quite a good rendition of the much-overused cinematic trick it is. Though Spielberg has a little too much fun pointing swords, canes and other objects at the audience for gasp moments.)

Tintin looks more or less like a normal boy, except for a swoop of red hair that makes his forelock resemble a mini mohawk. The grown-ups tend to be just a little off, with oversized eyes or noses of dimensions rarely seen outside of clown college. Even though the textures are realistic -- right down to the alcohol-induced crinkles around Captain Haddock's eyes -- we never forget we're watching a cartoon.

The movie is based on the comic books by Hergé, mostly unknown here in the States but a big deal across the pond in Europe. Screenwriting trio Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish combine three of Hergé's stories into a freewheeling yarn that makes hardly a lick of sense, but isn't meant to.

Jamie Bell voices Tintin, a self-described boy journalist who seems to lack a surname or parents. For that matter, he lives by himself in a small apartment with just his rapscallion dog Snowy, has his own money and a gun to boot.

Tintin's specialty is sleuthing out big crimes, and then writing about them. (Though, strangely, all the newspaper clips he has framed in his home are other papers about his latest triumph, rather than the ones carrying his byline.) He combines an encyclopedic knowledge of history and culture with gumption and a whole lot of luck.

The end result is something like "The Da Vinci Code" meets "Raiders of the Lost Ark" meets the Hardy Boys.

Things get started when Tintin purchases an extravagant model of a 17th century ship at an open air market. Right on his heels is Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig), a peevish professorial type who wants the ship for himself. Before long gun shots have been fired, the ship reveals a clue and it's off to the races.

Tintin's journey brings him to the ship of Haddock, a drunkard whose family traces its roots back to Sir Francis Haddock, heroic captain of the Unicorn, whose vast treasure was lost in a pirate attack by the notorious Red Rackham. Both Haddocks are voiced by Andy Serkis, and a marvelous vocal performance it is, such that one would never have guessed this was the same hidden performer behind Gollum and King Kong.

Haddock's a great character, a man of conviction who doubts his own courage. In fact, in the latter half of the movie he tends to dominate to such an extent that Tintin fades into the background.

The action set pieces are as marvelous as they are preposterous. There's one long chase through the streets and skies of the Arab town of Bagghar, with Tintin and Haddock pursuing a bird while being chased by a motorcycle, a tank and a hotel (yes, really). They fly through the air, tumble and fall, crash through windows and nobody ever suffers more damage than a few scrapes.

"The Adventures of Tintin" doesn't really add up to much more than a good time, but often it's a really, really good time.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is extremely well-made, ably acted, beautifully shot and has a plot full of hairpin turns and twists. It is an entirely engaging and occasionally gripping film. It is also completely unnecessary.

This remake of the 2009 Swedish thriller based on the novel by Stieg Larsson contains no surprises for those who have seen the original. The identity of the killer is already known; the final disposition of the brilliant and possibly crazy title character, Lisbeth Salander, drains the character of much of the razor-sharp freshness from when Noomi Rapace played her.

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig bring a few notes of their own to the roles of Lisbeth and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, but ultimately it's the same characters experiencing the same dynamic.

The really is no reason for the existence of this movie. Everything the American version does, the Swedish original already did equally well, or better.

Well, there is one reason I can think of for the remake: so Americans who don't like reading subtitles will buy tickets for it. That may be harsh and cynical, but there it is.

The story (screenplay by Steve Zaillian) wanders deep into the thickets of familial secrets and horrible behavior behind the doors of old-money mansions. So did the Swedish version, as both movies spend way too much time with Lisbeth and Mikael hunched over computer screens, staring at photos and waiting for clues to present themselves.

At just over 2½ hours, "Girl" can feel self-indulgent and sprawling.

The two main characters remain separated for nearly half the film, only joining forces when their objectives align. Recently disgraced after being found guilty of libeling a major industrialist, Mikael is recruited by a rich old magnate, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to track down the killer of his niece Harriet, who disappeared 40 years ago.

Lisbeth is the computer hacker hired to vet Mikael for the Vangers. Decked out in punk leather togs, multiple facial piercings and a dead-eyed stare, everything about Lisbeth screams, "Leave me alone."

(In one medium-ish change from the original movie, Lisbeth is not monitoring the ongoing doings of Mikael, but only becomes involved when he tracks her down and asks for help. This has the effect of making Mikael, who is by far the more passive person in the tale, seem more proactive and assertive.)

The entire Vanger family occuppies a lonely island in frozen Hedestad, and Mikael settles in to investigate Harriet's disappearance. With the clan filled with drunks, thieves and Nazis, the number of suspects is voluminous. Most want him gone; only Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), Harriet's older brother, is welcoming and helpful.

Lisbeth has her own problems. Formerly institutionalized, she's subject to a state-appointed guardian, who refuses to let her have access to her own money without ... considerations proffered. This extended sequence, while technically distracting from the plot, establishes Lisbeth as both frequent victim and ferocious victimizer.

Eventually, they team up to try to pierce the Vanger mystery. Mikael, the older, deliberate investigator, has a great deal of trouble getting inside Lisbeth's head. She's a bona fide genius, who eschews emotional attachments in all forms of human contact.

Director David Fincher, fresh off the success of last year's brilliant "The Social Network," adds a few wrinkles -- such as the exact way in which the final revelation plays out, and how Lisbeth and Mikael leave things between them. These changes aren't necessarily better or worse, and their only purpose appears to be something Fincher can point to in order to justify such a rote remake.

So why three stars for this movie? I respect the craft with which it was made, and can't deny that somebody unfamiliar with the original film will find it as darkly invigorating as I did the Swedish version.

What I'd really like is for this director, this screenwriter and these two stars to make another, original movie on their own. It'd have been a better use of their time, and mine.

3 stars out of four

Video review: "Margin Call"

One of the best movies of 2011 hardly anyone's seen, "Margin Call" is a fictionalized take on the collapse of a Lehman Brothers-type company at the precipice of the Great Recession. It's an insider's look at greed, hubris, and the willingness of an elite few to flush the entire economy down the drain, so long as they are the ones who get to decide when.

First-time writer/director J.C. Chandor makes an audacious debut with this taut potboiler, and he's got a killer cast to help him: Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons.

The entire story takes place during one night. After being laid off from his firm, an older worker tips off a young stock trader to evidence that the entire company is on the verge of plunging into a sea of red ink. The smart hotshot calls in his boss, who calls in his boss, and so on into the night.

It's a parade of human flaws and cavalier attitudes, as each person recognizes the imminent threat, and calculates how much personal exposure they have to the calamity.

Irons tops things off as the company CEO, who sees everything in the cold calculation of dollars and cents, and the human factor never enters the equation. Spacey, who has a knack for playing loathsome characters, is the floor boss who starts out as the film's villain and somehow ends up as its moral conscience.
Don't miss this tightly-told indie.

Video extras are good, though not blue-chip quality. Chandor and producer Neal Dodson team up for a feature-length commentary track. They also have a commentary available to accompany several deleted scenes.

The goodies are rounded out by a making-of featurette, photo gallery and behind-the-scenes snippets with cast and crew.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol"

"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" marks the end of the road for Tom Cruise -- or a new beginning.

Cruise, whose star persona is so associated with youthful vitality, will turn 50 next summer. He's blessed to be aging in the Cary Grant mold -- the harder planes and few cracks that have appeared in his features only seem to accentuate his rugged handsomeness, and his physique resembles an Olympic gymnast's.

A star for 30 years now, Cruise has grown older in a way that is much more detrimental to his career than any physical signs: audiences have grown tired of him.

Whether it's the couch jumping, leaving one beautiful wife for another, proselytizing his religion or some other off-putting aspect of his personal life, people have largely been turned off by Cruise. Fair or not, we want to believe the person we see onscreen is a reflection of real life.

Certainly, Cruise has not experienced a precipitous drop in the quality of movies he's been making. He made a hilarious turn into comedy with a supporting role in "Tropic Thunder," and then made the overly sturdy but effective World War II drama, "Valkyrie."

His next film, "Knight and Day," was most instructive. It was a fun, breezy, largely tongue-in-cheek action/romance in which he got to poke fun at his action hero image while wooing Cameron Diaz. Even though it showcased all of his best attributes as a movie star, it was a huge flop domestically -- though it cleaned up overseas; his enduring appeal on foreign shores is a cautionary to those eager to write the epitaph on his career.

If the third film in the "Mission: Impossible" series bombs, too, then I think it will be time for the tombstone engravers to get out their chisels. It's easily the best of the series, filled with extravagant international locations and fantastical action set-pieces, at least two of which are genuinely jaw-dropping.

(Programming note: seeing the film in IMAX is well worth the ticket up-sell, even more so because there's no distracting 3-D.)

The scene where super spy Ethan Hunt scales the tallest building in the world, using only a pair of magnetic gloves (which soon prove sketchy), is likely to induce acrophobia in those who don't already have it. (I do, and was left squirmy.) A fight with the villain in a huge robot-controlled parking garage comes in a close second.

The big question surrounding "Ghost Protocol," other than its star's fate, was whether animation wizard Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") could prove as adept at staging live action. Short answer: hellyeah.

Unlike so many directors whose action scenes are muddled and confusing, Bird is crisp and economical with his direction, showing the audience just enough to thrill without bombarding us with imagery and special effects.

The plot is ... as unrelated to the success of the movie as other "Mission" movies. The super-secret government agency Hunt works for, IMF, is disbanded when an explosion at the Kremlin is staged to look like a covert American attack. Hunt and a small band of outliers are left to stop a nuclear extremist (Michael Nyqvist) who wants to blow up the world.

It's all just an excuse to set up high-tension scenarios and let them play out, usually with a bang.

Screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec bring the clever, too, especially one terrific bit where the team attempts to intervene in a sale of nuclear secrets between two sets of bad guys simultaneously, without tipping either one off.

Jeremy Renner joins the franchise as Brandt, a former field hand with regrets, and Paula Patton is a hit as Jane Carter, a fiery agent who has something personal in the game. Simon Pegg returns as Benji, the chirpy, nerdy tech whiz who's moved out from behind a computer terminal at HQ to get into the action.

"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" is a top-notch spy thriller, but its biggest mystery is whether audiences have gotten over enough of their Tom Cruise phobia to plunk down for a ticket. From my end, here's hoping.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: "Young Adult"

"Young Adult" is the egg of a great idea that never really hatches. It's built on an outlandish premise, and after 93 minutes of talking and emoting and frittering around, all we're left with is that same nutty premise.

Here's the nugget: Mavis, the pretty, popular girl from high school returns to her tiny hometown 20 years after graduation in order to win back her teenage beau. Her life hasn't turned out to be the fabulous adventure she imagined when she escaped to the big city, and she wants to recapture her glory days.

One problem: the former boyfriend is happily married and just had a baby. Mavis knows this -- in fact, it's the news of the birth that sets off her unholy mission -- but sees it as merely a bump in the road. She's fully aware that lives may be destroyed in her quest to reignite lost love; she just doesn't care.

So this is a movie about a horrible person who suspects that she's a horrible person, and the audience gets to tag along on her journey to confirm what she already knew.

The acting in "Young Adult" is splendid, especially Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, who play two fractured souls. Theron is Mavis, who lives in Minneapolis and is the (uncredited) author of Waverly Prep, a teen-lit book series suffering diminishing returns. Oswalt plays Matt, the loser she barely remembers from school, but who ends up being her new best friend when she returns to Mercury, Minn.

Matt is an interesting guy: After struggling to recall Matt -- even though he had the locker next to hers -- Mavis finally remembers him during a chance meeting at a local bar. "You're hate crime guy!" she exclaims. Not exactly a catchy nickname, that.

Matt, who walks with the aid of a crutch, was savagely attacked by some homophobic jocks in high school, who shattered his legs, bashed in his head and maimed his manhood. It was national news as a hate crime, until it turned out Matt wasn't actually gay.

So now he's just a forgotten guy with a limp, who spends his days in an anonymous job and his nights distilling his own brand of bourbon and creating crazy mash-ups of action figures by transposing their parts.

Somehow, though, when Mavis walks back into town they form a deep bond of trust. She tells Matt about her plan to win back Buddy, he old boyfriend, and he tries to dissuade her, though not very hard, having developed a puppyish affection of his own.

Almost irrelevant in all this calculus is the actual ex-boyfriend, Buddy, played by Patrick Wilson, who often seems to get cast as the unattainable object of female longing. Buddy's wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) -- who looks suspiciously amazing for somebody who just popped out a baby -- is oblivious about Mavis' intentions, despite the fact she's not exactly playing it subtle, wearing va-voom outfits to casual get-togethers.

Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, two of Hollywood's brightest young lights, fail to recapture much of the hip charm of their last collaboration, "Juno." There are a few witty moments, and some black humor that's fairly delicious.

(I especially liked the scene where Mavis visits a local book store and starts signing copies of her novels, until a clerk asks her to stop because they’ll need to return unsold copies to the publisher.)

There is still Cody's penchant for very written-sounding dialogue. Even worse is her tendency to tell the audience what's going on rather than showing them.

For example, when pressed about exactly why she wants to get back with the old boyfriend she's barely interacted with since the 1990s, Mavis essentially bleeps out the movie's entire theme: "He knew me when I was at my best."

Reitman has a great touch with actors, but he's helming a story that never got out of the gestational period. This film takes several characters and puts them through a blender, but we get the distinct sense when all is said and done they will all go on with their lives much the same as before.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Video review: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

I'll admit, when I heard they were making a prequel to the "Planet of the Apes" series, and it was to be called "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," I LOL'd.

A cheesy, long-dormant franchise about talking simians rebooted? Starring James Franco, he of the seemingly stoned Oscar-hosting gig? And a title containing two clauses? (What's the sequel to this movie going to be called, I joked, "Return of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes"?)

Then I saw the movie, and the giggling stopped. Easily the best movie of this past summer, "RotPotA" is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking film -- goofy title and all.

Set in the near-future, the story entails a young scientist, Will (Franco), who develops a serum to cure Alzheimer's. He tests it on a chimpanzee, Caesar (Andy Serkis provides the voice and body-motion capture), whose intelligence soars.

As the ape grows smarter, he begins figuring out that taking orders from people isn't really his bag. After being imprisoned in a facility for apes run by some cruel humans, Caesar leads a revolt against their evil overseers.

With terrific CGI special effects, a lot of smarts and visceral appeal, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" doesn't monkey around.

Fortunately, "RotPotA" is getting a first-class video release, stocked with tons of extras -- though you'll have to buy the Blu-ray edition to get most of the goodies.

The DVD does come with some nice stuff, including about a dozen deleted scenes, and featurettes on the mythology of apes and another focusing on the work of Serkis, who's become king of virtual acting.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and you'll get eight additional featurettes covering everything from ape facts to how the filmmakers turned human actors jumping around in front of green screens into hairy gorillas and orangutans. There are also two separate commentary tracks by director Rupert Wyatt, and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, December 12, 2011

IFJA announces 2011 film awards

The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of journalists dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is pleased to announce its annual film awards for 2011.

"The Artist" took top honors, winning Best Film as well as Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Musical Score (Ludovic Bource).

"Win Win" earned two prizes, Paul Giamatti for Best Actor and Thomas McCarthy for Best Original Screenplay.

"The Descendants," which was named runner-up for Best Film, won Best Adapted Screenplay for Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Elizabeth Olsen took the Best Actress prize for "Martha Marcy May Marlene," while Viola Davis was named Best Supporting Actress for "The Help." Christopher Plummer took Best Supporting Actor for "Beginners."

Winners were declared in 14 categories, with a runner-up in 13 categories. In addition, a total of 10 movies (including the winner and runner-up) were recognized as Finalists for the top prize, Best Film of the Year.

"Rango" was named Best Animated Film, "Project Nim" Best Documentary and "The Skin I Live In" Best Foreign Language Film. "The Tree of Life" was given the Original Vision Award.

Lindsay Goffman was honored with The Hoosier Award as the producer of "Dumbstruck," a documentary about ventriloquists that was released nationally by Magnolia Pictures.

A word of explanation about the last two categories:

The Original Vision Award is meant to recognize a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking.

The Hoosier Award recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with Indiana roots. As a special award, no runner-up is declared.

The following is a complete list of honored films:

Best Film of the Year
Winner: "The Artist"
Runner-up: "The Descendants"
Other Finalists: "Coriolanus," "Drive," "Hugo," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "The Muppets," "The Skin I Live In," "Super 8," "The Tree of Life."

Best Animated Film
Winner: "Rango"
Runner-up: "Winnie the Pooh"

Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: "The Skin I Live In"
Runner-up: "13 Assassins"

Best Documentary
Winner: "Project Nim"
Runner-up: "Into the Abyss"

Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Thomas McCarthy, "Win Win"
Runner-up: J.C. Chandor, "Margin Call"

Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, "The Descendants"
Runner-up: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, "Moneyball"

Best Director
Winner: Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"
Runner-up: Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"

Best Actress
Winner: Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Runner-up: Tilda Swinton, "We Need To Talk About Kevin"

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Viola Davis, "The Help"
Runner-up: Amy Ryan, "Win Win"

Best Actor
Winner: Paul Giamatti, "Win Win"
Runner-up: Ralph Fiennes, "Coriolanus"

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
Runner-up: Albert Brooks, "Drive"

Best Musical Score
Winner: Ludovic Bource, "The Artist"
Runner-up: Howard Shore, "Hugo"

Original Vision Award
Winner: "The Tree of Life"
Runner-up: "The Artist"

The Hoosier Award
Winner: Lindsay Goffman, producer of "Dumbstruck"


Reeling Backward: "This Gun for Hire" (1942)

Alan Ladd became a star in the most unlikely way: Playing a heartless killer in 1942's "This Gun for Hire." While ostensibly a supporting part -- 29-year-old Ladd received fourth billing, below Laird Crager -- the role of Philip Raven is one of the most enduring in all of film noir

Raven is a man who, as the trailer dubbed him, "kills for the love of killing." This is not quite right, as he is a paid assassin who kills without hesitation or remorse, but doesn't appear to have a huge emotional reaction in the act of doing so. The opening scene, where he casually shoots a scientist selling a secret formula -- and then guns down his wife to boot -- sets the hard-bitten tone for the rest of the movie.

With his carefully unmodulated voice, steely unwavering gaze and icy cold demeanor, Ladd gave Raven unmistakable presence and a pitch-dark form of charisma. Love him or hate him, you can't take your eyes off him.

Veronica Lake is supposed to be the star of the picture, but it's a curiously passive lead role. She spends most of the movie in Raven's thrall, as his traveling companion and prisoner. It's more of a partnership than a true thug/victim relationship, with Ellen Graham appealing to Raven's better nature -- apparently being the only person who even believes there is such a thing.

Ellen's an interesting gal, part moll and part golden-hearted enchantress. She's a showgirl who sings while performing magic tricks (which Lake performs herself, and ably) whose fellah is a police detective, Michael Crane (Robert Preston). The copper is a wet rag compared to the black charm of Raven, and for a long time it seems likely that she really is "Raven's girl," as the police dub her.

Directed by Frank Tuttle from a screenplay by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, based on the novel "A Gun for Sale" by Graham Greene, "This Gun for Hire" is a great-looking film with lots of inky cinematography -- particularly in a brief sequence inside a gasworks factory, where the shadows of machinery envelop and bisect the people inside.

Raven spends most of the movie on the lam, but doesn't seem particularly rattled about it. He's listed in the newspapers as the "broken-wristed killer," identifiable by his left hand that juts out at an ungainly angle from his forearm. (Late in the movie we learn this injury was inflicted by an abusive aunt, who became his first murder victim when he slit her throat in retaliation.) Oddly, this deformity doesn't seem to affect Raven's physical ability, including pulling himself up over a brick wall into the gasworks.

The main antagonist is Cregar as Willard Gates, who seems to have a hand in both the entertainment and industrial worlds, picking out Ellen for his nightclub. He hires Raven to off the scientist, but he's acting at the behest of an elderly, sickly senator who wants to sell the formula for a poisonous gas to the Japanese. (This plot is revealed very late in the story, suggesting it was stitched on for war propaganda purposes.)

Gates pays Raven in marked bills, which soon puts Crane and the other cops on his tail. Not being the forgiving sort -- see the aunt -- he vows to hunt down Gates and kill him. Ellen learns of the Japanese scheme, and enlists Raven to give up his revenge in order to foil the plan.

Cregar is an interesting story. He had a brief but busy career, making 16 films between 1940 and 1945 --including playing the pirate Henry Morgan in "The Black Swan" -- before dying at the age of 31. He was actually the same age as Ladd when they made "This Gun for Hire" together, but Cregar nearly always played older characters in their 40s and up.

A looming physical presence -- 6-foot-3 with a barrel chest and shoulders like a linebacker -- Cregar struggled with his weight all his life, rarely less than 300 pounds in most of his screen roles. Tuttle is careful to avoid have Ladd and Cregar standing right next to other, since the diminutive Ladd (5'6" by most accounts) would have a hard time looking threatening next to a man twice his size. When they finally do appear together, Raven has his gun trained on Gates while wearing a gas mask, which make shim scary enough.

Cregar quickly lost over 100 pounds for his final role, and the strain on his system killed him a few days after undergoing stomach surgery. What a bright light snuffed out so early.

Preston was even younger, just 24 when this film came out, and Lake was already a big star at 20. She and Ladd would go on to make several more pictures together, forming one of the Golden Age's most iconic screen duos.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Video review: "The Help"

I would not be surprised to see "The Help" get a raft of Academy Award nominations. Viola Davis and Octavia Spence seem like locks in the Best Supporting Actress Category, playing African-American maids struggling with racism and oppression in 1960s Mississippi. And Bryce Dallas Howard might just slide in there, too, as the catty queen bee of the white social establishment.

Emma Stone has a shot at a Best Actress nomination too, playing "Skeeter" Phelan, the recently graduated college woman and aspiring journalist who takes it upon herself to write about "the help" -- black women who essentially raise the children of white well-to-do families, only to be rewarded with condescension and Jim Crow status quo when those young ones grow up into adults.

For that matter, writer/director Tate Taylor did a smart job translating the phenomenally popular book by Kathryn Stockett to the screen, taking syrupy chick flick material and turning it into a moving and surprisingly funny portrait of Southern womanhood, in all its gritty glory and brittle pettiness. An Oscar nomination might just be in his future, too.

Heck, for that matter, why not a Best Picture nod for "The Help"? How many other films have grabbed audiences this year like this one, leaving them rolling in the aisles and with tears on their cheeks? It's sure to be a big hit on video.

One disappointing note is that video extras are rather on the lean side. The DVD version comes only with a few deleted scenes and “The Living Proof” music video by Mary J. Blige.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you add a few more deleted scenes, and two featurettes – a making-of documentary and a tribute to real-life maids of Mississippi.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Rear Window" (1954)

Somebody once asked me how I choose the movies to write about in the "Reeling Backward" column. More specifically, they asked why I seemed to choose mostly obscure films most people have never heard of -- like "Panic in Year Zero" or "Yellow Sky."

"If you're going to write about a Humphrey Bogart movie, why not pick 'Casablanca' instead of 'Across the Pacific'?" went the line of questioning, or something like it.

There are essentially two reasons. One is that I started this feature largely as a way to expand my own film education. Even for a hardcore movie buff, it astonishes me how many classic films (and modern pictures) I've never seen. Seeing as one tends to see the most famous stuff first, I make it a point to reach out for movies I've never encountered. By necessity, that means casting my net farther.

But another reason is that I try to be interesting and write about my insights into a movie, hopefully with some originality and touch of wit. I see these less as reviews of old movies as essays, or even my personal movie diary.

Frankly, so many people have written volumes of prose about "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane" and other greats, I feel adding my voice to the din serves little purpose. I doubt many people would read it, and I'm modest enough about abilities to recognize that it's unlikely I could say anything really new.

But occasionally I pick a high-profile subject I'm already very familiar with just because, dang it, I really like the movie and want to spend some time re-watching and thinking about it.

I got a copy of the remastered "Rear Window" well more than a year ago, but hadn't gotten around to watching it for a variety of reasons. (Mostly, a little blond boy who came into my life.) I think I know why. As a suspense film, "Rear Window" derives most of its satisfaction from the revelations of the plot. Watching it again and again fails to capture the thrill of seeing it unfold for the first time.

Especially, that fantastic moment when Raymond Burr, playing the killer, looks up into the camera (which has been acting as Jimmy Stewart's gaze) and realizes that the entirety of his nefarious activity has been closely observed. That's a once-in-a-cinematic-lifetime moment.

Even great thrillers, like "Silence of the Lambs," lose some of their appeal after their mysteries have been revealed.

"Rear Window" obtains more of its freshness than, say, "Psycho" because the plot works backwards. The identity of the killer is made known early on, and the entire story is about L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries, a photographer laid up with a badly broken leg, trying to prove that a murder has even taken place. He sits at his window in his Greenwich Village apartment, staring and spying on his neighbors in the little courtyard of buildings.

I won't talk too much about the voyeurism that is a central motif in Alfred Hitchcock's movies, and is brought to the fore here. It was one of the New Wave guys, film critics who became filmmakers, who pointed out that the view of the neighbors is like a movie screen, and Jeff takes the place of the audience, playing peeping tom so we won't feel bad about doing so.

I will say that the studio set built for this picture is simply a marvel, a canvas of windows and the human carnival partially glimpsed through them. Only a sliver of the city street is visible through an alley, making the courtyard seem like a quiet oasis removed from the bustle and danger of New York City.

Except, of course, there's plenty of foul play going on here. Lars Thorwald (Burr), a costume jewelry salesman, offs his invalid wife and -- Jeff later determines -- cuts her up into pieces and carries them out of the apartment in his sample case.

Jeff spends most of the movies trying to make the case to his detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey). He quickly makes converts of his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly). They soon become his conscripts, hunting down evidence and even -- in perhaps the film's most memorable sequence -- Lisa sneaking into Thorwald's apartment while he's away.

Little comment is made upon the movie's title (which did not come from the short story upon which John Michael Hayes based the screenplay, "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich). Jeff, in a heated argument with Stella about the propriety of using binoculars and a telephoto lens to spy on his neighbors, says "I'm not much on rear-window ethics."

This could have two meanings. The most common understanding is that it's not right to watch people unobserved, since people behave differently when they're interacting with society and quite another when they're in private. How many of us would like to have our intimate daily doings, even the most innocent ones, broadcast for others' eyes?

But another meaning is that things seen through the rear window of a car are by definition things that are behind us, and therefore in our past. My take on Jeff's dialogue is that he's in the midst of doing what he must, and he will consider the morality of it later on. He's also talking about his lifestyle, which is a freewheeling cycle of exotic assignments and dangerous thrills, and that he prefers to live in the moment. He'll worry about today, tomorrow.

This is in contrast to the carefully-ordered life of Lisa, and the source of the tension in their relationship.

Either way, "Rear Window" has remained an enduring classic because it's not just a clever potboiler, but a nagging and probing film that raises uncomfortable truths about how people behave toward one another ... especially when we think no one's looking.

3.5 stars out of four

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Holiday movie preview

The leftover turkey is downed, the relatives from up north have returned home, and winter has brought weather to chill the bones. All these signs of impending Yule also point to the fact that the holiday movie season is getting into full swing.

Why exactly is it that Hollywood saves its serious films and family-friendly big-budget bonanzas for the last few weeks of the year? Gosh knows we could've used some of these high-profile flicks back in September, when our choices were between "Shark Night 3D" and "Dream House."

Part of it is jockeying for Academy Award nominations. Films released too early in the year tend to fade in memory, while a movie released in late December will still be playing in theaters when Oscar voters mark their ballots.

And with most kids out of school, studios want to blanket their biggest target audience with choices.

The result? A large percentage of the best movies of the year are released between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

The bounty carries over to the first few weeks of January, when films given a qualifying release in New York and L.A. for Academy Award consideration go wider.

Here's a look at what's under the cinematic Christmas tree. Movies marked with an O! have serious Oscar buzz.

New Year's Eve (12/9) -- Director Garry Marshall and much of his "Valentine's Day" crew attempt to replicate their success with another romantic paean to a holiday, told through a large ensemble cast of lovers, including Ashton Kutcher, Robert De Niro and Katherine Heigl.

The Sitter (12/9) -- Perennial wingman Jonah Hill gets the star treatment in this goofy comedy about a slovenly slacker who takes on the babysitting job from hell.

O! Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (12/9) -- Gary Oldman is getting lots of kudos for his performance as a master spy brought out of retirement during the Cold War to hunt down a Soviet mole inside British intelligence. Co-starring Colin Firth. Based on the John le Carré novel.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (12/16) -- The great detective (Robert Downey Jr.) takes on an enemy as brilliant as he in the form of Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). More quick-edited fight scenes followed by clever quips with a faux British lilt.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked (12/16) -- Poor Jason Lee. One of filmdom's most genuine actors has sunk to playing the human sidekick in the third Chipmunks movie. The gang gets stuck on a deserted island, leading to ... lots of Auto-Tuned singing.

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (12/16) -- Let's face it, this may be the last chance for Tom Cruise. The soon to be 50-year-old star hasn't had a hit in six years. And can animation whiz Brad Bird direct a live-action blockbuster?

O! Young Adult (12/16) -- The "Juno" team, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, team up again for a serio-comedy about a disgraced big shot (Charlize Theron) who goes back to her tiny hometown in order to reconnect with her old boyfriend, who's inconveniently married.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (12/21) -- This film is already controversial with a semi-nude Rooney Mara appearing in a poster with Daniel Craig. He's a crusading journalist; she's a disturbed computer hacker. Was an American remake of the Swedish thriller even needed?

O! The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (12/21) -- Could Steven Spielberg add another Oscar to his mantle with a win for best animated feature? The aging wunderkind tackles cartoons for the first time in this take on the popular European comics.

We Bought A Zoo (12/23) -- Writer/director Cameron Crowe returns after a long fallow period with this dramedy starring Matt Damon as a harried single dad who, yup, buys a zoo in an attempt to bring his family back together. Scarlett Johansson co-stars.

The Darkest Hour (12/25) -- Emile Hirsch leads a group of photogenic young people stranded in Moscow when strange alien creatures attack the planet Earth.

O! War Horse (12/25) -- The novel by Michael Morpurgo became an award-winning stage production, and gets the big-screen treatment from director Steven Spielberg. (That guy's everywhere!) A young man separated from his beloved horse during World War I tries to find him.

The following films, listed alphabetically, will likely only see limited release in December -- look for them in local theaters sometime in the new year.

O! Albert Nobbs  -- Glenn Close has been nominated five times for an Oscar without winning ... though the last was in 1989. She may finally get another shot at the golden statue in this drama about a woman passing herself off as a man to work as a butler in 19th century Ireland. Like Jeff Bridges, Close could get the nod as a way to cap off a great career.

Carnage -- Two Brooklyn children get into a tussle, and then their parents meet to make the peace. But then ... something else happens. Brilliant but controversial director Roman Polanski steers a great cast -- Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly -- in this absurdist comedy based on the Broadway play.

O! Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- The harrowing Jonathan Safran Foer novel about a 9-year-old boy on a quest for answers after his father dies in the 9/11 attacks. Starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.

In the Land of Blood and Honey -- Angelina Jolie steps behind the camera for the first time as the writer/director of this drama about a couple who find themselves separated during the Bosnian War.

O! The Iron Lady -- Can Meryl Streep pass muster as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Upper English lips get notoriously stiff whenever Yanks play one of their own in a high-profile biopic. Something tells me Streep will pull it off ... because she's Meryl Streep.

O! My Week with Marilyn -- Another high-profile biopic stars Michelle Williams as perhaps American cinema's greatest icon, seen by her co-star Laurence Olivier while they were shooting a picture.

Pariah -- A Brooklyn teen struggles to find her sexual identity in the face of familial tensions in this Sundance Film Festival favorite.

O! Shame -- Michael Fassbender, best known to American audiences as young Magneto from "X-Men: First Class," is getting raves for his raw and exposed portrayal of a man burdened with sexual addiction. Co-starring Carey Mulligan. No NC-17 film has ever won an Academy Award -- could this be the first?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Video review: "The Smurfs"

A merchandising opportunity in search of a movie, "The Smurfs" is the latest bastardization of a beloved cartoon franchise from Generation X's childhood. Like "Garfield," "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "Yogi Bear," the filmmakers layer on the fancy computer animation but fail to add any soul into these stale leftovers.

Also like those other movies, "The Smurfs" unconvincingly pairs the CGI critters with live-action humans, resulting in the fakest person/Smurf hugs imaginable. I can't think why the people responsible for these types of movies feel it necessary to include live people, since the cartoon versions existed quite fine without them. The only answer I can come up with is a cynical one: It's cheaper, since it means they don't have to animate every second of the movie.

The story goes that several of the Smurfs get zapped from their magical land into real-world New York City, including Papa Smurf, Smurfette and some new guy named Gutsy, apparently a replacement for Hefty. They soon befriend Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), a humble Manhattanite.

Their old nemesis, the wizard Gargamel, chases them through the dimension whole. He's played (live-action) by Hank Azaria, who gnashes and clowns and cavorts, managing to bring what little entertainment value to be found in "The Smurfs."

Please note, "The Smurfs" will be released on video on Friday, Dec. 2.

Video extras are quite decent, and are available in three different versions. The DVD contains two commentary tracks, gag reel (dubbed Blue-pers), a music montage, a "Find the Smurfs" game and two making-of featurettes.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you add deleted/extended scenes, another game, one more featurette and progression reels showing the stages of the animation process.

Go for the Holiday Gift Set, and you get an interactive pop-up feature and a new mini-movie based on Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: "The Descendants"

It's nearly December, and I have yet to fall in love with a movie this year. There have been plenty I liked, and a handful I really admired and respected. "The Descendants," the new film from Alexander Payne, is among the latter.

But I've yet to experience a film that truly left me gobsmacked, lifted me up and tossed me around and left me shaking. Movie critics take pains to put on a cynical veneer, but we're actually a lot like teenage girls: we're giddily awaiting the crazy whirlwind romance.

I've been for a spin or two in 2011, but I'm still waiting to be swept off my feet.

Payne specializes in serious, cerebral movies that toe the line between pain and laughter. Accepting a Golden Globe for best performance in a drama in "About Schmidt," Jack Nicholson famously quipped, "I thought we made a comedy." Payne makes the sort of movies -- "Election," "Citizen Ruth" -- that don't so much blur the line between drama and comedy as render the distinction unimportant.

He hasn't made a feature film since 2004's "Sideways," but he's back at the top of his game with "The Descendents." It's a career-changing performance by George Clooney, playing a dad -- that in of itself is a seismic shift; he's nearly always been the lothario or lone wolf -- coping with his wife in a coma.

Clooney is open and vulnerable in a way we've never seen before; his character is at a crossroads in life and doesn't know what to do. He has lots of questions and few answers. It's the opposite of the typical male movie star role, in which the guy always looks like he's in control, or at least pretends to be.

Even in "Up in the Air," which has some thematic similarities, Clooney played a charmer who oozes confidence. Here, Clooney he gives the boot to his too-cool-for-school shtick and isn't afraid to look weak.
Matt King is upfront about how he's put his career as a lawyer before his wife and two daughters: "I'm the backup parent, the understudy," he confides in the opening narration.

With his wife in a vegetative state after a boating accident, Matt is left to deal with his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), who's acting out, and 17-year-old Alexandra (a terrific Shailene Woodley), who's out-and-out rebelling.

Things were a little rocky in Matt's marriage, but it's left to Alexandra to give him the news: his wife was cheating on him. Matt is simply unable to deal with this information. Here's a guy who prides himself on his rationality, and he's left sputtering with chaotic emotions by the betrayal.

Complicating things further is the impending disposition of the family plot in Hawaii that's been the birthright of Matt's clan for 150 years. Many of his wide-ranging cousins are broke, and are clamoring for a piece of the pie if they sell to a developer for big, big money -- we're talking half a billion here, folks.

Did I mention the movie is set in Hawaii? Payne's films tend to be very evocative of a specific place, and "The Descendents" is no exception. There are gorgeous shots of the island landscape, of course, but it's more about capturing the laid-back atmosphere. From the way people instinctively remove their shoes before entering a house to the groovy, free-hugging vibe most of the natives espouse, Payne gives the film a sun-kissed, exotic authenticity.

A few other supporting characters turn up. Alexandra's friend Sid (Nick Krause) is part stoner hanger-on, part boyfriend who says outrageously offensive things but somehow becomes the glue that holds their frayed bonds together. Robert Forster has a blunt, caustic turn as Matt's father-in-law, who does not hold his tongue or his fists when provoked.

Written by Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants has a smart script that's well executed by all involved, especially Clooney and Payne. I really, really, really like this movie a lot. Love will have to wait.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: "Hugo"

"Hugo" is an often-delightful movie that always kept me guessing. It's got a lot of Charles Dickens mixed with a little steampunk fantasy, layered with a rich frosting of tribute to early 20th century silent filmmaking.

In a world where most movies seem to make the entirety of themselves obvious the moment they begin, it was a pleasurable experience to have a film that took its time establishing itself. There doesn't seem to be much of a coherent story for a great deal of the time, just a sprawling group of characters who don't appear to be behaving for the camera. Slowly, though, themes and urgencies coalesce.

This is perhaps the most uncharacteristic movie Martin Scorsese has made, and not just because it's a children's movie, and contains tons of CGI and was shot in 3-D, no less. For once, the 3-D is not just an add-on to pump up ticket grosses, but actually enhances the cinematic experience by adding layers and textures without spotlighting them for their own sake.

The visuals are gorgeous and lush, almost painterly in their evocation of 1930s Paris in winter. The gently twinkling lights, the crisp white snow, the people who dress up in suits and gowns for a simple trip to the train station -- it's a feast for the eyes.

No, this is a departure for Scorsese because he's not exploring his usual theme, the human savagery hidden by urban society. He has made a paean to the dreamers, magicians and tinkerers who strive to reshape their world into something beautiful. This is a story of hope and striving, not sorrow and loss.

Asa Butterfield (who starred in the criminally unappreciated "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") plays Hugo Cabret, an orphan boy who lives inside the clocks and mechanical guts of the Paris train depot. His uncle, the timekeeper, has long ago disappeared in a drunken fling, and Hugo's clockmaker father died. So he's tragically, achingly alone.

Hugo peers through the clock faces and steam grates at the denizens of the train station, with two figures holding most of his attention. One is the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, chewing his vowels), an unctuous man with a bad leg supported by a squeaky metal brace, whose specialty is snatching up lost children and shipping them off to the orphanage.

The other is the owner of the toy shop (Ben Kingsley), from whom Hugo has quietly been stealing parts for his own special project. Hugo and his father began repairing a strange automaton, a little metal man who sits at a writing desk. Hugo has become obsessed with getting this creation working again to see what secrets it holds.

I can't say anything more about the plot for fear of spoiling the film's charms. Suffice it to say the toymaker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) will factor in heavily, plus the local flower girl (Emily Mortimer), an ancient bookshop owner (Christopher Lee), and the movies of the great silent filmmaker, Georges Méliès.

As much as I admired "Hugo," I could not give myself over entirely to it. The movie's emotional connections are tenuous -- Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan, working from Brian Selznick's book, never let things get too dark and dreary. Even the villainous station inspector, presented as a buffoon, is allowed  redemptive love interest. And the toymaker's bile over his shattered dreams washes away a little too quickly and conveniently.

I also noticed a disturbing artificiality to Moretz' performance -- little gestures and facial expressions that seemed overly theatrical and less than spontaneous. She's been terrific in everything else I've seen her in ("Let Me In," "Kick-Ass"), so I can only fault Scorsese's direction of her.

"Hugo" is gorgeous movie-making that, in end, feels mostly like an homage to itself.

3 stars out of four

Video Review: "Super 8"

Director J. J. Abrams self-consciously channels Steven Spielberg in "Super 8," an ode to Gen-X childhood and 1970s filmmaking built around a sense of wonderment. It's the story of a group of boys in small-town 1979 Ohio, who are shooting an amateur zombie movie when a real-life disaster descends upon their community.

The plot is fairly predictable -- if you haven't figured out what the threat is by the time the military starts invading with soldiers, you must've been asleep. But Abrams, who also penned the screenplay, manages to convincingly evoke and specific time and place of his own imagining.

Here, 13-year-olds talk and act exactly like real preteens do, not the glossy, whitewashed versions we're used to in mainstream films. Joe (Joel Courtney), the shy kid who does the special effects make-up, is the main character but brash Charles (Riley Griffiths), the director of the picture-within-a-picture, calls the shots. He's obsessed with putting "production value" into their flicks, and comes up with the idea of casting a girl (a girl!) in their movie.

Thus enters Alice, the rebellious gal at school, played by Elle Fanning in a game-changing performance. Things get rolling with the derailing of a locomotive, in a scene that makes the train crash in "The Fugitive" look wimpy. The mysterious behavior of one of their schoolteachers and other odd occurrences takes the story into serious "Twilight Zone" territory.

Along the way, Joe will have to deal with his distant father (Kyle Chandler), a deputy sheriff who's broken up about the recent death of his wife.

What it lacks in originality, "Super 8" makes up for with spunk and a genuine heart.

Extra material is quite good. If you go for the DVD version, you'll get a feature-length commentary by Abrams and key crew members, and two making-of featurettes.

Opt for the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you'll add six more featurettes, including ones on the excellent musical score by Michael Giacchino and the tradition of 8mm filmmaking. There's also a deconstruction of the train crash scene, deleted scenes and a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Review: "The Muppets"

The recurring theme of "The Muppets" is that the whole gang hasn't seen each other for years, and all their fans have forgotten about them. They're trying to get back together for one last show, ostensibly to save their old theater from destruction but really to remind the world that they're still around, still funny and still capable of putting on a big to-do.

In reality, the return of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppets is charming and welcome reintroduction of the puppets created by Jim Henson decades ago (an early version of Kermit debuted in 1955). They haven't been forgotten so much as misplaced in weak movies and third-rate television appearances.

Rather than returning like a lot of other beloved children's franchises, spiffed up in CGI and modern attitudes -- "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Garfield," "Yogi Bear" -- the Muppets are stubbornly old-school and kinda schmaltzy. They were a throwback to vaudeville even when the first Muppet movie came out in 1979, and now their boisterous singing and razzmatazz feels positively kitschy.

A whole generation of kids grew up on the Muppets, old enough now to bring their own children and catch up with Kermit & Co. The preview audience I attended of 30- and 40-something parents positively swayed with glee when the banjo strumming kicked off "Rainbow Connection."

Jason Segal is the Muppet savior, co-writing the script (with Nicholas Stoller) and starring as Gary. Segal, best known for R-rated comedies and adult-oriented television, mostly stays in the background and plays straight man, letting the Muppets take center stage.

Gary's brother is Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who is obsessed with the Muppets and actually is one himself, although he doesn't seem to realize it. (One hint was a montage of their parents measuring their height, and Gary sprouts up while Walter never grows.) The stubborn conceit of the Muppets is that they're living creatures who don't know they have human hands manipulating them from the inside.

There appears to be little conscious attempt to age the Muppets or even acknowledge that the passage of time weighs on them. What exactly is the age span of frog made out of felt? Though it did seem to me that Fozzie Bear's eyebrows had acquired a touch of gray.

In the one nod to modern irony, there is plenty of breaking of the fourth wall, as the Muppets and their human tag-a-longs comment on the fact they are starring in a film. After assembling Kermit (voice of Steve Whitmire), Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), and a few others, someone suggests that they save time by picking up the rest of the crew via musical montage.

I also guffawed when Gary's long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) quips after the Muppets' pitch for a live telethon is turned down by every television studio in town: "This is going to be an awfully short movie!"

The heavy is Tex Richman, a wealthy oilman who's made an unlikely discovery of oil right beneath the Muppets' old Los Angeles theater. Chris Cooper, known for dramatic roles, attacks the part with obvious glee, even breaking into a rap assisted by his Muppet henchmen. ("Do you think we're working for the bad guy?" one asks the other.)

In one great throwaway joke, whenever Tex Richman is savoring his evil plans, he doesn't just break out into a maniacal laugh, but actually narrates it: "Maniacal laaauuuuugh!!"

Director James Bobin, a TV veteran, seems to grasp the tone and pitch of the Muppets, combining broad physical humor for kiddies with wry observations aimed at their parents. Though the story does get a big draggy near the middle, and the movie feels a little bit overlong.

Still, "The Muppets" is a joyful and successful reboot of a beloved franchise.

The movie is preceded by a 7-minute "Toy Story" short that finds Buzz Lightyear usurped by a micro-version of himself from a fast-food promotional giveaway. It's moderately amusing, though I savored the wink to Disney's mega-merchandising.

3 stars out of four

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: "The Skin I Live In"

If Alfred Hitchcock were making movies in 2011 instead of mid-20th century, he might very well have concocted something like "The Skin I Live In." It's a stylish sexual thriller that takes much of Hitchcock's obsessive voyeurism toward the female form and dials it up to 11. Think "Vertigo," and layer on a whole lot of kinky, fetishistic behavior.

It's a highly disturbing film, and wonderfully so.

Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar -- one of the few filmmakers today who deserves that description -- delivers one of his most original and nightmarish visions. Based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, it wears the clothes of a mystery/thriller, but like most of Almodóvar's movies the outer layer is just dressing for deeper and darker themes rumbling underneath.

The story opens with a wealthy and driven plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who has a woman locked up in a room of his remote mansion. Is she his prisoner? A patient? A caged bird he desires for himself? Perhaps all of these?

Known only as Vera, the woman (Elena Anaya) wears a strange, skin-tight bodysuit that hugs every inch of her body in a cocoon that is both protective and confining -- even her fingers and toes are tightly encased.
Vera is obviously unhappy: Robert returns home to find her having attempted to slash her wrists and chest. Curiously, she has been very unsuccessful in damaging herself. We soon learn that Robert has spent years perfecting a new replacement for human skin that is resistant to burns and cuts.

Because he achieved this miracle through transgenesis -- combining human and pig skin cells -- his work is forbidden and, therefore, kept strictly secret. His only confidant is his servant Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who has been with the family for decades and is privy to, or part of, all of the Ledgard secrets.

Things really get strange when a man named Zeca wearing a tiger costume for Carnival shows up on the doorstep, and eyes Vera with an animalistic lust.

Clues are dropped like so many bread crumbs in the forest -- are they leading the audience to the answer, or luring us further into a bramble of temptation and madness? Either way, the journey is delectable.

The action suddenly switches to years earlier. Robert's wife, horribly burned in a car accident, kills herself in front of their daughter, Norma. Later, at a wedding party Norma will meet Vicente (Janet Cornet), a charming young rake whose actions will set them all on the path to tragedy.

I cannot say more for fear of ruining the filmgoer's experience. Suffice it to say that all I have described is mere prologue.

Almodóvar, known for pushing boundaries, blows past many of them with this daring vision. Anaya spends almost the entire movie either nude or in that odd bodysuit, and at one point during her transformation wears a translucent mask with a cross-like cutout for her eyes and mouth, too.

The director and his cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, shoot with bold close-ups and crisp images, so sharply defined it seems everything is lit up like an operating theater. But with splashes of warm color, the feel is anything but sterile -- the visuals are vibrant and breathtaking.

The film's only weakness is that the main character remains something of a cipher. But then, at some point we come to question who exactly is the protagonist.

"The Skin I Live In" is a wonderfully twisted cinematic expedition into territory rarely traveled.

3.5 stars out of four