Monday, January 31, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Lucas" (1986)

"Lucas" is one of those movies that you look back on and are flabbergasted by how many talented young performers appeared in it. Corey Haim, Charlie Sheen, Kerri Green, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Tom Hodges and Jeremy Piven would go onto careers of varying length and quality, but the collective impact is just tremendous. It even featured a 13-year-old Winona Ryder in her very first screen role.

Other than "School Ties," it's hard to think of other movies where so many youngsters have so forcefully announced themselves to the world. Another is Ryder's own "Girl, Interrupted" from 1999, which was to have been her big Oscar showcase but ended up as the launching pad for Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy, Clea Duvall and Elisabeth Moss.

"Lucas" didn't make many waves at the box office back in 1986, but it's gone on to become a cult hit on video. It's a tender drama with both comedic and tragic undertones, and does a better job of busting out of the jocks-vs.-nerds conformity than do most teen movies.

It was written and directed by David Seltzer, who's had a long screenwriting career and also directed three other features besides "Lucas,' his first. ("Punchline" and "Shining Through," both underrated in my opinion, among them.) He's got a nice touch with his cast, who don't try to fit their characters into squares and circles, but let them breathe -- their failings, idiosyncrasies and goodness seem to just spring out of them naturally, rather than being forced by the necessities of the plot.

Lucas, despite being the stereotypical outcast at Park High, doesn't moan and mope about his status. He seems perfectly content with being different, because that's who he is, even if it means occasionally getting picked on by the football team members. Like jocks at most high schools, real or fictional, they assume their prowess on the playing field entitles them to special treatment, especially from teachers and administrators who will turn a blind eye to their hooliganism.

But not all athletes are bad guys, they just react to the environment around them. Their primary relationships are defined by competition, so that's how they think they should interact with everyone. Lucas, who's only 14 and small, becomes their target of choice.

He's probably do better if he just kept his head down, but Lucas has the gumption to talk back -- so much so that his nickname is Leukoplakia, or cancer of the mouth. How many kids would've come up with such an esoteric insult? Maybe it was Lucas himself, who's a science whiz who's been bumped ahead a couple of grades, and some dolt overheard him and turned it around.

I really liked the part of Cappie, the captain of the football team played by Charlie Sheen. Movies of this genre usually insist that he be the worst of the worst, but in fact Cappie is a friend of Lucas who does what he can to protect him from other jocks. There's just something so heartwarming about Cappie as a sort of big brother, a decent young man who probably would have turned out a lot different if it weren't for influences like Lucas -- who helped Cappie out with schoolwork when a bad illness laid him up for two months.

Seltzer instinctively understands the nature of adolescent romance, the way everything seems so fatalistic and certain to teens. Lucas takes a shine to Maggie (Kerri Green, fresh off "The Goonies"), the cute new redhead in town. Over the summer they bond and become best friends. But once school starts, Maggie gravitates to the circle of athletes and cheerleaders. She soon develops a crush on Cappie, which he obviously reciprocates despite a long-term relationship with Alise (Thorne-Smith).

It's no surprise that Lucas is smitten by Maggie. For him, she represents not just the perfect girl but everything that is good and right about the world. When she disappoints him by rejecting his appeals for something more than friendship, it sets his whole world to spinning.

Ryder has a small but pivotal role as Rina, a slightly dorky girl who secretly adores Lucas. She does everything she can to make this clear to him, short of actually telling him so. But the fear of rejection is not limited to just boys, so Rina is just constantly there, circling in Lucas' orbit and hoping for a collision.

So all this amore flying around sets up something I don't believe I've ever seen in a film before: A love pentagon. There's a great, dialogue-free scene where everyone is singing in choir class, and the camera slowly tracks from Rina watching Lucas, who's watching Maggie, who's staring at Cappie, who returns her gaze with a smile, to Alise witnessing the blooming connection.

It would be interesting to see a movie made with all the same characters but from Rina or Alise's perspective. Think about Alise: She's been dating Cappie since the start of high school, and here comes some other girl making moony eyes at her guy, tagging along on trips to the movies, and otherwise horning in on her social life. No fool or sucker, Alise dumps Cappie before he does it to her.

Plot-wise, there really isn't much going on in "Lucas." The last 30 minutes or so is taken up with Lucas trying to get onto the football team to impress Maggie, culminating with him talking his way onto the field during a big game. Lucas breaks away from the scrimmage, waiting near the end zone for a pass, which Cappie finally provides.

In every other teen movie, Lucas would catch the ball and become the hero. Instead he bobbles and drops it. Of course he would -- this is probably the first time he's ever touched a football, let alone tried to catch a 60-yard pass. The other team picks up the fumble, and Lucas bravely tries to stop the runner, holding on like a scarecrow as he's carried downfield. In the ensuing pileup he's knocked cold. Not that it would have mattered even if he'd caught it: They were down 24-zip.

"Lucas" would stand out as an ambitious teen movie, even if no one in it had gone on to any sort of notoriety. The fact that so many did makes it a minor classic.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review: "The Mechanic"

If you took movies like "The American" or "Taken" -- lean, efficient thrillers about hit men struggling with their violent histories -- and stripped them of any intellectual pretense, you'd have "The Mechanic."

Credit this new action flick from stolid B-list leading man Jason Statham ("The Transporter," "Crank") and director Simon West ("Con Air") with being self-aware. It doesn't try to dazzle with deep meditations on aging assassins filled with regret. This is a movie devoted to celebrating mayhem, which it does with straightforward flair.

Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a veteran "mechanic" or hit man. He works for a shadowy group that simply calls itself "The Company," but we don't get the sense it's a governmental agency hunting bad guys. Bishop receives a file from time to time, which names a target he's to take out.

Sometimes the kill is supposed to be big and bloody, to send a message to the world. Other times, Bishop is expected to carry out his mission without anyone knowing he was ever there.

Much of the film's enjoyment comes from watching Bishop come up with all sorts of ingenious ways to execute his victims. An opening sequence involving a Columbian drug lord surrounded by a veritable army of gun-toting guards comes down to an afternoon swim and a wristwatch.

Things go south when Bishop receives his new assignment, and it's to take out his own handler, a wheelchair-bound old-timer named McKenna (Donald Sutherland). The boss (a slithery Tony Goldwyn) claims McKenna was taking bribes and set up another team of assassins, who all perished. Since Bishop is his friend, they figure he'll have the best chance of slaying McKenna with no mess.

But a mess finds a way to stick to Bishop anyway, in the form of McKenna's screw-up of a son, Steve. Steve doesn't have any plans beyond drinking up his dad's stores of scotch before the bank comes to repossess the house, so Bishop decides to take him under his wing and train Steve as his protégé.

This is the film's best section, as the two men slowly gain a trust that Bishop knows will eventually be punctured when Steve learns that his mentor was the one who killed his father. Steve is played by Ben Foster, who lends his character a skeevy but soulful presence.

Foster's made something of a career stealing scenes as a sidekick to bigger stars -- "3:10 to Yuma," "The Messenger" -- and does so again here.

The final act of the movie is a paint-by-numbers affair in which Bishop and Steve team up to annihilate the organization they'd been working for. Still, the action scenes are crisp and engaging -- especially a rooftop shootout that ends in a sudden drop.

The screenplay is by Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino, who also wrote the 1972 original film starring Charles Bronson upon which this is based.

"The Mechanic" scores because it knows what it is and isn't -- it thrives not on brainpower, but the horsepower of bloody havoc.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review: "Made in Dagenham"

Sort of a British "Norma Rae," "Made in Dagenham" is a well-acted tale about female auto workers demanding equal pay in the late 1960s. It's a classic underdog story whose outcome is never in doubt, where the lines between the good guys and the bad are practically marked onscreen in highlighter pen.

Sally Hawkins plays the Sally Field role of the low-key worker who rises up to become a respected leader of the union. As Rita O'Grady, Hawkins has a slightly awkward sort of beauty, the sort of woman who has to be told what a gem she is before she believes it herself. Hawkins used this quality to full effect in "Happy-Go-Lucky" a couple of years ago.

Director Nigel Cole brings the same sort of energy he did to 2003's "Calendar Girls" about another group of plucky women who discover they're a lot more capable than anyone gave them credit for. William Ivory's script, though, follows the diagram of a screenwriting class to a T, so we know the progression of the gals' struggle before it happens.

For example, Rita's husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) will be fully supportive at first, getting a kick out of seeing his wife photographed in newspapers and on the telly. But then there will be growing discord as he's forced to take up more of the cooking and cleaning at home, followed by a big spat when his own job is imperiled, culminating in rapprochement where he tells her how proud he is.

The story also tends to treat the other women as scenery rather than distinct individuals. There's the slutty one (Andrea Riseborough), the cute one who wants to be a model (Jaime Winstone), and so forth. Only Connie (Geraldine James), the steadfast older shop steward, is given anything like another dimension, including some trouble on the home front.

I didn't care for the wife of one of the company managers (Rosamund Pike), who befriends Rita without even realizing they live in separate camps. An educated, smart woman who resents having to bury her talents beneath her husband's, she secretly eggs the working girls on. The whole thing is a little too pat.

The history lesson aspect of the film is certainly engaging, though. In the 1960s Ford was the largest auto manufacturer in Europe, employing some 40,000 workers in England alone. The gals of the machinists union in Dagenham, some 187 of them, were classified as unskilled laborers and paid considerably less than their male counterparts -- quite often, their own husbands and brothers.

Bob Hoskins plays Albert, a union organizer impressed by the gumption of the women during a relatively minor disagreement with management. He encourages Rita to strike for equal pay -- much to the consternation of the union bosses.

Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, the first (and still only) female British secretary of state, who was tasked with tamping down the machinist strike and keeping Ford happy.

Richard Schiff shows up as a Ford exec sent over from the States to twist some arms. He bellows and rants: We can't pay these women the same as men, because then women all over the world will want the same thing!

Of course, Ford eventually acquiesced and become something of a pioneer on gender equality, and even cooperated with the making of this film. So even the bad guys turn out to be decent blokes.

Sally Hawkins is eminently watchable, but it's too bad "Made in Dagenham" feels like it rolled off another kind of assembly line.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar nomination reaction

The 2010 Academy Awards nomination surprised and largely pleased me. I was deathly afraid that two of my favorites, "127 Hours" and "Winter's Bone," would not get love from the Academy because neither managed to light much of a fire at the box office.

I was especially pleased to see acting nominations for Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes from "Bone" -- two of the best performances I saw this year. James Franco (who's co-hosting the ceremony Feb. 27) got a nomination for his performance in "127 Hours," but he has a much higher profile than the other two.

"The King's Speech" led the field with 12 nominations, an indication of a strong swell of support from the Academy's older voters. Should it now be the favorite for Best Picture? I still think "The Social Network" is tops.

A lot of dap for "Toy Story 3," including becoming the third animated feature to get a Best Pic nod, plus a screenplay nominations. I still think "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Tangled" are better films.

Films that did better than predicted: "Rabbit Hole," "Winter's Bone," "Toy Story 3," "The Kids Are All Right," "The Fighter," "Biutiful" (a surprise -- and deserved -- nom for Javier Bardem).

Films that did worse: "Inception" (no Christopher Nolan directing nomination), "Never Let Me Go" (totally shut out), "Blue Valentine," "Tangled."

Snubs: No nod for Julianne Moore from "The Kids Are All Right"? Co-stars Mark Ruffalo and Annette Bening both got nominations, and her performance was no less compelling.

Ryan Gosling, in one of the most nuanced roles of the year in "Blue Valentine," got the shaft. Co-star Michelle Williams did get a nod, though. This is a movie built around two performances, and to recognize only one of them feel strange and bitter.

No Diane Wiest nod for "Rabbit Hole," though not surprising. It's a small but meaty role in a film few people have seen. Aaron Eckhart also got snubbed, which is strange in the same way as "Blue Valentine," in that's a movie about a relationship between two people.

A lack of a directing nod for Christopher Nolan is vexing. Here was one of the most truly original visions of the year, and to not recognize the man behind it strikes me as bizarre and cruel. Maybe voters felt a screenwriting nomination was sufficient. It wasn't.

Another acting nomination I wasn't really expecting but would have liked to see was Andrew Garfield for "The Social Network." Armie Hammer was amusing as the Winklevi, but it's just not an Oscar-caliber role or performance.

Although my prediction of a youth movement in the acting nominations proved largely true, with by my count nine of the 20 nods going to actors under the age of 40.

The Overrated: "The King's Speech" is a solid, well-made film, but about as original as an Andy Warhol soup can print. I think Film Yapper Nick Rogers said it best in his Facebook post: "Two great performances from actors who need neither good direction nor scripts to excel."

I liked "Toy Story 3," but c'mon. It was the third-go round with some very familiar characters and settings. You can't tell me certain parts of the plot felt like they were on auto-pilot (the escape from daycare, etc.). So a screenplay nod here seems really misplaced.

I know it's a nice-looking film, but there's just something wrong with the world when "Alice in Wonderland" earns more Academy Award nominations than "Blue Valentine," "The American," "Lebanon," "Never Let Me Go" and "Tangled" combined.

And, thank God, we avoided a Mila Kunis nomination for "Black Swan." I'm not a fan of that film, but Kunis was borderline horrible in it, and I couldn't believe she generated talk about a nod. No Milli Vanilli Moment for these Oscars.

Here's the complete list:

Best motion picture of the year

     Black Swan
     The Fighter
     The Kids Are All Right
     The King's Speech
     127 Hours
     The Social Network
     Toy Story 3
     True Grit
     Winter's Bone

Performance by an actor in a leading role

     Javier Bardem in "Biutiful"
     Jeff Bridges in "True Grit"
     Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network"
     Colin Firth in "The King's Speech"
     James Franco in "127 Hours"

Performance by an actor in a supporting role

     Christian Bale in "The Fighter"
     John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone"
     Jeremy Renner in "The Town"
     Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"
     Geoffrey Rush in "The King's Speech"

Performance by an actress in a leading role

     Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right"
     Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole"
     Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone"
     Natalie Portman in "Black Swan"
     Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine"

Performance by an actress in a supporting role

     Amy Adams in "The Fighter"
     Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech"
     Melissa Leo in "The Fighter"
     Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit"
     Jacki Weaver in "Animal Kingdom"

Best animated feature film of the year

     How to Train Your Dragon
     The Illusionist
     Toy Story 3

Art Direction

     Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney), Robert Stromberg (Production Design), Karen O'Hara (Set Decoration)
     Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (Warner Bros.), Stuart Craig (Production Design), Stephenie McMillan (Set Decoration)
     Inception (Warner Bros.), Guy Hendrix Dyas (Production Design), Larry Dias and Doug Mowat (Set Decoration)/span>
     The King's Speech (Paramount), Eve Stewart (Production Design), Judy Farr (Set Decoration)
     True Grit (Paramount), Jess Gonchor (Production Design), Nancy Haigh (Set Decoration)

Achievement in Cinematography

     Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) Matthew Libatique
     Inception (Warner Bros.) Wally Pfister
     The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company) Danny Cohen
     The Social Network (Sony Pictures Releasing) Jeff Cronenweth
     True Grit (Paramount) Roger Deakins

Achievement in costume design

     Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney) Colleen Atwood
     I Am Love (Magnolia Pictures) Antonella Cannarozzi
     The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company) Jenny Beavan
     The Tempest (Miramax) Sandy Powell
     True Grit (Paramount) Mary Zophres

Achievement in directing

     Black Swan (Fox Searchlight), Darren Aronofsky
     The Fighter (Paramount), David O. Russell
     The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company), Tom Hooper
     The Social Network (Sony Pictures Releasing), David Fincher
     True Grit (Paramount), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Best Documentary Feature

     Exit through the Gift Shop (Producers Distribution Agency) Banksy and Jaimie D'Cruz A Paranoid Pictures Production
     Gasland Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic A Gasland Production
     Inside Job (Sony Pictures Classics) Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs A Representational Pictures Production
     Restrepo (National Geographic Entertainment) Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger An Outpost Films Production
     Waste Land Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley (Arthouse Films) An Almega Projects Production

Best documentary short subject

     Killing in the Name
     Poster Girl    
Strangers No More
     Sun Come Up
     The Warriors of Qiugang

Achievement in film editing

     Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) Andrew Weisblum
     The Fighter Paramount Pamela Martin
     The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company) Tariq Anwar
     127 Hours (Fox Searchlight) Jon Harris
     The Social Network (Sony Pictures Releasing) Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter

Best foreign language film of the year

     Biutiful Mexico
     Dogtooth Greece
     In a Better World Denmark
     Incendies Canada
     Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi) Algeria

Achievement in makeup

     Achievement in makeup (Sony Pictures Classics) Adrien Morot
     The Way Back (Newmarket Films in association with Wrekin Hill Entertainment and Image Entertainment) Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng
     The Wolfman (Universal) Rick Baker and Dave Elsey

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)

     How to Train Your Dragon (Paramount) John Powell
     Inception (Warner Bros.) Hans Zimmer
     The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company) Alexandre Desplat
     127 Hours (Fox Searchlight) A.R. Rahman
     The Social Network (Sony Pictures Releasing) Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)

     Coming Home from Country Strong (Sony Pictures Releasing (Screen Gems)) Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
     I See the Light from Tangled (Walt Disney) Music by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
     If I Rise from 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight) Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
     We Belong Together from Toy Story 3 (Walt Disney) Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

Best animated short film

     Day & Night (Walt Disney) A Pixar Animation Studios Production Teddy Newton
     The Gruffalo A Magic Light Pictures Production Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
     Let's Pollute A Geefwee Boedoe Production Geefwee Boedoe
     The Lost Thing (Nick Batzias for Madman Entertainment) A Passion Pictures Australia Production Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
     Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary) A Sacrebleu Production Bastien Dubois

Best live action short film

     The Confession (National Film and Television School) A National Film and Television School Production Tanel Toom
     The Crush (Network Ireland Television) A Purdy Pictures Production Michael Creagh
     God of Love A Luke Matheny Production Luke Matheny
     Na Wewe (Premium Films) A CUT! Production Ivan Goldschmidt
     Wish 143 A Swing and Shift Films/Union Pictures Production Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite

Achievement in sound editing

     Inception (Warner Bros.) Richard King
     Toy Story 3 (Walt Disney) Tom Myers and Michael Silvers
     Tron: Legacy (Walt Disney) Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague
     True Grit (Paramount) Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey
     Unstoppable (20th Century Fox) Mark P. Stoeckinger

Achievement in sound mixing

     Inception (Warner Bros.) Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick
     The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company) Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley
     Salt (Sony Pictures Releasing) Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin
     The Social Network (Sony Pictures Releasing) Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten
     True Grit (Paramount) Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland

Achievement in visual effects

     Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney) Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips
     Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (Warner Bros.) Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz and Nicolas Aithadi
     Hereafter (Warner Bros.) Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojanski and Joe Farrell
     Inception (Warner Bros.) Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb
     Iron Man 2 (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment, Distributed by Paramount) Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright and Daniel Sudick

Adapted screenplay

     127 Hours (Fox Searchlight), Screenplay by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
     The Social Network (Sony Pictures Releasing), Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
     Toy Story 3 (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Michael Arndt. Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
     True Grit (Paramount), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
     Winter's Bone (Roadside Attractions), Adapted for the screen by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

Original screenplay

     Another Year (Sony Pictures Classics), Written by Mike Leigh
     The Fighter (Paramount), Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson. Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
     Inception (Warner Bros.), Written by Christopher Nolan
     The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features), Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
     The King's Speech

Vide review: "Secretariat"

Secretariat may have been the greatest racehorse ever. But as horse movies go, "Secretariat" comes in a distant second to "Seabiscuit."

Comparisons between last year's drama starring Diane Lane and the 2003 film are perhaps inevitable. Both are about iconic horses with similar-sounding names, whose owners, riders and trainers were on some level outsiders in the elitist sport. Both rode against all odds to glory in the winner's circle.

"Seabiscuit" strides ahead for its more ambitious portrait of the three men whose lives were rekindled by that horse. But "Secretariat," while sometimes predictable and too pat, is still a moving tale worthy of at least a rental.

Lane gives a strong, confident performance as Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat who literally bet the farm on him. When estate taxes threaten to gobble up the family farm, Chenery is backed into a corner and told to sell her promising but unproven stallion.

Instead, she came up with a bold plan to franchise Secretariat's breeding rights for a then-unheard of sum, with the proviso that if he failed to win any leg of the Triple Crown, all bets were off.

Less about the horse than the woman behind him, "Secretariat" still sets hearts to racing.

Video extras are OK on DVD, but rather impressive with the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

The DVD has a music video, three short deleted scenes and "Heart of a Champion," a 15-minute doc about the horse and the effort to capture him cinematically.

In addition, the Blu-ray has four more deleted scenes, a six-minute featurette on filming the races (which reveals that five different horses were used to portray Secretariat) and a neat multi-angle feature that shows Secretariat's Preakness race from several different perspectives. Director Randall Wallace also offers a feature-length commentary.

Topping the goodie list is a 21-minute conversation with the real Penny Chenery, in which she discusses how the film differed from her experiences. She reveals that the family of Ogden Phipps, who famously won a coin toss with Chenery for pick of the best foal and didn't choose Secretariat, never quite got over the loss.

They're civil, Chenery says, but "don't expect a dinner invitation."

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, January 24, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Hoop Dreams" (1994)

"Hoop Dreams" has been called the greatest documentary film ever made, and if I don't quite feel comfortable repeating such an audacious statement, it would be difficult to me to come up with even a handful of other nonfiction movies that compare.

The film was an exercise in serendipity coupled with staggering persistence and patience. Three budding filmmakers -- Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Fred Marx -- received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to make a 30-minute TV special about two 14-year-old inner-city Chicago basketball players. Five years later, their cameras were still rolling and they had more than 250 hours of footage chronicling not only the on-court exploits of Arthur Agee and William Gates, but also the tumultuous journey of their families, and their own carefully guarded hopes and fears.

I doubt the filmmakers had any idea what they were getting themselves into -- or that the basketball lives of these two teens would end up taking such an epic, tragic course. "Epic" is a word that suits "Hoop Dreams" well: The film seems to encompass not just a few individuals' stories, but draw archetypes out of them to personify the larger world around.

Would the trio have guessed that Arthur's father, Bo, would separate from his wife and children, and end up on the streets strung out on crack cocaine? The scene where Bo shows up unannounced on the playground and buys drugs while the cameras are rolling is still a jaw-dropper. Arthur's resentment is palpable, as his dad showed up after a long absence, and he mocks Bo's failed dunk attempt, telling him he's got "old legs."

Another dunking scene with another family member stands out for me now, after seeing the film for the first time in a decade. William's older brother Curtis, who saw his own basketball stardom sputter out, lives vicariously through his kid brother's success -- Curtis constantly berates and belittles William, in the name of instructing him, but it's not hard to guess Curtis' verbal jabs are aimed at his own younger self.

After losing a series of jobs, Curtis has grown steadily heavier as the years roll by. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, he tries to match a younger, leaner player's jam, but can't lift his bulk high enough to even get near the rim. There's a moment where Curtis balefully glares at the hoop, which might as well be 20 feet tall instead of 10, and it sums up the dead end his character has reached. Unsuccessful at anything in life other than hoops, even that has slipped out of his grasp.

I just called Curtis a "character," and often it seems as if the roles of Arthur, William and those around them have been written out for them purposefully. I suppose that's why "Hoop Dreams" is such an emotional, fulfilling cinematic experience: The people in it seem as caught up by the rush of events as those watching them. Despite being a documentary, the story flows with a natural grace. We feel like we're seeing destiny unfold.

But Curtis is not just a character in a movie. He was a real person with his own dreams -- snuffed out now, after being murdered in 2001. Arthur's father Bo is dead, too, shot and killed three years later. Arthur's older half-brother DeAntonio was also murdered in 1994, the same year the film was released.

It's a testament to the probability that basketball -- for all the flaws and inequities in the sport -- saved William and Arthur's lives.

No, neither one of them made it to the National Basketball League. That, of course, was the ultimate hoop dream and the impetus that set James, Gilbert and Marx to following this pair in the first place. Imagine how different the movie would have been if either of them had ended up in the NBA (though we do glimpse a few who did make it at the Nike summer camp William attends, including Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard).

Cruel as it sounds, I think the film is better for it that Arthur and William had middling college careers and went undrafted by the pros. William is now a pastor, and Arthur runs a foundation and clothing line based around his experience with the film.

I think William's words, which close the film, say it best: "That's why when somebody say, 'When you get to the NBA, don't forget about me' and all that stuff, I should have said to them, 'Well, if I don't make it, make sure you don't forget about me.'"

Their fortunes rise and fall over the course of nearly three hours, yet we only glimpse them together twice. (Oddly, they both say, "I love you, boy!" despite hardly ever seeing each other.) They are both recruited as 14-year-olds to attend a rich white school in the north Chicago suburbs, St. Joe's. But when Arthur's hoops prowess is found wanting, he is forced to leave the school when his parents can't pay tuition. William, who is named a starter on the varsity squad as a freshman, is given a full scholarship and stays.

It seems Arthur is the perpetual slow starter and underdog, while William is the overhyped sensation who repeatedly falls short of expectations. William's photo appears often in the local papers, and grizzled sports reporters dub him the second coming of Isiah Thomas, St. Joe's most famous alum (who is briefly seen at a basketball camp going one-on-one with Arthur).

But William injures his knee his junior year, and many of the big college coaches, pursuing him like a prize hind, back away. He makes a comeback his senior year, but never plays with the same confidence. There's a scene at the Nike camp where William pulls a muscle near his injured knee, and Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and other basketball titans look down on him sprawled out on the parquet with expressions like Roman senators whose favorite gladiator has just fallen.

Arthur coasts through school at Marshall High, doing just enough in class to get by and just enough on the court to keep from getting named to the varsity team until his junior year. But he eventually becomes a standout, and leads his team to the city championship and deep into the playoffs during his senior year, eclipsing William's oft-professed goal of going "downstate."

A lot of things stood out for me watching the film again. The part where a section of William's knee cartilage is removed by the same doctor who operates on Chicago Bulls players is hard to even watch. The doc coldly estimates his patient will experience early onset of arthritis, but should be able to resume his basketball career. He could be talking about a racehorse.

Arthur's mother Sheila, though not educated or articulate, is revealed as the true heroine of the film. Though burdened with a husband who won't stay by her side, her devotion to her family is like a foundation made of steel girders. When she graduates from a nursing assistant school, earning the top grades in her class, the triumph is somehow more meaningful than her son's hoops wins. She's so ecstatic at being at the top of her class, she smears lipstick on the teacher's blouse while giving her a hug.

Sheila's graduation ceremony in a nearly empty auditorium speaks volumes. Hundreds or thousands of people will swarm to a basketball game between boys they'll forget the moment they graduate. Yet this woman's victory, which passes virtually unwitnessed, is in many ways more important.

I'm also struck how my perception of the two coaches changed. When I first saw the film, I found much appealing about Gene Pingatore, the St. Joe's basketball icon (he's still there). Gruff but fair, he seemed to push William to be a better player and a better person.

Meanwhile, I thought Luther Bedford, the head coach at Marshall, to be mean-spirited and dismissive. He strove to offer a hand to struggling young men like Arthur, but didn't seem upset at the many who slip through the cracks of a stressed inner-city school system.

Now, my opinions of the two men have virtually flip-flopped. Bedford becomes the voice of sanity and clarity, refusing to scour the city's playgrounds to recruit players for his program. He correctly assesses that if Arthur's play had panned out the way Pingatore had wanted, St. Joe's would've found a way to make his tuition problems disappear. Bedford is a realist who does the best he can with what he's got, which is why his team could go from an abysmal losing record to city champs in one year.

Bedford seems to exist in his own self-made no-bullshit bubble. When his players are playing scared on the court, he tells them so. If a white suburban school is stealing black city kids to improve their basketball team, he's not afraid to say so. It's not surprising to learn that at the time the film was being shot, Bedford had already been coaching boys at Marshall for 30 years. (He died in 2007.)

At his final post-season meeting with William, Pingatore doesn't spread the bull, either: William had a good career at St. Joe's, but not a great one. William was too nice of a kid who didn't have the killer instinct on the court of an Isiah Thomas. One kid walks out the door, another one walks in, Pingatore says. That's the way it goes.

I think that sums up the St. Joe's coach's approach pretty well: The boys who play for him are appreciated but not adored. They are chess pieces he recruits and moves around -- and sacrifices when necessary -- to achieve his goal of the greatest success possible, which he measures in wins and losses and championships. Players like William are a means to that end.

Say what you will about Bedford's caustic manner, but I think his priority was teaching young men to better themselves through sports -- at least those who would listen -- and the scorecard came second in his reckoning.

 William ended up attending Marquette University, where he had two decent seasons and then quit the basketball team and nearly school altogether during his junior season, before returning to hoops for his last (and mostly forgettable) senior year.

As usual, Arthur played catch-up with his fellow documentary subject. Because his grades and test scores were so bad, he ends up at a place in Missouri called Mineral Area Junior College -- depicted as a dreary place with a drearier name that, if we read it in a work of a fiction, would find laughable. He's stuck in an off-campus living quarters dubbed Basketball House, where six out of the school's seven black students reside.

But, Arthur transferred to Arkansas State for his junior and senior years, where he became a standout player -- but not enough to attract interest from any NBA teams.

(I've been trying unsuccessfully to find it, but there was a follow-up documentary of some kind -- possibly this TV special -- that tracked the finale of Arthur and William's college careers. There's a pain-inducing scene where Arthur, having signed with a low-rent agent, sits in his office while the guy calls NBA teams to assess his draft chances. So where about in the draft selection do you think Arthur might be taken, the guys queries. "Agee?" he says in response to the obvious question of, "Arthur who?" Which is all the answer necessary about Arthur's pro prospects.)

"Hoop Dreams" is a big movie about two small-time basketball players -- at least, as seen in relation to their early aspirations. Their story -- engrossing, joyful, painful, mesmerizing -- is much more than a pair of hoopster wannabes.

4 stars out of four

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 Movie Preview

The movie year doesn't quite synch up with the calendar year. In 2011, like most every year before, we'll spend the first couple of months debating what were the best movies of 2010 -- culminating with the Academy Awards on Feb. 27 (nominations are announced next Tuesday).

Meanwhile, January and February are a dreary exercise in awaiting the lower-profile Oscar contenders to dribble out, sandwiched in between cruddy flicks the studios were too embarrassed to release during peak times (*cough*cough* "No Strings Attached").

So now is a good time to pause and look ahead to see what bounty the new year holds. Asterisks mark my picks for the most promising. (Release dates are subject to change.)

Gnomeo and Juliet (Feb. 11) -- Garden gnomes come alive in this British animated film based (loosely, as you might imagine) on the Shakespeare play. James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine provide voices.

Just Go With It (Feb 11) -- Jennifer Aniston plays frumpy (!) as the best friend in Adam Sandler's latest comedy about and for men with arrested development. He plays a cad who pretends to be married to lure the ladies, and she's his wingwoman.

Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (Feb. 18) -- Martin Lawrence is back in the fat suit, in a movie whose title says it all.

Mars Needs Moms (March 11) -- This Disney picture could be be the first big animation hit of the year. A boy is shanghaied to the red planet, where the aliens need human mothers to nurture their brood oversupply. Voices of Seth Green and Joan Cusack, based on a book by "Bloom County" creator Berkeley Breathed.

*The Beaver (March 23) -- This looks like a disaster waiting to happen. Jodie Foster directs Mel Gibson in a seriously off-kilter tale about a troubled father who finds the only way he can communicate is through a beaver hand puppet. And yet, the preview appears promising. You know the saying, only Nixon could go to China? Only the reviled Gibson could make this movie.

*Sucker Punch (March 25) -- After a baffling diversion into animated owls, director Zack Snyder ("300") offers up this steampunk fantasia about an institutionalized girl whose alternate reality is a cornucopia of sword fights and portentous mumbo-jumbo. This year's Scott Pilgrim?

Source Code (April 1) -- Neat premise: Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier who wakes up in the body of another man and finds he's part of an experimental government mission to stop a train bomber.

Soul Surfer (April 8) -- Based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a teen surfing prodigy who had her arm bitten off by a shark but continued to surf competitively. Starring Anna Sophia Robb, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt.

Arthur (April 8) -- Russell Brand stars in a remake of Dudley Moore's signature role, with Helen Mirren taking over the John Gielgud part of the unctuous butler to the irrepressible millionaire playboy. Just. Feels. Wrong.

Blu (April 15) -- From the "Ice Age" animation team, the story of a domesticated macaw who takes off for Rio de Janeiro to find other birds of his feather. Voices of Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway.

*Water for Elephants (April 22) -- Reese Witherspoon plays the older woman (sigh) to Robert Pattinson in this drama about a veterinary student who joins a 1930s traveling circus following a tragedy.

Fast Five (April 29) -- Vin Diesel and the rest of the "Fast and the Furious" gang are up against Dwayne Johnson in the latest clash between tuner cars and good taste.

Thor (May 6) -- I'm not gonna lie -- based on the trailer, this adaptation of the comic book superhero looks hella bad. The Norse god of thunder is banished to Earth, where he roams the land looking for bar fights. Co-starring Natalie Portman, already in post-Oscar paycheck collecting mode.

Bridesmaids (May 13) -- "Saturday Night Live" MVP and film comedy sidekick Kristen Wiig gets a shot at stardom in this flick about friends who get hyper-competitive planning their gal pal's wedding.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 20) -- Pretty young things Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are thrown overboard for more Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in an entirely unnecessary third sequel to the first -- and still only decent -- "Pirates" saga.

The Tree of Life (May 25) -- The latest from filmmaker Terrence Malick, who doesn't make movies all that often (five feature films over the past 38 years). Sean Penn and Brad Pitt star in an impressionistic tale about three brothers growing up in the 1950s and into adulthood, where they ponder deep thoughts.

The Hangover Part II (May 26) -- The cleverest raunch film in memory gets a sequel, where the horndogs decamp to Thailand. With a cameo by Bill Clinton. Really.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (May 27) -- Po the Panda is back for more kiddie-friendly action. Can't arrive soon enough for Jack Black, who hasn't had a hit since the first flick.

X-Men: First Class (June 3) -- The mutant superhero franchise gets a reboot focusing on the friendship between Professor Xavier and Magneto before they became mortal enemies, and the founding of the first X-Men team.

Super 8 (June 10) -- The guys behind "Lost" launch another mystery with this sci-fi offering starring Elle Fanning that's supposedly an homage to Steven Spielberg's early oeuvre.

Green Lantern (June 17) -- Another entry in a spate of second-tier comic book hero movies. Ryan Reynolds plays a regular joe given super powers when he inherits a magic ring, which chooses him to join an intergalactic force of do-gooders.

Rise of the Apes (June 24) -- Sort of a prequel to "Planet of the Apes." Genetic experiments lead to the supremacy of intelligent apes over humans. Starring James Franco.

Cars 2 (June 24) -- Widely regarded as the weakest Pixar film, and a strange choice for sequel-ization. But it's Pixar, and they never make a bad movie... right?

Larry Crowne (July 1) -- Tom Hanks stars, directs and co-wrote the screenplay for this drama about a downsized businessman who re-enrolls in college, where he falls for professor Julia Roberts.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (July 1) -- Heroic and villainous robots from outer space return for another go-round of indecipherable CGI fight scenes. Can the franchise survive the loss of Megan Fox's jiggle, er, talents?

One Day
(July 8) -- Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess star in this psychological thriller from director Lone Scherfig ("An Education") about a couple who revisit their relationship every year on the same day.

*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (July 15) -- This summer's 800-pound gorilla and the culmination of a decade-long adaptation of the mega-popular books about a boy wizard. A generation has literally grown up on these films.

Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22) -- Chris Evans stars as the shield-toting icon of liberty in this eagerly-anticipated comic book film. Still pretty hush-hush, but the production photos that have leaked out hint at a more militaristic tilt than we usually see with supers.

*Cowboys & Aliens (July 29) -- Mega-cheese or tongue-in-cheek fun? This action/adventure from "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford as gunslingers battling space aliens in 1873 Arizona. Insert cheap immigration joke here.

The Smurfs (Aug. 3) -- Some are still scratching their heads -- including me -- over this big-budget remake of the '80s TV cartoon about a society of little blue men who only have one female. The combination of live action and CG Smurfs is unpromisingly "Garfield"-esque.

The Darkest Hour (Aug. 5) -- This 3D special effects extravaganza stars Emile Hirsch as part of a group stranded in Moscow after a devastating alien attack.

Mr. Popper's Penguins (Aug. 12) -- Jim Carrey stars in this adaptation of the popular children's book about a businessman who adopts six penguins, and his home is gradually transformed into a winter wonderland.

Moneyball (Sept. 23) -- Brad Pitt headlines this film that's not about winning the lottery, but the rise of computer-generated analysis in the management of baseball teams. Sounds almost as dull as watching baseball, but "The Social Network" proved computer movies can thrill.

The Three Musketeers 3D (Oct. 14) -- Alexandre Dumas' swashbuckling swordsmen get their umpteenth film adaptation, this time starring Orlando Bloom and Milla Jovovich.

Contagion (Oct. 21) -- Steven Soderbergh directs an impressive cast -- Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard -- in this thriller about an international team of doctors fighting a deadly virus outbreak.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 (Nov. 18) -- The tween vampire mega-franchise pulls a Harry Potter and splits up its last book into two parts. Hint: Vampires, werewolves, vampire babies and gratuitous shirtless antics.

The Muppets (Nov. 23) -- A little vampire counter-programming, as Jim Henson's 40-year-old puppet troupe gets a reboot.

Hugo Cabret (Dec. 9) -- A big departure for filmmaker Martin Scorsese into 3D adventure about a boy living inside a 1930s Parisian train station with some wind-up creatures. Inspired by the films of Georges Méliès, an early cinematic dreamer.

Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (Dec. 16) -- Animation whiz kid Brad Bird tries to revive the stumbling spy franchise starring Tom Cruise.

Sherlock Holmes 2 (Dec. 16) -- Sigh. A sequel was elementary. At least this time they've got Moriarty. What are the chances he'll also favor slo-mo martial arts badassery over deductive reasoning?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Dec. 21) -- Let's stipulate that an American version of the Swedish mystery/thriller is wholly redundant. Still, with Daniel Craig starring and David Fincher directing a screenplay by Steven Zaillian, it has a chance. A lot of weight on young Rooney Mara's shoulders as damaged genius Lisbeth Salander.

We Bought a Zoo (Dec. 23) -- Matt Damon teams up with filmmaker Cameron Crowe in this tender tale of a widowed father who buys a dilapidated zoo in hopes of giving his family a fresh start.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Dec. 23) -- After a three-year layoff, director Steven Spielberg is back with this adventure based on the comic strip. Starring Jamie Bell and Daniel Craig (man, that guy's everywhere).

War Horse (Dec. 28) -- After a five-day layoff, director Steven Spielberg is back with ... wait, what? That's right, Spielberg has two films set to be released within a week. This one's about the relationship between a young man and his horse, who are divided and then brought together by World War I.

*The Ides of March (December) -- George Clooney directs and co-stars in this drama about a young politico disillusioned while working for a fast-rising presidential candidate. With Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Evan Rachel Wood.

*Now (No date given) -- I'm intrigued by this sci-fi drama from "Gattaca" director Andrew Niccol. In this world, you stop aging at 25, but are genetically engineered to die in one year unless you can buy more time. The rich are thus essentially immortal, while everyone else begs, borrows and steals for more time. Starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried.

The Thing/Red Dawn/Footloose -- Three iconic 1980s movies of varying quality (descending in the order given) get perplexing remakes. "The Thing" and "Footloose" even come out on the same day, Oct. 14. No date set for this "Dawn."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Video review: "Lebanon"

The Academy Award nominations will be announced next week, and it would be a shock of "Lebanon" isn't among the names read for Best Foreign Language Film. In fact, this tremendous Israeli picture about a tank crew during the 1982 war in Lebanon is the odds-on favorite to win.

What's amazing about the movie is that it takes place entirely inside that tank -- grimy, smelly, cramped and oozing oil and gas like bodily fluids, the belly of that machine of war becomes another character in the story.

The crew of four young men includes Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the new gunner who's just arrived in time for a nasty mission. The tank is to accompany a platoon of paratroopers deep into Lebanese territory. As the gunner, Shmulik can peer out his sights into the world beyond -- and is horrified at what he sees.

During their first firefight, he freezes up and fails to fire their main gun, leading to one of the paratroopers being killed. Later, a captured Arab soldier is handcuffed inside the tank with them, leading to much friction.
The story reaches its horrific crescendo when the Israelis invade a Lebanese town, where women and children are right in their line of fire.

Like Shmulik, "Lebanon" bears witness to atrocities from which we cannot look away.
Video extras are rather skimpy in scope, though what there is, is decent.

"Notes on a War Film," a 24-minute feature, is an eclectic mix of interviews and footage. Writer/director Samuel Maoz -- who based the film on his own experiences during the Lebanon War -- claims that after the first day of shooting, all of the remaining shrapnel in his leg from a war wound came out of his flesh.

A funnier bit is where Maoz talks about getting the film past Israeli military censors. Just as an officer in the film does, a major insisted there were no phosphorus weapons aboard the tanks. Maoz asks her how she can say that, since he was there and remembered there were. Your memory is faulty, he is told.

Truth, it seems, is the first casualty of war.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Paper Moon" (1973)

"Paper Moon" is best remembered today for boasting the performance by the youngest actor to ever win an Oscar, Tatum O'Neal at age 10.  She beat out Candy Clark from "American Graffiti," Sylvia Sidney from "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams," Linda Blair of "The Exorcist" (just 14 herself) and O'Neal's own co-star, Madeline Kahn, for the Best Supporting Actress statue for 1973.

(She wasn't the youngest to ever get a nod, though. Jackie Cooper was nine when he was nominated for "Skippy" from 1931, and the youngest nominee ever was Justin Henry, age 8 for 1979's "Kramer vs. "Kramer." Shirley Temple received an honorary Oscar at six.)

It really is an amazing performance, especially when considers she'd never acted in anything before. Director Peter Bogdanovich recruited her to play alongside her real-life father, Ryan O'Neal, as a Depression-era girl who accompanies a con man on a small-time crime spree through the Midwest. People accused Ryan of nepotism, of course, but actually the film was always conceived as a father/daughter pairing: It originally was to have starred Paul Newman and his daughter, Nell Potts, but they left the project when director John Huston quit.

Tatum spends much of the film with a sour-pussed expressed pasted to her adorable little pixie face -- especially when anyone mistakes her character, Addie Loggins, for a boy (which happens frequently because of her short, almost severe haircut).

The screenplay by Alvin Sargent -- who's still alive and kicking in his 80s, thank you very much, having penned the last two "Spider-Man" films -- was adapted from the novel, "Addie Pray," by Joe David Brown. Bogdanovich got the new title from the 1933 song, "It's Only a Paper Moon," and includes a brief scene where Addie has a picture of herself taken in front of a faux moon, which she gives to Ryan O'Neal's character, Moses "Moze" Pray.

What's most interesting about "Paper Moon" is that it has the tone and timbre of a comedy, but the setting and style of the film are somber and more reminiscient of a European art film.

Start with the fact that it was shot in gorgeous black-and-white (by László Kovács) with a deep-focus lens, suggested by Bogdanovich mentor Orson Welles (which is a pretty awesome person to have as your mentor). Coupled with the spare visuals of the Kansas and Missouri plains, a dustbowl of poor farmers straggling along the road and economic blight, it's practically a widescreen opus of dreariness.

And yet, for all that suffering, we never really feel like our two main characters are in danger. Even the big scary moment at the end, when Moze is cornered by a dirty sheriff looking for payback from Moze scamming his bootlegger brother, the worst that happens to him is he gets (lightly) beaten up and has the stolen money stolen back.

The other big confrontation of the film is when Addie arranges for Moze to stumble upon his newfound girlfriend, a stripper named Trixie Delight (Kahn), in flagranta delicto with a hotel clerk -- but the expected bloodletting never arrives. Addie's partner in crime, Trixie's long-suffering black assistant Imogene (P.J. Johnson), predicts that Moze will kill them both. But he is simply disappointed -- heartbroken is not really in his wheelhouse, since he avoids attachment -- and Moze and Addie depart.

Addie and Moze's relationship is understated, which I think only underscores how much these two scammers care for each other, since showing their cards is something they both eschew. Moze picked her up after the funeral of Addie's mother, who many people suspect (including Addie) dallied with Moze and produced her only offspring.

So it's an interesting fact-and-fiction parentage puzzle: A real father and daughter playing a pair we suspect might be an actual parent and child, though they deny it, posing as such.

Moze was charged with delivering Addie to her aunt in Missouri, but instead he found an accomplice for his habit of scamming recent widows into buying overpriced Bibles. Turns out no one thinks a man with a cute little daughter could be dishonest. She soon upstages both his skill and daring.

Addie acts as their accountant and moral conscience, carefully tabulating their earnings -- which she keeps stored in her totem-like Cremo box, which also contains her few possessions -- while suggesting they give some of it away to the downtrodden folks they encounter in their journeys. (Imogene gets $30 to help her return to the home she ran away from.) Moze, who poses as a blackheart but has a bigger soft spot than he admits even to himself, wants to avoid all risk, especially lawmen.

John Hillerman -- best known as Higgins from TV's "Magnum P.I." -- has a sly dual role as the bootlegger and his brother the sheriff. Moze comes up with a scheme to steal whiskey from the bootlegger's stash and then sell it back to him. Turns out the lawman is the biggest con artist of them all.

With its sweet disposition but striking backdrop, "Paper Moon" is a lovely, wonderful film that always keeps us guessing.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: "The Green Hornet"

"The Green Hornet" is what happens when smart people set out to make a dumb movie.

Screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote that there are only three kinds of films: Those that are meant to be good and are, those that are meant to be good and aren't, and those that were never meant to be any good. Depressingly, this last category is the largest, and where "Hornet" belongs.

It's less of a super-hero movie than a spoof of one. I'm all for making fun of a genre ripe for ridicule, but "Hornet" is loaded with action scenes and nervous energy and cool gadgets ... and not much you would really call funny.

I laughed out loud exactly once, and it was the very last scene in the movie where young newspaper tycoon Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) and partner Kato (Jay Chou) take extraordinary steps to preserve the fiction that the Green Hornet is a villain, instead of a hero. It's a genuinely clever bit, and I don't mind saying I got the joke a few seconds before everyone else did, and enjoyed a moment of solitary guffawing before everyone else joined in.

Interestingly, Green Hornet is one of the few super-heroes who didn't debut in a comic book. He started as a popular radio show in the 1930s, followed by some cheapie film serials starting in the early 1940s, and only then did he arrive in comic form. He's probably best known to recent generations for a '60s TV show.

Britt is a lazy, rich party boy living off the fruits of his father's newspaper empire, The Daily Sentinel in Los Angeles. But when dad dies suddenly and mysteriously, he discovers that his father had been ordering up all sorts of advanced weapons from Kato, his mechanic-slash-confidant. Britt, wallowing in booze and anonymous hook-ups, knows Kato only as the guy who makes him a really awesome cup of coffee every morning.

Rogen, who's made a career out of playing schlubby, chubby (though noticeably less so here) man-boys, is less charming when he's not playing a loser. Britt is supremely arrogant, not in a nasty way but with a presumption of superiority that drowns any affection the audience might develop for him.

After a late night hijinx to behead his father's statue monument turns into a dust-up with some thugs, Britt realizes he's found his calling: To become the city's masked protector. Soon he and Kato are cruising around in a highly modified 1965 Chrysler Imperial decked out with machine guns and missiles they dub Black Beauty.

The big pun of the movie is that Kato is the real muscle and brains of the outfit, but the Green Hornet gets all the attention. Kato is a genius with cars and weapons, and even invents a gas gun for the Hornet that knocks out his opponents. Kato can even take on six bad guys at once with his martial arts prowess, which allows him to see things in slow time.

Britt, of course, still thinks he's the top gun, and takes to dismissing Kato as his henchman or sidekick, leading to inevitable fisticuffs between them.

Neither has much of a notion how to act like a villain, though, so they recruit help from Britt's hot new secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz), who works at a temp agency but somehow knows more about journalism than the people working there. Britt and Kato take turns hitting on her, even though she's, like, really old and stuff. (She's 36.)

The heavy is played by Christoph Waltz, fresh of his Oscar win for "Inglourious Basterds." He plays Chudnofsky, head of L.A.'s gangland. Rogen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Evan Goldberg, tries to make a joke out of the fact that Chudnofsky is so dull and un-flashy a villain. (James Franco, in a cameo as another gangster, dubs his fashion sense "disco Santa Claus.").

Later he renames himself Bloodnofsky and takes to wearing red in a lame attempt to dovetail on Green Hornet's sizzle. But it turns out the gag of a bad guy fretting about his lack of charisma quickly turns into a whiny bore.

Also hanging around is Scanlon (David Harbour), the smarmy district attorney who seems overly interested in how the Sentinel is portraying all the violence left in the Hornet's wake. We don't quite know what to make of him, but with his beady eyes and a name like Scanlon, we know it's just a matter of time before something nefarious turns up.

"The Green Hornet" is directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry, whose work has not impressed me. (He's universally beloved by critics for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," but not by me.) Perhaps he, Rogen and Goldberg think they've made a really smart, hip film that mocks the conventions of the super-hero movie while indulging in them.

But somewhere along the way of trying so hard to be cool, they made the movie they wanted to watch, rather than the one anyone else might want to.

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "The Dilemma"

"You're bouncing around. You do that a lot."

This line, delivered in the opening moments of "The Dilemma," is used to describe Vince Vaughn's character -- which is pretty much the same as every other Vince Vaughn character.

Vaughn's become a bankable star employing the same charming motormouth routine over and over. His signature move is to get rolling on a verbal treadmill from which he cannot easily climb off. We've seen it so many times ("Couples Retreat," "Wedding Crashers") that we've come to understand that what he says isn't important -- it's the feat itself, keeping the words coming faster and faster as he bounces around from one thought to the next.

The standout example of this in "The Dilemma" is when his character, Ronny, is giving a toast at his girlfriend Beth's (Jennifer Connelly) parents' 40th wedding anniversary. Ronny has recently learned that his best friend Nick's (Kevin James) wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) has been playing around on him.

He tries to use the toast to talk about the importance of honesty in marriage, as a way of shaming Geneva into confessing her affair to Nick so Ronny won't have to spill the beans himself. But he gets off on a tangent about temptation, imagining scenarios of Beth's mother dallying with the pool boy, and it's all downhill from there -- zigging and zagging all the way.

"The Dilemma" bounces around a lot, too. The movie can't quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Ostensibly it's a comedy about Ronny's predicament -- whether to tell the man he loves like a brother about his wife's infidelity. The movie simply forgets to be funny for long stretches, as in one sequence where Ronny prays to God for guidance. "I know I'm supposed to give you things, but I'm scared to give you this," he tells the Almighty.

The biggest thing that's missing from the story (screenplay by Allan Loeb) is a sense of how important these relationships really are. Ronny's supposed to cherish his friendship with Nick so much that the prospect of telling him about Geneva tears him up inside. But we never see them doing much more than normal buddy-buddy stuff.

Ronny's relationship with Beth is off-kilter, too. He's a 40-year-old commitment-phobe, and can't bring himself to ask her to marry him. But what she gets out of this pairing is rather murky.

Geneva doesn't make a lick of sense, either. For awhile it's suggested she might actually be nutso, as demonstrated in a scene where Ronny confronts her and she cows him by threatening to claim he's made advances toward her.

Even Ronny and Nick's business partnership is goofy. Nick is supposed to be a brilliant engineer, but their dream is rather mundane: To make electric vehicles that look and sound like muscle cars. So basically they're just installing speakers under the hood to simulate the rumble of a gasoline engine.

(The movie has caused some controversy for a scene where they're pitching some General Motors executives, and Ronny calls electric cars "gay." I'll decline to enter the fray other than saying I think "South Park" already covered this topic sufficiently.)

Queen Latifah pops up as Susan, the liaison between the car company and our boys, who has a tendency to talk in inappropriate, hyper-sexualized terms. The joke is supposed to be that usually it's the guys in movies like this who speak that way. But she just comes across as another unexplained weird quirk of the movie.

The strangest thing about "The Dilemma" is that it was directed by Ron Howard, and has to be the most un-Ron-Howard-like film he's ever made.

The depressing part is not that it's not very good, or that a guy who's mostly done serious Oscar-bait movies has returned to his comedy roots. It's that this movie could have been directed by anyone.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review: "Rabbit Hole"

"Rabbit Hole" is a film that's steeped in sorrow, but watching it is a joyful experience -- at least for those who appreciate finely-drawn characters from fabulous actors who invest them with heft and heart.

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play Becca and Howie Corbett, a couple in their late 30s who lost their 4-year-old son, Danny, after being hit by a car eight months earlier. Though the film is adapted from a play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also wrote the screenplay), there's no theatricality to their performances -- Howie and Becca feel like real, flawed people who could be living next door.

On the surface, Becca is the "problem" half of the couple. A homemaker who gave up her job at Sotheby's, she keeps the house and gardens ordered and neat like a good upstate New Yorker in the Martha Stewart mold. She's brittle and defensive, and at a group therapy meeting she mouths off at another grieving mother.

"It's just too much God-talk for me," she complains, resolving to skip any future sessions.

A highly organized person, Becca has organized her grief in a way that's least painful for her.

Though Howie remains superficially gregarious and productive, there's a dark rage boiling inside him. On some level he blames Becca for not watching Danny better, or blames himself for leaving the gate open that allowed him to run into the street, or blames the family dog for leading him out that gate.

While better hidden, Howie's sorrow is highly volatile, ready to erupt.

Becca is the sort who, when in pain, tends to lash out at those closest to her. Much of the brunt is borne by her mother, Nat (a superb Diane Wiest), a blue-collar church-going person who's somewhat mystified by the elegant, affluent woman her daughter has turned into.

Nat, who lost her own adult son to drug addiction, gives a moving speech about grief: At some point the weight of it becomes tolerable, she says, like a brick that you carry around in your purse. You occasionally forget about it, but it's always there, because that's what you have left instead of your child.

Exacerbating Becca's anguish is the fact that her never-do-well sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) has just become pregnant by her musician boyfriend (Giancarlo Esposito). Izzy's carefree, we'll-worry-tomorrow attitude flies in the face of Becca's carefully planned existence.

Ostensibly, she's worried that Izzy may not be ready to be a parent, but we suspect her real fear is that she'll prove a better mother than Becca herself.

A few other characters slide into the frame. There's Gaby (Sandra Oh), the organizer of the group therapy meetings, who forms a bond with Howie -- they take to smoking pot in her car to loosen up before sessions (he has continued to go even after Becca quit). Unlike Becca, Gaby is upfront about the loss of her child, which appeals to Howie's craving for empathy.

The most curious addition is Jason (Miles Teller), a 17-year-old who happened to be driving the car that killed Danny. It wasn't really his fault, but like the others Jason has come to internalize the tragedy. It's illustrated in a comic book he's writing about parallel universes that he shares with Becca, which gives the movie its name.

"Rabbit Hole" is directed by John Cameron Mitchell, whose two previous features -- about a transvestite rock 'n' roller ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch") and an ensemble drama featuring graphic, unsimulated sexuality ("Shortbus") -- might not seem an obvious choice for this unassuming character study.

But Mitchell has a sensitive touch with his actors that helps them deeply etch their characters into an audience's mind and soul. The performances are spectacular, but you won't catch anyone acting.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Blue Valentine"

A man and a woman stand in a closed storefront. He strums a ukulele and sings in a funny warble, while she dances a high-stepping jig in incongruous accompaniment. They are young, and they are falling in love.

This moment of pure cinematic magic would mark the high point of your average romantic comedy. But in writer/director Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" it is the crystallization of a heartrending certainty: This is the happiest they will ever be.

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling star in the most authentic portrayal of romance we've seen in a long time: Its hopeful, giddy beginning and its stagnant, fracturing end.

The story jumps back and forth from the first meeting of Cindy and Dean to the dissolution of their marriage a few years later. The most amazing thing is that if we look closely enough, we can already see the seeds of destruction planted and beginning to take root.

Dean is a fatalist who commits to an idea totally, if not permanently. A high-school dropout who totes boxes for a moving company, he takes one look at college student Cindy and is hooked. He tells his buddies about love at first sight, and when he spies her on a bus Dean moves in with relentless if affectionate determination.

Cindy is ambitious, maybe even wants to be a doctor, and is put off by Dean's contentment at working a menial job. In a frank conversation between their older selves, he's frustrated by her questions about his lack of drive. Work is something I only do so I can get back to you and our daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka), he replies.

Having seen firsthand how love can drain out of a relationship -- her father barely speaks to her mother, other than to complain about her cooking -- Cindy worries it'll happen to her, too.

"How can you trust your feelings if it can just disappear like that?" she asks her grandmother.

The modern part of the story is rife with recrimination and regret. Cindy carelessly leaves the gate open so the family dog gets out and is run over. Dean, who adores and is adored by Frankie, tells her the dog has gone to Hollywood to star in movies.

Dean comes up with the lame idea of going to a low-rent sex hotel with themed rooms: We'll get drunk and make love, he says, as if that will fill the canyon between them. Given the choice between the Future Room or Cupid's Cove, Dean chooses the science fiction-themed one.

That sums up their relationship right there: Dean wants a future together, and Cindy clearly does not. She hasn't told him only because she hasn't really told herself, either.

The performances by Gosling and Williams are tender, real and nuanced. Their conversations, so easy and engaging when they're younger, turn into low-grade fencing matches.

Cianfrance, who wrote the screenplay with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, makes the bold choice of not picking either Dean or Cindy as the bad guy. Both have faults that contributed to their failed relationship, and have acted in ways that are selfish or childish.

Dean's anger is the easiest to understand: He treats his wife and daughter well, and doesn't comprehend why his affection is not returned. Cindy is the realist who realizes you can't create passion, or recapture it once it's fled.

"Blue Valentine" is an exquisitely well-acted drama that gets both the joy and the ache of love just right.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Video review: "The Social Network"

Who would've thought a few short months ago that a verbose drama about computer nerds would end up as the front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar?

But it's true: "The Social Network," which contains zero sex or violence, and consists mostly of legal depositions and flashbacks of college kids hunched over computers, was the best movie of 2010.

It's the story of the founding of Facebook, an experiment to link college students on the Web, and became a phenomenon -- and a company worth billions. It might not surprise you that Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder who was recently named Time Magazine's Person of the Year, was not universally liked by those who knew him.
Especially those who ended up suing him.

The movie, which is a self-conscious evocation of "Citizen Kane," may not bear much resemblance to the actual Zuckerberg, in the same way that Orson Welles' opus was a fictionalized account of another media mogul, William Randolph Hearst.

But in a performance of contrasting attraction and repulsion, Jesse Eisenberg paints a portrait of a young man who would change the world by bringing friends together, even as he pushed his own away.

Extras, which are identical for the Blu-ray and two-disc DVD editions, are rife with goodies.

There are two separate feature-length commentary tracks: One by director David Fincher, and another with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and cast members Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer and Josh Pence.

There is also a feature-length documentary, "How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?". Plus several featurettes on various aspects of production, including editing, musical score and soundtrack, visual effects and more.

I'm double-clicking "Like" on this one.

Movie: 4 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars