Monday, February 28, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Zulu Dawn" (1979)

About a year and a half ago I wrote about "Zulu," a 1964 movie that marked Michael Caine's film debut, while noting that it wasn't the one I remembered seeing as a child. That was "Zulu," a 1979 film about a different battle in the same Anglo-Zulu War, so I thought it was about time I caught up with it to see how it jibed with my memory.

"Zulu Dawn" is in essence a prequel, portraying the historic Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, while "Zulu" is about the smaller Battle of Rorke's Drift, which took place a few hours later on the same day. If "Zulu" is a heroic tale about a small band of British soldiers repelling a horde of Zulus, then "Zulu Dawn" is a cautionary tale about a modern army being routed by a "primitive" army.

I was surprised by how much I remembered about the later film, and how much I didn't. The key sequence that stayed with my young mind was the unctuous quartermaster (Peter Vaughan) refusing to dole out ammunition without proper procedure, making the men stand in line for bullets even as the battle lines have exhausted their supply and are being massacred by the Zulu impis, or warriors.

For me it encapsulated everything about the downside of the military mindset, which often puts rules and regulations above the very lives of the soldiers.

I'd also had a pretty clear memory for the battle scenes, with a lot of running to and fro and impaling with spears. The violence is a lot more graphic than "Zulu," but still subdued enough to earn a PG rating from the MPAA.

The Zulus take heavy losses, but ultimately break the British lines and handed the English their first major defeat at the hands of a native army. The idea of warriors so freely sacrificing themselves to achieve victory seemed alien to me when I first saw it. In Western cinema and schools of thought, we are taught that the culture that embraces suicidal attacks is the inferior one, since they place less value on human life.

Many other things about the movie had escaped my recollection. I didn't remember that Burt Lancaster starred in the picture, playing the one-armed Col. Durnford -- well, he still had his left arm, but it was paralyzed and useless to him) -- a veteran cavalryman whose advice to the supremely confident commander, Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole, whom I also didn't remember), is ignored, leading to catastrophe.

I had a vague notion of a gruff sergeant who commands his soldiers with an iron fist but also harbors deep affection for them, but back then had no idea who Bob Hoskins was. It was one of his early film roles, and I can't believe he didn't make a deeper impression. Perhaps it's because this sort of character seems to exist in virtually every war movie.

Likewise I didn't recognize Ronald Lacey as Norris Newman, a prominent British journalist who shadows Chelmsford and offers barely-concealed criticism of him, his motivations for starting this war and the way he is conducting it. Of course, it would be two more years before Lacey became cult-famous for playing the piggish Nazi villain Toht in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Like "Zulu," I was again impressed that the Zulu were not portrayed as savage brutes, but clever warriors. Indeed, it is the overriding historical opinion that Chelmsford and his commanders were completely out-strategized by their Zulu counterparts. Chelmsford even refused to entrench his camps by laagering his wagons, or encircling them into a defensive unit.

The two "Zulu" movies are tied together by the contributions of Cy Endfield, who co-wrote both movies and directed the first one. Alas, Douglas Hickox doesn't prove as skilled behind the camera in "Zulu Dawn," which comes across as a simple two-act play: Prelude to war, and the war. The former is concerned with a lot of British derring-do and priggish behavior. The latter is the real movie, battle scenes with a lot of kinetic energy but not as much emotional punch as they should have.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oscar picks and predictions

In a matter of weeks, this year's race for the Academy Awards has gone from an exciting wide-open contest to one of dull certainty.

"The King's Speech" has emerged as a strong frontrunner, and is setting up for a commanding sweep of the Oscars come Sunday. With "The Social Network," last fall's critical darling, fading quickly and "Speech" riding a box office wave almost unprecedented for a talkie historical film, the chance of any big surprises has been almost entirely drained from the proceedings.

I'm both heartened and dismayed by this development. On the one hand, there's no denying "The King's Speech" represents filmmaking for grown-ups -- the sort of mature, splendidly-crafted movie that critics complain there isn't enough of.

But "Speech" has a stale tang that's hard to deny, like a whiff of mothballs in a closet full of resplendent finery. A period piece about the trials and tribulations of the rich nobility, gilded with fine costumes and sets, and capped off by a conclusion that is as preordained as it is uplifting, "The King's Speech" seems to have been custom-made as Oscar bait.

I gave the film a very favorable review, while noting that it "lacks in novelty." But it did not make my Top 10 list for 2010, or receive an outpouring of adoration from critics., which aggregates the opinions of the nation's highest-profile movie reviewers, lists only three who ranked "The King's Speech" as the best film of the year (compared with 22 for "The Social Network"), and it only ranked eighth in terms of total appearances on Top 10 lists.

One benefit of the "Speech" tidal wave: It makes prognosticating this year's Oscars a much easier affair.

Here then are my predictions of the winners, as well as my pick of who should win. I'll also highlight what I think are the Academy's snubs and flubs, by indicating an unworthy nominee and more deserving one.


For reasons just outlined, "The King's Speech" will win, period. It has swept all the preliminary awards, with the exception of the Golden Globes, which are a joke. "The Social Network" has the only chance of an upset, however slim.

The list of 10 nominees is a mostly solid one, and I was pleased to see the tiny "Winter's Bone" get a nod. Though I found "Black Swan" to be pretentious drek.

Prediction: "The King's Speech"
Pick: "The Social Network"
Snubs & flubs: "Blue Valentine" instead of "Black Swan"


This category is most notable for the absence of Christopher Nolan, whose "Inception" was the most original and audacious film of 2010. David Fincher of "Network" was considered a shoo-in, but Tom Hooper of "Speech" won the Director's Guild award, which nearly always predicts the winner.

Nolan's snub is vexing, but personally I thought Debra Granik of "Winter's Bone" had the finest touch behind the camera last year, and she also wasn't nominated.

Prediction: Tom Hooper, "The King's Speech"
Pick: David Fincher, "The Social Network"
Snubs & flubs: Debra Granik, "Winter's Bone" for Darren Aronofsky, "Black Swan"


It's between Annette Bening for "The Kids Are All Right" and Natalie Portman for "Black Swan." Despite my distaste for "Swan," Portman's strong, haunting performance is the only thing that gave that film any life. And she won the Screen Actors Guild award, a strong push.

Personally, I deemed Bening even better in the little-seen "Mother and Child." But 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence commanded the screen in "Winter's Bone," eclipsing them both.

Prediction: Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"
Pick: Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone"
Snubs & flubs: No complaints -- a solid list in an underwhelming year for lead female roles.


Jeff Bridges, a nominee for "True Grit," was the winner last year because of the widespread feeling "it was his time." The same can be said this go-round for Colin Firth, who does give a magnificent, layered turn as the arrogant but self-doubting monarch in "The King's Speech."

For my money, James Franco gave the performance of the year -- he was emotionally vulnerable in a way few actors ever dare to expose themselves.

Tough to knock anybody off this list, though the absence of Ryan Gosling when his "Blue Valentine" partner Michelle Williams was nominated grates.

Prediction: Colin Firth, "The King's Speech"
Pick: James Franco, "127 Hours"
Snubs & flubs: Ryan Gosling, "Blue Valentine" for Jeff Bridges, "True Grit"


Nice to see some industry love for Melissa Leo, a fine character actress who broke out with "Frozen River" a couple years ago. Helena Bonham Carter was competent in a role of few challenges, while Dianne Wiest had a knockout scene in "Rabbit Hole."

Many think Hailee Steinfeld deserved a leading actress nomination for "True Grit" ... I don't. She was terrific, but it's a movie about Rooster Cogburn.

Prediction: Melissa Leo, "The Fighter"
Pick: Hailee Steinfeld, "True Grit"
Snubs & flubs: Dianne Wiest, "Rabbit Hole" for Helena Bonham Carter, "The King's Speech"


Geoffrey Rush of "The King's Speech" seemed to have this category sewed up, but Christian Bale won the SAG award for "The Fighter." And it's a role unlike anything he's done before in his career, playing a guy who's a total trainwreck.

But I thought John Hawkes, a surprise nominee for "Winter's Bone," was better.

"Get Low" was touted as the Robert Duvall show, but Bill Murray stole scenes prodigiously.

Prediction: Christian Bale, "The Fighter"
Pick: John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone"
Snubs & flubs: Bill Murray, "Get Low" for Mark Ruffalo, "The Kids Are All Right"


Christopher Nolan's best chance to get a golden statue for "Inception" will be in the screenplay category, traditionally a place for consolation prizes. If "The King's Speech" steamrolls, though, he may get shut out. The Writers Guild went for Nolan, but I fear it's not enough.

"Another Year" is a minor Mike Leigh work,while "Blue Valentine" deserved its status as Sundance darling.

Prediction: David Seidler, "The King's Speech"
Pick: Christopher Nolan, "Inception"
Snubs & flubs: "Blue Valentine" for "Another Year"


This is the one category "The Social Network" seems to have locked up. TV guy Aaron Sorkin wrote a masterful script blending truth, fiction and social commentary.

"Toy Story 3" got an unexpected script nod, but if you want to honor animated films, start with the best of 2010, "How to Train Your Dragon."

Prediction: Aaron Sorkin, "The Social Network"
Pick: Aaron Sorkin, "The Social Network"
Snubs & flubs: "How to Train Your Dragon" for "Toy Story 3"


With other nods for Best Pic and screenplay, "Toy Story 3" is a mortal lock. "How to Train Your Dragon" was fresher and poignant.

The arbitrary decision to limit the nominees to three shut out the deserving "Tangled." I agree that neither "Megamind" or "Despicable Me" are worthy, but what's wrong with having four nominees?

Prediction: "Toy Story 3"
Pick: "How to Train Your Dragon"
Snubs & flubs: "Tangled"


Prediction: "Waste Land"
Pick: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"
Snubs & flubs: "Freedom Riders" for "Gasland"


Prediction: "Strangers No More"


Prediction: "Incendies"
Pick: "Biutiful"
Snubs & flubs: "Lebanon" for "Outside the Law"


Prediction: "The King's Speech"
Pick: "True Grit"
Snubs & flubs: "Winter's Bone" for "The Social Network"


Prediction: "Barney's Version"


Prediction: "The King's Speech"
Pick: "Alice in Wonderland"


Prediction: "The King's Speech"
Pick: "Alice in Wonderland"


Prediction: "Day & Night"
Pick: "Madagascar, a Journey Diary"


Prediction: "Na Wewe"
Pick: "God of Love"


Prediction: "The King's Speech"
Pick: "127 Hours"
Snubs & flubs: "Inception" for "Black Swan"


Prediction: "The King's Speech"
Pick: "Inception"


Prediction: "Inception"
Pick: "Inception"


Prediction: "We Belong Together" by Randy Newman, "Toy Story 3"
Pick: "If I Rise," A.R. Rahman, Dido and Rollo Armstrong, "127 Hours"


Prediction: "The King's Speech" by Alexandre Desplat
Pick: "How to Train Your Dragon" by John Powell

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Video review: "Megamind"

It's a testament to the wondrous state of animation we know find ourselves in that "Megamind" registers as a routine feature rather than something amazing. The computer-generated animation from the DreamWorks crew is top-notch, crisp and full of lots of little details.

But this super-villain tale just doesn't have the storytelling sophistication of a "Toy Story 3," "The Illusionist" or "How to Train Your Dragon" -- which explains why those three films got Oscar nominations, while "Megamind" didn't.

Will Ferrell sassily voices the main character, a blue-skinned evil scientist type with a giant head and even bigger plans for conquering Metro City (which he mispronounces badly, like many other common words). His nemesis is Metro Man (Brad Pitt), a fellow traveler -- they both were rocketed off their respective dying planets as an infant, Superman-like, to find greatness on Earth.

Metro Man is the white-costumed defender of the city, while Megamind decks himself out in studded black leather and builds robots and other gizmos to do his bidding. Roxanne Ritchie, the plucky female reporter (Tina Fey) continually kidnapped by Megamind, who secretly adores her.

It's good clean fun aimed at children under 10, though their parents might long for something a little less doofy.
"Megamind" hits video stores Friday, Feb. 25.

Extras are quite plentiful, and are heavy on interactive games and such aimed at kids.

The single-disc DVD comes with a solitary deleted scene, commentary track by the filmmakers, and a meet the cast feature. It's notable, like the rest of the video features, for the complete lack of participation by Brad Pitt. Too good for goodies, Brad?

The double-disc DVD adds a bunch more featurettes, including a look inside Megamind's lair and the animation process. The highlight is "Megamind: The Button of Doom," a new 16-minute short that's an amusing look at Megamind's post-movie life.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack includes all these features, plus four more featurettes and interactive stuff.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars out of four

Monday, February 21, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949)

"Twelve O'clock High" is a terrific war movie, one more concerned with the toll combat takes on men than any fleeting glory it might bring. But the title is spectacularly misleading.

Given a moniker like that, I think most people would believe it was a movie full of dogfights and aerial combat. There is in fact one fairly long fight sequence -- made up largely of actual combat footage from World War II taken by both American and German personnel. But this 1949 film is more about what happens on the ground in between combat missions.

What strikes me most about this film directed by Henry King -- who had a long career spanning the silent era through the Golden Age, from 1915 to 1962 -- is that it's not structured anything like other war pictures of that era, or most Hollywood films in general.

The main character, played by Gregory Peck, doesn't show up until nearly a half-hour in. The supporting characters aren't just there to make the star look good, but fit organically into a group dynamic. The hero doesn't die gloriously in the end, but suffers a nervous breakdown and is unable to take part in the most important mission of the war.

Indeed, the framing device of one the U.S. Eighth Air Force Group 918 members returning to their old, abandoned airfield at Archbury features not the guts-and-glory commander, but his mild-mannered adjutant (a job title that's essentially military-ese for secretary). He finds the old Robin Hood toby jug that had been used at the group headquarters -- turned outward on the officer's club mantle to indicate a mission the next morning -- for sale in a thrift store, buys it and returns to the grown-over field to reminisce.

Even the poster for the film is misleading. It shows Peck toking on a cigarette wearing flying goggles, with the faces of the other cast mostly obscured as they're arrayed behind him. It even features Peck with a nurse at the bottom, implying some sort of romance. In actuality, this is the only woman who appears in the movie, and it's for about two lines of dialogue.

The set-up is the 918th is part if the early air war against Germany in late 1942, and have been stuck with the label of the cursed group that always seems to suffer the highest casualties. The commander, Col. Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), is beloved by the men and they by him -- too much so, in fact. Davenport is accused of "over-identifying" with his men, too concerned over losing them than accomplishing their critical missions.

They even have to endure the taunts of "Colonel Haw-Haw," a German radio broadcaster very much in the tradition of Tokyo Rose, who seems to know how many planes the 918th lost during that day's mission, and even the names of the planes and their captains. Things have recently grown much worse with the advent of low-altitude daylight missions -- "precision bombing" is what the brass (inaccurately) calls it.

Davenport is relieved of his command in favor of Brigadier Gen. Frank Savage (Peck), who's determined to be a by-the-book man who lights a fire under his pilots and crews. He gives them a rousing greeting speech -- so rousing, in fact, that every single pilot in the group asks to be transferred out.

"Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves already dead. Once you accept that idea, it won't be so tough," Savage thunders. Not exactly inspiring stuff.

The movie spends quite a lot of time contrasting the different leadership styles of Savage and Davenport, with plenty of faults to be found in each. Savage's harsh methods eventually pull the 918th out of its nosedive, but not before nearly ending in disaster when an inspector general is dispatched to find out why all those transfer requests have been held up.

And Savage bends his iron ways somewhat to accommodate the needs of the men. In fact, by the end he's the one arguing to the boss, Major General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), that his crews are not just faceless numbers but human beings -- a virtual copy of Davenport's earlier perspective.

"Twelve O'clock High" is based on the novel by Berine Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett, who also wrote the screenplay (with some alterations by King). Real events and people highly influenced both the book and the movie (not to mention a short-lived 1960s television series).

Most notably is the character of Jesse Bishop (Robert Patten), who received the Medal of Honor for heroic actions, which is where the movie begins. A B-17 crash-lands into the Archbury field -- Hollywood stuntman Paul Mantz piloted the plane by himself to achieve this amazing shot -- after a harrowing ordeal. The captain's head had been split open by an enemy shell, causing him to go into a crazed state and try to wrest the controls away from Bishop, his co-pilot. Bishop flew another two hours, flying the plane with one hand while fighting off his deranged commander with the other, and completing the bombing run.

This is an almost exact account of Lt. John C. Morgan, who really did win the Medal of Honor under these circumstances. Bishop is later killed on a subsequent mission -- one of the events that help send Savage over the edge -- but in reality Morgan survived the war, though he was shot down and was interred at a P.O.W. camp.

In the movie, Bishop is the only man on the base who Savage intitially respects, and uses him as his liaison to reach out to the other pilots, convincing them to drop their mass transfer request. Over time, though, Savage grows closer to some other offers, notably Maj. Joe Cobb (John Kellogg) and Maj. Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), the aforementioned adjutant.

Stovall is an interesting odd duck. He's an older bald man, a "retread" from the first World War who gave up a successful law practice to reenlist, but was told he was too old for anything but desk jockeying. Stovall loved Davenport perhaps more than any other man in the group, but his first loyalty is to the 918th, so he becomes Savage's first conscript in the battle to gain the men's trust.

It's a terrific, understated performance, and Jagger deservedly won an Oscar for it.

The other major character is Lt. Col. Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe), the number two man under Davenport. The son and grandson of war heroes, Gately is labeled a coward and malingerer by Savage, who demotes him from Air Exec to crew captain. He orders Gately to paint his plane with the name "Leper Colony," and has every sulker and misfit in the outfit assigned to him. Gately shows his true stripes in the end, though, hiding a cracked spine through three successful missions.

It's a rather unique role for Peck, in that there's not a trace of cuddliness or Atticus Finch-esque nobility to Frank Savage. He's a man with a job that needs to get done, and everything in his existence is subservient to that goal. We never find out a single thing about Savage other than his military duties -- does he have a wife? children? -- as he exemplifies sacrifice and self-reliance.

Like "Battleground" and other WWII pictures I've been privileged to discover, "Twelve O'Clock High" is a war movie with more soul and depth than I'd have ever guessed capable of Hollywood of that era.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: "Cedar Rapids"

Critics are supposed to be repositories of sharp opinions and certainty, but I admit I didn't quite know what to make of "Cedar Rapids." This new comedy is springboarding out of the Sundance Film Festival and into theaters, starring Ed Helms as an incredibly naive insurance agent sent to a big conference in the title city.

When I say naive, I mean that Tim Lippe seems to have reached adulthood without having emerged from the cocoon of puberty. He's literally sleeping with his former sixth-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), and it's not a wild guess this is the only semblance of a relationship he's ever had. She's a recent divorcée enjoying her sexual freedom, but Tim thinks he's in love.

Tim appears to be a variant of Andy, Helms' dweebtastic character from TV's "The Office," with a double helping of cluelessness and a schmear of the uptight dentist he played in "The Hangover."

"I said, 'Here's a kid who's gonna go places,'" his boss tells him, "and then somehow you didn't."

Tim was born and raised in Brown Valley, Wisconsin, a small town where everybody knows everyone else, and the bad apples get picked out pretty quick. When the hotshot at Tim's company suddenly dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation, Tim is charged with taking his place at the insurance convention in Cedar Rapids.

His mission: To bring home another Two Diamond Award for excellence in insurance and integrity. They've got a three-year streak going, and the boss wants another.

Awards are funny things. It seems like anybody can dream up a prize with no tangible benefits, and people will trip over themselves trying to win one.

At my first newspaper gig, we were turning a sleepy community weekly into a competitive daily, and our editor cleverly dreamed up the "20 Byline Club" to motivate us to churn out copy. It was just a cheap plaque, but anybody who wrote 20 or more stories in a week got their name on it. Mine was plastered all over it, of which I was exceedingly proud at the time, but now I look back and chuckle. I was working 75 hours a week for 17 grand a year, killing myself so an upstart rag could be filled with stories on the cheap, and the only person who benefited from my 20 bylines was the guy at the trophy shop who got a few bucks to stencil a name.

Anyway, Tim meets up with a host of other characters equally as unlikely as himself. There's Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a boozing, loudmouthed glad-hander whom Tim was expressly warned to stay from. Of course, they're forced to be roommates, and soon they're downing shots together.

Then there's Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), nicknamed Foxy, who uses the annual convention as a chance to liberate herself from her boring life, married with two kids. She sets her sights on the gullible Tim as this year's dance partner.

Kurtwood Smith is Orin Helgesson, the association president who dreamed up the Two Diamond thingamajig. He explicitly wants to marry God and business, which prefers the secular life.

The only one who seems grounded and plausible is Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a straight-arrow type who professes a fondness for "The Wire," which is an inside joke because Whitlock was in it.

There are a decent amount of laughs, and John C. Reilly in particular gets off a lot of incredibly tasteless yet funny one-liners. At a morning prayer breakfast, he complains of "big-time beer (poops) this morning."

My ambivalence about this movie is rooted in the way the director Miguel Arteta and rookie screenwriter Phil Johnston approach these characters. We don't believe for a second in them as real people, or that the cast is invested in them beyond a vehicle for yucks.

Helms and company seem like they're mocking middle-America vanilla-ness, which is ripe for mocking, but they also want to embrace it with a cuddly ending. Even Tim Lippe could see through that ruse.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: "I Am Number Four"

A tall, handsome loner is the center of attention at the high school in a tiny, close-knit town. The offbeat, slightly ostracized girl finds herself drawn to him, intrigued by his secretive ways.

When he reveals himself to have extraordinary physical and mental super-powers -- to indeed not even be human -- their relationship grows increasingly complicated. They must navigate the challenges of the town's cloistered social structure, her estranged former love interest who harbors a powerful jealousy, and marauding forces coming to wipe out him and his kin.

The plot of the last "Twilight" movie, right?

Nope, it's "I Am Number Four," a new movie based on the book by James Frey and Jobie Hughes (who use the combined pen name of Pittacus Lore.) Considering the young-adult novel was just published last August, I don't think I'm out of line in postulating that it was written with an eye on crossing over the teen vampire phenomenon.

True, John (Alex Pettyfer, a dead ringer for a young Ryan Phillippe) isn't looking to make a meal out of Sarah (Dianna Agron). But the dynamics and target audience of "Number Four" are a close match with Edward Cullen & Co.

It's a shallow, cynical bit of movie-making, certainly never boring but rarely engaging on either an intellectual or visceral level. The cast of mostly twentysomethings posing as teenagers does an awful lot of pouting and strutting, like mannequins brought to life and back-lit heavily.

John is a Lorien, one of nine survivors of a dead planet wiped out by the evil Mogadorians. As chance would have it, all the remaining Loriens are hot-looking teens who each have special powers. They use various names as they travel from place to place hiding out from the Mogs, but are known mainly by their numbers.

The Mogs, who must have some kind of collective OCD complex, are hunting the Loriens down in order. As the story opens, Number Three bites it, so John is next.
John and his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), have to leave their beach home when their cover is blown. John is hanging out with a girl at a beach party when his leg starts burning and glowing like a lighthouse. This being 2011, every teen at the party has a smart phone to take pictures and video, and soon John's exploits are all over the Web.

Here's where things get a little fuzzy. Henri doesn't seem to do much actual guarding but mostly spends his time cruising the Internet looking for any kind of photos or info people have posted about John, which he then wipes out so the Mogs can't use it to track them down. This, of course, ignores the fact that he's only erased the stuff from the Web site where people uploaded it, and not the actual data on their cameras, iPhones or whatever. They can just post it again somewhere else.

I know I'm picking nits here, but a movie that purports to be pseudo-science fiction ought to have at least a pseudo acquaintance with technology.

Anyway, Henri and John end up in Paradise, Ohio, and things transpire pretty much as stated. The heavy is Sarah's ex-boyfriend Mark (Jake Abel), and Callan McAulliffe plays Sam, the local undersized science nerd who quickly becomes John's wingman.

John's telekinetic powers manifest just in time to fight off Mark and his bullies, and tackle the Mogadorians when they show up. They're big trench-coated dudes with head tattoos and gill slits next to their noses, who wield massive laser rifles and keep some kind of bat/wolf/lizard beastie as a tracking pet.

Derivative and dull-witted, "I Am Number Four" appears to be gearing up for sequels, but already feels stale.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Video review: "Unstoppable"

"Unstoppable" is an exercise in lean, efficient storytelling. This tale about a runaway train and the two men who set out to stop it won't win any awards for originality or sophistication. But as a straightforward story about workaday guys who become heroes, its nimbleness is unassailable.

Denzel Washington plays Frank Barnes, a veteran train engineer who, along with a bunch of other old-timers, is about to be forcibly retired by the company in favor of youngsters like Will Colson (Chris Pine). To add insult to injury, Frank's been assigned to train Will -- speeding up his own obsolescence.

Both have static in their private lives that intrudes on their work. Will's just had a major dust-up with his wife, leading to a separation and court appearance, while Frank, a widower, is laboring to stay connected with his quickly maturing teen daughters. Neither has much patience for guff their new partner.

Their simmering old-vs.-young enmity gets put on the back burner when a train containing explosive chemicals becomes a runaway, threatening to wipe out an entire city. Will and Frank first must dodge the speeding juggernaut, and then chase it down and stop it.

Screenwriter Mark Bomback and director Tony Scott know how to hit the action beats for maximum visceral impact, and how to capitalize off Washington's considerable onscreen magnetism. Frank's a bit gruff and grizzled, but audiences instinctively root for him.

Throw in a half-dozen distinctive supporting characters -- Rosario Dawson shines as the sensible dispatcher back at HQ, as does Lew Temple as an offbeat man-in-the-field -- and "Unstoppable" becomes an unspectacular but undeniably entertaining flick.

Like the movie itself, video extras are solid but not extravagant.

The DVD comes with a commentary track by Scott and "Tracking the Story," a featurette about script development.

On top of these, the Blu-ray also comes with several other features, including an anatomy of a derailment scene, stunt work, cast and crew comments and so on.

The Blu-ray also has a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reeling Backward: "My Bodyguard" (1980)

It's always amazing what movies stick with you and why. I watched "My Bodyguard" when I was 10 years old, and I don't think I saw it again in the ensuing 30 years, until now. And yet this film has stayed with me, and I've thought about it often.

It might not surprise you to learn that I was bullied when I was in school. (What? A geeky film critic bullied?) I'm not proud to say that I stopped taking the bus and began riding my bike to junior high school to avoid a particularly nasty cretin who liked to sit behind people and flick earlobes with a force that seemed not possible for 14-year-old fingers.

Of course, one good smack in the nose would've silenced him, but it is the nature of the bullied to have blinders to obvious solutions. One lives in a constant state of fear, and the consequences of standing up seem much more dire than quietly taking the abuse, and hoping the bully will grow bored and shift his attention to a juicier target.

Fear is the coin of the realm for bullies, one they know how to leverage well.

In virtually all contemporary iterations of cinematic bullies, they are simply victims who themselves have been pushed around, and pass on the cycle of abuse to others. I think this is usually poppycock in comparison to real life. Bullies bully because they like doing it. They enjoy the power and being the center of attention.

Perhaps my bias is why I've always liked "My Bodyguard," since the bully is never granted a redemptive moment. He's simply a jerk, and will continue being one until someone puts a stop to it.

The bully, Melvin Moody, was memorably played by Matt Dillon in his very first screen role. Adam Baldwin, playing the title character, also made his film debut. Ditto for Joan Cusack, who has a small but memorable role as a geeky girl with a crush on Moody, and Jennifer Beals, who had an uncredited bit part as one of Moody's hangers-on.

Chris Makepeace was the veteran of the group, having appeared in "Meatballs" a year earlier. "My Bodyguard" more or less marked the height of his career. With his curly mop of hair and big, wet eyes, Makepeace prompted me to make (derisive) comparisons to Shia LaBeouf early in his career, and I think the resemblance, both physically and the range of roles LaBeouf has pulled off, still holds.

One thing about "My Bodyguard" that sets it apart from most movies starring teenagers that followed: They're actually played by teen actors. Dillon and Makepeace would both turn 16 the year the film came out; Beals was 17; Cusack 18. Even Baldwin, playing scary troubled high school sophomore Ricky Linderman, who looms over his classmates like a surly giant, was 18.

Nowadays, filmmakers prefer actors comfortably past their pimples-and-awkwardness years.

The film was directed by Tony Bill, in his first outing, from an original screenplay by Alan Ormsby. It's set in Chicago and was shot there. Despite my fondness for the notion of bullies getting their comeuppance, that's not the part of the movie that lingered for me.

The Moody plot is disposed with in a little over a half-hour, with the bully refusing to take on Linderman after Clifford Peache (Makepeace), the put-upon newcomer, convinces the hulking outcast to be his bodyguard. Moody returns for the final act, with an older tough brought on as his bodyguard to run off Linderman, which succeeds for awhile until the final fisticuffs -- first between Linderman and the thug, and then (improbably but satisfyingly) between Clifford and Moody.

No, the middle third is where this movie's heart lies. It's the slowly growing bond between these two lonely boys, both pushed into rebel roles they never sought. Linderman was content to stand outside the school's social structure, and the last thing Clifford wanted was to become the symbol of an uprising against Moody, who'd been extorting protection money from half the school.

Although he lives in comfort and gets picked up and dropped off by a limousine, Clifford is not rich: Just the son of the manager of a swanky hotel manger, played by Martin Mull. His grandmother is played by Ruth Gordon, and she's a troublemaking sexpot who likes to pick up older gentlemen in the hotel lounge. It's the sort of horny grandma role that would inevitably be played by Betty White if the film was made today.

But there's some soul and depth to the old gal. While she's reading Linderman's palm, Clifford notices some scars on his wrist -- it wasn't until years later I realized these were the result of an implied attempted suicide. Linderman, his shell of impervious indifference pierced, pulls back his hand. Gordon sternly holds on: "You're among friends here, you're among friends."

This is when we realize Linderman is not the tough guy he's been made out to be. He's shattered by the accidental shooting of his kid brother a year earlier, and his mask of belligerance hides a frightened youngster who hates himself.

In this light, it's not surprising that Linderman backs down from Moody's hired thug later on -- even allowing him to smash up the motorcycle he spent years restoring, with a little help from Clifford. It may well be that Linderman had never been in a fight before. He'd relied on his reputation and his size to keep the likes of Moody at bay, but he too reacts to a bully with freezing fear.

The bodyguard who's never thrown a punch: What an audacious concept. I think that's why I keep coming back to "My Bodyguard" -- it continually reveals new layers of truth about what it's really like to be a teenager, whether an outcast, a bully or the bullied.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: "Gnomeo & Juliet"

Tolerable but forgettable, "Gnomeo & Juliet" is a halfway clever idea executed with minimal effort and ingenuity. In its (allegedly) humorous take on the classic play about star-crossed lovers, the film continuously reaches for the lowest-hanging fruit -- in its jokes, in its animation style and its brazen, narrow appeal to tykes.

Right from the start we're instructed that this is a movie with little patience for complexity. A gnome begins reading the introduction of "Romeo and Juliet," but is banished from the stage for his "long and boring prologue."

The hook is that the entire cast is gnomes -- not the mythical creatures, but garden gnomes. Cutesy to some and horrifying to others, these little ceramic cherub-cheeked critters are like a cross between hobbits and dwarves.

(They also, now that I think about it, bear a startling resemblance to Smurfs, who are getting their own movie soon.)

Not even bothering to hide how much they've lifted from "Toy Story," the gnomes come alive only when humans are not around, but suddenly revert to their statuesque forms if interrupted in their doings.

Interestingly, though they seem to have all the flesh-and-blood urges of people, they're still made of clay or whatever, and shatter if they fall or are struck. All of the older gnomes are chipped and faded, and even young rascal Gnomeo (voice by James McAvoy) has a scratched eyebrow and cheek from getting into so many (literal) scrapes.

The warring clans are the Red and Blue gnomes, marked by their pointed hats and/or clothing, who belong to elaborate gardens nestled side-by-side in a British duplex owned by neighbors who despise each other. (Their addresses are "2B" and a crossed-out "2B," in one of a few funny throwaway puns.)

The gnomes carry on that hostility, led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith). Various contests and sorties into enemy territory keep things going, with lawn mower racing being a big thing, and vandalizing the others' flowers and cheesy garden decorations.

Gnomeo, the son of Bluebury, falls for Juliet (Emily Blunt), Redbrick's only child, but of course their love is doomed. Eventually, their romance will overpower the hatred between the Reds and the Blues. I don't think I'm giving away much by saying that this ending is decidedly less tragic -- and G-rated -- than the play.

A few of the supporting characters breathe a little life into the stale proceedings. Juliet has a right-hand-woman, Nanette (Ashley Jensen), a frog statue who dispenses water and flighty advice. Featherstone (Jim Cummings) is an abandoned plastic pink flamingo, who's a bit dazed after 20 years of solitude but has a poignant story to tell.

Director Kelly Asbury ("Shrek 2") seems content to pitch things at about kindergarten level, with a sparse layering of in-jokes to keep parents minimally involved. Elton John is an executive producer, and provides some of his classic songs, plus a few new ones.

"Gnomeo & Juliet" sets some kind of notorious new record for screenwriting-by-committee, with no less than nine people receiving a writing credit -- 10, if you throw in Bill Shakespeare.

2 stars out of four

Review: Oscar-nominated short films


"The Confession" -- Director Tanel Toom makes a confident, audacious presentation in his third film about two young English boys preparing for their first confession. Beautifully shot in the countryside, the film has a clear sense of place and purpose. The boys horse around with a farmer's scarecrow, leading to unexpectedly tragic events. Haunting and poetic.
3.5 stars out of four

"The Crush" -- A spitfire-funny black comedy from writer/director Michael Creagh about an 8-year-old British school boy named Ardal (an intense Oran Creagh) who's got a thing for his teacher. So much so that he challenges her scuzzy boyfriend to a duel. I nearly busted a gut when, assured that a child won't shoot a man, the boyfriend cries, "Have you not seen 'City of God'?!"
3 stars

"God of Love" -- Writer/director/star Luke Matheny’s comic romance is a tidy gem. It's about a singer in a jazz ensemble smitten with his drummer. Then he gets his hands on some magic darts that make anyone stuck by them susceptible to wooing. Matheny has an offbeat but undeniable onscreen charisma, and is an assured young filmmaker who knows how to craft a story.
4 stars

"Na Wewe" -- This nerve-jangling drama has a lesson to teach about the ways we divide ourselves into factions, and how useless these distinctions ultimately are. A Frenchman's car breaks down in Burundi in 1994, so he catches a ride with a group stopped by militia looking for Tutsis to kill. Harrowing, with a sly, unexpected humor.
3 stars

"Wish 143" -- A splendidly-acted comedy/drama about David, a British boy (good year for them) who's dying of cancer and declares his last wish to be losing his virginity. Samuel Peter Holland is wry and affecting as lad with very normal urges caught in extraordinary circumstances. With Jim Carter as a drolly understanding priest.
3.5 stars


"Day & Night" -- The shorts that precede Pixar features are a place for the animation behemoth to showcase new talent. Most are clever and fun, but I found "Day & Night" to be a weak example. Night and Day are personified as creatures whose bodies are windows to the world at different times. It's visually inventive, but seems designed more for the animators' pleasure than the audience's.
2.5 stars

"The Gruffalo" -- Charming computer animated tale about a little mouse who travels through the woods on the way to an acorn tree, and bluffs his way past three predators -- a fox, owl and snake -- with the story of a gruesome beast. Based on the children's book, rendered beautifully and in rhyme.
3 stars

"Let's Pollute" -- Cheeky bit of reverse psychology encouraging people to buy twice as much as they need, never recycle and throw everything away after a single use -- all to an accompanying narration in the style of mid-century newsreel announcer, where every sentence is an exclamation. Despite the tongue-in-cheek humor, still comes off a bit preachy.
2.5 stars

"The Lost Thing" -- This touching and quirky Australian short is about the things that just don't fit. A boy finds a strange red contraption on the beach. It sprouts octopus arms and legs and befriends him, but doesn't seem to have much purpose in a cold, sterile world of rules and expectations. The imagination and animation, especially in the finale, are dazzling.
3.5 stars

"Madagascar, a Journey Diary" -- A visually gorgeous rendering of exactly what the title says. The filmmakers employ a variety of animation styles, including stop-motion, but the dominant method resembles brightly-hued watercolor painting -- all set to a jaunty, infectious musical score employing native songs. Like an 11-minute vacation.
3.5 stars

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review: "Biutiful"

Lyrical, poetic and heartbreaking, "Biutiful" is not for everyone. This sprawling (2½ hour), occasionally dream-like Spanish-language drama from writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," "21 Grams") explores one man's journey toward death in the grimy underworld of Barcelona.

It's the story of Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem in another virtuoso performance, who's a middleman between illegal immigrants and companies that want to employ them on the sly. A sensitive soul, he truly cares about these foreigners from Senegal or China or some other shore -- though he makes sure to get his cut.

Uxbal is the divorced father of two, with an ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who's desperate to reinsert herself into their lives, claiming to have overcome her bipolar disorder. She's a fountain of neediness and capriciousness, promising to take the children on wonderful vacations one minute and abusing them the next.

Meanwhile, Uxbal is dying of prostate cancer. He endeavors to keep it a secret as he busily attempts to put his affairs in order. Chief among them is finding better working conditions for a couple dozen Chinese slaving away in a basement sweatshop.

To add to Iñárritu's strange, bitter -- but nourishing -- brew, there's an element of the supernatural: Uxbal is able to communicate with the recently dead, and help along their way those souls reluctant to journey into the afterlife.

This last piece is the one that doesn't seem to fit the puzzle. Unlike Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter," the main character's ability to communicate with the dead is not the centerpiece of the story. It is, in fact, so tertiary that we often forget about it for long stretches, only to be surprised when some boogum pops up in the corner to remind us of Uxbal's visions.

I can't help wondering what would be lost if Iñárritu, who shares screenwriting credit with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, had simply written these distracting ghost story interludes out of the movie. Not much, I suspect.

Much more gripping are Uxbal's interactions with the various denizens of the backstreets. There's Hai (Cheng Tai Shen), owner of the sweat shop and Uxbal's partner, when it suits them both. Hai is exploiting the illegal workers, of course, but he's not a heartless thug. His own family lives above the workers in the same building, and no doubt he believes he's giving them a chance to one day move up like his kin have.

Then there are a group of African street merchants who hock their wares to the passersby. Uxbal negotiates with the police -- aka, bribes them -- to leave them alone. But the Africans keep intruding into the tonier sections of town, and are even dealing drugs on the side.

After her husband is arrested and threatened with deportation, a woman named Ige (Diaryatou Daff) comes to live with Uxbal and his children. At first he takes her under his wing because he feels guilty about the arrest. But as his physical condition worsens his need, not just for assistance but empathy, comes to reflect that of Marambra.

The relationship between Uxbal and Marambra is the most painful, and best thing about "Biutiful." There's an ocean of hurt between them, a lifetime of accusations and recrimination. Their love remains strong, but Uxbal knows having her around will always prove harmful to the children.

Uxbal is a fascinating mix of incongruities, the hard-heartedness he shows toward his ex-wife and sometimes even his children, contrasted with his fumbling attempts to help immigrants who don't have a friend. "Biutiful" is a troubling, exquisite vision of human contradictions.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World"

Toothsome beasties and gruesome monsters of the past come alive in the new IMAX film, "Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World." It's a computer-animated wonder, as marine reptiles of the Jurassic period -- and even older -- do battle under the ocean's surface in impressive, computer-generated scenes sure to delight the young and old ... though mostly the young.

Note I called them "marine reptiles" and not "dinosaurs." Georges Cuvier (Richard Rider), the father of modern paleontology, is our guide on this time-traveling journey, as well as our instructor. His first lesson: Only land-bound reptiles are called dinosaurs.

The tone of the film is definitely pitched to school-age kids, and the fight scenes between reptile and reptile, or reptile and fish, stop just short of bloody flesh-rending. Although a final showdown between a prehistoric shark and a Mesosaur -- a marine reptile with massive jaws and teeth that resembles an alligator crossed with an extra-terrestrial -- has messy results.

Cuvier, who studied an early Mesosaur skeleton in the late 1700s, becomes our guide, materializing like a ghost for Julie (Chloe Hollings), a teen visiting a natural history museum. He gives her an ancient reptile tooth and proceeds to direct her -- and us -- through the lesser-known history of marine reptiles.

It's fascinating stuff, whether you're a science buff or not, and rookie directors Ronan Chapalain and Pascal Vuong, who co-wrote the script with Richard Dowlearn, smartly concentrate on the shape and sizes of the various creatures, and what they ate -- which was often each other.

Let's face it, youngsters first get interested in dinosaurs for their gigantic proportions and eating habits, so there's no reason it would be different with their undersea brethren. Even the film's title -- a play off T-Rex -- reinforces that angle.

Things start off a little slow with a historical overview of Earth's first 3.5 billion years or so, before any non-microscopic life forms developed. But the action soon ramps up, and the movie's 41 minutes fly by fast.
Part biology lesson, and part slick CGI adventure, "Sea Rex 3D" makes education cool.

3 stars out of four

Review: "The Illusionist"

Sweet and sad, "The Illusionist" is a cartoon for grown-ups.

Not that this animated French film from writer/director Sylvain Chomet, who made the wonderful "The Triplets of Belleville," wouldn't be suitable for the smallest of children. It's rated PG, and the only reason the MPAA failed to give it a G is because the main character occasionally puffs a cigarette.

(He and other characters also appear stumbling drunk, which apparently doesn't bother the ratings board.)

The real reason little ones might not enjoy "The Illusionist" is that it's simply not intended for them. There are no big, colorful animals, goofy gastrointestinal noises or enchanted princesses. It's a poignant tale about regret, generosity and ungratefulness.

The film is based on an original screenplay written by the late Jacques Tati a half-century ago. In the tradition of its mime author, it is virtually dialogue-free -- the characters speak, but in gibberish with a recognizable word in French or English here and there. The gorgeous, largely hand-drawn animation looks like a 19th-century painting of 1930s Paris and London.

Tati reputedly wrote the screenplay intending to make a live-action movie with his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff. The name they share becomes that of the protagonist.

Tatischeff (voice by Jean-Claude Donda) is an itinerant magician who plies his trade in venues grand and squalid. An older gentleman, he carries a quiet dignity to his act, whether the audience is few and indifferent (which is often) or large and rapturous. He seems to have no friends beyond the plump rabbit that's part of his act -- and even it nips at his fingers whenever they're presented.

Performing at a ritzy outdoor party, he's offered a gig at a remote Scottish pub by a stumblebum drunk in a kilt. It requires undertaking a major journey, but turns out to be one of his most receptive audiences in years. Tatischeff also befriends the young servant girl who irons his shirts. Seeing her distressed boots, he buys a pair of red shoes for her with his earnings.

Soon the girl has tagged along on his journey, becoming his surrogate daughter and companion. Permission is not asked or given; they simply find an arrangement that suits both of them, and acquiesce to circumstance.

Tatischeff and Alice (Eilidh Rankin) -- for that is her name, though we never hear it -- come to live in a seedy London hotel whose denizens all seem to be struggling entertainers. There's a clown who doesn't need makeup to look sad, a triplet of acrobats and even a ventriloquist with a funny, red-headed puppet that both resembles and channels himself.

Their relationship grows, deepens ... and sours. Neither is a bad person, but inevitably the things they desire out of life diverge. Tatischeff merely wants to perform his craft for a grateful audience, while Alice is entranced by the dazzling trappings of a big city: Bright lights, fancy restaurants and fashionable clothes.

Tatischeff compromises his principles to give Alice the things she wants, but it's still not enough.

The tone of "The Illusionist" is reminiscent of "Limelight," one of Charlie Chaplin's last films. Both are about an aging vaudevillian whose audiences have mostly drifted away, and then a girl enters his lonely life and changes it.

The outcomes are different, though. "Limelight" was about the old stepping aside for the young. "The Illusionist" has a more mournful lesson: Sometimes we do not appreciate what is given to us, and that lack exacts a toll on bother the giver and the gifted.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Video review: "You Again"

I love the cast of "You Again." And I enjoyed the slapsticky humor, of which there is plenty. Pretty much everything else about this Disney comedy is take it or leave it, though.

Kristen Bell plays Marni, a high-school ugly duckling who got her swan on in her 20s. Now a successful public relations executive, Marni uses the story of her loser days to inspire eager young interns: 'Believe in yourself, face your problems, and you too can blah blah blah blah…'

Disaster strikes when Marni realizes the woman her big brother Will (James Wolk) is marrying is none other than Joanna (Odette Yustman), the girl who tormented her back at Ridgefield High. Joanna was captain of the cheerleading squad, and ruled the school with a bitchy fist.

These flashback scenes are a laugh riot, due in large part to the convincing physical transformation of button-cute Bell into a nerd with droopy bangs, a face full of brace, and skin erupting with a bounty of zits.

Joanna acts as if she doesn’t even remember Marni, and proceeds to subtly make her feel like dirt all over again. Marni, though, is determined to extract an apology for the many wrongs done her. If she doesn’t get it, she’s prepared to extract her revenge by sending the marriage down in flames.

This set-up would be sufficient for most comedies, but "You Again" doubles down by replicating the dilemma one generation upward. Turns out Marni’s mom Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a hoot of a performance) had a very similar experience in her school days with Ramona (Sigourney Weaver), who is revealed as Joanna’s aunt.

No one is going to confuse “You Again” with great filmmaking. But if you can stand the slow stretches, you’ll find an agreeably entertaining family-friendly comedy with a little bit of bite.

Extras are good in both DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo format, with deleted scenes, a spoof interview with the cast that turns into a catfight, photo stills and a featurette following director Andy Fickman around.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)

"Night of the Living Dead" became a seminal film without being a particularly good one. I've never been a fan of George A. Romero's filmmaking skills -- I think pretty much any UCLA or NYU film senior with a similar budget could do the same, or better -- but there's no denying the incredible imagination and originality of the 1968 movie.

It essentially launched the zombie movie genre as we know it today, and nudged horror movies out of creepy-but-family-friendly into adult films featuring gruesome violence and nihilistic overtones about the end of mankind, or at least a certain section of it.

Yes, there were zombie movies before 1968. But they tended to only have one or two or, at most, a handful of undead walking around, and voodoo or some other black magic usually played a role. Romero's film, which he co-wrote with John A. Russo, was the first to portray massive hordes of the creatures threatening to overtake all of humanity, with victims falling into their clutches turning into zombies themselves.

The fact that the zombies in this movie, and pretty much all subsequent zombie flicks, were cannibals added to the cloud of paranoia that hangs over all of the undead oeuvre. It's notable that it's usually some technological man-made disaster that causes the dead to rise -- nuclear waste, scientific experiments or, in this film, radiation brought back from space by an American satellite -- which adds a layer of parable to the proceedings: Humanity brought this on themselves.

It's the Icarus tale, with brain-munching.

This combination of the scientific and the religious, end times brought about by mankind's folly, is a double dose of misanthropy.

It's interesting to note that the word "zombie" does not appear anywhere in the movie. The walking dead are referred to as "ghouls" in the newscasts or official pronouncements of government officials, or more commonly as just "those things" by the people being stalked by them.

"Night" also started a commonality of the genre that has become a cliche: The small band of survivors holing up somewhere to wait out the attack. Almost invariably, resources run low or they decide they'd rather die fighting than cooped up, so some plan is hatched to escape, leading to the death of most of the cast.

The selfish guy who thinks of himself first is epitomized by Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), a middle-aged white collar guy (he wears a shirt and tie throughout the entire ordeal) who wants to hide in the basement of the lonely farmhouse where all the major characters converge. We quickly sense that power is what Cooper craves more than security, and he resents the fact that Ben (Duane Jones) runs the show. "You can be boss downstairs, but up here I'm the boss!" Ben warns.

Much hay has been made of the fact that the main character is African-American, but Romero has insisted that Jones simply gave the best audition. The rest of the cast is all white, but no mention of Ben's race, implicit or otherwise, is made. Even a potentially racially charged bit where he knocks the hysterical white girl Barbra (Judity O'Dea) out cold is depicted as the harsh but sensible actions of a guy who keeps his head screwed on straight in a crisis.

In 1968, the fact a movie would present a black hero without comment is notable in of itself.

The creature effects range from non-existent to decent. There are a few close-up "money" shots of a gruesome zombie doing something especially gross -- swallowing a live insect or feasting on pig's innards doubling as human ones. The make-up effects are relatively crude, looking like their faces have been slathered in plaster that is now cracking and flaking off. Considering the film's budget -- a little over $100k, peanuts even 40-plus years ago -- it's not terrible.

But at least in the early going, the zombies look like regular people stumbling around as if from a bad hangover. The first encounter, between Barbra and her brother Johnny with a ghoul in the cemetery, is punctuated by Johnny making fun of him for his strange walk. Later, many of the supposedly recent corpses look incongruently well-fed, and there's even two brief shots of a nude female zombie.

This always brings up ruminations about how the zombies keep multiplying. If they're eating their victims, what's left to rise up again and become new zombies? You'd at least expect the undead to be a lot more torn up -- missing limbs, disemboweled, etc.

The acting, other than Jones, is not particularly good and occasionally amateurish. It's not surprising that many of the cast members never appeared in another movie, or just one or two more. Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley, as a hippie-ish young couple, list this film as their sole credit. The same for Kyra Schon, who had a small but memorable role as Harry Cooper's daughter, who rises as a zombie and kills her mother (Marilyn Eastman) with a garden spade. (This sequence, clearly inspired by the "Psycho" shower scene, is actually one of Romero's best.)

Zombies have experienced a pop-culture resurgence in recent years, and even spawned a tongue-in-cheek new literary genre -- "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." And really, it all traces back to this 1968 film. It may have been a low-rent B-movie of questionable technical accomplishment, but its influence is deep and enduring.

3 stars out of four

Friday, February 4, 2011

Review: "The Company Men"

Something has gone seriously askew in America.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the heads of a company would be ashamed to show their faces if it performed so poorly they were forced to let workers go. CEOs were well paid, but did not earn 700 times his or her average employee. When times were lean, sacrifices were shared around -- as were the fruits when money rolled in.

Now, companies still making a decent profit  lay off 30-year employees to jigger the stock price a little bit higher. The top dogs demand and receive bonuses that could've paid the salaries of hundreds of people let go. Executives decorate their offices in mahogany and Degas paintings, while working stiffs watch as their houses are foreclosed.

"The Company Men" is about the big and the little guys. It's a searing portrait of a corporate culture utterly lacking in human values and the people who are rolled over by it. It's an effective drama, even if writer/director John Wells is occasionally a bit heavy-handed with his us-versus-them shtick.

But in these dark times a lot of people who have lost jobs will see this movie, and recognize those feelings of resentfulness, anger and -- most excruciatingly -- sudden anonymity.

"You know the worst part? The world didn't stop," one canned veteran wails. "My life ended and nobody noticed."

Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is a rising star, the regional sales director for GTX, a former shipbuilding company that has diversified into a behemoth. He is 37 years old, makes $160,000 a year, drives a Porsche, has the prototypical mini-mansion in the Boston suburbs and a wife and two kids.

Bobby thought he'd be safe from the latest round of cuts, after having been given the personal assurance of a patron high up in the company. But he gets pink-slipped, and the scene where he carries his belongings to the parking lot, and sees a dozen others holding the same cardboard boxes, is a punch in the gut.

At first, Bobby is in denial about his situation. He thinks he'll have another job lined up long before his severance runs out. He insists on paying exorbitant golf club fees and dry cleaning bills while the mortgage teeters because, as he tells his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), "I need to look successful."

But the hiring market is a bleak slog of unreturned phone calls, long waits in waiting rooms, and interviewers who don't even bother to stop eating while they talk to you.

"The Company Men" is sprinkled with a raft of strong supporting performances. Tommy Lee Jones give an Oscar-worthy turn as Gene McClary, who helped built GTX from the ground up but has become disillusioned by its dehumanizing slide. His partner, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), insists they're not responsible for employees losing their jobs because the market demands it.

"We work for the stockholders now!" he thunders.

Chris Cooper has an almost feral energy as an upper-level exec who clawed his way up from the factory floor, only to face professional extinction. A job placement consultant coldly advises him to dye his gray hair and omit any mention of his Vietnam military service from his resume.

Maria Bello plays the seemingly heartless human resources chief, who main job seems to be telling people theirs no longer exists.

I especially liked Kevin Costner as Jack, Bobby's brother-in-law. A blue-collar contractor who used to needle Bobby about assisting in the corporate migration of jobs overseas, it's the sort of small, un-showy role that forms the connective tissue of movies like this, and which stars usually take a pass on.

Will people be too depressed this winter to go see a movie that depicts what a soul-crushing affair it is to lose your job? If a solid, worthy film like "The Company Men" fails to get hired by audiences, we're all doomed.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: "Another Year"

It's perhaps no surprise there isn't much in the way of narrative in "Another Year," since it's a movie composed largely by actors.

Yes, Brit director Mike Leigh wrote the screenplay -- even receiving an Oscar nomination for it. But like many of his films, it was written over the course of months with the cast continually improvising dialogue and scenes, which were incorporated into the script when it came time to shoot. Leigh's an auteur of group efforts.

The result is a film of wonderful performances, but few happenings. It's less pure storytelling than a peek inside a small circle of people who feel authentic and three-dimensional. An audience isn't so much watching them do things as visiting with them and observing their conversations and interactions.

I found "Another Year" highly engaging but not entirely satisfying. While never dull, it can't escape a certain sense of cyclical malaise. Even the title and framing device of dividing the tale into the four seasons lend a sense of inevitability and familiarity.

Things revolve around Tom and Gerri, an upper-middle-class London couple of late middle years. He's a geologist, she's a psychiatric counselor, and they enjoy the unspectacular comforts of a nice little home and a gardening plot in the country.

Played marvelously by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, they're a happy couple and good people, but not flawless. They take a certain amount of delight in indulging the flaws and vices of their circle of acquaintanceships. They love nothing more than inviting a few of them over, and exchanging knowing looks and half-smiles as their guests make fools of themselves.

Tom and Gerri aren't necessarily taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, but they certainly don't make any grand efforts to guide these so-called friends out of the dead ends of their own making. They've taken "live and let live" and turned it into a source for their own amusement.

Their chief guest and entertainer is Mary (Lesley Manville), a co-worker of Gerri whose love life is a shambles. In her 50s but dressing like a 20-something tart, Mary's need for companionship seems to dominate her entire personality. At the same time, this chatterbox can't stop talking about how great her life is going and how excited she is about the future.

 Perhaps Mary needs her bubble of perpetual optimism, otherwise she'd realize how miserable she is.

Mary even carries on a flirtation with Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old son. At first her come-ons seem playful and tongue-in-cheek, until he brings home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez) and we see how crushed she is. Mary probably didn't really aspire to a relationship with Joe, but it's a reminder of her diminishing options.

Ironically, Mary has her own admirer, Ken (Peter Wight), another acquaintance of Tom and Gerri. Divorced and overweight, Ken is a two-fisted drinker -- literally. He's at retirement age, but can't imagine quitting, because what would he do with his life? His existence consists of his job, and drinking so he can forget about his job.

It makes us wonder: Do Tom and Gerri have any real friendships with people they consider their equals? Can they even conceive of the idea that to someone else, they are the Mary and Ken of that social circle? I suspect the answer on both counts is no.

Imelda Staunton has a small role as Janet, a woman suffering from crippling depression who comes to see Gerri for help. She's unresponsive, can't sleep, is irritable and morose. Asked what she would like to improve her life, she dully responds, "Another life." Janet is a woman completely at the end of her rope, her path leading to some kind of major upheaval or tragedy.

In any other movie, Janet's crisis would be a breaking point in the plot. But "Another Year," it's merely decoration. After a couple of scenes, Janet disappears, never to be heard from again, and we wonder why the film bothered introducing her to be dismissed so abruptly.

I enjoyed the time I spent with Tom, Gerri and the gang, but I think the aesthetic of this sort of filmmaking has a built-in set of diminishing returns.

If the goal is not to dramatize real life but depict it in all its untidiness and ungilded, quotidian banality, then the more successful the movie is the less necessary it becomes -- and people realize they don't need to buy a ticket to have the experience.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bonus video review: "Welcome to the Rileys"

A cursory plot summary of "Welcome to the Rileys" -- middle-aged Indianapolis couple tries to turn around a teen stripper in New Orleans -- doesn't do justice to this understated character study. A little gem of a film, "Rileys" boasts a trifecta of solid performances from James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart and Melissa Leo.

The story sounds ridiculous -- hokey, even. But all three actors inhabit their roles with such an unstudied validity that we don't for a moment think of them as movie characters behaving for the camera.

Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a plumbing wholesaler in his early 50s who's just going through the motions. He and his wife Lois (Leo) lost their teen daughter in a car crash nearly a decade ago, and have essentially placed their lives on hold since.

I loved all the subtle little details Gandolfini puts into Doug -- the way he unconsciously hikes up his belt over his ample belly, or braces a hand on the roof of his car when climbing in or out. A guy whose indulgences run to poker on Thursdays and late-night waffle runs, Doug isn't the sort to engage in a lot of introspection.

(If I had to pick a nit, I'd point out that the light syrup of twang Gandolfini drizzles over his accent is more Tennessee than Hoosier.)

If Doug has fault lines on the inside, then Lois' are easier to see. She has not even left the house in the ensuing years since her child's death -- when Doug goes away on rare business trips, a neighbor brings their newspaper in from the curb. Her daughter's room remains made up as tidily as Lois keeps her blonde hairdo.

In New Orleans for a convention, Doug ducks into a strip joint to escape the monotony of cocktails and glad-handing, and there he runs into Mallory (Stewart) -- which may or may not be her real name. Mallory says she's 22, looks a lot younger, and tries to trick Doug into buying a trick.

Before long Doug is crashing at her run-down house, and calling Lois to tell her may not be back anytime soon. Without ever being able to put his feelings into words, it's clear that Doug sees Mallory as a stand-in for the daughter he lost.

He starts fixing up her grubby home, in unspoken hopes that it'll help her clean up her life, too. Then Lois, who knows that her hermetically sealed grief has pushed her husband away, makes a bold move of her own.

I'm personally of the opinion that those "Twilight" movies have been a net burden to Stewart's career. Watching her textured work here, in which she shows us Mallory's carefully constructed walls of defensiveness, it's hard to imagine this is the same actress moping around with vampires.

They also do a good job of giving Stewart a skeezy look, with dark-rimmed eyes and flesh that seems perpetually bruised.

Director Jake Scott, working from an original script by Ken Hixon, doesn't aim for any big theatrical moments or dramaturgical contortions. Rather, the filmmakers and actors carefully construct a tidy little world that feels authentic and true.

3.5 stars out of four

Video review: "Let Me In"

"Let Me In" is a better adaptation of the Swedish vampire film "Let the Right One In" than I had any reason to expect. Writer/director Matt Reeves kept the original's creepy atmospherics, although he did punch up the action beats, as one might expect.

The American version, which bombed at the box office, is unnecessary but undeniably well-made. It features two of the best child actors Hollywood has to offer, Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee as, respectively, an ancient blood-sucker trapped in a girl's body and the boy who befriends her.

Nine times out of 10, an American remake would tone down the violence and sexual innuendo of a daring European film. But this time, they preserved everything that made the original such an unnerving, makes-your-feet-itch experience.

Smit-McPhee is Owen, a slight, bullied lad who's intrigued by Abby, the new girl who moves into his snow-straddled apartment complex with (Owen assumes) her father in the dead of winter. She's strange: She only appears at night, doesn't seem bothered walking barefoot in the snow, and bathes infrequently. But soon these two lonely souls cement a connection that grows into the unlikeliest of affections.

It's not all happiness and sunshine, though. Even after he knows he's smitten, events unfold -- particularly those involving Abby's father figure -- forcing Owen to recognize that loving the undead brings ... complications.

If there ever were a romance between a human and a vampire, it would not be the stylized, sanitized Gothic splendor of the "Twilight" series. It would be like this: Disturbing, smelly and increasingly unpleasant as time goes by.

Video extras are quite good in both DVD and Blu-ray versions.

The DVD includes a commentary track by Reeves, a making-of documentary, a step-by-step look at some of the film's special effects, deleted scenes with commentary and a still gallery.

The Blu-ray includes all these features, plus a feature called "Dissecting Let Me In."

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars