Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: "Source Code"

Most science fiction thrillers get the "hardware" part of the movie right -- the technology, the fantastical shifting realities -- and skimp on the human stuff.

"Source Code" is the exact opposite: A flick that engages us with its protagonist and his plight, but the technical part of the story never really seems to add up. After the lights came on, I was left scratching my head trying to figure out the metaphysics and quantum mechanics of it all.

Still, I was caught up in the tale of Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier on a mission to stop a speeding train loaded with a bomb. In the end, the whys and wherefores became less important to the cinematic experience than the urgency of this time-traveler's duty.

Now, see, I already misspoke. Technically, Colter Stevens is not traveling through time. You'll have to bear with me here, since I can't reveal too much about this movie without compromising its secrets.

Colter wakes up on a commuter train, a sleek modern double-decker hurtling toward Chicago. There's a pretty, friendly girl named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him who acts like she knows him. He goes into the lavatory and sees another man's face staring at him. He's just starting to make sense of it all when a fiery explosion engulfs everything.

Colter wakes up in a dark, dank metal prison, like a Mercury astronaut capsule sunk to the bottom of the ocean. A woman's voice, reassuring but commanding, appears on a speaker asking him to recount what just happened.

Next thing he knows, Colter is back on the train, waking up back where he started. The scenario seems to be playing out exactly the same way it did before ... or is it?

Colter, a helicopter pilot on tour in Afghanistan, soon learns what's going on: He's a recruit in a top-secret new military experiment in "time reassignment." It seems the human brain has a sort of short-term memory track, about eight minutes long, that scientists can access even after death. They also have the ability to project one's consciousness into a similar person's mind and control their actions.

To wit: Colter is sent into the head of a mild-mannered school teacher who must find the bomber from among the hundreds of people aboard the train. Strangely, Goodwin, the officer guiding him in his missions (the capable Vera Farmiga) instructs him not to worry about defusing the bomb, but locating who set it.
Is this an alternate reality? A time loop? A "Matrix"-like facsimile meant to dissemble?

Furthermore, how can Colter keep repeating those eight minutes over and over again, doing something different every time, a la "Groundhog Day," without ever being able to stop the bomb from going off?

(One hint is the code name of the operation, Beleaguered Castle, a form of solitaire in which the player tries to build the cards into foundations, but most games end in failure after just a few moves.)

Director Duncan Jones (who made the wonderful and little-seen "Moon" a couple years back) and rookie screenwriter Ben Ripley ably keep the audience misdirected, making the mechanics of what's happening seem less important than the exigency of it.

So beyond the obvious concern of finding the terrorist, we're constantly asking questions: What exactly is the teacher's relationship with Christina? Why does Goodwin seem a little sad behind the sternness? What are Colter's handlers not telling him?

With "Source Code," the audience may not always understand what's going on, but we care about the outcome.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Video review: "Tangled"

"Toy Story 3" took home the Oscar for animated feature, but "Tangled" was actually the best Disney film of last year.

I mean it -- this delightful mix of music, adventure and romance was the finest princess movie since 1991's "Beauty and the Beast." It's loosely based on the Rapunzel fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, but has been jazzed up and modernized by screenwriter Dan Fogelman and co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard.

Rapunzel is no blushing maiden eagerly awaiting her rescuer, but a feisty teen (voice by Mandy Moore) hungry for adventure beyond the tall tower in which she's been locked away her whole life. Little does she know evil enchantress Gothel (a terrific Donna Murphy) kidnapped her as a babe from her parents, the king and queen, to exploit the magic of her flowing golden hair.

When Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), a charming cad of a thief, hides in Rapunzel's tower, she knocks him cold with a frying pan. Soon they're off on a quest and -- of course -- falling in love.

The movie starts out all fun and games, but gains unexpected heft and emotional resonance as the plot unspools.

Coupled with a handful of Broadway-style showstopper musical numbers, "Tangled" is an old-fashioned charmer.

Video extras vary from meager to decent, depending on which version you buy.
The DVD edition contains only two earlier versions of the storybook opening, and a countdown of all 50 Disney animated features.

The two-disc DVD/Blu-ray combo adds three deleted scenes, a making-of documentary and two extended versions of songs.

Upgrade to the four-disc combo pack and also receive a 3-D version of the film, plus a digital copy for your computer or portable device.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 28, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Murphy's War" (1971)

"Murphy's War" has the bones of a great movie, but forgot to add the flesh.

In general, I appreciate films that are understated and minimalist, especially when tackling big subjects like war and revenge. It makes the message more powerful when the filmmakers aren't underlining and highlighting it for the audience. But director Peter Yates and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, working from the novel by Max Catto, construct a story so lacking in relatable characters that the movie seems to exist as pure allegory.

The film is most remembered now for being the most significant of only two onscreen pairings between Peter O'Toole and his then-wife, Siân Phillips (the other being "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"). Phillips is best known to my generation as the evil Reverend Mother in "Dune" and the TV miniseries "I, Claudius." She has a wonderful, sharp-featured face with large, expressive eyes and a slightly otherworldly quality -- think Angelina Jolie without the menace.

She plays Dr. Hayden, a Quaker doctor living in a remote Venezuelan coastal village in the waning days of World War II. O'Toole plays Murphy, an Irish merchant seaman whose ship was destroyed by a German submarine. After being rescued and patched up by Hayden, he vows revenge despite the fact he is only a mechanic, and armistice could be declared any minute.

It's a treatise about one man's obsession, and yet we never really feel like we get into Murphy's head. Why exactly does Murphy feel compelled to throw away his life trying to kill the Germans? The submariners machine-gunned his crew mates to death in the water in order that no signal about their location could be given, but this is hardly the worst war crime committed by the Nazi regime.

There's a suggestion that Murphy was something of an outcast on his ship, the Mount Kyle, evidenced by the fact that when a lieutenant washes ashore badly injured, he's distressed that the only other survivor is Murphy. Later, having heard the doctor broadcast about a survivor claiming to have seen a submarine, the Germans arrive at the village and shoot the lieutenant in his hospital bed, not realizing Hayden was talking about Murphy.

This is the point at which Murphy, who had seemed content to ride out the war in exile, determines to take out the submarine. He fixes up the lieutenant's crashed seaplane with the help of Louis (Philippe Noiret), the French custodian for a distant oil company. The last half of the film is taken up with Murphy's fixing the airplane, learning to fly it through trial and error, and a bombing run on the sub using some improvised Molotov cocktails. When this fails, he commanders Louis' barge and attempts to ram the U-boat.

Eventually, both Murphy and the submariners die when the hot-headed Irishman uses the barge's hoist to pick up a live torpedo the sub shot at him from where it beached itself, and drops it on top of the submerged vessel, which had run aground. The crane crashes onto Murphy, pinning him as both barge and sub sink into the waves.

Illogic reigns throughout this scenario. Let's start with the Germans. Why in the world would the Nazis order a submarine to Venezuelan waters as their regime crumbled, under orders of strict secrecy? And then have them hide out in a river? There's no possible strategic assets in that area requiring such measures, and the U-boat skipper (Horst Janson) carries out his orders reluctantly, as if he knows they are inhumane.

And even if it were somehow necessary, having the submarine appear off the coast of the village and the men coming ashore with machine guns is surely not the way to ensure such secrecy. Hayden had already broadcast Murphy's warning, so the cat was already out of the bag, so to speak. The doctor had scoffed at Murphy's claims of a submarine, so their appearance simply turned rumor into hard fact, with hundreds of witnesses.

The flying scenes are the highlight of the film, wonderfully shot and daringly maneuvered by the stunt pilots, though they too don't really stand up to scrutiny. The idea that a shot-up airplane could be restored to flight in  a couple of days strains credulity, but not nearly as much as the notion of a man who's never been a cockpit before being to able to a get plane into the air, let alone learn to maneuver it without instruction.

Beyond these logistical matters, though, is the pervasive sense that I never felt connected to any of the characters. They seem to exist with no backstory, no motivation or inner presence. Why would the murder of an officer he hated compel Murphy to take up his fanatical revenge? Why has the beautiful Hayden chosen a life of solitary celibacy? Why is Louis so malleable and passive?

"Murphy's War" not only never answers these questions, it never even asks them.

2 stars out of four

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: "Sucker Punch"

An overheated steampunk fantasia of girls in go-go outfits wreaking vengeance with ninja swords and machine guns, "Sucker Punch" is a bowl full of hot mess of filmmaking.

I'm all for crazy, off-kilter movies packed to the hilt with the fertile imagination of the creators. But this latest from "300" director Zack Snyder (who co-wrote the script with Steve Shibuya) is a greenhouse of cinematic references crammed together, sprinkled with steroid fertilizer and the heat cranked up to sweltering jungle temperature.

The result is an overgrown thicket of ideas, smashed together indiscriminately without any thought of coherence, instead relishing in the sheer cool juxtapositions of loopy elements for their own sake.

To wit: In one scene, our team parachutes from a World War II B-24 into an army of orcs from "The Lord of the Rings" and blow them away with modern weaponry. And when I say the orcs from "LoTR," I don't mean they kinda/sorta resemble the snarly brutes from the fantasy trilogy, I mean they look exactly like them. Their HQ even has the same sharp spires of Mordor. Then, for good measure, the girls take on the fire-breathing lizard from "Dragonslayer."

That follows on the heels of another sequence set in the trenches of World War I where the girls battle zombie German soldiers, whom the Kaiser has reanimated with "steam power and clockworks." They're assisted by one of their crew piloting a giant mechanized warrior, which appears to be straight out of "Avatar" by way of "Aliens." They tangle with the Red Baron and blow up the Hindenburg.

These two scenes, indisputably the coolest in the movie, have their own kooky energy and kinetic style -- highlighted by Snyder's now-familiar spiraling camera moves replete with sped-up and slo-mo action heavily augmented by CGI.

As he falls back on these fancy technical tricks again and again, they begin to grow wearing -- as in a fight aboard a train against a couple dozen Terminators, which despite the nonstop mayhem manages to become downright dull.

And whenever the story drops out of its fantasy realm into the framing device -- in which our winsome warriors are inmates at a Gothic mental hospital in Vermont -- the film loses all momentum.

Or is the madhouse actually a front for a burlesque theater-slash-bordello, in which the girls are captives made to dance and service the pleasures of the customers? Snyder and Shibuya think they're keeping the audience guessing with their morphing prism of reality. But any half-awake observer will figure out the real scheme of things, as clear as the peal of a hammerstroke.

Our protagonist is Baby Doll (Aussie actress Emily Browning), a pint-sized pixie with blonde pigtails and a perpetually vacant gaze. Thrown into the hospital after tangling with her evil stepfather, Baby is determined to break out. As she dances for the evil head orderly/club owner Blue (a slithery Oscar Isaac) and his minions, her consciousness slips into the Bizarro-world universe of her "missions."

She even has a sensai to guide her, a wily, wrinkled warrior played by Scott Glenn. He always has "one last thing" to warn them about, and invariably the worst-case scenario always comes to pass.

Baby's recruits are her fellow inmates/prostitutes: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), the lead girl who doesn't like risks; her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), who dreams of going home; and an interchangeable pair (Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) who are just around to service the plot.

Their instructor is Gorski (Carla Gugino), who's a doctor trying to help the patients through role-playing therapy in the nuthouse, and the stern dance instructor in the brothel part. Her Russian Svengali accent so drips with rolled r's and glottal clicks I kept expecting her to call out for "moose and squirrel."

I can't deny there are parts of "Sucker Punch" -- I'm clueless as to the title's meaning, btw -- that are screwy fun: Strange vignettes unhinged from reality or any sense of logic. But it takes more than a scoopful of geekboy fantasy elements to make a movie, and this one just keeps piling ingredients into the gumbo without ever considering how they'll taste together.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Video review: "The Tourist"

It seems like most of my video columns lately have spotlighted movies I felt got a raw deal: "127 Hours," "Morning Glory." Well, I'll continue the roll: "The Tourist," flayed by critics (20 percent on the Tomatometer) and largely ignored by audiences -- at least American ones; it cleaned up overseas -- is a thoroughly enjoyable bit of popcorn moviemaking.

This spy thriller starring Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp and the city of Venice is a skillfully-made bit of weightless piffle. No, it will not become a fixture in the annals of cinema. It's a fancy sundae, a concoction of sweet thrills and empty calories. We shouldn’t take too long admiring it, because it’ll melt if we do.

Just scoop it up, enjoy the sugary rush and smile.

Depp plays Frank Tupelo, a sad-sack math professor from Wisconsin riding the train to Venice for a lonely vacation. Onboard he meets an exotic, dangerous woman named Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie), who brazenly flirts with him. It's soon revealed that she's a spy on the run, who's merely using Frank as a patsy.

The rest of the movie is one long bit of chase-chase, a classic Hitchcockian convoluted plot of double-crosses and MacGuffins. Something about Elise's long-lost lover duping a British mobster out of billions, with Paul Bettany starring as the unctuous spymaster hunting everyone. There's a glamorous formal ball, a boat chase or two -- it's Venice, how could there not be? -- and some rooftop hi jinks.

It may not make much sense, but the ride is brisk and fun.

Video extras are good no matter what format you choose.

The DVD version has a feature-length commentary track by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a reel of outtakes and goofs, an alternate title sequence done in animation, and two featurettes on staging the fancy ball scene and the film's take on Old Hollywood glamour.

The Blu-ray edition includes all these features, plus three more featurettes: "Action in Venice," "Canal Chats" and "Tourist Destination: Travel the Canals of Venice."

No digital copy of the film, though. Now that is a raw deal.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reeling Backward: "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944)

I first heard of "It Happened Tomorrow" when a local blogger and former colleague at The Indianapolis Star, Ruth Holladay, approached me asking for names of newspaper movies for a post she was writing. She already had this 1944 picture starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell on her list, and I admitted I'd never heard of it before.

Perhaps it's because "Tomorrow" is less a movie about journalism than a fantasy-slash-morality tale. An enterprising young reporter receives the next day's paper a day early, and uses that information to advance his career and love life. It's amusing enough, but I suppose because I was expecting something completely different, it underwhelmed a bit.

The film opens with a clumsy framing device. An old man and woman are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in a grand mansion. Rows of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are lined up to greet them when they begin arguing over a newspaper. Powell and Darnell -- shown only in long shot to disguise an inept attempt to age them up -- talk about an article he wants to publish about his life, and she forbids it to save him embarrassment.

It brings a note of awkwardness to the film's opening and closing, and I don't see what it really adds.

Powell -- who directed last week's classic film subject, "The Enemy Below" -- was at this time a song-and-dance man who had grown tired of being cast in lite musicals and comedies. After "Tomorrow," he refused his next assignment and broke his contract to star in the film noir "Murder, My Sweet."

The setting is turn-of-the-century New York. Powell plays Larry Stevens, a young reporter for The Evening News who's just written his 500th obituary, and has now graduated to full-scale reporter. He and several colleagues are celebrating with some two-fisted drinking in the newsroom after closing out that evening's edition -- a much more common practice in the trade than is generally known

(By the time I broke into newspapering in the 1990s, overt imbibing had disappeared, but a few old-timers were known to keep a bottle somewhere in their desk. And I saw more than one editor put together the next day's section in a red-eyed, bleary state.)

Stevens and the other fellows josh around with Pop Benson (Hoosier actor John Philliber), the ancient curator of the paper's morgue, who tells them that every day's edition contains both the past and the future. Larry offhandedly claims he'd give up 10 years of his life to see the next day's news ahead of time. Pop, who we later learn actually died that night, appears to Larry over the next three days to hand him a copy of the following day's Evening News.

Larry uses the information in the manner of any hungry reporter: To be present wherever the next day's biggest news is going to happen so he can get the front-page scoop. Of course, when Larry gets the paper it already has the story under his byline, so he doesn't even really have to write it, just copy it down.

His first blockbuster is a shoot-out a the opera house between some bandits and the police. Interestingly, Larry makes no attempt to stop any untoward behavior, but simply uses it to make a name for himself.

If you think that's ethically shaky, it's also not unusual in the hyper-competitive world of newspaper reporting, where front-page bylines are the mark of relevance. When I moved from my first job at a tiny newspaper to my second at a middle-sized one, I heard tell of one unscrupulous reporter who brazenly stole from her own colleagues. The editors asked each reporter, before they left for the night, to enter what they planned to work on the next day in a shared file.

This newshound made it a habit to show up early every day, scan the list of proposed articles, and start working on the most promising idea -- whether it infringed on another staffer's beat or not. When the other reporter showed up later that morning or afternoon -- a typical schedule for that ilk -- the editors would invariably say, "Well, she's already deep into it, so we'll let her finish." She had a lot of front-page stories, and few friends.

Any way, Larry becomes enchanted with Sylvia (Darnell), a girl working in a magic act with her uncle Oscar, who goes by the stage name of Cigolini. He pretends to put her in a trance, while she stands out in the audience and makes predictions about the future. Cigolini/Oscar is played by Jack Oakie, who was known for doing a tongue-twisting Italian accent, despite being from Oklahoma by way of Missouri. He used this same skill in his most famous role as Benzino Napaloni, the caricature of Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator."

The Larry/Sylvia romance is one of those swept away deals where they're getting married two days after meeting. By this time Larry has received the last day's early paper, with his death notice on the front page. Morose, his only goal is to marry Sylvia, win a bunch of money at the horse track, and leave her with a comfortable inheritance.

Reticent before to change the future, Larry now does everything in his power to avoid being at the appointed time and place of his demise. Of course, events conspire to bring him there anyway, where he learns the paper had his death wrong. The thief who made off with the $60,000 he won at the track is shot dead by the police, who find Larry's wallet on him. The error is not discovered in time before the first edition of the Evening News goes out with the incorrect identification.

This begs lots of metaphysical ponderables: Was Pop always bringing Larry the first edition? Why not the last, most factually complete one? What kind of slipshod ghost/guardian angel is he?

And why exactly is Pop's ghost passing out newspapers a day early? He says something about not being able to change the future despite knowing it in advance, but it seems to have a major impact on Larry's life. Also, if Larry lost his winnings -- the cash is missing when the wallet is recovered from the thief -- how did he ever become rich enough to afford the mansion we saw?

More a daffy comedy than a true newspaper movie, "It Happened Tomorrow" left me with more questions than answers.

2 stars out of four

(I couldn't find an embeddable clip from the film, but Turner Classic Movies has one here.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: "Paul"

"Paul" is quite possibly the first extraterrestrial stoner comedy. At least, I couldn't think of any others offhand. I Googled "movies in which aliens get stoned" and got zippo. Maybe I should've used Bing.

The alien and his human cohorts do not actually spend the entire movie getting high, but this film definitely has a crunchy road-trip vibe. Think "Cheech & Chong" meets "Starman," with some "Shaun of the Dead"-type genre spoofing. This latter flavor is not surprising, considering that "Shaun" collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost wrote the screenplay and star in "Paul."

The title character, a buggy-eyed protagonist who can turn invisible and heal people and animals with a touch, is voiced by Seth Rogen in his blowsy, cool-dude mode. We get the distinct impression that on his world, he's the Jeff Spicoli. At least, we hope he is. Paul (a nickname, and later we discover how he got it) crashed his spaceship in the desert more than 60 years ago, and seems to have little ambition or direction in life.

He's been the guest-slash-prisoner of the U.S. government ever since, and would've been content to stay there until he recently learned that he's outlived his usefulness. He goes on the lam, smashes his stolen car and gets a lift from Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost), a pair of British nerds taking a tour of Area 51 and other alien-themed hot spots in a rented RV.

There's a lot of funny in-jokes about why all aliens in pop culture have the same general resemblance as Paul. He tells them the government disseminated those images so in case more of Paul's folks show up, people will at least have a frame of reference and not totally freak out. There's even a hilarious flashback where Paul gives Steven Spielberg the idea for E.T.'s glowing magic finger.

Hot on his trail is Zoil (Jason Bateman), a Secret Service agent who's really serious about his job, and seems impervious to humor. He takes orders from a female boss we only hear over the phone, and has to deal with a pair of nitwit rookies (Joe Lo Truglio and Bill Hader) assigned to help.

Paul, Graeme and Clive hide out in a trailer park, where they bump into Ruth (Kristen Wiig), the daughter of a Bible-thumper. She wears those odd glasses with one frame blacked out to conceal an eye condition, and it doesn't take special powers to guess Paul will have something to say about it.

His intervention helps her cling a little less bitterly to her religion, and soon Ruth is tagging along, determined to try out some new swear words and maybe break a few commandments. It's a charming, cheeky and funny role, and underlines the burning necessity that Hollywood give Wiig her own star vehicle, now.

"Paul" is directed by Greg Mottola, who helmed the ridiculously overrated "Superbad," but also the criminally ignored "Adventureland." Together with Frost and Pegg's script, they manag to find a loose, entertaining groove that's way funnier than "Pineapple Express." The humor is generally in well-traveled terrain with a generous helping of dick jokes, but somehow having it coming out of the mouth of a little green man makes it fresh and ironic.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Video review: "The Fighter"

It's interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that three-quarters of the main cast members of "The Fighter" received Oscar nominations, but not its star, Mark Wahlberg. This despite the fact that the biopic of boxer Micky Ward was Wahlberg's dream project that he'd been trying to put together for the better part of a decade.

Micky was simply not a dominating personality -- as hilarious footage that runs over the end credits proved. Wahlberg reflected this in an understated performance that exists mostly to allow Amy Adams, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale to chew the scenery as (respectively) his brash girlfriend, his dominating mother Alice, and his colossal screw-up of a brother, Dickie.

It's this last dynamic between the brothers that provides the film's rough-and-tumble heart and soul. Most boxing movies fake the tender stuff, preferring to feature the mayhem in the ring. But "The Fighter" truly puts family first.

Dickie was once the pride of Lowell, their hardscrabble hometown, for his own exploits between the ropes. But he's devolved into a loud-mouthed drug addict, who's ostensibly Micky's trainer but mostly rambles around town looking to score.

Bale and Leo both won Oscar statues for their authentic, resonant performances, and Adams showed the world she can play more than princesses and sweet girls-next-door.

But it's Wahlberg, both behind the camera and in front of it, who sacrificed showiness to set up his supporting cast for a knockout. In a business ruled by egos, that's the ultimate rope-a-dope.

Extras are decent for the DVD version, and get better in upgrading to Blu-ray.

The DVD includes a feature-length commentary track by director David O. Russell, as well as "The Warrior's Code," a making-of doc. It also comes with a digital copy of the film, which most DVD releases shamefully lack.

The Blu-ray includes these features plus several deleted scenes with commentary and "Keeping the Faith," a feature that focuses on the real lives of the characters depicted.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Enemy Below" (1957)

One of the things I always appreciated about Humphrey Bogart is that he doesn't look like a movie star -- with his stopped posture, unimposing stature, scarred lips, slurred speech and (reputed) toupee, he was nobody's idea of handsome. And yet he commanded the screen with his soulful eyes and the way he rolled his jaw.

Robert Mitchum, on the other hand, looks every inch the movie star. I have this theory about stars that mostly applies to women but, to a lesser degree, men as well. It's not enough that they be attractive. There are thousands of perfect-looking models who never make it in the movies. The may lack the acting ability, but looks play a role, too. People respond to actors who are not only handsome, but have a distinct look that sets them apart.

Take Julia Roberts. Her sparkly eyes, cascade of curls and iconic horsey smile make her not only beautiful, but unforgettable. Audiences don't want blandly beautiful, but performers who stand out and are memorable.

Mitchum was a tall, good-looking lug, but very much in a distinct way all his own. If you look at him in profile, his entire face seems to be sloping forward like an arrowhead, with his eyes marking the tip of the point. It gives him this aggressive, confident quality that he carried in all his roles. His eyes were famously baggy, but set deep and so wide apart they seemed to have a mournful tilt. His long nose and jaw fell straight down to a chin that seemed less dimpled than cleft with an axe.

"The Enemy Below" may not have been Mitchum's greatest acting job, but the movie doesn't really call for one. Mitchum, who liked to say that acting is mostly about showing up, hitting your marks and not flubbing your lines, manages to do just that here. Jurgens fares better, getting in a few licks as a reluctant warrior who fights for his country rather than the current regime.

It's a straightforward World War II picture, a battle of wits between an American destroyer captain (Mitchum) and a German submarine commander (Curt Jurgens). Mitchum really doesn't have much to do other than snap orders, with the exception of one brief scene where he confides in the ship's doctor (Russell Collins) that he was a merchant ship captain before the war, and that his wife was killed when his boat was cut in two by a U-boat torpedo.

Still, while recognizing that it's not any sort of great piece of acting by Mitchum or a searing portrait of war, if one accepts "The Enemy Below" as an action-filled war movie, it's thoroughly entertaining stuff.

Director Dick Powell -- a busy actor who also directed a half-dozen flicks, including Mitchum in "The Hunters" -- and screenwriter Wendell Mayes concern themselves with the manly exploits of naval combat, with a few human scenes tossed in to give it a little color. Interestingly, it's based on a book by D.A. Rayner, a British naval officer who saw plenty of anti-submarine combat. All the Brit characters were changed to Yanks for the movie.

For awhile, we follow the conversations of two or three swabbies aboard the USS Haynes expressing their concern about the fitness of their new captain, and I figured they'd pop up now and again as sort of a resident Greek chorus. But the movie misplaces them after the first 20 minutes or so. There's also an African-American sailor constantly mopping the deck who sneaks into a couple of conversations, I guess to comment on on the segregation of the military during WWII. By 1957, when "Enemy" came out, the forces were mostly integrated.

The battle scenes are indeed impressive for the time, although one doesn't have to look too hard to spot when the edits cut from footage of the real vessels to the models. The film won an Oscar for special effects.

All the hallmarks of the submarine genre are here -- the pinging sonar, the worrying creak of the hull as the captain orders the ship below the maximum recommended depth, the shaking as depth charges explode, one man freaking out at the claustrophobic setting, etc. What's notable about "The Enemy Below" is it was one of the first films to show the Germans on the receiving end.

Even 24 years later, the great "Das Boot" was considered groundbreaking (and controversial) for daring to show German submariners as brave and true.

The film ends with both ships fatally wounded, and the American skipper saves the German captain and his number two (Theodore Bikel) before the automatic detonators blow up the U-boat. The idea of Americans and German being equally capable of nobility and depravity was still pretty bold in 1957.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: "Red Riding Hood"

Was the world really crying out for a sexed-up version of "Little Red Riding Hood," with the naive young girl transformed into the carnally curious town tart pursued by two pouty-lipped bad boys?

This is a strange, dreary and stubbornly un-entertaining reboot of the ancient fairy tale about a little girl who meets the big, bad wolf. Granted there were always sexual undertones to the legend, but this is like the Brothers Grimm by way of "Twilight," with ancient forebodings about creatures of the night used as grist for the mill of angsty teenage lust.

The "Twilight" comparison is an obvious one, since director Catherine Hardwicke helmed the first film in that franchise, before getting the boot/quitting in frustration (depending on who you ask). Rumor even has it that Shiloh Fernandez, who plays the main flame to Red Riding Hood's Amanda Seyfried, just missed the cut to play vampire dreamboat Edward Cullen.

Fernandez is a promising young star, appearing in films no one's seen like "Deadgirl" and "Skateland." But he's ill-used here, hanging around mostly as boy toy eye candy and to tempt Valerie, aka Red, into thinking he might be the werewolf stalking the village.

In fact, most everyone Valerie meets is suspected at some point of being the hirsute killer, with the result that "Red Riding Hood" plays out like a Gothic whodunit.

Is it Peter (Fernandez), the humble woodcutter who secretly stole Valerie's heart when they were children? Or Henry Lazar (Max Irons), the wealthy (compared to the rest of the town) blacksmith's son to whom Valerie's parents (Virginia Madsen and Billy Burke) have promised her hand in marriage?

Or maybe it's good old grandmother (Julie Christie) living in her remote cottage in the woods, making odd elliptical comments and brewing strange concoctions in her boiling cauldron.

The screenplay by David Johnson is a case study in misdirection, tempting us with one candidate after another for the role of the werewolf who's plagued the village of Daggerhorn for generations. Some characters, such as the timid local priest (Lukas Haas), seem to exist solely for the purpose of spreading the suspicion around.

The Daggerhornians have existed in peace with the beast for 20 years, offering their prime livestock as sacrifice every full moon. There's been no human slayings, until Valerie's sister turns up dead, and after a few tankards of ale the men folk decide to put an end to the curse once and for all.

They bring a wolf's head back on a stake, convinced they've won, but then Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) arrives in town to set them right. Solomon's a real piece of work, who carries around a Van Helsing-like arsenal of weapons but also a zeal for smiting evildoers that's straight out of the Inquisition.

Solomon's dedication to lycanthrope-hunting is so hardcore that he slew his own wife when he discovered she was a werewolf, and carries around her severed hand in an ornate wooden box to prove his bona fides. Or maybe he's a just a seriously screwed-up dude.

Hardwicke shoots with a dream-like quality, making the movie seem as if it shimmers around the edges. Her stylistic choices often spill over the top, though, as in every tree and building sprouting spikes that we keep expecting stuff to get impaled on. Or the big feast scene where the young'uns break out into some sort of squirmy medieval lambada.

Like the rest of "Red Riding Hood," it's meant to be sensual, but instead is profoundly silly.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: "Mars Needs Moms"

"Mars Needs Moms" is the sort of movie that will be enjoyed by small children and endured by their parents. It feels like an amalgamation of other films' styles and storylines, assembled by a marketing department bent on hitting a demographic sweet spot rather than artists following their muse.

It's also the sort of movie that you need only watch the two minutes of its trailer to know what's in the other 86. An Earth kid named Milo watches his mom abducted by Martians, tags along as a stowaway, gets into all sorts of scrapes with the funny-looking aliens, befriends a human rapscallion living in the Martian junkyard, and Life Lessons are duly imparted.

This film held zero surprises for me. I knew everything that was going to happen before it did, right down to the big emotional scene near the end when Milo's mom shows the sacrifices a parent is prepared to make for their child.

It's a nice moment, but it's never a good thing when the audience knows exactly where a movie is going, and waits impatiently for it to arrive.

"Mars" is being released by Disney, but it was actually made by Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture studio. Zemeckis, a highly successful director of live-action films like "Forrest Gump," famously switched to computer animation with live actors performing their scenes in special suits, which animators then paint over
I'm all for new technological toys, as long as they're used in the service of telling a story. Motion capture gave us the triumph of Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but I can't really see what it adds to "Mars."

Milo spends most of his time bouncing around in the lighter gravity of the red planet, navigating the tubes and tunnels of their underworld, so a photo-realistic depiction of how a real kid moves isn't even appropriate.

And here's a curious thing: The movie "stars" Seth Green as Milo, because he performed the actions in front of a green screen for the motion capture, but a child actor named Seth Robert Dusky provides the voice. So who really "played" Milo?

If nothing else, this film will force the Screen Actors Guild to revisit their bylaws.

Joan Cusack plays his harried mom, who looks almost exactly like Joan Cusack, which isn't too much of a stretch since she was born to play a cartoon. Dan Fogler plays Gribble, a well-fed human tech nerd subsisting in the Martians' vast subterranean trash cave.

Mindy Sterling is the Supervisor, the stern and very wrinkled leader of the Martians, who resemble humans with extra-wide hips and oval heads like Stewie from TV's "Family Guy." The Supervisor spies on the Earth looking for especially stern mothers, whom she kidnaps so can zap the disciplinarian juice out of them, or something, which she then uses to program the robot nannies who raise Martian babies. (Well, half of them anyway...)

It's a strange world, and one I didn't entirely buy -- even in cartoon form. The film is based on a children's book by "Bloom County" creator Berkeley Breathed, adapted for the screen by Simon and Wendy Wells, with Simon directing.

The Wellses find it necessary to have Milo self-narrate what's happening to him, as if the audience can't see for themselves: "I'm on a spaceship!" "A world of trash!" Truly annoying.

The only real light in "Mars Needs Mom" is the character of Ki, a rebellious Martian played by Elisabeth Harnois. Ki is secretly a graffiti artist who talks like a hippie, having learned English from 1960s Earth television.

Whoever drew Ki added a little crinkle to her cheeks when she smiles, and it's like something of pure spontaneous joy escaping from the factory.

1.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Video review: "Morning Glory"

"Morning Glory" got pasted at the box office and stomped by critics, but I truly enjoyed it. It's sort of the inverse of "Network" and "Broadcast News," where the main character doesn't fret about how television journalism is being watered down by infotainment, but wants to turn the dial on Lite News up to 11.

Still, it has top-notch actors in roles they inhabit with clear enthusiasm, exchanging whip-smart banter at a breakneck pace, alternating sweet and sad moments with unhurried efficiency.

Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, a young, irrepressible producer given the thankless -- and most think impossible -- task of turning around "Daybreak," the last-place network morning show. The studio is literally falling apart, the field reporters are all castoffs, and the creepy co-host welcomes Becky by asking to take photographs of her feet.

After the fetishist is given a quick heave, Becky manages to land legendary anchorman Mike Pomeroy as his replacement. Played with grizzled charm by Harrison Ford, Mike is so disenchanted by his fall from grace that he takes it out on Becky, his brittle co-host (an underused Diane Keaton) and everyone else in his path.

Mike wants the show to pursue hard news, while Becky is committed to making things friendlier and zanier. As they eventually draw closer, Mike also provides a cautionary tale on what letting work dominate your life does to personal relationships.

Like the show it chronicles, "Morning Glory" ain't Pulitzer material, but it is entertaining.

Video extras are a bit skimpy. There is a feature-length commentary track by director Roger Michell and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. But the rest of the goodies are restricted to a single deleted scene.
Features are the same for Blu-ray and DVD formats.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, March 7, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Defiant Ones" (1958)

I've learned that the filmography of Stanley Kramer as a director is feast or famine. This space has previously featured columns about "On the Beach" and "Ship of Fools," finding them to be heavy-handed films whose strident moralism overpowers their functionality as movies. Of course, he also directed wonderful pictures like "Look Who's Coming to Dinner," "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "Inherit the Wind."

I guess the secret to Kramer is to steer clear of any movies not starring Spencer Tracy.

Sadly, "The Defiant Ones" falls into the former category. It's a mawkish, occasionally cringe-worthy treatise against racism and imprisonment, featuring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as a white man and a black man shackled together while on the lam from a chain gang.

Despite its pedigree -- nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for both Poitier and Curtis, winning two for cinematography and original screenplay -- I found it obvious and blunt as social commentary. It's pretty much ordained that the two main characters' antagonism will boil over, and then cool into a forged friendship based on altruism and shared sacrifice.

Curtis plays Johnny "Joker" Jackson, and Poitier is Noah Cullen. Joker uses the n-word freely befitting his Southern rearing, but deep down his hard-boiled anger is directed more at a world that has beaten him down than any particular race or group. Cullen was a regular farmer and family man before he was sent to prison for assaulting a bank officer who came to foreclose his property.

It's a usual strong performance from Poitier, playing a man who recognizes that he can't change the deck that's stacked against him, but isn't about to take it lying down. It's interesting to see him play an uneducated rural man, since we associate a certain intellectualism with Poitier's screen persona.

Curtis' acting, though, is borderline awful. His famous Bronx accent bleeds through his faux Southern one like a bloody shirt, and he continually grits his teeth in a failed attempt to show the character's self-loathing -- walking around with this ridiculous rictus grin most of the time. Curtis should've taken a few notes from Humphrey Bogart, who could convey a great deal of bile just by sliding his jaw a bit.

Apart from this sub-par turn here, Curtis had a brilliant but truncated career. He essentially had a 10- or 12-year run beginning in 1957, with starring roles in some of the era's most iconic films -- "Some Like It Hot," "Spartacus," "Sweet Smell of Success" -- but by his 45th birthday in 1970 he was essentially done, reduced to silly movies and small parts.

Curtis never seemed to mind being out of the limelight, though, and turned to painting in his autumn years. "The Defiant Ones" was his only Academy Award nomination. It's flabbergasting to me that Curtis was nominated for this terrible performance, while his brilliant one in "Some Like It Hot" was not.

The screenplay has a pretty straightforward three-act structure. The first part deals with Joker and Cullen's escape when the prison van overturns, and the beginning of the manhunt to chase them down. They bicker, and Joker complains about being chained to a black man, but they realize their fates are entwined.

The second act is built around their growing desperation to escape, culminating with their capture by the residents of a tiny village while breaking into the hardware store to separate their chains. The racist mob is whipped into a frenzy by the local hothead (Claude Akins) who wants a lynching. Joker is gobsmacked by the idea that he would be hanged just like a black man, though he later admits to Cullen he saw some lynchings in his youth.

Lon Chaney Jr. has a brief but powerful role as Big Sam, the local foreman who puts a stop to the lynching, and secretly frees Cullen and Joker in the middle of the night. Again, though, Kramer and his screenwriters (Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith) aren't content with a moment of simple humanistic empathy, but have to ramp up the mawkishness by revealing that Big Sam was once a chain gang member, too.

I did admire the cutaway scenes to the pursuing posse, led by a somewhat progressive sheriff (Theodore Bikel, who also got an Oscar nod) with a distaste for employing harsher methods like attack dogs. He's badgered by a gung-ho state trooper -- played by famously gravel-voiced character actor Charles McGraw, who also was the gladiator trainer in "Spartacus" -- who deems the sheriff soft.

The final act is where things fall utterly apart. After finally coming to blows, Cullen and Joker stumble across a lonely farm wife (Cara Williams) and her young son. Although she's initially a hostage, the woman (who is never named) helps the two prisoners break their chains, feeds them and nurses Joker back to health after he collapses from his injuries and ordeal.

Then, the predictable happens: She and Joker fall in love. Or at least lust. Or something. After having sex, they wake up early in the morning before Cullen and her son, and resolve to take her car and run off on both of them. Cullen wakes up and overheard their conversation, and sees that he's no longer necessary to Joker.

The woman gives Cullen false directions to the railroad tracks through the swamp, believing he will be swallowed up by the bog and not be able to give away their plans. Joker discovers her ruse and is enraged, and races after his friend to save him, after being shot by the boy when he wrestles with his mother. Joker and Cullen fail to catch the train -- Cullen makes it aboard but refuses to let go of the injured Joker and is pulled off -- and are caught by the sheriff, wrapped in each others' arms.

This whole sequence is either way too short or too long. The idea that a woman would be willing to abandon her life and child for a man she's only met a few hours earlier -- a runaway prisoner at that -- simply strains credulity to the breaking point. Granted, she's lonely and dreams of life in a big city, but to believe she's that desperate we would need to know a lot more about the character than we learn in a relatively short amount of screen time.

As Joker points out right before running off, she doesn't even know his name.

I wanted to like "The Defiant Ones," but its strident moralizing and hammy story construction put it into the "Bad Kramer" file for me.

2 stars out of four

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: "Rango"

A neon-colored, sun-baked fantasia that's part Western spoof and part surrealist jag through the desert with Johnny Depp as our theatrically unhinged, reptilian tour guide, "Rango" is anything but your standard kiddie animated flick.

It's hard to believe this is the same team behind those "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, which by the first sequel had devolved into formulaic schlock without a shred of story structure. But director Gore Verbinski, Depp and screenwriter John Logan have joined forces for one of the daffiest and most original animated features in a long, long time.

Maybe it's because "Rango," the story of a domesticated lizard who stumbles into a spaghetti Western, didn't issue forth from one of the animation giants like Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks or Blue Sky. It's a partnership between Nickelodeon, Verbinski's production company and George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, a special effects outfit making its first foray into computer-generated cartoons.

All I can say is, based on everything from the dazzling details on the numerous critters' parched faces to the multihued splendor of the arid landscapes to the crisply-paced action scenes, the ILM gang has announced themselves with authority. The animation in "Rango" -- which doesn't fall back on any cheap 3-D tricks, by the way -- is as good as, or better, than anything Pixar and the gang are doing right now.

Depp voices the lonely lizard passing his days inside his terrarium, imagining himself up some friends for his theatrical productions, in a scene that recalls Jack Sparrow trapped in Davy Jones' Locker in "PotC: At World's End." The film is filled to the brim with references to other movies, including a drive-by homage to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

After a mishap leaves him by the side of the road in the Mojave, our scaly friend with a penchant for changing identities as easily as he can shift colors winds up in the town of Dirt.

The townsfolk, comprising every manner of reptile, bird, arachnid and mammal native to the desert, are suffering through a horrid drought and an even worse funk. When our lizard friend accidentally sends a local marauder to boot hill, he's given the job of sheriff.

He dubs himself Rango, and quickly creates the persona of a Clint Eastwood-esque Man from Nowhere. Rango is delighted at his new status -- not to mention the attentions of Miss Beans (Isla Fisher), a local rancher who has a tendency to freeze up when flustered.

As he bedecks himself in increasingly flamboyant gunslinger garb and spins outrageous tales about killing the evil Jensen brothers with one bullet -- all seven of them -- we begin to wonder if the attention-craving Rango's noodle wasn't already cooked before he ever set a three-toed foot in the desert.

Of course, bigger challenges await. There's a local bully (Ray Winstone) in need of standing up to, a pack of tunneling varmint thieves on the outskirts of town led by a blind mole (Harry Dean Stanton), and a power-hungry Mayor (Ned Beatty) who appears to have been lifted directly out of "Chinatown," right down to the white 10-gallon hat and watery schemes of John Huston's iconic Noah Cross ... except now he's a turtle.

Even worse is the rumor of a dead-eye outlaw named Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) slithering back into town with the tumbleweeds.

It's a loopy, fun ride as we follow Rango on his (mis)adventures, including a posse hunt that culminates in an epic chase sequence complete with mounted bats and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" arranged for banjos. Even more unexpected is the hallucinogenic amusement of several dream-slash-vision-quest scenes so bursting with colors and freaky-deaky images, I half expected melting clocks to ooze onto the screen.

A wild mishmash of Sergio Leone and Salvador Dali with an all-critter cast, "Rango" is what happens when animators forget about borders and just ride off into whatever sunset their imaginations take them.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: "The Adjustment Bureau"

It's no wonder the work of Philip K. Dick has proven such fertile ground for filmmakers, forming the seed for movies like "Blade Runner" and "Minority Report."

The science fiction writer, who died young nearly 30 years ago, specialized in stories with an existentialist bent, where the integrity of the human mind has been compromised by technology or some sort of outside control. The recurring question posed in Dick's stories boils down to, "What if my thoughts are not really my own?"

"The Adjustment Bureau," based on a short story by Dick, is a middlebrow mind trip wearing the clothes of psychological thriller. It's an effective, engaging picture, thought not on par with the other Dick films just mentioned.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, an ambitious young politician who stumbles upon the secret of the Adjustment Bureau, a team of celestial meddlers -- or do-gooders, from their perspective -- who can alter reality, even people's decisions.

David spends the rest of the movie on the run trying to thwart the schemes of the bureau, all in the name of love for a woman he once bumped into by chance.

Or was it chance? As a senior honcho for the bureau (Terence Stamp) informs David, letting humans make their own choices isn't considered safe: "We tried free will ... you gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries."

After four terms in the U.S. House as its youngest elected member ever, David stages a bid for the New York Senate seat that ends disastrously. The only good thing about it is bumping into Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room while he's rehearsing his concession speech. It's a quirky, electric meeting in which Blunt and Damon throw off some real romantic sparks.

A few weeks later David is starting a new job at his best friend's (Michael Kelly) law firm when he walks into the board room and finds it filled with men wearing old-fashioned suits and fedora hats zapping his buddy's brain with some kind of gizmo as he stands motionless like a frozen statue.

At first I thought the 1960s-era clothing the bureau men (they all seem to be male) wear is meant to underline the association to "Mad Men" star John Slattery, who plays Richardson, the bureau boss assigned to clean up David's messes. But it could also be a nod to Dick's mid-century heyday.

It seems the case worker (Anthony Mackie) assigned to David fell asleep on the job, allowing him to walk in on the bureau's mind-zapping, as well as stumble upon Elise again on the bus. After a brief chase, Richardson decides to lay it out for him: The Bureau are the enforcers of a cosmic Plan written by an entity referred to only as The Chairman. Events are meant to arrive at a prescribed destination, and any time humanity makes the wrong choice, the bureau is sent in to nudge things in the right direction.

For reasons these heavenly bureaucrats won't reveal, David and Elise are not meant to be together, despite the strong pull they feel. Richardson also hints that if David is willing to play ball, great things lie in his future.

George Nolfi, a veteran screenwriter making his directorial debut, crafts a fine-looking film with enough emotional coloring to paper over the sinkholes of logic the plot keeps swerving around. (For example, aren't the case workers also part of the Plan? In which case, wouldn't they be infallible?)

Less a rumination on free will than a potboiler with some intellectual pretensions, "The Adjustment Bureau" is a pleasant enough diversion that takes a pass on grander ambitions. At least, that's what I think I think.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Video review: "127 Hours"

I'm writing this before the Oscars telecast, but it's a pretty good bet that "127 Hours" came away from the Academy Awards empty-handed.

If so, that's a shame. Even more deplorable is the film's paltry box-office take, meaning audiences were staying away in droves. It seems in these dreary times, people just didn't want to go to "that movie about the guy who cuts his arm off."

Perhaps the most important duty of a critic is to champion films that didn't get a fair shake. To wit: You owe it to yourself to watch this extraordinary movie.

Despite its reputation as hard to watch -- the film's greatest amount of media coverage seemed to be about how many people passed out at screenings -- "127 Hours" is one of the most life-affirming cinematic experiences of my lifetime.

Yes, the scene where mountain climber Aron Ralston (a brilliant James Franco) saws through his right arm after being pinned in a slot canyon for five days is presented with unblinking, graphic honesty. But in a story about sacrifice, director/co-writer Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") has to show what's at stake.
Ultimately, "127 Hours" is not about what Aron Ralston left behind in that lonely, parched canyon, but what he took out with him.

Extra features are fine, though a little diminished by not having Franco participate in the DVD commentary track with Boyle, co-writer Simon Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson. This film is built entirely around one actor's performance, and to not lend his voice to the commentary is a letdown.

The DVD also includes several deleted scenes.

The Blu-ray version includes these features, plus a feature about the real-life events that inspired the film, and another about the collaboration between Boyle and Franco (which makes up somewhat for his commentary absence).

The Blu-ray also has a digital copy of the film and "God of Love," a wonderful Oscar-nominated short film.

Movie: 4 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars