Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: "Larry Crowne"

Here's a movie for adults that's warm and enjoyable, but has brains and ambition. Because it stars two immensely likeable actors, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, you might think it's about two middle-aged people falling for each other. You'd be wrong.

Although "Larry Crowne" takes the form of a romantic comedy-drama, it is less about the intersection of these two characters than the people they discover themselves to be at this moment in their life's trajectory. Their coupling is a byproduct of their respective journeys, not the purpose behind it.

Hanks directs (and produces, and co-wrote with Nia Vardalos) with a soft touch but not a soft head. "Larry Crowne" is full of life lessons, but is clever about it, and flouts its characters' sense of shared community without going all it-takes-a-village muddle-headed.

It's like fancy French toast -- comfort food with a dollop of aspiration.

Hanks plays the title character, a fortysomething guy happily working as a low-level manager at Umart, meaning he wears a bright red T-shirt with his name on it and is called a "team leader." Unfortunately, Larry does not have a college degree -- he joined the Navy out of high school and retired after 20 years as a cook -- so his bosses decide that since he cannot advance any further, they have to let him go. The fact that Larry is a tireless worker who attacks his job with zeal does not matter. Somehow, the Umart folks think they are doing him a favor.

This may sound unbelievably absurd, but the capacity for ridiculousness of group decisions knows no bounds. I know a guy who got a job at a non-profit straight out of college, loved working there and over the course of 20 years earned his way up to the number two position. During some nasty political squabbles, the board approached him about jettisoning the executive director and moving this fellow up to the top spot. Taking a principled stand, he refused the promotion, saying it was not fair to accept a post currently occupied by someone else. After more deliberations, the board decided to keep the person they'd just  been trying to give the boot, and fired him instead. The nature of the collective mind is inherently schizophrenic.

Larry takes it hard, especially when he finds the job market unwelcoming in the extreme. He's divorced but not bitter about it, and owes the bank a pocketful after buying out his ex-wife's half of the house.

So he decides to enroll at East Valley Community College. At the urging of the dean of students, who has more than a little huckster in him, Larry signs up for classes in speech, economics and composition. Master these three skills, he is told, and he can write his ticket.

The econ class is taught by a comically haughty professor (George Takei) who recites the same dry lessons year in and year out, and smiles because each student crammed into his massive classroom are required to buy his book. We never hear about the writing class, so all hope rests with the speech course.

The professor of Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks is one Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who began bordering on burnout a few years ago, and is medium-crispy now. Her greatest hope is that the minimum 10 students will not show up, and she can cancel the class -- which Larry dashes by showing up late. Mercy's first instruction to her students is to care, but she obviously stopped awhile ago.

Mercy takes an anti-shine to Larry at first, thinking he's an old letch using the mid-life college shtick to hit on impressionable young things like Talia, an effervescent lass played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in one of those performances that grab you and make you go, "More, please."

Truth is, Talia is more of a teacher to Larry than Mercy is, fixing the feng shui at his crowded home and giving his hair and clothes some zip. Mercy is perhaps biased because her husband (Bryan Cranston) really is an old letch, who gave up writing books to blog but really looks at porn all the time.

I have on occasion been accused of being too much of a literalist as a critic, and I will now demonstrate why.

Larry is very specific about being a 20-year military man, meaning he retired in his late 30s, presumably with a pension. Anyone remotely familiar with a career in the armed forces knows about the 20-years-and-out routine. Having known or read about people in this situation, and with a little research and conjecture, I determined Larry's payments from the Navy would be around 30 grand a year, plus free medical. That's not a ton, but should be enough for him to get by in the short run.

It's persnickety, I know, but I needed a line where Larry says something like, "And my Navy pension will barely cover the mortgage." Otherwise, don't introduce the 20-year thing without acknowledging the reality of it.

And on the question of Mercy's horndog husband, it is not really possible for any man to watch porn literally all day long. He could certainly see a lot of it, maybe even have a psychological addiction to it, but there would be spaces where, shall we say, his desires are at least temporarily diminished. It's just the way things work.

Things go on with Larry and Mercy, but I'll leave that for you to discover. They rotate in each others' orbits, with that gravitational pull always there but not shifting the heavens.

"Larry Crowne" is a romantic movie, but it's less about the familiar, tired tropes of cinematic love than the serendipitous passion we find in our lives when our plans end up in pieces on aisle 12.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

The third go-round with the killer robots from outer space gets points for coherence -- at least when it comes to individual scenes, if not the story as a whole.

My biggest beef with the first two "Transformers" movies was that they were slick, soulless pieces of entertainment built around special effects that just weren't very special. The heroic Autobots, who can transform into mechanized sentient beings into trucks and sports cars and such, just weren't visually distinctive.

Other than stalwart leader Optimus Prime (voice by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee, who's a bright yellow sports car in his disguised form, I could never really even tell them apart.

Things got worse whenever they went into battle with the Decepticons, their enemy cousins. Director Michael Bay and an army of CG animators churned out one confusing action scene after another, with the Transformers changing forms while flipping each other around like WWE wrestlers with chunks of metal flying off constantly.

With little for the eye to track, the audience couldn't tell where one robot ended and another began. At the risk of quoting myself, I wrote that experiencing these movies was "like watching piles of welded metal scrap caught in a Kansas twister."

Bay and the gang must have heard the clamor, because the action sequences are greatly improved in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." They are relatively straightforward and coherent, and even manage to occasionally be viscerally affecting.

The plot, though, is a hot mess of seemingly endless exposition, double crosses, people running hither and fro without much reason, and a lot of unnecessary humans.
Shia LaBeouf reprises his role as Sam Witwicky, the hapless kid who is accurately dubbed "an alien bad news magnet." Whenever something is up with the Autobots and Decepticons, Sam is bound to be in the middle of it.

Having helped save the world twice, Sam is now out of college and can't find a job. His previous incongruously hot girlfriend (Megan Fox) has been replaced by another, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), an English lass with thing for puppy-eyed losers like Sam. I did enjoy the barbed jokes aimed at Fox, who famously exited the franchise after saying some less-than-kind things about Bay & Co.

"She was mean," one of the smaller, impish Autobots quips.

The latest Decepticon scheme again features head baddie Megatron (Hugo Weaving) conspiring to defeat the humans and their Autobot allies using some new cosmic thingamajig. This time it's some pillars that were stowed away on a spaceship called The Ark when the Autobots were in their final days of losing the war against their enemies.

This ship crash-landed on the moon in 1961, and in an interminably long prologue sequence, we learn that the entire Apollo moon missions were undertaken for the sole purpose of exploring the wreckage.

They key to the magic pillars is Sentinel Prime, the long-lost Autobot leader who is resurrected by Optimus. Sentinel is voiced by Leonard Nimoy, who brings a new meaning to his familiar trope as Spock about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few.

A whole lot of new human characters are introduced, without much purpose that I can see. Frances McDormand is a coldly calculating defense honcho; John Malkovich is a flaky CEO who gives Sam a job; Patrick Dempsey turns up as a rich guy whose sneer leaves no doubt about his loyalties in the coming conflict.

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" is still cinematic empty calories, but it is marginally better than its predecessors, if only because the actions scenes have a semblance of sense.

2.5 stars out of four

Video 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 cinematic bowlful of hot mess.

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.

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

Here, she's a kick-butt warrior leading a team of hot girls firing hot lead at orcs, robots and -- in the film's one indisputably kooky-cool sequence -- a bunch of World War I Kaiser casualties brought back to life with "steam power and clockworks."

I can't deny there are parts of "Sucker Punch" 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.

Extra features are rather sparse for the DVD version, but improve if you opt for the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

The DVD edition comes with four prequel animated shorts totaling 11 minutes, and a 3-minute featurette about creating the soundtrack

Opt for the combo pack, and you get an extended cut of the movie, as well as the theatrical version. The centerpiece of the top-of-the-line package is an interactive Maximum Movie Mode feature with Snyder as your host, including picture-in-picture commentary, video pods and much more.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, June 27, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The One That Got Away" (1957)

The victors of every war write the history of it, and usually the artistic renditions, too. We're used to all World War II films depicting the Allies as the good guys, the Germans (or at least Nazis) as evil warmongers, and all exploits of heroism and daring are restricted to our side.

But fantastic stories and tales of bravery happen in every armed conflict, and on every side. Whenever I watch a propaganda film from that era, even a good one, I always wonder why we never see the corresponding movies from Germany or Japan. Surely they were produced -- were they simply destroyed by the conquerors?

I remember when "Das Boot" came out in the early 1980s, and some observers decried the fact that a mainstream movie dared to portray German submariners in favorable terms usually reserved for American G.I.s.

Lo, then, to discover a 1957 film that more or less unambiguously portrays a German P.O.W. heroically escaping from the clutches of his Allied captors -- and made in England, no less! True, the British (and later, Canadian) guards are never shown doing anything cruel or spiteful, the way numerous other films do like "The Great Escape" or "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

But there's no doubting that Franz von Werra is the hero of the film, or that the audience is meant to admire and root for him.

It was the first major role by Hardy Krüger that got him noticed by American and English audiences, and for a time he was Germany's top actor. It's a typical role for Krüger, playing a character whose self-assurance borders on -- and often spills over into -- arrogance. Still, we identify with von Werra because of his perseverance and puckish charm.

The character is not terribly different from Steve McQueen's star-making role in "Great Escape" -- the dedicated escape artist who single-mindedly focuses on getting out of enemy clutches.

The story is helped by the fact that it is based on historical fact -- von Werra is still believed to be the only Axis prisoner of war who escaped and eventually made his way back to his homeland. The real von Werra became a celebrity and trained German soldiers on British interrogation techniques. It's even been suggested his story influenced Germany to start treating its own P.O.W.s better.

The film, directed by Roy Ward Baker from a screenplay by Howard Clewes, is based upon a book by James Leasor and Kendal Burt. As near as I can tell, the movie actually follows the recorded facts of von Werra's repeated escape attempts fairly accurate, and actually omits other attempts.

In all, the movie shows three escapes, steadily increasing in daring. In the first one, he simply rests on top of a stone wall during an exercise hike, and while the British guards are distracted he rolls off the top to the opposite side and runs into the woods. After a number of days in the freezing English fields, he's discovered in a mud gully.

Next, he tunnels out of prison camp along with four other Germans, armed with identity discs and disguises. Rather than attempting to run from authorities, von Werra brazenly goes straight to them, claiming to be a downed Dutch pilot trying to get back to his unit in Aberdeen. His plan is to snatch a British plane and fly back to the continent, and he gets all the way into the cockpit of an experimental Hurricane before the duty officer pulls a gun on him.

Imagine if he's been just a minute or two later, and von Werra had managed to not only escape, but bring a vital bit of wartime technology with him! We'd be saying his name in the same sentence as aviators like Charles Lindbergh and the Wright brothers.

Shipped off to Canada, von Werra is stuck on a four-day train ride west, and manages to open a frozen window and jump out of the speeding locomotive while his fellow P.O.W.s distract the Canadian guards by miming diarrhea. He then makes an iron man crossing of the (mostly) frozen St. Lawrence River and turns himself into the American police.

Because these events happened in 1940, the U.S. was still a neutral country in the war, while Canada -- as a subject nation to the British crown -- was not. The film ends here, but von Werra was slipped over the Mexican border by the German consul while American and Canadian officials squabbled over his extradition.

Another interesting thing about "The One That Got Away" is that no other characters stick around for very long other than the protagonist. Von Werra is pitted against a variety of British and Canadian military types, confounding one after the other. The only real secondary character who sticks in memory is the unnamed British interrogator (Michael Goodliffe) who has a bantering duel with von Werra near the beginning, and the men come to regard each other with an adversarial but convivial respect.

By making von Werra the only person the audience really has to hold onto, the film underlines the audience's identification with him.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: "Cars 2"

So Pixar, the unfailing wunderkind of animated movies, has finally delivered its worst movie, by far. By that, I mean "Cars 2" is merely pretty good.

The sequel to the 2006 flick -- which many had regarded as the weakest in Pixar's lineup -- lacks the emotional oomph and layered appeal to grown-ups that is a hallmark of their oeuvre: "Finding Nemo," "Wall·E," etc.

"Cars 2" is left with lots of dazzling action scenes, slick-looking CG animation and plenty of goofy humor featuring Tow Mater, the garrulous redneck sidekick from the last movie who's been punched up to the main character. At least they had the decency to give Larry the Cable Guy, who provides the voice of Mater, top billing over Owen Wilson, who also returns as flashy race car Lightning McQueen.

It's notable that "Toy Story," Pixar's first feature film, is the only other franchise the animation studio has seen fit to sequelize. Whereas the "Toy Story" movies grew deeper and more sentimental each time, "Cars 2" seems flashy and hastily assembled.

I'm probably wandering into dangerous territory here, but this movie feels like it was made to give Disney a summer tent pole and to sell another billion dollars or two of toys and other merchandise. With last winter's "Toy Story 3," we could sense the heartfelt devotion the filmmakers put into visiting those characters again; I don't feel it here.

Director by Pixar chief John Lasseter from a script by Ben Queen, "Cars 2" is still a highly entertaining bit of animation, but the soul isn't filled by watching it.

(Speaking of the "Toy Story" gang, they're back from a brief visit with "Hawaiian Vacation," a fun 8-minute short cartoon that precedes the feature.)

The film is fast-paced, even occasionally hurried, and jumps around the globe like the international spy thriller it emulates. Lightning McQueen is challenged to participate in a three-race World Grand Prix held in Tokyo, Paris and London, with the title of fastest car in the world at stake.

His nemesis is Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), a loudmouthed Italian open-wheel racer whose fender-less good looks draw the attention of Sally (Bonnie Hunt), McQueen's special lady.

Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), a wealthy British energy tycoon, thinks he's found a green alternative to oil-based gasoline called Allinol, and want to use the races to drum up support for it.

But at the first race, Mater gets mistaken for an American super-spy, and is drawn into a nefarious plot that soon takes precedence over the racing. I won't divulge the details, but the clever upshot is that all the lemon cars of history -- Gremlins, Pacers, Yugos -- are behind it.

Mater's new allies are a pair of British agents: 007-ish Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), an Aston Martin decked out with all sorts of weapons and gizmos, and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), a smart rookie on her first assignment in the field.

The joke is the Brits think Mater's rube routine is a ploy -- "they're fooled because they're too busy laughing at the fool," is how Finn puts it -- without realizing he really is that dense.

That sets up a brief and not terribly convincing life-lessons moment about being true to yourself, but it carries so little weight it's practically a throwaway moment.

"Cars 2" is hardly a bad movie, and it's certainly an engaging piece of entertainment. But for the first time, Pixar didn't rev up to its highest gear.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Video review: "The Adjustment Bureau"

"The Adjustment Bureau" is Existentialism Lite. It's less a meditation on free will than a science fiction potboiler-slash-romance.

Still, it's an entertaining thrill ride with intellectual pretensions that are never explored too deeply.

Based on a story by Philip K. Dick -- whose writings have inspired other sci-fi movies like "Minority Report" and "Blade Runner" -- "Bureau" focuses on David Norris, an ambitious young politician ably played by Matt Damon. David is a politician from New York who's about to run for the U.S. Senate when he stumbles upon the secret of the Adjustment Bureau.

It seems free will is not actually so free. Cosmic do-gooders intervene in human events to nudge them back toward a predetermined path favored by an unknown entity called The Chairman. Using the ability to stop time and gizmos to zap brains, the Bureau's "case workers" -- think angels in 1950s fedora hats -- can actually change people's minds, and make them think it was their choice all along.

In David's case, they want him to abandon a budding romance with dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) that is inexplicably dangerous to the Chairman's designs. Because he discovers their secret, he's offered a chance to follow the path laid before him. He refuses, and spends the rest of the movie on the run from the celestial bureaucracy.

What the film lacks in thematic depths, it makes up for in sheer entertainment value: It's a trippy good time.

Video goodies are rather good, and you don't have to pay top price for the Blu-ray version to get a lot of extras.

The DVD comes with a feature-length commentary track by director/writer George Nolfi, deleted/extended scenes and three featurettes. One is a making-of documentary that looks at how the filmmakers shot the chase through New York's in-between spaces, while the other two focus on Damon and Blunt's respective preparation for their roles.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you add "Labyrinth of Doors," an interactive map of the Big Apple with videos linked to various locations.

Movie:  3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, June 20, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Darby's Rangers" (1958)

If I may suggest an alternate title for "Darby's Rangers," a 1958 alleged war film that marked the leading-man debut of James Garner, it would be "The Star-Crossed Love Lives of Darby's Rangers."

Never have I seen a military drama so done in by sex. It's not enough to say that romance is a recurring distraction in this film; it would be more accurate to describe the battle scenes as interrupting all the mush.

This insipid movie was directed by William Wellman, who made other, better war pictures, including the outstanding "Battleground." The film, written Guy Trosper from a book by James J. Altieri -- who served in the original Army commando troops dreamed up and led by William Darby -- purports to explore the inception, training and exploits of Darby's Rangers, who would form the basis of the glorious Army Rangers.

But almost from the start, the movie seems less concerned with the usual tropes about men of disparate backgrounds bonding during the cruel grinder of war than with the women they fall for. First, during training in England, it's a bunch of British lasses. Later, the love story moves to the Italian peninsula.

I have not read the book by Altieri, but based on its title -- "The Spearheaders" -- I seriously doubt it followed the amorous adventures of the Ranger battalions. I can only imagine his shock upon seeing his war memoir turned into a two-hour mash note.

There are really only two aspects of "Darby's Rangers" worth commenting on: The young cast, which contained a number of notable fresh faces, and a pair of combat scenes that show off Wellman's considerable ability with action and suspense.

Garner is best known as a television actor these days, but his film career was long and bright. He has a good, forceful presence as Darby, a man inexperienced in combat but who nonetheless had a clear vision of what this new model of soldier could do. At one point he angrily complains to a high-up general about his men being bogged down in foxholes in Italy -- not because he considers the duty beneath them, but because it's such a poor use of expert troops trained at guerrilla tactics.

Charlton Heston was originally slated to play Darby, but made exorbitant (for the time) demands for a share of the profits. Garner, then 30, had been cast as Sgt. Bishop, a smooth card shark from Reno, but was tapped for the lead role right before shooting started. Stuart Whitman, featured in last week's classic film column, slid into the Bishop part.

Jack Warden plays Darby's right-hand man, a Jewish master sergeant who also provides the film's laconic (and largely unnecessary) narration. Murray Hamilton, forever the obsequious mayor from "Jaws," also turns up in a small role as a Ranger who loves to get into scraps, and whose Irish accent comes and goes.

Edd Byrnes shows up halfway through the movie as a fresh-faced lieutenant who learns that doing things by the book isn't always the best way with the Rangers, who relish their status as dogface killing machines. He finds out just how much when he falls for an Italian girl (Etchika Choureau) and runs into all sorts of ridiculous complications, ending with a pregnancy and a desperate need for penicillin, which he can only obtain from the military dispensary by marrying her.

I know the Italians can be pretty traditional about marriage, but I'm pretty sure the bride has to be conscience when the wedding takes place.

Byrnes had just become a star playing Kookie, a character on the TV show "77 Sunset Strip," who was known for constantly combing his hair. Byrnes wears a lavishly-styled pompadour in "Darby's Rangers" that most military barbers, and even Donald Trump, would find excessive.

Whitman, as Bishop, has his own romance with an English bus attendant (Joan Elan) who turns out to be the daughter of a wealthy lord and lady. Bishop resents being roped in, including the girl's adamant declaration that they will marry one day, and skips out.

Peter Brown, playing young Private Rollo Burns, has his own U.K. romance with the 19-year-old daughter of his Scottish training sergeant. They get engaged just before he ships out.

In the most bizarre sequence, one Ranger recruit known as a Lothario seduces the wife of the British professor whose house he's temporarily billeted in. The marriage is broken up, the soldier dies in a training accident, and the wayward housewife gets a nasty comeuppance from the aforementioned Scottish sergeant.

Just when I was thinking "Darby's Rangers" was irredeemable, a couple of stellar combat scenes arrive late in the going. They're notable because the movie makes extensive use of stock footage from the war, so these are some of the few combat scenes that were actually shot for the movie.

One involves a line of Rangers ducking past a convoy of German Panzers. They wait until the tank is right upon them, then scurry past the looming treads, where the pilot can't see them. It's a riveting bit, as we keep expecting a misstep to result in a horrible death.

The other terrific sequence is a battle in the fog, with the Rangers trying to fight an enemy they can't even see. The fog is pea-soup-thick, and looks like it was poured down like a gray blanket from Olympus. The scene has an unnerving dream-like quality.

During the few minutes "Darby's Rangers" can spare from exploring the love lives of soldiers, it actually reminds us what a good war movie resembles.

1.5 stars out of four

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review: "Green Lantern"

"Green Lantern" is one of the weakest comic book superhero adaptations we've had in awhile, but I still couldn't quite bring myself to hate it. Sigh with disappointment, maybe, but the strongest feeling I had was the lack of one: I was colossally indifferent to this movie.

Part of it is Ryan Reynolds. I've seen Reynolds do good work -- he showed great comic timing in the first half of "The Proposal" -- but he's started down an unfortunate career path that I'm not sure he can pull out of. He always plays the glib, fast-talking charmer who comes to realize he's out of his depth, and (usually) rises to the occasion. I've seen this guy so many times now, and I don't like him.

After the screening -- held on a Wednesday night specifically to preclude most print reviews -- one of my fellow critics commented that in many ways "Green Lantern" is strikingly similar to "Iron Man." The protagonist is a hedonistic playboy who cares not a whit for the rest of the world, until circumstances and a really awesome super-suit force him to play hero. It's attractive as a story concept, but is so familiar now I kept thinking Lantern's costume looked moldy.

In this case, the hero's powers do not actually reside in the suit, but in the ring that is bequeathed to him by a dying member of the Green Lantern Corp. There are 3,600 of them split up to guard the entire universe against evil, and the greatest of them, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), is fatally wounded in a clash with the Corp's ancient enemy, Parallax (voice by Clancy Brown). Parallax is released from his imprisonment on a distant planet, and turns into some sort of wandering space blob with a head that looks like one of the aliens from "Mars Attacks!"

Meanwhile, Abin Sur crash lands on Earth and orders his ring to find a suitable replacement, and Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is selected. He's a cocky test pilot haunted by the death of his father, another pilot who was consumed in a fiery blaze before Hal's eyes when he was a boy. This has given him, needless to say, issues.

There's an inevitable scene where Hal discovers his powers after getting jumped by some toughs outside a bar. As soon as the scene shifted to the bar, I knew some thugs would appear shortly to serve as Lantern tenderizer. It's practically encoded in the DNA of movies like this.

Then there's a long, unnecessary sequence where Hal travels to the Lanter Corp's home planet for training, and to be told by head cheese Sinestro (Mark Strong) that he's not good enough to wear the ring. A big burly Lantern appears to teach him "ring slinging 101," which seems like an  unlikely name from such a hallowed crew.

In the grand tradition of poor super-hero movies that can't come up with a worthy antagonist, there is a second villain to buttress  the space goo guy. Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is an introspective scientist brought in to examine Abin Sur's corpse, but he gets zapped with a bit of the space goo and his head swells to melon proportions. Oh, and he can move stuff with his mind.

The powers of Green Lantern are vague. He can create anything he can imagine out of the green energy harnessed by the ring, which is supposed to consist of the willpower of every living creature in existence. It's like The Force, except for some reason willpower manifests itself as neon-green energy on the Corps home planet of Oa. Even more powerful, but less stable is yellow energy, which comes from fear. That's space goo guy's stock in trade.

So Green Lantern conjures race cars, machine guns, swords, shields and all sorts of other things in combat. He can also fly and fire energy bolts.

The totally unneeded love interest is played by Blake Lively, a childhood friend of Hal's who now runs the big corporation he worked for (until he shoots down two of their super-duper new drone fighter planes). She does have one great line where Hal, after first appearing in the Green Lantern outfit, immediately recognizes him because he only wears a tiny mask covering his eyes. "What, did you think I wouldn't recognize you just because I can't see your cheekbones?" Fourth wall humor, but still funny stuff.

So space blog guy keeps getting closer to Earth, Hector's noggin keeps growing bigger, and Hal learns to focus his willpower and overcome his fears.

I'm bored writing about this movie, just as I was while watching it, so I'll stop now.

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "The Art of Getting By"

I liked the idea of "The Art of Getting By" more than the movie they actually made. It's about a disaffected New York teenager coasting through life without any ambition or direction. It boasts an affecting performance by Freddie Highmore, and for awhile it seemed to have a "Harold and Maude" vibe, and that's a very good thing.

The film is written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, making his feature film debut. It's serious and earnest and dares to treat high school-age characters like actual human beings harboring thoughts and contradictions. Ultimately, though, the movie spins away from itself and falls into familiar tropes about boys and girls and what happens when they're too scared to say how they feel.

Still, if it's ultimately a failure then it's a well-meaning one -- the kind made by people who care about storytelling and don't just want to blow things up for a living. We've already got one Michael Bay, and that's enough. We need more Gavin Wiesens, or at least more movies from this one.

Highmore, showing hardly a trace of his native British accent, plays George Zinavoy, a senior at the prestigious Morgan School in Manhattan. George doodles all day in his textbooks and never turns in any homework. The teachers and faculty treat him with a sort of resigned patience, hoping their frequent expressions of disappointment will get him back on track. It's not working.

"I'm the Teflon slacker," George says, with a hint of boastfulness.

The principal, played by Blair Underwood, has to endure having George call him "Bill," since it's apparently one of those progressive schools that only the very rich could come up with to indulge their children. I can only imagine what would've happened if I'd called my 11th grade algebra teacher, Mrs. White, by her first name. I think my keister would still be wearing the impression of her foot.

I greatly enjoyed Jarlath Conroy as the art teacher, who curses at students, punches them affectionately and demands they pour their souls into their work. He'd be an inspiration to hundreds of students, except that he'd get canned after less than a week on the job. Alicia Silverstone plays the frumpy literature instructor, a fact that instantly made me feel ancient.

George's mother (Rita Wilson) is harried and distracted, and his stepdad (Sam Robards) thinks their relationship can consist entirely of stern pep talks.

George falls into an unlikely friendship with Sally (Emma Roberts), a pretty, popular girl who sees in him something deeper than the callow rich boys constantly hitting on her. Tall and gangly, with unkempt hair falling in his eyes, George wanders about in an overcoat not because he's trying to make a statement, but simply because he likes the protection of extra layers.

It doesn't take much foresight to see what's coming. George and Sally spend much of the school year bonding and growing closer, except George is so enraptured with his outsider status that he can't bring himself to do anything as obvious as kiss the girl.

There's also a slightly older artist, Dustin (Michael Angarano), an effortlessly cool dude who becomes George's mentor and later, swept up by a wave of inevitability, a competitor.

"The Art of Getting By" is a well-intentioned story about a slacker. Pity that a movie with so much potential took the easy way out.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Video review: "Red Riding Hood"

I wanted to like "Red Riding Hood" -- an inertly erotic, Gothic version of the parable from director Catherine Hardwicke -- but it's so dreadfully self-serious that it often ends up just being silly.

Hardwicke, who helmed the first "Twilight" movie before leaving the franchise, has a keen eye and sumptuous visual style. Her version of a girl plagued by a deadly werewolf has a lush, dreamy quality, as if the picture is indistinct around the edges.

Here, Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, a virginal town girl with a carnally curious nature. She has not one but two suitors: Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the poor woodcutter who's loved her since childhood, and Henry (Max Irons), the spoiled but not entirely unworthy rich boy who's been promised Valerie's hand in marriage.

When a ghostly wolf threatens the village, help arrives in the form of Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a lycanthrope-hunting priest whose style is closer to Inquisition than Saint Francis.

Other characters flitting around the edges of the story are a meek priest (Lukas Haas) and Valerie's grandmother (Julie Christie), who lives alone deep in the woods with her bubbling cauldron.

David Johnson's screenplay devolves into a woefully misguided whodunit, in which the audience tries to figure out who is secretly the werewolf. Meanwhile, Hardwicke indulges in plenty of her own excesses, including a medieval dance session with the village teens that resembles a modern rave.

It never pays to sex up the classics.

Extra features are quite skimpy for the DVD version, but improve greatly upon upgrading to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

The DVD contains only a single goodie: Several deleted scenes.

The combo pack, dubbed the "Alternate Cut," features a director's cut that's slightly different from the theatrical version, including a new ending.
There is also a picture-in-picture commentary with Hardwicke, Seyfried, Fernandez and Irons -- I only wish more films included such participation by the principal cast members.

There are also another dozen or so featurettes and Easter Eggs, including casting tapes, footage from rehearsals, music video, gag reel and more.

Plus, a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, June 13, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Comancheros" (1961)

I don't regard "The Comancheros" as an exceptional Western. Its production values are exquisite -- gorgeous Deluxe color Cinemascope photography by William H. Clothier, a jaunty and memorable score by Elmer Bernstein, wonderfully detailed sets and costumes, and the steady hand and keen eye of director Michael Curtiz.

But in terms of plot and themes, it's largely a muddle. John Wayne plays Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger who spends much of the movie undercover posing as a gunrunner. He apprehends Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a Louisiana gambler wanted for murder after he won a duel against the son of a wealthy New Orleans family. They part ways, reconnect, evolve from adversaries to allies, and eventually team up to take down the Comancheros -- white and Hispanic men who have been supplying the Comanche Indians with rifles and whiskey.

Oh, and there's a short-shrifted romance, too.

The story seems to meander with the tumbleweeds, following one course for awhile until it grows boring or reaches a dead end, and then picks up a breeze and heads the other way.

What I did find notable about the film is Wayne's character and performance. Despite a life of pain, including having his family killed, Cutter has an upbeat demeanor, always quick with a smile and a joke. He treats even his enemies with a friendly regard and a measure of respect. I can't remember another movie in which Wayne's eye twinkled so brightly and often.

This is at odds with the Duke's star persona, which always had a streak of orneriness running through. Sometimes meanness dominated the character, as with Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers," and sometimes it was barely discernible, like the Ringo Kid from "Stagecoach." Most of the time, though, Wayne's cussedness lay just beneath the surface, like the hard iron of a Colt Peacemaker inside a comfortably worn leather holster.

There's really only one moment in "The Comancheros" when Cutter loses his temper, and that's in his confrontation with Comanchero Tully Crow. Cutter, posing as gunrunner Ed McBain -- complete with foppish grey top hat -- rendezvous with Crow and cuts a deal to sell guns to the Comanche. They get drunk to celebrate, wind down with steak dinners and a game of cards, and get into an argument about cheating.

What's memorable about this scene is how Wayne's character repeatedly and deliberately ignores the other man's threats and insults, and only resorts to violence when Crow draws on him. Most of Wayne's hombres would have thrown done at the first hint of disrespect.

Crow is played by Lee Marvin in a deliciously vicious, brief performance made all the more memorable by the fact that Crow only has half a scalp -- the other having been taken by the Comanche before he gained their trust and began bartering with them. Curtiz aims the camera leeringly at Crow's raw, bizarre wound -- a freakshow counterpoint to the man's even more repulsive personality.

Speaking of Curtiz, "The Comancheros" was his last film. He died shortly after its completion, and in fact he did not actually finish filming. His health forced him to drop out, and Wayne himself completed production in the director's chair ... though he refused an onscreen credit for co-directing.

Curtiz' name is generally not mentioned when lists of the great Golden Age directors are bandied about, but he deserves to be. Because he was largely a journeyman filmmaker, who took whatever jobs the studio assigned him or (later) he could find, most historians and critics regard him merely as a capable gun-for-hire who was lucky enough to find himself attached to good projects.

Bollocks. One does not acquire this sort of astonishing filmography -- "Casablanca," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Mildred Pierce," "Angels with Dirty Faces," "Captain Blood," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," to name just a few -- through happenstance. The very fact that he did not have a distinctive style is what made him great: Curtiz adapted his artistry to the material, rather than forcing his vision on a picture like a Hitchcock or Ford would have.

Stuart Whitman had an interesting career. Though he was never quite a star, he worked steadily in film and television for nearly 60 years, until a self-imposed retirement starting about a decade ago. He's still with us, and contributed to a fantastic new Blu-ray edition of "The Comancheros" to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Ina Balin plays Pilar Graile, daughter of the head of the Comancheros. In the grand Hollywood tradition of Caucasian actors assigned to ethnic roles, Balin was a Jewess from Brooklyn playing a Hispanic woman. Pilar is interesting for her unbending self-confidence, pursuing a romance with Regret -- but only if she can maintain the upper hand.

Nehemiah Persoff has a steely turn as her father, a crippled man who nonetheless rules the Comancheros with the absolute power of a patriarch. (Persoff was also Jewish, so I guess at least there was a twisted consistency.) Even Cutter acknowledges that father Graile must have been "a man to step aside from" when he was young and whole.

The plot seems to have its own, unfathomable rhythm. The screenplay by Clair Huffaker and James Edward Grant is based on the novel by Paul Wellman. Cutter's pressing duty ricochets back and forth between apprehending Regret and tracking the source of the Comanche's guns. They end up in the Comanchero village for the final showdown with the Rangers almost by happenstance.

Speaking of guns, despite being set in the 1840s, the rifles depicted in the movie are lever-action Winchesters not available until after the Civil War. Similarly, the revolvers are not the clumsy cap-and-ball weapons of that era but the more advanced cartridge pistols that were not invented until 30 years later.

Usually, Hollywood would have just rejiggered the period for the sake of expediency. But the Comanche tribes were relegated to reservations by the 1850s, and the Comancheros quickly faded away without their best trading customer.

"The Comancheros" is not a particularly good example of the classic Western, but I found it an engaging movie to see and think about. Some movies are like that -- better when considered than watched.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: "Super 8"

"Super 8" is nostalgia filmmaking. It is a pretty self-conscious attempt by Generation Xer J.J. Abrams to recreate the sort of movies he fell in love with as a kid -- specifically, the early films of Steven Spielberg.

The fact that Spielberg, a Baby Boomer, served as executive producer of this movie has the potential to turn the entire endeavor into a massive exercise in narcissism. The musical score by Michael Giacchino even seems composed to mimic the trills and crescendos of John Williams, who's scored every Spielberg film.

And yet, even as writer/director Abrams seems bound and determined to follow a template of another's choosing, "Super 8" still has a sprightly life of its own. If it deliberately recalls films from the 1970s and '80s -- "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "The Goonies" especially -- then it also powerfully evokes its own distinct sense of time and place.

The centerpiece of the story is a gaggle of kids who seem less written for the screen than conjured out of memory from 1979. They talk, look and act like 13-year-olds stuck between the traditional upbringing of the 1950s and the dawn of the pop culture information age.

Much mystery has surrounded the plot of "Super 8," although after watching it that shroud seems silly and unnecessary. Any halfway cognizant filmgoer will guess what the secret is just a few minutes in.
The movie's appeal is less what it does, and more how it goes about doing it -- with heart, imagination and genuine emotional attachment.

The set-up is that a group of boys are filming a zombie movie in small-town Lillian, Ohio. It's been an off-and-on project for the entire school year, but now that summer's here director and ringleader Charles (Riley Griffiths) wants to finish in time to enter in a Cleveland amateur film festival. He also stumbles upon the brilliant idea of inviting Alice (Elle Fanning), the pretty rebellious girl from their class, to play a role.

Charles is always mouthing off about needing "production value" in his movie, so they all sneak out at midnight to shoot at the train station with a locomotive roaring by. Except, the train derails -- in a spectacular, heart-grabbing sequence that makes the train scene in "The Fugitive" look tame -- setting off a wave of mysterious and alarming events.

Without giving too much away, here are some snippets:
One of their teachers is involved, and they learn more about his dark past beyond his habit of confiscating contraband from students and never giving it back.

A small army of Air Force soldiers gradually take over the town, for reasons they claim are benevolent but increasingly are not.

Eventually, the entire town becomes a war zone and the kids are caught up in the middle, trying to solve the riddle and keep their necks.

The main character is sort of in the background for awhile, but eventually Joe (a terrific Joel Courtney) emerges. He's a shy kid who builds models and does the makeup for Charles' movie, and is flabbergasted when the exotic Alice seems to return his attention.

Joe's relationship with his father, the sheriff's right-hand-deputy, is strained by the recent loss of his mother in an accident at the steel foundry. His dad (Kyle Chandler) wants him to go to baseball camp for the summer, in an obvious ploy to get the boy out of his hair. But when things go south in town, Joe's dad learns how to step up.

I'm still sort of amazed at how much I liked "Super 8," since I pretty much knew in advance everything that was going to happen. And it's a shame that the other boys in the group -- ably played by Ryan Lee, Zach Mills and Gabriel Basso -- never really get fleshed out.

For a retread, "Super 8" has plenty of snap.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer"

I am several decades too old to truly enjoy "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer." It's aimed at a slightly older kids, after Barney becomes lame but before Lady Gaga is cool, when boys and girls can still be friends without a lot of icky hormones and complications.

Based on the books by Megan McDonald (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kathy Waugh), the movie does a nice job of capturing what it's like to be a kid that age -- parents conspiring to stifle all fun, the ache of separation from friends, and the worst curse in existence is having a snotty younger brother hogging all the attention.
Newcomer Jordana Beatty winsomely plays Judy, a red-headed ball of spunk who's determined to not let this summer be the borefest of previous years. She and her friends start a contest to see who can have the most adventurous summer, and the winner gets ... well, they get to be the winner! It is the sad lot of grown-ups that they must dimly recall when just winning was enough to justify a game.

I pause this review to note there are many education experts who want to get rid of kids' summer breaks and hold school year-round (or, more accurately, carve the vacation up into smaller chunks spread throughout the year). It is my considered opinion that these fine folks, despite their undeniably good intentions about improving academic performance, are dangerously misguided poopyheads.

There are many reasons to preserve the grand tradition of children (and teachers) having a large block of time every year to pursue interests other than schoolwork, not the least of which is this: If you look at the best stories and movies about childhood, by and large the critical events usually happen during the summer.

From "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "Stand By Me," these tales show that we develop into the people we are not by sitting in a classroom, but during our adventures outside of them. Education is a critical but hardly solitary factor in how we grow up.

Soliloquy over, back to this movie.

Judy is too caught up in her own concerns to realize that her parents (Janet Varney and Kristoffer Winters) are terrific. When they announce plans to cancel the annual summer trip to grandma's -- which moments earlier Judy had been expressing her dread about -- Judy goes into conniptions. How unfair: An entire summer with just her appropriately-named brother, Stink (Paris Mosteller), and the aunt she barely remembers.

The aunt, Opal, turns out not be the stodgy old lady smelling of mothballs we might imagine from her name. She's actually a super-nice artistic hippie type played by Heather Graham. Yes, I know it seems not that long ago Graham was playing a high-schooler in "Boogie Nights," but she's in her 40s now and playing aunts in childrens movies. Time marches on.

Judy is president of the TP Club -- the initials don't stand for what you think ... it's worse -- and comes up with a great plan to have everyone track "Thrill Points" over the summer. Then she learns her two closest friends, Rocky (Garrett Ryan) and Amy (Taylar Hender), are jetting off to have super-cool summers in a circus school and Borneo, respectively.

That means Judy is left with Frank (Preston Bailey), the low man on the TP totem pole. Judy's attempts to collect Thrill Points are continually confounded by the weak-kneed Frank, who pukes on roller coasters and runs screaming from a monster double-feature at the local cinema.

As a side gig, Judy is occasionally forced into the orbit of Stink, who's become obsessed with finding and capturing Bigfoot. How totally lame, how first-grade, how ... wait, what was that sound in the woods?

"Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer" was directed by John Schultz in a quick-paced, straightforward manner that fits the material. No, this is not top-notch family entertainment in the realm of "Toy Story 3" or "How to Train Your Dragon" -- movies to be enjoyed as much by parents as tykes. But if it is narrow in its appeal, then the movie is earnest about entertaining a certain strata of kid-dom who will appreciate it more than I.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Video review: "True Grit"

The Coen brothers' version of "True Grit" goes completely sideways from the 1969 film starring John Wayne. It is not really a remake of that iconic Western, but a new interpretation of the novel by Charles Portis.

Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is not likely to be confused with Wayne's. Though both played the one-eyed, over-the-hill lawman with a penchant for shooting first and asking questions whenever he felt like it, but the similarities end there.

Bridges' character seems not merely ill-tempered but downright morally indifferent to the violence he perpetrates. The only real difference between his actions and those of the men he hunts down is that he has the protection of the law on his side.

Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old farm girl who hires Cogburn to capture -- and preferably kill -- the man who murdered her father. Mattie is smart as hell and even more stubborn, and insists on tagging along. Along the trail they throw in with a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) with similar motives but very divergent sensibilities.

With its deliberately stilted, formal dialogue and black moodiness, the new "True Grit" is an entirely novel take on familiar material.

Video extras are a bit pokey. The DVD version comes with four featurettes about the cast, the costumes, re-creating Fort Smith and the character of Mattie.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you get three more featurettes about the weapons of the Western genre, Charles Portis and the film's bleak cinematography. It does at least come with a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel" (1951)

The fact is not lost on me that this column is posting on June 6, the 67th anniversary of D-Day -- quite possibly, the most pivotal day in the history of mankind. If the Allied invasion at Normandy had failed, there's no telling the dark path down which humanity might have been set.

The man charged with defending the German beach defense was Erwin Rommel, regarded by many of his enemies as the finest military mind of his generation. His exploits in North Africa are legend, and if he hadn't spent most of his time fighting with one or more arms tied behind his back -- short on men and weapons, and under the thumb of a madman -- Rommel might well have resisted the invasion by British and American forces.

It is strange that figures such as Winston Churchill felt compelled to memorialize the man who briefly held the fate of the world in his hands, but such is the vagaries of war. Had Rommel been able to direct the defenses to his own design, we might be spitting his name as a vile oath now.

The film about him, "The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel," is a muddled mess. Despite the title, there is little to nothing in the way of narrative about his African exploits -- the way his tanks commanded the desert, and he himself acquired an almost supernatural reputation for avoiding harm.

Call me a literalist, but a biopic that does not even touch on the defining period in a man's life is doomed from the start. Imagine "The Spirit of St. Louis" confined to Charles Lindbergh's life after his historic Atlantic flight.

The story opens with the failed mission by some British stealth soldiers to assassinate Rommel. Then there's a brief sequence about Desmond Young, the English colonel who briefly met Rommel while a prisoner of war. Young, playing himself (though his supposed narration was dubbed by an actor), returned to Germany after the war to find out the truth about Rommel's death. His book formed the basis of this movie, screenwritten by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Henry Hathaway.

The purpose of the book and movie is not to tell the complete story of Rommel's life, but to set the historical record straight about his death. To wit: Rommel did not die of a heart attack or succumb to war wounds, as Hitler's Nazi regime reported to the German people, but was forced to commit suicide in retaliation for Rommel's tacit approval of the failed assassination attempt of Hitler.

As Germany's most celebrated soldier, the revelation of Rommel's participation would have been a tremendously demoralizing blow, Hitler's cronies felt -- never mind that Rommel didn't actually collaborate with the assassins, and in fact was hospitalized in a coma after his car was strafed by enemy airplanes at the time Hitler's bunker was bombed.

Faced with certain conviction, public humiliation and a painful death by garroting, Rommel still demanded a public trial -- until Hitler's henchmen warned that his wife (soulfully played by Jessica Tandy in an undersized part) and son (William Reynolds) would not be spared. Faced with no choice at all, Rommel agreed to be driven to a remote forest, swallow a cyanide capsule and let the lie about his death be spread.

This should be riveting stuff, and if the entire movie were about Rommel's last days and his final choice -- to die a good soldier -- it might have been better for it. Perhaps the film could start with the presentation of Rommel's stark decision, and flashbacks to his life would paint a picture of why he could only arrive at the choice he did.

But I learned from Gene Siskel way back when that a reviewer should criticize a movie for what it is, not for what it is not. So rather than wishing for the film that might have been made about the life of the Desert Fox, I can merely express my disappointment at the one they did.

James Mason plays Rommel, his hair cropped so short his fleshy scalp peeks through, in a performance of clipped diction and ramrod-straight posture. Mason plays Rommel as a man so consumed by his sense of duty, and to an Old World sense of chivalry about the gentlemanly art of war, that he refused to act upon the clear evidence before him. The man who could have best ensured an orderly transition from the insanity of Hitler's regime to peace was simply incapable of an overt act of treason.

It's the credo of Edmund Burke, writ large: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Alas, all that is necessary for a bad film to be made is for people with good intentions to muddle their way through without a clear sense of purpose. "The Desert Fox" bounces around from Africa to Normandy to Berlin, skipping over months and even years at a time without much rhyme or reason to it.

The film reaches a comically awful low point when Rommel confronts Hitler as one final test for himself before he throws in with the conspirators. Luther Adler plays Hitler as a prissy, chubby little joke of an enfant terrible. That works fine for "The Great Dictator," but for a drama like this Hitler should be unnerving and terrifying -- more Bruno Ganz in "Downfall."

"The Desert Fox" is a well-meaning but ultimately wrong-headed account of a great man who was a product of his time.

1.5 stars out of four

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bonus review: "X-Men: First Class"

I was away on a trip and missed the press screening for "X-Men: First Class." That's the bad news, and the reason for the lateness of this (brief) review. The good news is that there even was a press screening. 20th Century Fox has imposed a virtual ban of screenings of any kind in Indianapolis for nearly two years, so the fact that they relented -- after much lobbying by the Indiana Film Journalists Association members, I should add -- is in of itself a wonderful mutation of the status quo. Thanks, Fox.

A reboot of the "X-Men" franchise has both wisdom and foolishness behind it. Foolish, because it has not been that long since the first film essentially kicked off the current comic book movie mania 12 years ago. It has the reek of desperation about it, the familiar tale of a Hollywood bereft of ideas and falling back on recycled ones.

The wisdom is that ... well, the last X-Men movie was something of a disaster, and the spinoff of the wildly popular Wolverine character flopped. So the movies really didn't have anywhere else to go. It sort of built itself up for a dive into the Phoenix Saga, but then backed away.

Not to mention, time is a factor. The first set of films fixed very specific timelines for the Magneto and Dr. X characters, which would put them now in their early 80s. Apologies for pointing out the obvious, but fanboys like their mutants young and attractive, so by going back to the roots of the X-Men the filmmakers are able to accomplish that.

However, there are some timeline issues. We are introduced to Alex Summers, aka Havoc, as one of the new mutants who join Charles Xavier's team of mutant do-gooders. Of course, anyone familiar with the comics world of X-Men knows Alex is the younger brother of Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, who we saw in the original movies as a young man nearly 40 years hence.

Other characters who were contemporaries of the original X-Men -- like Beast, aka Hank McCoy -- are transported back to his early time for convenience. For others who appeared in both films, like the shape-shifting Mystique (now played by Jennifer Lawrence), they simply fall back on the old "they're-a-mutant-so-they-age-slowly" trick. Convenient.

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the new flick. At its center is the conflict between Magneto and Dr. X, now played by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. Xavier is a deeply empathetic character who uses his mind-reading abilities to nurture his students and nudge Magneto away from the path of anger and pain that has ruled his life. For his part, Magneto cannot let go of the horrors of the Nazi laboratories, or ignore the growing fear regular humans have for their mutated kin.

Director Matthew Vaughn, who helmed last year's (in some ways) anti-comic book superhero movie "Kick Ass," has a good feel for this conflict. The movie does tend to waver when the focus slides too long away from the two men's relationship. I found the dilemma of Hank McCoy rather silly -- he works on creating a serum to make fantastic-looking mutants appear normal. In his case, his mutation consists of large monkey-like feet. Put on some shoes, problem solved.

Things are tougher for Mystique, whose natural form is blue and scaly. In this movie Xavier and Mystique have a long sibling-like relationship going back to childhood, but she feels more of a connection with the self-aware Magneto. It doesn't hurt that Xavier is sexually ambiguous about her appearance, while Magneto encourages her to let her freak flag fly.

I don't think the cinematic world really needed a new go-round of "X-Men" movies, but I liked this one so much that I can actually say I'm looking forward to another. And maybe another.

3 stars out of four

Friday, June 3, 2011

"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1" trailer

Apologies for the slow week -- we were away and I missed the "X-Men" screening.

So, here's a trailer for the new teenage vampire franchise flick.

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