Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: "The Guard"

Imagine the worst policeman in Ireland. Or maybe he's the best. As played by Brendan Gleeson in "The Guard," he probably doesn't care one way or the other. In the course of this black comedy by writer/director John Michael McDonagh, he becomes both.

Sergeant Gerry Boyle patrols a sparsely populated section of the Irish coast. He's got enough seniority that he feels comfortable talking back freely to his superiors in the Garda (as the Irish police are known), but has few real responsibilities.

When a body turns up in his jurisdiction shot through the head, Boyle's first question is if there's any money in the house. This is not a query about motivation for the crime, but pocketing the cash. Boyle is not the sort to engage in shakedowns or stealing from honest citizens, but loose currency from a crime scene is something he sees as his due.

Gleeson inhabits this foul-mouthed, often depraved, occasionally noble creature with conviction and an impish, sly humor. Boyle is the kind of man who enjoys making outrageously idiotic and/or offensive statements to others with a perfectly straight face, just to see if they're smart enough to see through his joke.

A primary target is Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), an FBI agent sent from America to chase a major drug smuggling ring bringing $500 million in cocaine into Ireland. Boyle interrupts the FBI man's presentation, makes racially charged statements, gets everyone in a furious huff, and then drops a clue that breaks the case open.

That's Boyle's M.O.: He'll engage in some serious police investigation, but only if it humors him.

Boyle and Everett end up becoming partners of a sort, or at least they do after Boyle's actual partner (played by Rory Keenan), turns up missing after just a few days on the job. Boyle could care less, but the partner's young wife plucks some strings of sympathy within him.

Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot play the smugglers, who seem as bored plying their trade as Boyle is at police work. One complains about the low quality of people they meet in their line of work, and it's pointed out to him that they are, after all, criminals in the narcotics market.

Boyle has a mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who's only got a short time to live, and he has installed her in a bucolic facility for dying oldsters (perhaps this is where all that crime scene money is going). Boyle engages in the same sort of teasing one-upmanship with his ma as he does with everyone else, but it's got a tender, well-worn affection to it. Watching their scenes together, we know he took after her rather than his dad.

I'm not really quite sure what to make of "The Guard." In terms of tone, it reminded me of another Gleeson film, "In Bruges," made by John Michael McDonagh's brother Martin. It's the sort of movie that makes you smile and squirm, often within the confines of the same scene.

It's certainly engaging, though many times I felt the film's stylistic choices overwhelmed its sense of itself.

Take one scene where Boyle has shot another character, obviously fatally. The dying man laments the many things in life he will never get to do. Boyle cheekily asks him if everything is going dim. The bleeding fellow angrily demands that he not be mocked in his final minutes. Boyle is not inclined to oblige.

Is this moment supposed to be funny? Horrifying? Ironic? I'm not sure the movie knows itself enough to answer.

2.5 stars out of four

Review: "The Debt"

"The Debt" is one of those "problem" movies about which you hear ill tidings. It was supposed to be released in 2010, and purportedly was one of the serious, somber-toned films that was expected to vie for Oscar nominations. But then its release was delayed. And then, it was delayed again.

Sometimes these sorts of films are never heard from again, until finally being pushed out onto video without fanfare. In the case of "The Debt," it's being dumped into theaters at the end of the summer, which is only a slightly kinder fate.

Usually when a movie is handled this way, it's a clear indication the studio thinks the movie has serious problems. Perhaps reshoots or ordered, or a massive re-editing. In any case, a pushed-back release is never a good sign.

So I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a gripping, well-told drama with splendid acting by some seasoned performers as well as younger thespians playing the same characters 30 years earlier.

It's the tale of a trio of Israeli Mossad agents sent  in 1965 to track down and arrest a Nazi doctor who committed unspeakable atrocities during the war. Complications arise, the mission is compromised, and decades later they're still dealing with the consequences of their actions.

No, "The Debt" is not worthy of any Oscar talk, and the last third or so wades into a tar pit of melodrama which bogs down the narrative somewhat. But the film never failed to engage me, and I am the better for having seen it.
The story opens with young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), an untried interpreter-turned-agent. She is guarding a man tied up and gagged in a dingy apartment. From the kitchen, she hears a noise, and returns to find the prisoner gone. He attacks her from the shadows, tearing her cheek open with a sharp object, and after a struggle escapes and flees into the night.

Despite her wounds, Rachel staggers to the window and manages to shoot the man dead with her pistol.
But is this really the whole story? Director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") and a trio of screenwriters -- Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan -- are just winding up. The tale grows deeper, and more twisted in a labyrinth of emotions and morality conflicts.

We soon meet Rachel's older self in the 1990s, played by Helen Mirren. With the twisted scar on her face and disqueting mien, she's become a hardened woman not to be trifled with.

We also learn that Rachel eventually married, and then divorced, the leader of her team, Stefan, played by Marton Csokas in 1965 and Tom Wilkinson later in life. Stefan was a supremely ambitious young agent, who purused Rachel more out of arrogance than affection, and has become a powerful figure in Israeli government.

The coupling of Rachel and Stefan is perplexing, because from their first meeting it's apparent that Rachel is powerfully drawn to David (Sam Worthington), the third member of their team. Whereas Stefan is boastful and domineering, David is quiet and reticent in displaying his feelings.

Stefan wants to capture Vogel, the so-called Surgeon of Birkinauw, because it was be a major feather in his cap career-wise. David, though, is motivated by a burning desire to capture those who persecuted Jews and see them punished.

Cirian Hinds plays the older David, long missing from the scene and suddenly reapparing with an request that could turn all their lives upside down.

Vogel is played by Jesper Christensen in a mesmerizing performance that's a mix of loathsomeness and charm. Rachel first seems him by posing as a patient with a fertility problem, and the doctor seems genuinely kind and concerned for her (fake) dilemma. But then when things go awry with the plant to smuggle him out of East Berlin, he slowly reveals the blackest of hearts to the trio holding him. With his taunts and his needling questions, in many ways Vogel becomes the captor of the agents, rather than the other way around.

The romantic entanglements of the three main characters detracts rather than adds to the story, in my opinion. The scenes where Stefan makes his moves on Rachel, as David quietly seethes, have an obligatory feel to them.

Still, "The Debt" is a well-made film, featuring two trios of fine actors and a seventh memorably playing their quarry. This is a worthy movie, despite how it's being treated.

3 stars

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Video review: "In A Better World"

A surprise winner of the Oscar for best foreign language film, "In A Better World" got a bigger emotional reaction out of me than any other movie I've seen in the last year. It's a story about boys and men, about pacifism and aggression, and how responding to violence with violence may be the most satisfying thing, but it nearly always begets more of the same.

Danish director Susanne Bier, screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen and the cast strike a perfect balance between rage and heartbreak. The story centers around two 12-year-old boys, Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), who are bullied at school and burdened with fathers who are largely absent.

Christian stands up for Elias at school, in a shocking escalation of violence that exposes the boys to the power they can wield. On that flip side is the lesson of Christian's father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who faces off with an adult antagonist in an entirely different, and braver, way.

No character in the film is entirely beneficent or truly irredeemable. Even Anton, a healer by vocation and temperament, is shown to be capable of hurting those closest to him. We also sense that his confrontation, while ostensibly a lesson in non-violence for the boys, is as much for Anton's own benefit, reassuring himself of the choices he's made.

The performances by Rygaard and Nielsen are stark and unornamented, and represent some of the best film performances by child actors you're ever likely to see.
"In A Better World" perfectly captures what it's like to be a boy on the verge of manhood, and tempted by both limitless good and irrepressible evil.

Video extras, which are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions, are solid without bowling us over.

There's a feature-length commentary track by director Bier and editor Pernille Bech Christiansen, an interview with Bier and several deleted scenes.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars out of four

Monday, August 29, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Cronos" (1993)

It turns out I loved Guillermo del Toro before I hated him. I just didn't know it yet. Of course, that was before I fell in love with him again.

Let me explain. Initially I knew del Toro, the Mexican-born filmmaker, only through his first American films, "Mimic," "Blade II" and "Hellboy." And I didn't particularly like them. While I didn't despise them, I wondered why my friends and colleagues were so taken with del Toro's visual style and storytelling abilities, when their appeal eluded me.

"Hellboy" in particular struck me as one of those movies that could've been much better than it was. It took a great concept and comic book character, and turned it into a film that seemed flat and overwhelmed by its special effects. (I didn't care for the 2008 sequel, either.)

But then came 2006 and "Pan's Labyrinth," and I was bowled over. It was by far my favorite film of the year, filled with tenderness and innocence, and yet heralded an imagination filled with gloom and human darkness.

When it was announced that del Toro would helm the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," I was overjoyed. His sensibility was the perfect combination of childlike wonder and nightmarish terror. I could only vibrate with anticipation at what the Smaug scenes would be like. (Alas, things fell through and del Toro withdrew from the project in favor of producer and "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson.)

After "Pan's Labyrinth," I also was able to go back and start watching some of del Toro's early work in his native country. 2001's "The Devil's Backbone" was a terrific picture, again delving into mind of a child who experiences horrible adult-made terrors. The only thing left was to see his very first feature, 1993's "Cronos."

Events conspired. No video version of "Cronos" was available in the U.S. that I could track down, and the movie languished on my Netflix wish list for two years. Then, out of the blue, it appeared in the mail. The Criterion Collection had issued their own version.

It's a low-budget horror/fantasy with some rough edges, but "Cronos" already reveals the dark genius of del Toro's fecund mind.

It stars Federico Luppi as Jesus Gris, an elderly antiques dealer who unearths a strange golden device created by a 16th-century alchemist. Resembling the shell of an insect, the Cronos attaches itself to Jesus' body, and slowly but inexorably begins to change him.

It's not a standard vampire movie, but there's obvious similarities to the vampire legends. Jesus finds himself filled with an insatiable lust for blood -- even following a man with a nosebleed into the restroom and licking the spilled drops of crimson off the bathroom floor. Sunlight also hurts him, and he learns the hard way that even the most horrifying injury will not kill him so long as his heart is not pierced.

The framing story involves De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), a mobster who is dying of various ailments and wants the Cronos to grant him immortaility. His right-hand-man is his thuggish nephew Angel, played by Ron Perlman, who dresses in pinstripes and speaks in a mix of Spanish and Americanized English.

Jesus is a kind and decent man, and reserves his greatest love for his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). She serves as the film's silent Greek chorus, adoring her grandfather even when his skin begins to rot and drinks human blood in her presence.

The atmospherics of "Cronos" are black and rich, and we feel the impending doom hurtling down upon poor Jesus. The special effects are somewhat lackluster, though. Though the Cronos device itself is convincing enough, the slipshod makeup used to depict Jesus' decay is borderline humorous. Ditto for the supposed interior shots of the Cronos, where some evil bug is supposed to live.

Still, "Cronos" was good enough to justify the long wait, and serves to remind me that you shouldn't always judge a book by its cover, or a new director who has to make a few commercial flicks before turning to the kind of movie-making he really wants to do.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Video review: "The Beaver"

"The Beaver" is an imperfect movie with an imperfect star, Mel Gibson. But the film rises above its shortcomings to become a genuinely compelling journey of one man's descent into mental instability, and how he rises out of it with the unlikely help of a ratty old hand puppet shaped like a beaver.

Gibson plays Walter Black, CEO of a toy company whose life has come off its rails. He can't even speak to his wife and kids, and mostly dodges work to lay about in bed. But he finds his voice again -- figuratively and literally -- when he starts using the Beaver to speak for him.

Others aren't accepting at first, but when he reveals that it's a prescribed therapeutic tool, people soon accept the reinvigorated Walter, even if he comes with a sidekick straight of bad cable access television.

What I liked most about "The Beaver" -- which combines elements of both tragedy and comedy -- is that it takes real risks. Director (and co-star) Jodie Foster and screenwriter Kyle Killen are working outside of familiar Hollywood tropes, refusing to put the story and characters into neat little boxes.

For example, just Walter seems to have emerged from his swirling vortex of self-hatred, his psyche becomes unhinged again. He does something so extreme, it's likely half the audience will be turned off.

But for those willing to stick it out, "The Beaver" is a redemptive story told with off-kilter charm.

Video extras are a bit on the underwhelming side. The goodies are the same for the DVD and Blu-ray editions.

There's a feature-length commentary by Foster -- which would've been so much more interesting if she could've been paired with Gibson -- a making-of documentary and a handful of deleted scenes.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 tars

Monday, August 22, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is a film of visual awe and spectacular imagination, but it's not much of a human story.

Watching it for perhaps the first time in a decade, I was struck by how much the childlike wonderment and special effects stand the test of time. "Close Encounters" is less a movie about aliens from outer space than about humans, what motivates and frightens us, and how we can reach the best inside ourselves despite our many weaknesses and failings.

But the narrative is surprisingly straightforward and spare, and the characterizations are even skimpier. Roy Neary, the Muncie electric company lineman played by Richard Dreyfuss, is the only character with any kind of depth. And even that is subservient to the plot rather than springing from within.

Roy goes through a dark-and-dreary phase, epitomized by the now-iconic mashed potatoes scene, but it doesn't last very long or linger on the impact of his alien obsession on his emotions. Or those of his family, for that matter.

Consider this movie told from the perspective of Roy's wife Ronnie, played by Teri Garr. In that sense, it's the story of a guy who abandons his wife and kids to go wandering after lights in the sky, even making out with some other alien-chasing hussy before fleeing to a black hole in space from whence no child support payments ever returned.

Or from the perspective of the red jumpsuit-wearing team members who are potential pilgrims to go aboard the aliens' ship and learn their ways. They've spent years training for a totally out-there scenario, probably sidelined lucrative careers to study in a field that garners only mockery from their peers, and when the big moment finally arrives some guy who wanders in from out of the rocky hillside gets picked by the little critters instead. Bummer.

I was surprised by how much the 34-year-old special effects still resonate. The spaceships remain indistinct and alien-looking, even at the end when we get to see the mother ship full-on. They seem to have been created without regard to human concepts of physics and morphology, which is at it should be.

In general, I like the way Spielberg (in one of his rare screenwriting credits) conceives of how the first encounter between humans and aliens would happen. There's lots of secretiveness and shenanigans by the government, but their approach is passive and peaceful rather than the usual warlike way they're depicted -- firing tank guns at flying saucers, etc.

One new observation: I would like to solve the mystery of Lance Henriksen's participation in the film. He is glimpsed ever so briefly in the final moments of the film, as the mother ship is lifting off. But he's just one of dozens of extras/minor players who are seen lifting their faces to the sky. And yet he is credited (as "Robert") among the principle cast.

Is this another example of a major character reduced to a few blips of screen time via clever editing, a la Peter Coyote in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"? I did a Google search to see if I could find out anything more about Henriksen's role in "Close Encounters," but could find nothing.

Did Lance Henriksen get body-snatched in post-production?

This film was a big deal at the time it came out, but I think the fact that the reputation of "Close Encounters" has faded considerably with the passage of time is no accident. It's a terrific bit of imagineering, but it's ultimately a minor work in the Spielberg filmography.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: "Fright Night"

I may risk getting smacked around by my fellow Gen Xers, but let's face it -- the original "Fright Night" was just not a very good movie.

Somehow over the last quarter-century it's gained nostalgic cachet as a modern horror classic. But it's just not very scary, or very funny, or particularly distinctive in any way.

Maybe the one takeaway from writer/director Tom Holland's film was this idea of vampires not as mythical monsters, but real killers who could literally be living next door. The evolution of the vampire ethos has shuffled along down this same route to the glut of current incarnations, as blood-suckers not just preying on us but living among us while doing it.

The remake has a few things going for it. One is the casting of Colin Farrell as Jerry, the cool dude who moves in next door to teen hero Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin -- who seems to be everywhere lately). With his dark, brooding good looks (assisted via computer-generated imagery), Farrell makes for a convincing nosferatu in the smoldering way audiences seem to prefer their vampires these days.

But the script by Marti Noxon just doesn't give Farrell very much to do other than pose and strut. With his strange mannerisms and cool-uncle shtick -- always addressing Charley as "Hey, guy..." -- Jerry seems more like a third-rate male model on depressants than a horrifying night killer.

The idea of transporting the action to Las Vegas, where homes in the suburban desert are being foreclosed or simply abandoned at a prodigious rate, reflects our downbeat national mood, as well as helping explain why locals aren't so curious about people suddenly showing up missing.

Toni Collette plays Charley's mom, a real estate agent who keeps so busy her garage is filled with For Sale signs. Her job is to be clueless, just like the rest of the adults Charley encounters, disbelieving his increasingly fantastic tales about Jerry. What a shame to see an actress of Collette's talents in a generic, lackluster role.

Imogen Poots plays Amy, Charley's new girlfriend, a pretty, popular member of the school's trend-setters. A recurring theme is that dweeby Charley is taking pains to conceal his formerly nerdy ways from Amy -- including disavowing his best friend, the equally geeky Ed. Ed is played by Christopher Mintze-Plasse, who's found a niche in Hollywood playing nerds with an inordinate amount of ego.

Roddy McDowall had one of his signature roles in the original, playing Peter Vincent, a scaredy-cat host of a low-rent cable TV creature feature show, who turns out to have some genuine expertise in the dark arts. That character is transformed, unimaginatively, into a Criss Angel-type magician played by David Tennant.

Instead of tremulous and pathetic, Peter Vincent is a soul-blasted wastrel who holes up in his Vegas penthouse with all sorts of occult items and weapons -- which we just know will be put to good use in the movie's final, unavoidable showdown.

Director Craig Gillespie, who's made offbeat films like "Mr. Woodcock" and "Lars and the Real Girl," has a nice eye and gives "Fright Night" some menacing visual flair. But this is a remake of a movie made without much care, and it shows.

1.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Video review: "The Killing: The Criterion Collection"

Not much in the way of new films coming out on video this week, so let's journey to the past for 1956's "The Killing," the third feature by director Stanley Kubrick and his first studio film. It's a hard-boiled film noir starring the great Sterling Hayden as the head of a gang looking to knock over a horse track for a cool $2 million.

"The Killing" is being released this week by The Criterion Collection. If you're not familiar with the Criterion outfit, they're the gold standard for the serious video collector. They only release films of significant artistic achievement -- though there's been some quibbling about that definition as of late -- and pull out all the stops in terms of the quality of the transfer and sumptuous extra features.

In most cases, a Criterion Collection release includes a restoration or remastering of the film itself, and "The Killing" is no exception. Kubrick's use of shadows is veritably oppressive, and the black-and-white cinematography (by Lucien Ballard) looks exquisite.

Kubrick, who also wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Lionel White, splits his effort between the taut logistics of the heist itself and the various personality defects of the people caught up in it.

Elisha Cook Jr. has a memorable turn as a nebbishy inside man, and Marie Windsor is positively slithery as his greedy, back-stabbing wife whose scheming brings the whole enterprise to disaster.

Interesting note: The title has several meanings, from a colloquialism for a major robbery, to the fact that the gang shoots one of the horses to cause a distraction, and that most of the cast winds up dead.

It's a worthy wind-up by perhaps the greatest filmmaker of the last half-century.

Video goodies are quite good: An interview with producer James B. Harris, archive interviews of Sterling Hayden, a feature about author White, and a booklet with an essay. It even comes with a copy of Kubrick's second film, "Killer's Kiss."

Now that's a steal.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: "The Help"

It's grown-up time. Summer has exhausted its silos of slo-mo explosions, CGI critters and second-rate super-heroes. So who's ready for a touching, serious film that should get attention come Oscar time?

"The Help," based on the popular book by Kathryn Stockett, is a look at the relationships between African-American maids in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s and the white families they work for. Written and directed smartly by Tate Taylor, it's a movie in the mold of weepy chick flicks, but with more brains and gumptions than we're used to.

Yes, it's the sort of film that looks at the plight of oppressed black characters through the eyes of a white protagonist, who swoops in to save them -- or at least fortifies their bravery enough to stand up for themselves.

But I found it to be a touching journey that manages to make most of the black and white characters relatable. And "The Help" has a surprisingly funny streak, in that tried-and-true laughing-through-the-tears way.

Viola Davis gives a knockout performance as Aibileen, the long-suffering maid to the Leefolt family. Her duties include cooking and cleaning, but her primary task is tending to the clan's offspring. By her own reckoning, Aibileen has raised 17 children, but "they always turn out like their mommas."

The greatest strength of "The Help" is in examining the sclerotic entrapment of the Jim Crow South, where black maids were adored by the children to whom they had a closer affection than their own parents, but who grow up to enforce the unspoken codes of segregation and subjugation.

It's easy to talk about the illogical mindset of that time and place, where people were terrified to deviate from the social norm because "that's the way things have always been." This movie brings the contradictions of the pre-civil rights era to full, fleshy life.

Emma Stone, who between "Easy A," "Crazy, Stupid, Love." and this film is quickly establishing herself as the most ambitious actress of her generation, plays Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, recently graduated from Ole Miss with ambitions of becoming a writer. She tackles the cleaning advice column in the local paper, but soon hatches a plan to tell the stories of "the help," the gray-uniformed maids who silently serve as the ties that bind the community.

Skeeter is initially motivated by selfish reasons: she feels ostracized by the women her age who have all gotten married already, and the beloved maid who raised her, Constantine (Cicely Tyson, in convincing aging makeup), has abruptly ended her decades-long service with the family without any explanation from her brittle mother (Allison Janney).

Skeeter's mother is less than subtle about her wish that her daughter would give up this crazy notion of a career and find a husband: "Your eggs are dying. Would it kill you to go on a date?"

But as the civil rights movement finally makes its way to Jackson, Skeeter joins forces with Aibileen to tell their stories in hopes of changing things, or at least bringing them to light.

The third leg of their triad of strength is Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, a woman whose spirit is indomitable, and whose cooking is the best in Mississippi. Minny instructs her teen daughter not to sass the white folks, but doesn't take her own advice.

The heavy of the film is Bryce Dallas Howard, the angelic-looking red-headed actress who shows plenty of brimstone as Hilly Holbrook, the queen bee of the social set who rules with a velvet fist. Hilly thinks of herself as compassionate because she wants to maintain the current social arrangement as benevolently as possible -- such as mandating separate bathrooms in white homes for the help, because "they carry different diseases than we do."

Hilly has a run-in with Minny that compels the latter to take her revenge with an act she comes to dub The Terrible Awful. Minny asks God's forgiveness for her sin, but doesn't seem very regretful about it.

An unexpected character is Celia Foote, a spitfire blonde who lives on the edge of Jackson and can't break Hilly's vice grip over the Junior League set. She's played by Jessica Chastain in a role that seems breathy and girly at first, but she finds some pluck through a growing bond with Minny.

"The Help" is like a heaping helping of comfort food mixed with a nutritional social message delivered without preachiness or schmaltz. What satisfying cinematic meal.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Sarah's Key"

I never tire of films about World War II, especially when they're as good and emotionally affecting as "Sarah's Key," a French drama starring English actress Kristen Scott Thomas.

Perhaps younger generations see movies like this -- which still turn up quite often year in local cinemas, even seven decades after the war's end -- and think, "Not again." Perhaps even those old enough to have lived through those dark times grow tired of seeing them portrayed from yet another light. But I think, and hope, not.

The Second World War was the most pivotal event in the history of mankind, bar none. Conquerors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan rode momentary tides of power that left the landscape and people much as they had been.

World War II created and destroyed countries, shifted the balance of world power across the Atlantic Ocean, and ushered in a technological age wherein humans harnessed the power to totally and permanently annihilate each other.

And, if one man had had his way -- abetted by millions who agreed or went along out of fear -- an entire race of people would have been exterminated.

The saga of the Jewish journey gets a new twist in "Sarah's Key," which uses the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup as a prism for a historical story set in the past and present. The roundup is a stain on the proud legacy of Occupied France in which nearly 14,000 French Jews were arrested and taken to a bicycle stadium, where conditions made the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina look like a weekend resort.

The execrable event was ordered by the Nazis but carried out by French authorities. Many of those arrested were eventually sent to concentration camps for extermination.

Scott Thomas plays Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who's been living in France for a quarter-century. She's researching Vel' d'Hiv Roundup for a magazine story, and stumbles across a very personal connection to the tragedy. At first afraid to confront the truth, she soon becomes obsessed with nailing it down.

Her search becomes a quest to learn the fate of Sarah Starzynski, a young girl whose family was among those arrested. When the police came knocking Sarah, thinking she was saving her little brother's life, tucked him inside a hidden closet in their apartment, locking him in with her key and promising to return.

Of course, they were not allowed to return for days, which soon turned into weeks, leaving little doubt about the young Starzynski lad's fate. But this becomes Sarah's own quest, guarding the ornamental key through many adversities, to learn the truth for herself.

This mirrors Julia's own journey of discovery, which she senses must end in disappointment -- both personally and professionally -- and yet she cannot let go of the chimera's tail she has grasped.

Scott Thomas is her usual solid self, with her beautiful, wan face a canvas of colliding emotions and thoughts. Her French is -- to my untrained ear -- superlative, though her (supposedly) Brooklyn accent is, shall we say, more aspirational than operational.

Mélusine Mayance is a revelation as young Sarah, who finds the resolve to carry on even when separated from her parents, or even any real hope for her family's survival. I also very much enjoyed the performance by Niels Arestrup as a farmer who finds a bedraggled Sarah at his doorstep, and makes a choice that changes both their lives in ways neither could have imagined.

"Sarah's Key" was directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who co-wrote the screenplay with Serge Joncour based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. They keep the mood and tone of the film in a perfect balance between the joy of discovery in letting the narrative unspool, and the tragic nature of what is to be found.

The reason WWII remains such a fertile source of movies, both based on fact and fiction, is that there are millions of stories like Sarah's waiting, needing to be told.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Video review: "Your Highness"

Merging the stoner comedy genre with sword-and-sorcery films seemed like a good idea on the surface, but this lame-brained flick from the "Pineapple Express" crew is more buzzkill than gut-busting funny.

On the one hand, I'm happy that we live in a world in which Danny McBride can become a movie star. Let's face it, with his mullet coif, cheeseburger mustache and beer gut, he looks like a guy who drives a Camaro IROC-Z to his job at the sewer treatment plant than somebody who makes movies with people who rule at the Oscars.

But comedy is the ultimate meritocracy, and McBride is funny. Unfortunately, "Your Highness" isn't.

He plays Thadeous, a prince who'd rather lay around the castle smoking "glorious herbs" than go out questing like his older brother, Fabious (James Franco). When his brother's new bride (Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by an evil wizard (Justin Theroux), Thadeous agrees to tag along.

When the greatest warrior in the land turns out to be a comely lass (Natalie Portman), things look up for awhile. But there are still despotic woodland kings and amorous minotaurs to overcome.

"Your Highness" is a medieval low point -- a great idea, badly botched.

Details on video extras were still sketchy at press time, but here's what I have gathered. Both the DVD and Blu-ray versions include an unrated extended version of the film, a making-of documentary, commentary track with Director David Gordon Green, McBride, Franco and Theroux, deleted/alternate scenes and a gag reel.

The Blu-ray also includes "Perverted Visions," an extended version of the Great Wise Wizard sequence, more extended scenes and a montage of alternative jokes from various scenes.

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reeling Backward: "A Tale of Two Cities" (1935)

The 1935 version of "A Tale of Two Cities" is a movie stuck in time between two eras: Silent film and sound, theatricality and realism, literature and melodrama.

In the early years after the advent of sound, filmmakers were still figuring things out. The sound wasn't very good usually, evidenced by the disparity of levels at which dialogue and music were recorded. While watching the film, I found myself turning the volume up and down in order to hear what an actor was saying, or to quiet the din of a rowdy crowd scene.

But film was still evolving from one based on the stage to an entirely new visual medium with its own language and style. Performers, who at this juncture almost invariably got their start on the stage, were still doing wild gesticulations and oversized facial expressions to "reach the back of the room." They were also learning to emote with their voices, unable to lean on title cards anymore, and sometimes they overdid it.

I think directors who got their start in the waning days of sound or after adjusted better than those like Jack Conway, who started directing in 1912. He stages his version of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" like a silent movie rather than a sound one, with static cameras and long takes where he lets his actors fume and pout and carry on.

The screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb and S.N. Behrman necessarily pares down the narrative to its core elements, but even at over two hours the film feels like a Cliffs Notes version of the great novel. All the characters except Sydney Carton are more or less cardboard cutouts, though Madame DeFarge gets a fiery scene or two that stand out.

It's still a worthy movie, if only for the sweep of Dickens' story of love and revolution, despair and revenge. And several of the big crowd scenes, especially the storming of the Bastille, are big-budget showstoppers with thousands of extras filling the frame in a way that CGI still can't match.

Ronald Colman plays Carton, a brilliant barrister self-consciously throwing his life away on booze and self-interest, who learns through is love of Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) to make the ultimate sacrifice. The other characters -- Lucie's father Dr. Manette (Henry B. Walthall), her husband Charles Darnay (Donald Woods), her strident companion Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) -- fade into the background. Within the confines of the movie, they are mere facilitators of the plot.

A couple of exceptions to emerge. I quite enjoyed Blanche Yurka as Madame DeFarge, whose rage at the aristocrats boils over into a bloodthirsty need for revenge. Yurka was an opera star who branched over into the movies with this film in her late 40s, and had a rather busy career thereafter.

Basil Rathbone also has a small but delectably cruel role as Charles Darnay's uncle, the Marquis de St. Evremonde, who regards oppressing the peasants as his natural birthright.

Interestingly, there had been two silent film versions of "A Tale of Two Cities" prior to this iteration, but only once since, in 1958 starring Dirk Bogarde. I would say Dickens' novel is ripe for another adaptation, one that incorporates modern filmmaking styles with classic sensibilities.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

What a jaw-dropper. We had to wait until the end of summer for the movie of the summer, and it came from a reboot of a moribund, cheesy film franchise that saw its heyday before the Bee Gees discovered bell bottoms.

I'll admit, I went into "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" with fairly low expectations. Oh, let's not kid around, I was quite sure this movie would suck a mighty wind. A prequel to "Planet of the Apes" set in modern times, with smartened-up chimps and gorillas depicted (mostly) through CGI?

And that title ... yuck! They might as well have called it "Precursor of the Planet of the Apes." (The movie poster tagline, which a colleague pointed out to me, is even worse: "It's our world, but their planet.")

The creative team's credentials aren't exactly promising, either: Director Rupert Wyatt's previous two features are unknown to me, or most everyone. And screenwriting team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver last enjoyed a script credit in 1997 (and for "The Relic," which barely counts).

And yet Wyatt, Jaffa and Silver attack Pierre Boulle's novel with straightforward flair and storytelling acumen, taking the concept to its logical conclusion -- or, in this case, origin. It's a smart, contemplative movie that seems bound neither by the conventions of the science fiction genre or action/adventure tropes.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" doesn't get too bogged down in the minutia of the science -- a brilliant young researcher, Will (James Franco), has developed a serum to cure Alzheimer's, especially that of his father (John Lithgow). While testing it on chimpanzees, he discovers that it dramatically increases their intelligence.

After an unpleasant incident at the lab, the program is shut down by the money-grubbing administrator (David Oyelowo) -- but not before Will sneaks out an infant chimp, whom he names Caesar. The years roll by, and soon Caesar has become a willful, juvenile ape who chafes at Will's benevolent but omnipresent yoke.

Caesar is a wondrous creation of live shots of chimpanzees, puppetry and computer-generated animation. He's a full-blooded creation, and by far the most relatable character in the film. It's the greatest marriage of performance and CGI since Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- which is no surprise seeing that Andy Serkis provided the motion-capture performance for both characters.

The movie really gets interesting when Caesar is separated from Will, Will's father and girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and placed in a facility with dozens of regular chimps, gorillas and orangutans. The honcho of this ape prison (Brian Cox) isn't really a sadist, but his son (Tom Felton) is, and seems to have the run of the place when the old man retires for the evening.

At first the ostracized outsider who gets pushed around by the local strongman ... er, ape, Caesar uses his cunning to take control of the situation and (literally) stand up to the man.

Yes, the movie dallies long enough for a few lay-ups miming dialogue and scenarios from the original movies -- e.g. Caesar's mother is called "Bright Eyes," the same moniker given to Charlton Heston (who pops up briefly himself) by his simian captors in the 1968 film. But these register as mini-homages rather than cheap in-jokes.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" emerges as the "District 9" of 2011 -- a seemingly silly flick that turns out to have more brains and pluck than anything around. No monkey business: this is the best movie of the summer.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Video review: "Rio"

There is much to like about "Rio," a jaunty, fun animated movie about a bunch of exotic birds having adventures in Rio de Janeiro. It's just that it's made for small children, who will probably enjoy it more than I did.

Unlike other, better animated movies that are inviting to adults -- "Kung Fu Panda" and all the Pixar flicks -- "Rio" is pretty much a cinematic clubhouse for those kindergarten age and under. There might as well be a sign: "Parents Keep Out!"

Jesse Eisenberg provides the voice of Blu, a rare blue macaw brought down to Rio to mate with the only known female in captivity, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). But Blu is about as used to domesticated life as any bird can be, while Jewel wants to soar high in the rainforest. She doesn't dig his neurotic personality, not to mention that Blu never learned to fly.

They're shackled together by circumstance, and spend the rest of the movie on the run from poachers, along with a particularly nasty cockatoo working by the bad guys, who's deliciously voiced by Jemaine Clement.

The movie often feels like it's on autopilot, particularly when it spends time with some fairly unoriginal supporting characters, like a slobbery bulldog and a toucan who's henpecked by his wife.

But it's well-made and bright and shiny, and likely will keep toddlers distracted for awhile.

Video extras are similarly geared more to games and other visual baubles for tykes, rather than anything adults would enjoy.

The DVD version comes with a handful of deleted scenes, a "Welcome to Rio" music video, "Rio de JAM-eiro Jukebox" and a music video by Taio Cruz.

The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack includes all those goodies, plus a digital copy and a number of other features: Things like "Carnival Dance-O-Rama," "Boom-Boom Tish-Tish: The Sounds of Rio," and ... well, you get the idea.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Bravados" (1958)

I think in many ways Gregory Peck was the perfect expression of idealized cinematic manhood: Remote yet full of passion, stern but empathetic, skilled in the ways of violence but reluctant to employ them. Atticus Finch was his ultimate role, but you see these central characteristics of his star persona in most of his films.

Take 1958's "The Bravados," which might be termed a revisionist Western before there was such a thing.

Peck plays Jim Douglass, a rancher turned hunter on the trail of the four men who raped and murdered his wife. He wears a black hat, dark gray clothes and an expression so hardened, it's no wonder the people of the border town of Rio Arriba are afraid when he rides in one day. He is there to witness the next morning's execution of four men who match the description of those he seeks: Two white men, an Indian and a "half-breed."

The sheriff (Herbert Rudley) reluctantly accedes to Douglass' request to see the men, whom he silently stares down one by one. For their part, the four bravados insist they have never seen him before.

The condemned men are a mix of contrasts. Bill Zachary (Stephen Boyd), the ostensible leader, has one of those smiles that make you feel icy rather than warm. He has a lecherous fondness for women that he calls his one weakness, and it seems certain that he led the assault on Douglass' wife.

Ed Taylor (Albert Salmi) is more grounded, has less to say, and is the best shot of the bunch. Alfonso Parral, the half-Indian played by Lee Van Cleef, is the most temperamental, whereas Lujan (Henry Silva) is an oasis of calm in the passionate gang. Lujan is skilled in the ways of the open range, and seems to harbor a veiled contempt for his companions.

While the entire town is at church, the foursome break out of jail with the help of one of their friends posing as the hangman, kidnapping a virginal town girl as collateral. A posse is formed, and Douglass assists them -- in a roundabout way -- and eventually is calling the shots.

Now, the statute of limitations on spoilers lies somewhere well south of 53 years, so I don't shy away from revealing the film's big reveal: After hunting down the four men, and mercilessly slaying three of them -- he shoots Parral while he's literally on his knees begging for mercy -- Douglass learns that they weren't responsible for his wife's death.

It's not exactly a surprise -- director Henry King and screenwriter Philip Yordan (working from the novel by Frank O'Rourke) drop plenty of hints that the protagonist is on the wrong path. The ending, in which the townsfolk cheer Douglass and enshrine him as their heroic savior, has a deliberately bittersweet, ironic note to it.

Joan Collins has small, totally unnecessary role as Josefa Velarde, a former flame of Douglass' from New Orleans who's now running her father's ranch. Her presence serves to soften some of his rougher edges, and like a lot of females in Westerns she's merely eye candy who exists to make the menfolk think of gentler things.

"The Bravados" succeeds ultimately because of Peck's presence, a mixture of brooding, buried rage and misplaced righteousness. The killing in Westerns had always been depicted as the necessary meting out of justice, even the roughshod frontier kind. And here's this odd, contemplative film in which good men do bad things, bad men aren't always deserving of punishment and the innocent, who suffer at both their hands.

3 stars out of four