Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: "50/50"

The characters and dialogue in "50/50" are so cool and hip and accessible, the movie almost succeeds in making us forget we've seen this story a dozen times before.

It's the tale of a young guy who comes down with a very scary form of cancer -- so scary, even other cancer patients have never heard of it. As one fellow patient advises, the more syllables a disease has, the worse it is.

Because it has an indie rock soundtrack and stars Gen-Y favorites Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard, "50/50" has a witty, funny/sad vibe. But ultimately, it's another variation on the old laughing-through-the-tears shtick, in which monumental life challenges bring on the warm fuzzies, and the laughs.

The film was reportedly based on a real-life event involving a friend of Rogen, Will Reiser, who wrote the screenplay based loosely on his own bout with cancer. Rogen co-stars and is one of the producers, and Jonathan Levine directs with loose, jazzy style that gives most of the scenes a comfortable, lived-in feel.

Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old producer for the NPR affiliate in Seattle, slavishly working on a project about a remote volcano his boss could care less about. That's sort of Adam's M.O. -- he's a guy who sticks himself in a corner, keeps low expectations and is content to be the wingman for Kyle (Rogen), his garrulous best friend who's always looking to get laid, all the time.

A pain in his back turns out to be spinal cancer, as his doctor lays out for him with an appalling lack of human warmth, spouting a bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo into a voice recorder rather than talking to the man in front of him.

I happen to think Gordon-Levitt's one of the best actors of his generation, and he doesn't disappoint here, showing us the edges of Adam's interior. Adam has become very good at fooling others into thinking he's a happy person -- no one has fallen for it harder than himself.

His girlfriend, Rachael, is an artsy type played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who promises to stick by Adam, but everyone, including Rachael, secretly doubts she's up to the challenge. She only has one drawer's worth of her stuff at Adam's house, and we sense this mirrors her emotional investment in their relationship.

Kyle, meanwhile, keeps taking Adam out to drink and party, and eggs him into using his newly bald head and sad story to get women to sleep with him. (In the world that exists only in the minds of screenwriters, this actually works.)

"No one wants to (score with) me," Adam protests, "I look like Voldemort."

Some of the best scenes are at Adam's chemotherapy sessions, where he cozies up to the regulars. In this tiny community, one's affliction is announced like a vocation: "Alan, stage three lymphoma." "Mitch, metastatic prostate cancer." Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer quietly dazzle as a pair who have moved beyond fretting about letting their disease define them.

The X factor is Anna Kendrick as Katherine, the medical student who takes on Adam in therapy sessions. Adam, who is used to always being the youngest person in any room, is put off being administered to by someone even younger than he. She's so young, Katherine doesn't even get his Doogie Howser jokes.

Their relationship develops in time, though, and it doesn't take long to figure out they wish they'd met in other circumstances. I enjoyed the authenticity of Kendrick's performance as a serious young woman who's still figuring out her professional and personal boundaries. There is no doubt she will turn out to be a better, more caring doctor than the lunkhead who blurted out the news about Adam's cancer.

I enjoyed this movie, though admittedly I'm a sucker for a good weepy/funny dramedy. I just want Rogen, Reiser, Levine and the gang to know that even though I'm giving their flick a thumbs-up, I see through their ruse. This is "Terms of Endearment" with a heavy ladle of testosterone and a smirk.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Video review: "The Cleveland Show: Season 2"

"The Cleveland Show" was in danger of being a disaster. A spin-off of Fox's crude but witty Sunday night animation show "Family Guy," it was also the third show by Seth MacFarlane (who also created "American Dad!".)

By all rights, "The Cleveland Show" should've been an arrogant overreach, getting short shrift from its creative leaders and descending into a pit of moldy gags ripped off from its predecessors.

But Cleveland the gang not only survived, they flourished in their second season together. The show settled into its own rhythm and tone -- obviously similar to the ironic style of MacFarlane's other shows, reliant on non-sequiturs and a heavy dollop of pop-culture references.

By not worrying about following too closely in the steps of "Family Guy," the show stood out on its own.

Cleveland is a tubby, middle-aged black man who returns to his fictional hometown of Stoolbend after being widowed and remarrying his high school sweetheart, Donna. Some of the show's detractors have pointed out that "The Cleveland Show" is the only network TV show with an African-American as the main character, and yet he's voiced by a white actor, Mike Henry.

In a cheeky bit of turnaround, though, Cleveland's redneck neighbor Lester is voiced by a black actor, and most of the principal cast is played by minorities, including Sanaa Lathan.

The show's real MVP is Kevin Michael Richardson, who voices several characters, including Lester and Cleveland Jr. Cleveland Jr. is a high school freshman with the mentality of a kindergartner, a seriously smart kid afflicted with profound social naiveté.

Season 2 contained several highlights in its 23 episodes, including the scandal of Donna's notorious past stardom in soft-score porn blaxploitation films ("Hot Cocoa Bang Bang"), and the revelation that Cleveland's buddy Terry, a legendary ladies' man, is actually gay ("Terry Unmarried").

With its zippy pace and distinct characters, "The Cleveland Show" seems set up for its own marathon run of comedy on Sundays.

Extra features include audio commentary on five episodes, deleted scenes, a showcase of celebrity guest stars, and a trailer for "Hot Cocoa Bang Bang."

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Heiress" (1949)

"The Heiress" is an interesting rumination on physical beauty. The protagonist, Catherine Sloper, is a plain woman who has been unable to attract suitors despite the fact that her father is a fabulously wealthy doctor. She is also painfully shy, but it's pretty clear that the one flows from the other -- Catherine is aware of her lack of looks, and has convinced herself (with no small help from her father) that this is indicative of the absence of any other attributes.

Of course, Catherine is played by Olivia de Havilland, one of the great actresses -- and great beauties -- of Hollywood's Golden Age. The filmmakers do a convincing job of making her less attractive, including an unflattering braided hairstyle and a lack of makeup. De Havilland also holds her face in unflattering positions to accentuate the change.

When a suitor does finally arrive, it's in the form of Morris Townsend, a slick young man lacking any money or prospects. Dr. Sloper (played by Ralph Richardson, forever the aged sorceror from "Dragonslayer") immediately suspects that Morris is a mercenary after Catherine's inheritance. It takes Catherine herself much longer to make her own decision, but her father has planted the seeds of doubt in her mind.

Morris is played by Montgomery Clift, in one of his earliest roles. Clift was a moody actor who did not wear his mantle of stardom well, clashing with most of the directors, screenwriters and actors he worked with. His career never really recovered from a serious 1956 car accident that ravaged his face, and he died young and alone.

But Clift was also one of the most physically striking actors ever to grace the silver screen, and his handsomeness is fully exploited by director William Wyler. Every cinematic trick used to make de Havilland seem uglier is turned around to make Clift seem to positively glow in every scene.

Part of Catherine's initial hesitancy is based around the dichotomy of their looks: She simply cannot believe that such a good-looking, well-spoken young man could possibly fall for her. Interestingly, her resistance falls after their first kiss. In the mid-1800s, the mannerisms of the New York upper crust were firmly set in a labyrinth of arcane rules and unspoken codes, including not letting a male suitor to be in the same room alone with a young lady. Catherine's Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), who encourages the romance, helpfully obliges by getting the vapors whenever an opportunity presents itself. It seems clear that it was physical passion that overcome Catherine's sense of logic.

The film is adapted (by Ruth and Augustus Goetz) from the play "Washington Square," which in turn was based on the Henry James novel. It was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, and de Havilland took home her second Academy Award for her performance.

Though at times a staid melodrama, it also has several scenes with genuine emotional punch. The watershed moment is when Catherine, after returning from a six-month European visit insisted upon by her father as a ploy to make her forget about Morris, resolves to run away and elope on the first night of their return. Dr. Sloper has made it clear how much he truly disrespects his daughter, and she promises never to see him again.

Morris is appalled, not wanting her to be disinherited from her father's $20,000 a year of income upon his death. But she says they will still be wealthy enough with the $10,000 a year she already inherited from her mother.

Catherine sits all through the night waiting with Aunt Lavinia for Morris' carriage to show up, but of course it never does.

(I'm curious why in stories set in the 19th century or earlier, wealth is always referred to as how much they receive per year rather than the total pile of dough. Nowadays we don't say "Warren Buffet has $5 million a year," we say he's worth $20 billion, or whatever it is. Perhaps this is because back then income was derived primarily through the ownership of property -- renting it out or agricultural uses -- rather than investments.)

I enjoyed "The Heiress," less for the story than the things it leaves unsaid.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: "Moneyball"

“Moneyball” is simultaneously deeper and funnier than I thought it would be. Based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, it’s a look at how number-crunchers have changed the game of baseball through something called sabermetrics. Instead of relying on gut instincts and baseball acumen to evaluate players, this method employs computers and bean-counting to identify the best players that can be had for the least amount of money.

Now, baseball is not my thing. And mathematical algorithms are even less my thing. But instead of zeroing in on the technical aspects of sabermetrics, “Moneyball” is the story of Billy Beane. The General Manager of the cash-poor Oakland Athletics, Billy must try every year to put together a roster that can compete against teams like the New York Yankees, which can spend three times as much on payroll.

It’s a terrific performance by Brad Pitt, quite possibly the best of his career. His Billy Beane constantly operates on two levels: The brash, confident side he presents to his employees, the media and even his family; and the dark and brooding side that expects failure at every turn, refusing to even attend his own team’s games because he’s convinced he’s jinxed.

There’s one great scene where Billy confronts his newly-acquired 37-year-old star player, David Justice (Steven Bishop). It’s a standoff between two savvy baseball veterans who see through each others’ bluster, and want the other guy to know it.

Justice tells Billy he knows face-saving patter when he hears it. Billy cannily wins Justice’s loyalty by laying out their respective goals in stark terms: I want to squeeze the last bit of baseball ability out of your aging body, and you want to stay in the big leagues.

Billy’s scheme doesn’t go over so well with the rest of the organization. The head scout quits/gets himself fired after being pushed aside: “You don’t put together a team with a computer!”

The manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), at first refuses to put Billy’s new recruits on the field, such as a catcher Scott Hatteburg (Chris Pratt) with permanent nerve damage in his elbow, who Billy thinks will make for a cost-efficient replacement at first base for recently departed free agent Jason Giambi.

Howe, who’s been rebuffed in his demand for a contract extension, coldly tells Billy why he won’t put Hatteburg in: “I’m playing my team in a way I can explain in job interviews next winter.”

But Billy has faith in his young right-hand man, Peter Brand, played against type by Jonah Hill. Peter’s golden measuring stick for players is their on-base percentage – doesn’t matter if it’s a home run or a walk, though players who get walked a lot tend to come much cheaper than those walloping dingers. Peter gets his own lessons from Billy on how to deliver the news when trading or cutting a player: ‘One bullet to the head rather than five in the chest.’

The end result of Peter’s calculations is what he dubs “an island of misfit toys” – players who are injured, or too old, or playing the wrong position, who have been systematically devalued by their teams and the sport of baseball. By patching together a quilt of utility men, Billy and Peter believe they can not only win games, but change the game itself.

After a disastrous start, the A’s soon prove the naysayers wrong, even breaking the American League record for consecutive wins. Eventually, other teams come calling for Billy’s magic potion, and with big paychecks to pay for it.

The film ends with a coda that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. It says Billy is still the GM of the A’s and is still trying to win “the last game of the season,” aka win the World Series. What it doesn’t mention is that the team hasn’t even made the playoffs since 2006, and that other teams have adopted Billy’s methods with more success than he.

“Moneyball” was adeptly directed by Bennett Miller (“Capote”), who wisely concentrates his energy less on the action inside the baseball diamond than the grunt work that goes on behind the scenes.

But this film’s success is attributable mainly, I think, to some heroic script work by two heavyweights: Aaron Sorkin, who won the Oscar for “The Social Network,” and Steve Zaillian, who has his own statue for “Schindler’s List.”

The creative team decided not to make a typical sports movie, but a deep and probing film that gives us a glimpse at the high-stakes games that happen off the baseball diamond.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Video review: "Bridesmaids"

Yeah, "Bridesmaids" was pretty much an intentional rip-off of "The Hangover." And no, it was not quite as funny as "The Hangover."

But the movie -- starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper and Melissa McCarthy -- proved that women could do raunchy humor with as much panache and gusto as the guys. This movie has a few more tender moments and more heart, but mostly it's a non-stop parade of crude jokes, f-bombs and conspicuous debauchery.

Wiig plays Annie, a sad-sack loser whose life is headed totally in the wrong direction. Her bakery shop closed down due to the recession, she's barely employed in a dead-end job, and her roommates consist of a really weird English chick and her even weirder brother.

When her best friend Lillian (Rudolph) announces her wedding, Annie gets pumped about being the maid of honor. But it turns out Lillian has another friend, Helen (Rose Byrne), who's rich and charming, and would just love to elbow Annie out of the limelight.

A few set-ups became instant comedy classics: Dueling toasts at the announcement party, and a major gastrointestinal eruption during the dress fittings.
And Melissa McCarthy steals the show as the bride's socially inept sister, whose suggestions for livening up the part include having a "female 'Fight Club'."
For a copycat, "Bridesmaids" delivers the goods.

Video goodies are quite good in the DVD version, and become downright terrific for Blu-ray.

The DVD includes a feature-length commentary track, and for once they did it right: Director Paul Feig, co-screenwriter (along with Wiig) Annie Mumolo and all five of the "bridepack" team up to dish and tell in-jokes. It also includes an "unrated" version of the film with a few more bits of filthy humor.

There's also a gag reel, deleted/extended scenes and a fake commercial for Annie's jeweler employer.

Upgrade to Blu-ray, and there's tons more stuff. There's a making-of documentary, a full music video of "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips, more deleted/extended scenes, another fake commercial and several other featurettes and goodies.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reeling Backward: "633 Squadron" (1964)

Wow, what a piece of crap.

Normally I try to be charitable to the classic films I'm watching for the Reeling Backward column, seeking out movies I think I'll enjoy or find interesting on some level

In the case of "633 Squadron," a 1964 WWII movie starring Cliff Robertson as the leader of a British air squadron, the only thing interesting is how gobsmackingly awful it is.

I lay most of the blame at the feet of director Walter Grauman, a television guy who made a few theatrical films. Although some of the air combat sequences are exciting -- perhaps owing to the fact that Grauman himself flew B-25 bombers during the war -- any time the action is grounded, the movie goes into a deadly  torpor.

The dialogue is incredibly hackneyed, and it's not helped by generally wooden deliveries from most of the cast. Astonishingly, one of the screenwriters is Howard Koch, one of the Oscar-winning writers on "Casablanca."

Topping things off is the musical score by Ron Goodwin, which makes the fatal mistake of intruding upon the movie without enhancing it.

I think in particular of one scene where Roy Grant (Robertson), the American commander of an international RAF squadron, is confronted with bad news by his superior. Goodwin's music goes almost silent while each piece of dialogue is delivered, then creeps in with a little slow arpeggio during the pauses. Comically, the musical notes rise or fall depending on what each man says, so the result is a ridiculous alternating of musical swells going up and down.

But Goodwin's main theme used during the flying scenes is a bray of trilling trumpets that gets the heart moving. It sounds very familiar, too -- I think subsequent films may have borrowed from that lick.

The cinematography by Edward Scaife is often quite dazzling, too, making good use of the full-color Panavision. His shots of planes screaming through the air on an intricate bombing run through a narrow canyon are terrific.

Unfortunately, the film constantly resorts to models to portray explosions, and they're just awful. It looks like a balsa wood toy made by an adolescent that he subsequently blows up with firecrackers. Some archival footage is also ham-handedly worked in ... though not extensively since most of that would've been in black-and-white.

Robertson was a solid actor that Hollywood never quite knew what to do with. (He passed away while I was working on this column.) His character here is mostly a collection of typical "Yank" traits as seen from the British perspective -- cocky yet sullen, resentful of authority and yet committed to military camaraderie.

His commander (Harry Andrews) give him a vital mission: To blow up a rocket factory the Nazis are building in Norway. If those rockets are allowed to go online, the Normandy invasion is doomed to failure.

Because the factory is in a narrow canyon, their only hope is to bomb the overhanging cliff with "earthquake bombs' in order to get it to cause an avalanche and crush the facility. Laughable stuff. Though supposedly George Lucas was inspired by this sequence for the trench run scene in the original "Star Wars."

There's a subplot involving Finn Bergman, the leader of a Norwegian resistance operation. Their job is to provide intelligence on the bombing site, and take out the anti-aircraft guns right before the mission. Bergman clashes and then bonds with Roy, and somehow his sister Hilde (Maria Perschy) materializes just in time to provide a love interest for Roy.

Hilariously, Finn is played by George Chakiris, the dark-haired and -complected actor best known for pleading Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican gang in "West Side  Story" (for which he won an Oscar). Chakiris looks about as Norwegian as an Egyptian pyramid, especially when contrasted with the blonde, fair-skinned Perschy.

(Chakiris was actually Greek, whose Mediterranean good looks allowed him to play a variety of nationalities along the lines of Anthony Quinn, whose lineage was a mix of Mexican, Aztec Indian and Irish.)

At one point Finn is captured by the Germans. In order to prevent the mission from being revealed under Nazi torture, Roy is assigned to bomb the building where Finn is being held, killing his friend in the process.

He succeeds, but apparently he was too late. When the rest of the Norwegian resistance fighters move in to take out the anti-aircraft guns, they are ambushed and wiped out by the waiting Germans. Strangely, it is never explicitly depicted that Funn divulged this information during interrogation; the audience is left to infer this when the Germans get the jump on the Norwegians.

Not that the resistance fighters do much to hide themselves: They're shown blithely walking down open paths and roads on their way to assault the gun positions. The Germans hide from cover and attack with machine guns and grenades. For guerrillas, the Norwegians seem to have the tactical smarts of gorillas.

The only thing I found truly interesting about "633 Squadron" was the planes. They fly De Havilland Mosquitos, versatile aircraft built by the British for a variety of uses. They were exceedingly fast, superficially resembling a B-17, but with only two engines and much, much smaller. They carried a crew of but two, the pilot and navigator/bombardier.

The Mosquitos were tactically very dissimilar from the B-17, B-24 and other large American bombers, which were designed to fly in large groups and fight off more nimble enemies with an array of heavy armaments, and withstand a ton of punishment. The Mosquitos were made of wood and couldn't take much damage. Initially they were intended as fast bombers, lacking any defensive armaments. Later iterations included forward guns, and the Mosquitos were used as night fighters, aerial reconnaissance and even against ships and submarines.

These daring, unique planes also starred in another British war movie from 1969, "Mosquito Squadron." I haven't seen that one, but hopefully the humans in that film made for better counterparts to the amazing machines, unlike in "633 Squadron."

1 star out of four

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: "Drive"

"Drive" is a movie stuck out of time. For at least the first 30 minutes, I was convinced the story was set in the 1980s. The plethora of vintage cars, an '80s-ish soundtrack and the gold-on-white scorpion jacket worn by the main character seemed to spring forth from "Miami Vice" crossed with "Less Than Zero."
Even the titles are in neon-hued cursive.

But eventually the presence of cell phones and a late-model Mustang clue us in that the time is the present. Director Nicolas Winding Refn constructs a world in which eras meld into each other, so mobsters seemingly from the 1950s do not seem out of place.

Like "Valhalla Riding," Refn's last film, "Drive" is long on mood and sleek visuals, and the narrative seems merely a slender frame upon which to hang the director's highly stylized dressings. It's basically a tone poem set against the backdrop of a fairly standard crime-heist-gone-awry frame, punctuated by over-the-top violence that burst a carefully-cultivated bubble of serenity.

Ryan Gosling, as the never-named protagonist, utters very little dialogue. He's a mechanic who moonlights as a Hollywood stunt driver, and his other other job is wheelman for hire. He lays out his rules simply but with certainty: He will take his clients wherever they want to go and give them a five-minute window for whatever they need to do. He will carry no gun, and one tick on his watch after five minutes and he's gone.

The driver is very good behind the wheel of a car, of course, but we suspect there are others equally skilled. He also seems more than capable when a tussle is necessary, without knowing any fancy martial arts or hand-to-hand combat skills. No, the driver's main ability is to focus on whatever he's doing with a ferocious singularity, so that in that moment it is very hard for anyone to match against him.

Forty years ago, it's the sort of role Steve McQueen would've played.

Things seem to going well for the driver. He's got a good reputation on movie sets for getting the right crash shot without any wrinkles. And his boss at the garage, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), wants to set him up on the racing circuit with the backing of a benevolent local wiseguy named Bernie, played with chilling congeniality by funnyman Albert Brooks.

Then at his new apartment he bumps into neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother to young Benicio (Kaden Leos). Their courtship, if you can even call it that, is a series of long glances and shy exchanges of pleasantries. Somehow, with a few slow-mo shots and evocative performances by his two stars, director Refn manages to imply a depth of feeling that isn't written down on any page.

Then Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, setting up a series of debacles that put everything at risk.

The driver's smooth mien begins to crack, as his entire life is a series of highly calculated risks. But this new chaos is something new and troubling to him. It's something he can't control, and that unnerves him.

Hossein Amini wrote the script for "Drive," based on the book by James Sallis, unread by me. Somehow I suspect the text for this movie wouldn't have amounted to much without the sumptuous, occasionally distracting style of director Refn. It very much reminded me of the work of Michael Mann, whose visuals could overpower a bare-bones story.

(Refn won the best director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.)

But this is the sort of film that says much more than the scant spoken words of its anti-hero. Like the scorpion totem he wears on his back, the driver cannot deny the hardened core of his nature. That allows him to accomplish things few men can, but the cost is exacted in doors that are forever closed to him.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Review: "The Lion King 3D"

"The Lion King" was made a mere 17 years ago, but seems from a different era now. The following year, "Toy Story" would come out, and animation was never the same again.

Now being released in a 3D version, the renderings of animals has that clean, cutsie look that was a hallmark of Disney cartoons. If it were made today, Simba the lion would have textures and shadings and computer animators would've spent 10,000 hours getting every hair on his mane to look as lifelike as possible. And the movie wouldn't be nearly as good.

I'm a devotee of CG animation, but the re-release of "The Lion King" reminds us that, like Simba recalling his father's spirit out of the night sky, we don't have to let go of the past in order to move beyond it.

We are in the midst of a second golden age of animation, kicked off by 1989's "The Little Mermaid" and improved upon in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" the following year. But in 1994, the art form reached a watershed with "The Lion King."

Here was a "kiddie" flick that was big and grandiose and ambitious, a sprawling Shakespearean epic playing out on the African savannah. The king Mufasa, given indescribable depth and presence by the voice acting of James Earl Jones, seemed to step out of the papyri of a Greek tragedy.

It would be easy to surmise that Disney releasing a 3D version of "The Lion King" is a mere publicity stunt, a run-up to the Blu-ray version being issued on Oct. 4. Certainly, the 3D effects add little to the experience. The gorgeous landscapes of the lions' prideland pop out a little more, though inevitably everything looks a little dimmer than it ought to.

But for a mere cartoon, this movie is one that needs a huge canvas to do it justice. I've watched "The Lion King" on DVD on my big-screen TV with surround sound, and seeing it in a theater full of families was enthralling in a way home video cannot match.

With half the theater filled with small children, their din of cries and squawks soon faded as the film and I joined. (When my wife dropped her 3D glasses due to our squirmy 10-month-old and needed help retrieving them, she had to poke me several times to break the spell.)

A few new impressions on the movie:

I was surprised how much screen time is spent with young Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) before Mufasa's death and the young cub's exile. My memory was that section was mere prologue, and the film spends most of its running time with him grown up and voiced by Matthew Broderick. In fact, the sections are about evenly split.

The songs, though not quite on the level of the magical "Beauty and the Beast," remain infectiously memorable. Even Jeremy Irons, playing conniving uncle Scar, fakes his way admirably through "Be Prepared" in the grand tradition of talk-singing. Jimmy Cagney and Rex Harrison would be proud.

After the success of Robin Williams voicing the genie in "Aladdin," Disney -- which previously used professional voice actors almost exclusively -- "The Lion King" ushered in the era of movie stars doing most of the characters. No complaints, given the quality of work here. Robert Guillaume is particularly affecting as crazy baboon/wise shaman Rafiki.

Nathan Lane, a Broadway song-and-dance man who got his break into movie stardom through "The Lion King," is still a hoot as meerkat Timon. He's primarily around as comic relief, but also throws in some sly, sophisticated humor: "Carnivores ... oy!"

The musical score by Hans Zimmer is the heartbeat of the movie. Without his rollicking beats and sweeping, lush strings, the film would lose much of its power. It won the Oscar that year, trumping contenders "Forrest Gump" and "The Shawshank Redemption," and deserved to.

Whatever the reasons behind it, seeing "The Lion King" on the big screen falls into the not-to-be-missed category.

4 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Video review: "Thor"

Summer's first major blockbuster announces the march of high-profile movies arriving on video from now through the rest of the year. I'm glad to see "Thor," because the pickings has been a mite slim lately.

Based on the comic book, "Thor" is the tale of the Norse god of thunder, an arrogant warrior played with brio by Chris Hemsworth. No hero creation myth necessary here: Thor was born a mighty god, the son of the all-powerful Odin (Anthony Hopkins). After offending Odin with an ill-advised attack on the home of their mortal enemies, the frost giants, Thor is banished to Earth and stripped of his powers -- including the hammer Mjolnir, which is to him as Excalibur is to King Arthur.

While vulnerable, Thor finds himself falling for a mortal scientist (Natalie Portman) and dealing with the machinations of his half-brother Loki, who has some serious daddy issues and would like to sit on Odin's throne.

As a villain, Loki is a little lacking, more of a mopey presence than a truly forbidding one. Fortunately, Laufey, the king of the frost giants, serves as a suitable backup.

The movie occasionally gets tripped up by its own sense of pomposity, taking on Shakespearean overtones when the material is more suited to bubblegum action set pieces. But there are plenty of those, and despite a few weaknesses "Thor" packs quite a wallop.

Video goodies are decent with the basic DVD edition, and improve significantly upon upgrading to Blu-ray.

The DVD has a feature-length commentary track by director Kenneth Branagh, four deleted scenes with commentary, and "Road to The Avengers," a featurette building up to the super-hero super-group (including Iron Man and Thor) debuting in their own flick next summer.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack includes all that stuff, plus seven more deleted scenes, a digital copy of the film, seven making-of featurettes centering mostly on visual effects, and something called "Marvel One Shot: The Consultant," a short film that helps bridge the divide between "Thor" and the Avengers movie.

Movie: B
Extras: B-plus

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fall film preview

A funny thing happened on the way to our Fall Movie Preview: The Harry Potter franchise wrapped up its decade-long run, no other high-profile movie emerged to dominate the spotlight, and for the first time in memory the cinematic season seemed wide open and full of promise.

Or disappointment. When a "Twilight" flick is the biggest thing on the docket, that's a little scary ... in a way those emo vampires are not.

So we should approach this season with caution. No 800-pound gorillas means there's room for intimate little films with ambition to find an audience. But it also means we could see one letdown after another.

So here's a look at the months ahead, with my picks for the most promising flicks marked. Please note, release dates are subject to change.

Abduction (9/23) -- Taylor Lautner aims for some non-"Twilight" stardom with this thriller about a high schooler caught up in the world of international espionage. The premise is sly: He spots a picture of himself as a small boy on a missing children website, and realizes his whole life is a lie.

Moneyball (9/23) -- Brad Pitt stars in this based-on-truth story about how computer nerds took over professional baseball, using complex algorithms to select the right collection of players. Was this movie made using the same system?

*50/50 (9/30) -- I'm not sure how many people are dying to see goofball Seth Rogen in serious mode, but he produced and co-starred in this drama based on the real-life experiences of his best friend (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) contracting spine cancer at age 25.

*Real Steel (Oct. 7) -- Looks like a goof at first: In a near future where boxing is outlawed, ex-contender (Hugh Jackman) trains robots to go rock 'em sock 'em in the ring. But it's actually a tender father/son bonding story a la "The Champ."

*The Ides of March (Oct. 7) -- Directed, co-written and starring George Clooney, this may be the first serious Oscar challenger of the season. Ryan Gosling plays a young campaign press secretary who confronts the dirty underbelly of politics when his presidential candidate (Clooney) is threatened with scandal.

The Three Musketeers 3D (10/21) -- Like Robin Hood, the Musketeers are one of those perennial stories that gets remade and retold for each generation. In this case, it's with a bunch of slo-mo explosions and CG swordfights. With Milla Jovovich as a man-eating m'lady.

The Rum Diary (10/28) -- Johnny Depp tackles Hunter S. Thompson again as a journalist flushing his life down the drain in the Caribbean when a big story falls in his lap.

Puss in Boots (Nov. 4) -- A creatively fizzled kiddie franchise attempts a spin-off. Looks like a piece of shrek.

Tower Heist (Nov. 4) -- Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy team up in a comedy about ... aaaand I think that's all we need to know.

Immortals (11/11) -- If you liked the "Clash of the Titans" remake, this action/adventure should be right up your alley. The Greek gods of Olympus are nervous when a human king (Mickey Rourke) seeks a powerful magic bow that could be used to threaten their dominion. Theseus (Henry Cavill) gets the nod from on high to stop him.

J. Edgar (11/11) -- Young and sexy Leonardo Di Caprio may not seem like the obvious choice to play bulldog G-man J. Edgar Hoover. But the latest drama from director Clint Eastwood is a sobering look at the man who was the face of federal law enforcement for more than 40 years.

Machine Gun Preacher (11/11) -- No, it's not an action/exploitation flick. Gerard Butler stars in this drama based on the true story of a drug-dealing criminal who finds his faith in Africa, where he fights against corruption.

Jack and Jill (11/11) -- Adam Sandler plays both brother and sister in his latest assault on comedy. To make things odder, Al Pacino is around, playing ... Al Pacino. Who falls for the sis. Ick.

*The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1 (11/18) -- The mega-vampire heavyweight franchise -- which, in fairness, has gotten better as it's gone along -- pulls a "Harry Potter" by splitting up the final novel into two parts. Bella (Kristen Stewart) gets married, knocked up and bitten. Edward and Jacob (Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner) trade sneers.

*The Descendants (11/23) -- Alexander Payne ("Sideways") directs this tragicomedy about a father (George Clooney) whose family always came second, until his wife suffers a serious accident and he's forced to deal with his daughters. Meanwhile, he may have to sell the family's ancestral Hawaii plot.

The Muppets (11/23) -- Twelve years after their last feature film and 21 years after creator Jim Henson's death, the Muppet franchise rolls on with R-rated funnyman Jason Segal as the new guiding light and star. Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang must raise $10 million to save their theater.

Hugo (11/23) -- Martin Scorsese's long-awaited fantasy is about a boy living in a 1930s train station who struggles to pierce the mystery of his long-lost father, and the strange automaton he built.

New Year's Eve (12/9) -- Along the lines of "Valentine's Day" and other holiday-themed hits, an ensemble cast of stars (Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl) celebrate love and other warm weepies. (Up next: "Arbor Day: The Roots of Romance.")

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (12/16) -- Robert Downey Jr. returns as Holmes takes on his greatest nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). It's elementary to deduce that it will be another craptastic blend of fisticuffs, mumbled quips and computer-generated hi jinks.

*The Iron Lady (12/16) -- Do-anything super-actress Meryl Streep tackles British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in this high-profile biopic.

Young Adult (12/16) -- A divorced writer (Charlize Theron) returns to her small Minnesota hometown looking for romance with an old flame. From two of Hollywood's brightest young lights, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (12/21) -- A remake of the Swedish movie based on the smash series of novels. Many (OK, me) question why there even needs to be an English language version. Daniel Craig plays a crusading journalist assisted by a strange but brilliant cyber hacker (Rooney Mara).

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (12/21) -- "Knight and Day" was actually pretty good, but did nothing to stop the perception that Tom Cruise's career is in free-fall. This reboot of the spymaster franchise may be his last shot.

The Darkest Hour (12/23) -- A twist on the classic group fighting to survive during the fall of mankind, Emile Hirsch leads a group of five young people stranded in Moscow when will-o-wisps from outer space treat the Earth as a disposable battery.

We Bought A Zoo (12/23) -- The title pretty much says it all in this new dramedy starring Matt Damon as a dad looking for a new start for his family.

The Adventures of Tintin (12/23) -- Steven Spielberg does cartoon! He directs his first animated feature about the popular star of European comic books. The boy adventurer and his pals go in search of a sunken ship. With the voices of Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig and Andy Serkis.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (12/25) -- A top Oscar contender, this adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as the parents of a precocious 9-year-old  boy struggling to cope with a tremendous loss on 9/11.

*War Horse (12/28) -- Steven Spielberg (again!) directs this drama about a horse separated from his boy by World War I, and the many people who receive equine inspiration during his long trot around the globe.

Carnage (December) -- Director Roman Polanski gathers a knockout cast -- Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly -- in an absurdist comedy based on the Broadway play about two sets of Brooklyn parents who meet after their children get into a fight.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: "Contagion"

"Contagion" is a gripping movie, but the things that make it good also limit how good it can be.

It's an attempt by director Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and a large ensemble cast to portray the outbreak of a world-wide epidemic in a realistic way rather than through a handful of descriptive characters and a melodramatic story arc. At this, it succeeds completely.

So instead of, say, a small group of survivors hacking their way through the remnants of a world turned upside down -- "28 Days Later" and "I Am Legend" are a couple of examples -- Soderbergh's film is a docu-drama that covers dozens of stories that intersect. This roving-eye approach allows us to observe as the populace grows uptight and scared, the government response becomes more and more sclerotic, and the center falls apart.

It's a sobering experience, watching heroic doctors and scientists racing against the clock to come up with a vaccine before the mathematical certainty of the disease's spread wipes the human race out. We also see the ugly side of humanity that reacts out of fear or avarice to exploit the situation -- such as Alan Krumwiede, a blogger played by Jude law who's convinced the government is controlling the situation to maximize pharmaceutical companies' profits.

(Great throwaway line from one of his targets: "Blogging isn't writing. It's graffiti with punctuation!")

But as engaging as this method of storytelling is on an intellectual level, the film often fails to grab us emotionally. Certain well-played scenes have power -- such as when one of the central characters, a crusading scientist working to solve the problem, becomes sick -- while others just sort of lay themselves out there, heavy on information but light on visceral impact.

And there's a few too many "science montages" of test tubes spinning in a centrifuge, specimens sealed in plastic, and people hobbling around in funny-looking environmental suits. Those scenes practically needed their own theme music.

I do respect the movie for its willingness to kill off characters without regard to the status of the actor who's playing them. Some famous faces end up thrown in a pit or on an autopsy table -- the latter being incredibly life-like and gruesome.

Likewise, some people who at first seem peripheral to the story, almost background characters, subtly nudge to the fore and become critical players. This "e pluribus unum" approach gives the film a realistic authenticity.

Matt Damon plays Mitch Emhoff, an unemployed house-husband whose wife, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), is one of the earliest people to contract the bug, later dubbed MEV-1. Only a partial list of other players includes Kate Winslet as an investigator with the Center for Disease Control, Laurence Fishburne as her do-gooder boss, Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization expert, Chin Han as a Hong Kong official, Elliot Gould as a private researcher called in to help out, and Jennifer Ehle as a government researcher.

Interestingly, the movie has a few riffs on how such an outbreak might play out on the political front that tweak both the left and the right ends of the spectrum. There's some heartless corporations (are there any other kind in the movies?) looking to cash in, and at one point the nurses' union goes on strike, leaving dying patients in the lurch. Not to mention miles of government red tape to be sheared through.

Sounds crazy, but don't forget that part of the reason behind the slow response to Hurricane Katrina was that volunteer emergency workers were forced to sit through sexual harassment training before being sent to the Gulf.

"Contagion" uses an extreme situation to show us the breadth of our ragged humanity, its grace and its grubby failings. I just wish the movie could have been able to connect with hearts as well as it does heads.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Video review: "X-Men: First Class"

"X-Men: First Class" was a totally unnecessary but thoroughly engaging reboot of the super-hero franchise that kicked off the current cinematic craze for costumed do-gooders. It takes the story back in time 40 years earlier than the original film, and focuses on the relationship between Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (James McAvoy), and Erik Lehnsherr, otherwise known as Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

The motivations for the time shift are suspect. The first set of films fixed very specific timelines for Magneto and Dr. X, which would put them now in their early 80s. Fanboys tend to like their mutants young and attractive, so going back four decades accomplishes that. Even though it requires characters previously seen in the other films, like Logan and Mystique, to play the old "they're-mutants-so-they-age-slowly" card to explain their lack of aging. Convenient.

The central conflict is how mutants should view their relationship with regular humans. Magneto, a victim of Holocaust camps and Nazi torture chambers, prefers to strike the first blow in what he sees as an inevitable war. But Professor X seeks integration and acceptance. It's not unlike the divergence between the approaches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X: Both shared noble goals, with radically different methods for achieving them.

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

Please note, "X-Men: First Class" hits video stores Friday, Sept. 9.

Video extras are somewhat sparse in the DVD edition, but grow in power upon upgrading to Blu-ray.

Both versions contain "Children of the Atom," a making-of documentary split into eight featurettes touching on various aspects of production, from pre-production to special effects.

The Blu-ray version adds deleted/extended scenes and a number of goodies. There's Cerebro Mutant Tracker, with a database of mutant heroes and villains; behind-the-scenes footage and interviews about specific scenes; 10 digital X-Men comics; and a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (1990)

"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is a study in contradictions. Ostensibly a horror film, it was widely praised upon its release in 1990 as a chilling drama that gives a glimpse inside the mind of a psychopathic yet undeniably charismatic manhunter -- sort of a low-rent Hannibal Lecter in a wifebeater shirt, a year before "Silence of the Lambs" came out. Some critics called it he best film of the year.

The film's progeny is muddled. A pair of erstwhile producers gave director John McNaughton $110,000 to make a documentary about professional wrestlers of Chicago in the 1950s, but when that project fell through they told him to make a feature film instead with, according to Wikipedia, "the proviso being that it was to be a horror film with plenty of blood."

"Henry" does have a couple of pretty bloody scenes, but it's fairly tame stuff by hardcore horror standards. That didn't stop the MPAA from slapping it with an "X" rating, and subsequent ranglings over the film's content caused its release to be delayed four years after it was shot in 1986.

The film is more or less what the title implies: A character study of Henry, famously played by Michael Rooker in his breakout role. In the conception of Rooker and McNaughton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Fire, Henry is a remorseless machine who kills because he has lost all empathy for other human beings. All interaction is on some level a competition, Henry says, and it's either them or you. Henry looks upon his victims not as innocents, but as people who will harm him unless he strikes the first -- and final -- blow.

The story is closely based on the real case of Henry Lee Lucas, who may or may not have been responsible for hundreds of deaths. (Lucas' own confessions changed frequently during his long incarceration, and many legal experts consider most of his murderous stories simple boasts.) The character of Otis (Tom Towles), a cellmate and accomplice of Henry's, is modeled after Lucas' lover and collaborator, Ottis Toole, who once claimed to have participated in 108 murders with Lucas.

The character of Otis is in some ways more interesting than Henry himself. As played by Towles, Otis is a bundle of id and impulses. Hideously ugly, with grotesque teeth (Towles wore a prosthetic) and a smile like some imp spat up from hell, Otis seems to have unyielding sexual desire, including for young boys and his own sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold).

Becky comes to live in Chicago with Otis and Henry after her marriage falls apart, and finds herself stuck in something of a love triangle. Otis clearly has salacious feelings toward Becky, teasing her about her former job as a nightclub dancer and making inappropriate comments. Meanwhile, she finds herself attracted to Henry, who has a strange code of chivalry -- which he applies rather subjectively. Henry defends Becky from Otis' advances, which sets up an inevitable showdown.

The movie's most disturbing scene is a home invasion in which Henry and Otis videotape themselves slaughtering an entire family, breaking the neck of the young son who walks in on them violating his mother while his father lies bound and gagged. Then they kill the woman, and Otis begins to fondle and kiss her corpse, with clear inclinations for escalating the depravity, before Henry grows angry and makes them leave.

Henry is depicted as a sexless creature, or at least one repulsed by physical contact after being forced to watch his prostitute mother ply her trade. Sexual repression is a tried-and-true reflex for cinematic portrayals of killers, from Norman Bates in "Psycho" on down. It feels a little stale and trite.

The big question is whether Otis would have become a killer without Henry's influence. I vote no.

From a technical standpoint, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is barely amateurish. McNaughton frames his subjects clumsily and uses long, languid takes that are not a stylistic choice but simply reflect the lack of a budget for multiple takes from different angles or extensive editing. Any competent film school freshman could probably bring in a more polished final product.

But ultimately it's not the gilded frame that made "Henry" a modern horror classic, but its unblinking portrait of a remorseless killer who stares back at the audience, and forces them to turn away.

3 stars out of four