Monday, October 31, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Sunshine" and "Sunshine" (1997 & 2007)

"Sunshine," made in 1999 as a multi-national production about three generations of a Jewish family, with Ralph Fiennes portraying a trio of male leads. And "Sunshine," directed in 2007 by Danny Boyle about an international crew of scientists traveling toward the dying sun to reignite it and save mankind.

They have nothing in common other than the same title and the fact that Film Yappers Christopher Lloyd and Austin Lugar each hadn't seen one of them. As happenstance would have it, we had both watched the one the other hadn't.

Our mission: Watch the other film, and see our how opinions square up.

The Intro: Sunshine 2007

Chris: I'd liked virtually all of Danny Boyle's previous films up till then, but heard nearly all bad things about "Sunshine." It seemed rather derivative to me, a combination of "2010: The Year We Make Contact" and "Alien." Coupled with the still-too-recent memory of another slow-paced space dirge, "Solaris," I was convinced to stay away. Plus, my memory is that it came and went from local theaters in a flash.

After watching it, some of my preconceptions were reinforced while others were shattered. In terms of plot and tone, it really does bear a lot of similarity to other deep-space stories: A spaceship of humans is sent on a mission (or diverted from its mission) to explore the mysterious case of a missing ship (possibly a predecessor sent on an identical journey that failed), which suddenly reappears more or less intact.

The claustrophobia of the ship quarters and hallways, the conflicts between crew members, and the eventuality of a malevolent presence invading the ship and offing the astronauts are familiar tropes, especially evoking "Alien."

The only thing really interesting about the "Sunshine" crew is their international makeup, with a strong Asian contingent, including the captain.

Still, I found it fascinating and well-paced, until the crew reaches the sun and the plot goes kerblooie.

Austin: I'm pretty much alone in this opinion, but I really like the third act. That's when the movie becomes really exciting to me. It's one thing to establish a debate like free will vs. fate/God and it's another thing to personify those sides so they can literally combat each other. Declaring a winner makes the debate far more interesting.

The Intro: Sunshine 1999

Austin: While I've been working on my podcast, "And the Nominees Are," I've seen a lot of movies where they try to fit a character's entire life into two hours. Those films are usually based off novels that accomplished the goal in several hundred pages and the transition feels cramped. This version of "Sunshine" tries to be even more ambitious. In three hours, it tries to tell the story of three generations of men. All played by Ralph Fiennes.

The story starts in Hungary at the turn of the century. Fiennes starts by playing Ignatz Sonnenschein, a rising judge in the community. He always seems to be on the outside of political arguments about the growing level of hatred towards Jews. The real heart of his story -- pun intended -- is his controversial relationship with his cousin, who he ends up marrying.

One of their sons is Adam Sons (also played by Fiennes) who is a fencing expert skilled enough to play in the Olympics for Hungary. He too faces a forward relationship and anti-semitism. Then his son is Ivan Sors (also played by Fiennes) who is the most active in politics as he is one of the rebels of the Communist party.

Each story has an hour devoted to it, but they have the contradiction of being too much and too little at the same time. Only a few scenes per segment have the strength the movie needs. A lot of the time feels like padding to get people to the proper place. In a novel, repetition can play to its strength as motifs and themes are formed. With the span of the movie, it all feels too familiar.

Chris: I really like "Sunshine," though I admit your points about the long movie unable to devote enough time to all the characters as valid. I tended not to see it as three separate stories but an evolving, revolving look at one European family and the persecution it faces over the decades. For me, it's almost like a minor-league "Godfather" Part I and II rolled into one movie.

Main Guy: Sunshine 2007

Chris: Cillian Murphy plays Capa, the physicist whose job it is to oversee the massive payload into the sun's core, reigniting it. The payload is essentially a massive bomb comprising most of the fissile material left on Earth.

Capa slides right into the shoes of other spaceborne protagonists of this (Ripley) ilk: He is reserved but speaks up with necessary, brave but not demonstrative, dedicated to the mission but willing to embrace existential crises and man-made context when considering their actions.

In this way he is forcefully contrasted with Mace (Chris Evans), the deliberate and martial crew member ready and willing to make any sacrifice to ensure the success of their mission. The two scuffle frequently, especially when Capa makes the call to divert their ship, Icarus II, toward a rescue of Icarus I.

Capa's reasoning here is sketchy. Since the quasi-sentient ship computer estimates the payload's chance of success at only 45%, Capa figures that two shots is better than one. But this ignores two critical pieces of logic:
  1. Whatever force, internal or external, that derailed Icarus I seven years earlier is likely to affect their ship, too, if their vessel becomes compromised. This is exactly what unfolds, as the insane and horribly burned captain of the first ship, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), sabotages the Icarus II and kills much of the crew.
  2. Why couldn't they deliver their payload, and only if it is unsuccessful seek out the Icarus I for a second try?
Austin: I've never been the biggest fan of Cillian Murphy. He always serves his purpose, but never impresses me. I did like how he didn't try to be too heroic with the character; he almost played it down. The first leap of logic was a gamble on their part. The second makes sense to me in a sci-fi way. It's easier to break a window with a big rock instead of throwing two small rocks at different times. To me, the guy who stole the show was Chris Evans. What an unexpected performance by him, especially at this time.

Main Guy: Sunshine 1999

Austin: This is an actor's dream: play three different characters linked by linage. There is so much room for nuance, but I never got that feel from Fiennes. I saw more of a difference between the men through the costume choices and the degree of their stubbornness. Fiennes can be a great actor when his range is better understood. He just felt flat the whole time during this movie.

When the characters really came through is when they were more focused on their emotional journeys instead of their political ones. I never cared about Ignatz being a judge, but his messed up marriage felt a lot stronger. Adam as a fencer was better than Adam during the war. Ivan struggling to interrogate his friend was better than him as an activist. They each only had an hour, but there still felt like there dramatic shifts of interest.

Chris: There's a certain remoteness to Fiennes in most of his performances; you always feel like there's a veil his characters are drawing up against anyone who might peer too closely at them. I thought that quality well-served him in this film, especially when playing the judge.

Guys Behind the Camera: Sunshine 2007

Chris:Visually, "Sunshine" is quite spectacular in a contemplative sort of way. The scenes in the observation deck where the crew can stare straight at the sun -- shielded to 2% of its power in order to protect their eyes -- are the signature image from the film.

Boyle displays a less than sure hand in shooting many of the "hardware" scenes endemic to the science fiction genre. The spaceships largely remain confusing masses of metal spires, and we never quite comprehend exactly what fits where. The scene where Capa separates the Icarus II from its payload and then blasts himself across the gulf between them in a golden spacesuit is meant to be the action high point of the film, but I had to stop and rewind several times just to grasp exactly what was happening.

The screenplay by Alex Garland similarly loses its way. Much of this is found in the figure of Pinbacker, who apparently went nuts with some sort of religious-inspired fever. He incinerated his crew in their observation room by cranking down the shield, and he himself looks like a well-done side of beef, his flesh largely seared away from his body.

But how did Pinbacker survive for seven years without food? Why does he seemingly have super-human strength? There are even shots were Pinbacker seems to blur, suggesting that he's somehow morphed into a being caught somewhere between the physical world and a plane of energy. What exactly drove him bonkers?

The movie never really attempts an explanation, beyond a lot of mumbo-jumbo about talking to God.

Austin: Whenever a sci-fi movie has any sort of reality struggles, I just think back to Rob Lowe in "Thank You For Smoking." Aaron Eckhart questions whether or not they can have sci-fi characters be able to smoke in an all oxygen environment and Lowe says, "One line of dialog. 'Thank God we invented the whatever device." In this case it's less sci-fi and more religious. Pinbacker stayed alive because God did not want the sun to be saved.

Guys Behind the Camera: Sunshine 1999

Austin: It's weird that I never heard about this film before talking to Chris. This is a three hour World War II epic starring some of the most respected actors of our time including Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz and William Hurt. Why else do the Oscars exist but to honor a film like this? Really, I think it's forgotten because of how unemotional it is.

The director is a man named István Szabó who has made a lot of films in his home country but only a few here in America. His most popular film is "Being Julia", which is mostly known for being the movie where Annette Benning lost to Hilary Swank for Best Actress ... again. A story of this scale really ought to be important cinema, but it missed the mark. In an attempt to be educational with the history, it ends up being too dry to make an impact.

The ending really shows what an odd film this is. There is this sense of romanticism and connectivity with the generations that isn't like anything else we've seen. Where was that for the first 170 minutes? I appreciated it near the end, but it still didn't work because I never cared about the characters enough. The plot was never strong enough for the characters. A stronger director could have created a proper balance, but instead there is awkwardness.

Chris: I guess I felt a stronger emotional tie to this film than you, Austin. The early romance seemed quite passionate to me, and the scene where Fiennes is tied up by the Germans and sprayed with a water house and left to freeze to death in the bitter cold still brings a lump to my throat. I often wonder what he was thinking at that moment, or if he felt his loyalty was worth the price being paid, even as those to whom he gave his allegiance proved most unworthy.

Final Word: Sunshine 2007

Chris: "Sunshine" is 75% of a really good movie. Although its pacing is ... shall we say, "deliberate" is the kind term, it's a reflective, thought-provoking film filled with wonderful images and dark moods.

Alas, it contains some plot holes you can drive the Icarus II through, and the last 30 minutes or so runs right off the rails. For almost two hours, "Sunshine" made me think, and the last act made me scratch my head.

Austin: I really dig this movie. It remains my favorite Danny Boyle film. So many films create an uneasy atmosphere in space, but this took it a step further by having a great story with it. This is just making me want to watch it again.

Final Word: Sunshine 1999

Austin: When it comes to World War II epics, this is Ralph Fiennes's fourth best. It relies too much on its backdrop to be relevant that it misses out the family at the center. When there is that much distance created, it questions what did the filmmaker really want to focus on? Either this is an muddled political movie or it's a static family drama with some moments of true possibility.

Chris: I really think "Sunshine" is a minor gem, one of those movies I always mention when people ask me for the names of great movies nobody's ever heard of. "Red Rock West" and "Fresh" are two others.

Sunshine 2007

Chris: 2.5 stars out of four
Austin: 3.5 stars

Sunshine 1999

Austin: 2 stars
Chris: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: "Anonymous"

"Anonymous" is being hyped as a conspiracy theory story, the gist being that William Shakespeare was not actually the author of all those flowery plays and sonnets. This is not a new idea, as Shakespeare was a commoner of humble schooling, and the Brits retain their class snobbery.

The most common theory I've heard is that his contemporary and fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe, actually penned "Hamlet" and all the other great works. Marlowe is present in this movie as a minor antagonist, but he's not presented as Shakespeare's doppelganger.

Instead, it's nobleman Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who allowed an actor named Shakespeare to be his frontman. This Oxfordian Theory is dismissed by most literary authorities as loony -- literally, Looney, after the English schoolteacher who came up with it.

But this film is not really about promoting an alternate theory of authorship so much as presenting an intriguing (if unlikely) scenario and seeing how it would play out. It makes for a ripping good story, whether or not it's factual.

For those offended at the idea of director Roland Emmerich taking liberties with the biography of a beloved artist, consider the long cinematic tradition of this M.O. Start with "Shakespeare in Love," which won a Best Picture Oscar for a wholly fictitious take on the Bard's love life. Or "Amadeus." Or "Lust for Life."

In some ways, crafting a fantasy out of the life of an artist is the ultimate tribute to their creativity.

And to those still doing a double-take from two paragraphs above -- yes, this sumptuous period piece is from the filmmaker behind "The Day After Tomorrow," "Independence Day," "2012" and other schlocky blockbusters. All I can say is the German director has traded in disaster flicks for straightforward drama, and takes to it like a duck to water.

Rhys Ifans plays Oxford, a haughty middle-aged lord who summons young Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), a struggling young writer, to make him an offer.

(Interesting that they call themselves writers, rather than playwrights -- back in Elizabethan times, if you wrote for a living it was plays, or sonnets or poems. Books were too expensive to print to be the basis of a vocation. And newspapers and magazines were still a ways off.)

The earl desperately wants to see his work performed, but his station does not allow him the luxury of being an artist. His idea is to have Jonson pose as the author. Unfortunately, Jonson confides in his friend Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a bumbling actor who cannot even write his own name.

Shakespeare suggests he serve as a further buffer between the mysterious nobleman, and jumps at an opportunity to become the most celebrated writer in London.

The story (screenplay by John Orloff) jumps back in forth in time to 40 years previously, when Oxford was a young lord who caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth (played by Joely Richardson as a young woman and by Vanessa Redgrave late in life). The later tale is dominated by a struggle over succession made by a couple of young lords, the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Essex.

In both parallel stories it is the Cecil family of royal advisors, first William (David Thewlis) and then his son Robert (Edward Hogg) who act as Svengali to Elizabeth, manipulating her and twisting events to suit their purposes. Like many villains depicted from this era, they are Puritans who use religion as both shield and weapon.

It is true that "Anonymous" has a very large cast that can often be hard to keep track of. There are also several shocking revelations about hidden ties between various parties, which are as unlikely as someone else writing Shakespeare's plays but still have a delicious impact on their own.

Shakespeare himself remains a rather minor character, which is further evidence that Emmerich and Orloff see the whole Oxfordian Theory as a mere jumping-off point for a great story, rather than the crux of their movie.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Video review: "Captain America: The First Avenger"

“Captain America: The First Avenger” surprised me by not being awful. Fitfully entertaining in spurts, even. Coming off a summer of super-hero flicks that ranged from awful (“Green Lantern”) to pretty good (“Thor”), “Captain America” exceeded low expectations.

At 124 minutes, it's the rare summer blockbuster that doesn't seem like it's either in a dreadful hurry or languidly dragging its feet. The filmmakers take the time to set up the main character -- it's more than an hour in before Captain America debuts in a fight against the Nazis.

And yet the movie doesn’t dawdle; it simply takes its time establishing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as a weakling who gets a chance to stand up to bullies after being zapped with the Super Soldier Serum during World War II. Nazis being the biggest bullies of all, they soon get their comeuppance at the hands of Captain America and his indestructible shield.

Speaking of that iconic red, white and blue shield – could somebody explain why it returns to him after he throws it at bad guys? Yes, we learn it's vibranium, the rarest substance on earth, and can absorb any shock. Still doesn't explain the boomerang-ism.

The physical transformation of Rogers from 90-pound asthmatic to hulking super-human is an example of well-done CGI. And Hugo Weaving is excellent as baddie Red Skull, whose moniker isn’t just a nickname.

The movie kind of loses its way in the second half, though, and there’s an annoying romance with a British spy (Hayley Atwell) that’s a long, unnecessary slog. And the plot has to jump through a lot of unconvincing gymnastics so Rogers can be frozen in ice for convenient thawing 70 years later, when sequels and “Avengers” tie-ins are in the offing.

I can’t quite recommend “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but there’s potential there. This character has a future.

Disc features are scrawny on DVD – consisting of just a couple of making-of featurettes – but beef up for Blu-ray.

On Blu-ray, the filmmakers, including director Joe Johnston, team up for a feature-length commentary track. There are also a half-dozen or so making-of featurettes.

My favorite was the one about the evolution of the protagonist’s costume; they demonstrated the unfeasibility of the comic-book version of his duds by having him wear an exact replica of them during Captain America’s debut as a USO entertainer.

The Blu-ray also has deleted scenes and a digital copy of the movie.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars out of four

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Tom Horn" (1980)

There are the bones of a great story inside "Tom Horn," Steve McQueen's disappointing next-to-last film. But it's buried down deep in a desert of cinematic ineptitude, in between a TV hack of a director and a pair of screenwriters who seemed more motivated to deliver a star vehicle for McQueen than tell a gripping story.

McQueen was one of Hollywood's most iconic stars of the 1960s and '70s, but in his latter years he seemed to grow disinterested from movie-making entirely. He retired, sort of, reappeared for the lure of big money for a cameo in "The Towering Inferno," made a couple of flicks nobody saw, and was being offered ungodly sums for various big-budget projects, turning them all down. Then he quickly made his last two films, "Tom Horn" and "The Hunter," before dying in 1980 at age 50.

Having worked with some of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers, I can only guess why McQueen chose to have "Tom Horn" directed by William Wiard, a television veteran with zero film credits before (or after) this movie. Script men Thomas McGuane and Bud Shrake similarly fail to acquit themselves with anymore more than ham-handed Western tropes and one of the most astonishingly unconvincing romances in cinematic history.

The film chronicles the last days of Tom Horn, a tracker, interpreter, ersatz lawman and assassin, with plenty of historical facts on its side.

Tom Horn was called the man who captured Geronimo, but the truth is a number of men helped bring in the legendary Indian chief, who ultimately surrendered himself after several fits and starts. Tom got involved in various scrapes between parties establishing the order of the dying Old West, as cattlemen who favored the free ranges butted up against the increasingly settled townships and farmlands.

As the movie opens, Tom is wandering without purpose. He gets into town, and while drinking a whiskey at the saloon manages to insult boxer "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, getting his tail handed to him in the ensuing melee. Tom actually runs from the encounter, cementing his position as a man who never initiates violence, even if he has spent his life putting an end to it, usually as the last one standing.

He's approached by John Coble, a member of the wealthy cattlemen's association played by the great character actor Richard Farnsworth. The association is tired of having their stock rustled and sold off, and want Tom to put an end to it. The hire him as a "cattle detective" to hunt down and deal with any rustlers -- arrest if possible, but killing is preferred.

At first things go well, as Tom's hard-won prowess is too much for the rustlers. But the townsfolk quickly become horrified by his brutal but effective killing. After being attacked in town, Tom wounds his would-be assassin, then casually walks up to him lying on the ground and finishes him off with a rifle shot to the head. The association realize this can only hurt their station and prospects.

This is where things go narratively askew. If the association wanted Horn gone, why didn't they simply pay him off and order him to move along? Given Tom's innate amiableness -- despite his ruthlessness with a gun -- its seems likely Coble could've convinced him to vamoose.

Instead, a local boy is shot under mysterious circumstances with a .45-60, the rare type of rifle used by Tom. Based upon only this happenstance and a conversation between Tom and the politically ambitious marshal, Joe Belle (Billy Green Bush), overheard by a local reporter, Tom is convicted and hanged.

The film is passable during the first hour or so, as a ham-handedly but often effective contemplation on the dying of the frontier days. Tom says he does not fear death, but he is afraid of losing the ability to come and go as he pleases, and live in the rough hills that are a home to him.

Once the trial starts, though, the film loses its way. Tom pays little attention to the proceedings, having daydreams about a romance with local teacher Gwendolene Kimmel (Linda Evans). I'm not exactly sure when this supposed relationship took place, since we never learn about it until after the time period when it was supposed to have occurred has passed. It's possible that Tom's musing remembrances are merely a fantasy about the life he could have had.

In any case, the pairing is fleeting and bewildering. Gwendolene practically throws herself into the cowboy's arms, that abruptly rejects him for his nomadic lifestyle.

Also less than completely realizes is the character of Sam Creedmore, the salty old sheriff played by Slim Pickens recruited to capture and imprison Tom during his trial. They talk to each other as if they've been friends or at least colleagues all their lives, but nothing is indicated that they even met before. Maybe Tom should've been having flashbacks about his jailer instead of the school teacher.

McQueen's performance is perhaps the film's only saving grace. With his ambling walk, unembellished skill at killing and quick-patterned speech, McQueen draws a portrait of a man who refused to walk away from his fate, even if he did not exactly embrace it. He was a certified minimalist as a performer, preferring to let actions and long glances take the place of big-scale emoting and loquacious dialogue.

I sometimes think McQueen would've been happier making movies in the silent era, when talking was considered overrated. Look at "Le Mans," the racing movie in which I don't think McQueen utters a single word for the first 45 minutes.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: "Margin Call"

At the beginning of "Margin Call," we meet a man we think must surely be the most loathsome creature ever to roam the Earth.

Sam Rogers is the head of the New York branch of a huge corporation that has just laid off 80 percent of its stock traders. Though he weeps openly for his dog dying of liver cancer, he spares not a moment's thought for the dozens of human lives he has just thrown into turmoil. Rallying the remaining troops, even forcing them to applaud themselves, Sam gives a speech:
"They were good people and they were good at their jobs. But you were better. Now they're gone. They are not to be thought of again."
Turns out, Sam is the hero and moral conscience of this story.

Sam is played by Kevin Spacey, who has a gift for portraying men lacking a moral compass. But as a devoted company man with 34 years of loyalty, even Sam is repulsed by what his bosses ask him to do to save the firm. Not because he's opposed to cutting throats when necessary, but because he's been around long enough to know if you slit too many of your customers' throats, nobody will buy from you again.

This edgy, terrific indie drama comes from first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor, making the sort of debut that bellows at the arrival of a major new talent.

He's helped, of course, by a dream cast that includes not only Spacey but Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker and Stanley Tucci. It would be easy to say that it's hard to screw up with a cast like that, but plenty of other films have had the talent but not the tools -- solid storytelling -- to bring it all together.

"Margin Call" does.

It's set about four years ago, at the beginning of the Great Recession, and the company in question is a not-too-thinly-veiled reflection of Lehman Brothers. A century-old firm known for never losing money on a deal, it calculates debt and risk on home mortgages like chips in a massive pile on a poker table, never considering that these are real people with real futures at stake. Until, that is, their cards come up wrong.

Chandor doesn't get too far into the thickets on the specifics of the bad debt that threatens to tip the company over. His film is more concerned with the personalities involved in rationalizing the sort of insane gamble that seemingly conservative firms took in pursuit of ever more profit.

Things get rolling when Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a senior risk analyst, is among those who get the axe. He's been working on something big, and before he takes his last walk out the door -- escorted by a beefy security goon -- he passes his findings on to a young hotshot, Peter Sullivan (Quinto).

Peter quickly puts it all together, and alerts his boss, who calls in Sam, who brings in his superior, and so on. It all plays out in the middle of one night, with ever-bigger executives flying in on the company helicopter. Just when you think the newest one is the worst yet, another guy swoops in (literally) to do him one better.

Bettany is very good as Will Emerson, Sam's number two guy who's closer in age to the young guns like Peter, but puts even Sam's cold-eyed calculations to shame. Will is utterly loyal to Sam ... as long as the percentages favor him.

John Tuld (Irons) is the last to arrive, and makes the biggest show of ruthlessness. If his underlings are willing to make other individuals suffer to earn the company a few dollars more, the CEO will happily flush all of Wall Street down the drain, as long as it's his hand on the handle.

"It's just money. It's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat," Tuld says.

With its tight bookends of a single location on one tumultuous night, and pressure cooker of a business setting, "Margin Call" resembles a stage play. It reminded me very much of "Glengarry Glen Ross" (in which Spacey also starred), about a bunch of real estate salesmen under the gun.

"Margin Call" takes place about 15 spaces up the corporate ladder, the suits are much more expensive, and the guns are big enough to blow a hole in the entire financial system.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Video review: "A Better Life"

The best movie of 2011 nobody's heard of is "A Better Life." This drama from director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") and screenwriter Eric Eason takes a wrenching and evocative look at the debate over illegal immigration, but chooses to frame itself as a human story rather than a political diatribe.

Demián Bichir plays Carlos, a middle-aged single father who's been living in the U.S. illegally for more than a decade. He speaks perfect English, has a steady job as a gardener, and tries to be the best parent he can to his son Luis (José Julián), who's at that stage in teendom when fathers suddenly become an unendurable embarrassment.

Carlos is presented with an opportunity: His boss is moving back to Mexico, and offers to sell him the truck and client list. Carlos scrapes together the money, but then tragedy strikes when a day laborer he hires to help him -- much the same way Carlos got his start years earlier -- steals the truck.

Carlos is unable to turn to the authorities for help -- the moment where Carlos, running after the truck, spots a policeman and realizes he cannot approach him is a gobsmacking moment.

Self-consciously recalling the Italian film "The Bicycle Thief," Carlos and Luis must find the truck or risk seeing their meager happiness crumble. Their journey takes them to the highs and lows of Los Angeles, pulling back the veil on the tawdry fear and undying hope woven into the fabric of the immigrant community.

"A Better Life" is a portrait of the American Dream, as it actually is rather than how we would like it to be.

Video extras are passable, but nothing to write home about. Features are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions.

Weitz contributes a feature-length commentary track. There are also several deleted scenes and a music video by Ozomatli.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars out of four

Monday, October 17, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Yellow Sky" (1948)

"Yellow Sky" is one of those movies that is about much more than the superficial story on the screen. Ostensibly it's a Western about a group of desperadoes who stumble upon a gold miner and his tomboy granddaughter in the remote desert, setting up a standoff in which the bandits make designs on a fortune in gold dust.

But the film, directed by William A. Wellman, is more about lust -- lust for gold, lust for sex, and most every other type of yearning mortal man can conjure. Each character in some way lusts for something or other that they cannot have, and only by giving up their avarice can they hope to find any peace.

Gregory Peck, in one of his rare villainous roles -- well, he starts out bad, anyway -- plays "Stretch" Dawson, leader of a gang of seven thieves. The opening sequence pretty well defines their M.O.: They ride into a town, belly up to the saloon bar and inquire about the marshal's whereabouts. Determining he's away on business, they casually saunter over to the bank and rob it.

It seems like easy pickings, but the cavalry soon gives chase, picking off one of the gang. Desperate, they ride into the nearby salt flats to escape. The men are fearful about crossing 70 miles of barren desert, but Stretch insists "it's just a place. It can be crossed."

Though hardly important narratively, the desert sequence is highly evocative in fleshing out the members of the gang. Stretch is taciturn and stern, and is most concerned with protecting his status as leader. "I don't like voting," Stretch says repeatedly whenever they talk about letting democracy rule their actions.

His number two is Dude, played by Richard Widmark. Widmark was one of those actors who bounced between playing authority figures and villains, and was always most interesting as an evil-doer. Something about his large forehead, slitted eyes and prominent cheekbones gave him the appearance of a death's head -- particularly when he smiled. Richard Widmark smiling is one of the most unsettling things you'll ever seen in a movie.

Dude dresses like something of a dandy, but has no taste for women. As he reveals to Stretch in a quiet moment, he used to own a ranch and have a girl, but when he was shot and robbed she left him. With only one working lung, Dude is incapable of physical labor. He wants to become so rich he'll never have to sweat again -- and rub it in the face of the people who same him descend into failure.

Harry Morgan, forever Col. Potter from "M*A*S*H*," has a small role as Half Pint, an undersized cowpoke with a quick smile and an affinity for animals. Lengthy (John Russell) is the hothead of the bunch. Bull Run (Robert Arthur) is the youngest bandit, because it is an unwritten rule in Westerns that when more than three people throw in together, one of them must be a tenderfoot.

Charles Kemper has a memorable role as Walrus, the tubby, bearded older cowboy who serves as both comic relief and ready-made pragmatist, ready to blow with the wind.

In the desert Walrus is threatened with death, because he filled his canteen with whiskey back in town. He offers to trade some booze for water, plaintively begging that he will die soon without it, but no one will give him a drink. Stretch seems unbothered by the idea of Walrus dying of thirst, relegating it as a simple matter of a man living with his own poor choice.

They make it through the desert, and come across the ghost town of Yellow Sky. Once booming with money from silver mines, things dried up awhile ago. But an old man (James Barton) and his granddaughter Mike (Anne Baxter) are still around. After slaking their thirst, the thieves' minds quickly turn to questioning why two people would stick it out alone unless they had something to show for it.

The overt sexuality of the movie is pretty striking by 1948 standards. All the men except for Dude quickly take a shine to Mike (Constance Mae is her real name), with animosity brewing as they vie for a place at the front of what they clearly believe will become a line.

Stretch orders them to leave the old man and girl alone, but doesn't follow his own orders. In one creepy scene, he tackles Mike and pins her down, forcibly kissing her. He gets up and quips something about just wanting to show her what he's capable of, but it clearly was the beginning of a sexual assault.

Mike, though, is a deadeye with her rifle, and parts Stretch's hair with a well-aimed bullet as warning/retribution. Inevitably, though, Mike finds herself drawn to Stretch. She's lived alone with just her grandpa since she was a girl, and Baxter's portrayal of a young woman's unmet raging desires surely brought a blush to audiences' cheeks back in the day.

Even the old man has desires. He's been mining gold dust mote by mote for more than 15 years, and has $50,000 worth saved up -- not for the wealth, but so he can revive the town of Yellow Sky again. Once the bandits' motives become clear, he offers to split the take with them, which Stretch agrees to out of sheer convenience, and perhaps because he's taken a shine to Mike.

Dude isn't having any of it, though, and usurps the leadership of the gang. Bull Run is killed in the ensuing melee, and Walrus and Half Pint don't really have a stake one way or the other, simply following the leadership of whoever seems to be in the strongest position at any given moment.

Stretch's transformation into a well-meaning fellow who sticks by his word isn't terribly convincing, nor is the seemingly pasted-on happy ending, where Stretch and what's left of his gang return the money they stole from the bank. Old habits die hard, though, and Stretch forces the bank workers and customers to hold up their hands at gunpoint, before realizing how silly this is.

The screenplay by Lamar Trotti was based on an unpublished book by W.R. Burnett. According to the film's Wikipedia page, the story is loosely based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest," but it must be pretty loose indeed. The old man in "Yellow Sky" has no sorcerous powers, unless you count his affinity with the local Apache.

The cinematography by Joseph MacDonald is terrific, with a lot of bright whites and high contrasts that make the scenes seem parched and arid.

"Yellow Sky" is a solid Western, but it's even better when considered for its subtext.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: "The Thing"

Let me confess right up front that "The Thing" has a high bar to hurdle for me -- I absolutely adore John Carpenter's spare, minimalist 1982 sci-fi thriller/horror film. So any remake has to square off with outsized expectations left over from my childhood.

Though "remake" isn't quite right. This new movie from Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and screenwriter Eric Heisserer is set in the days leading up to the events in the '82 flick. You may remember it opened with a couple of Norwegians chasing a dog across the frozen Antarctica tundra in a helicopter, trying to kill it. They chase it into an American scientific outpost and are themselves slain in the ensuing melee.

Carpenter's movie was the real remake, of 1951's "The Thing from Another World." Both the '51 and '82 pictures were based on a novella about a shape-shifting alien by John W. Campbell Jr., though the latter of the two is more loyal to the book.

Got all that? So this new movie is a prequel of a quasi-remake of a film adapted from a novella.

Van Heijningen is a feature film rookie, and it shows. He seems to want to channel Carpenter's aesthetic -- even opening and closing his movie with a variation on Ennio Morricone's pulsing theme music -- but abandons it again and again for the convenience of the plot.

For example, one of the great things about the original (which is what I'll call the 1982 film for our purposes) was the sense of absolute and total isolation. Cut off from the rest of the world and unable to communicate, there was a sense of raised stakes -- no rescue is coming, because no one even knows what's going on.

Right away, the filmmakers undermine this by showing Sanders (Ulrich Thomsen), an unctuous scientist, recruiting young American hotshot Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to come dig something mysterious out of the ice. It seems Sanders has been tipped off by his Norwegian colleagues about stumbling across a whole massive spaceship buried under a glacier.

If word had gotten out to the outside world, there's simply no way it would have remained a secret for long. At the very least, Kate or Sanders or his assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) would've at least mentioned where they were going to somebody.

Another thing I liked about Carpenter's version is that we never really learn anything personal about the motley crew of (all) men, yet simply based on how they're played by the actors and how their characters react to the threat, they're completely distinctive.

Here, there's a huge cast that gets lost in the shuffle. The Norwegians quickly become a flaxen-haired blur. Fortunately, the creature soon starts thinning them down to a manageable level.

Speaking of the creature effects, they're pretty good and pretty gory, for those who are into that sort of thing. But they're not markedly better than Carpenter's flick, which is pretty astonishing considering the nearly three-decade technology gap. The filmmakers stick to physical special effects to a large degree, with some CG animation thrown in.

Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (best known as Mr. Eko from TV's "Lost") pop up as a pair of American pilots who could get up in the Euromess. (Funny that, casting an Aussie and a Brit as Yanks.)

The movie doesn't quite know what to do with them, and for a bit we think Edgerton is going to morph into the Kurt Russell role. But that more or less belongs to Kate, who's always a couple of steps ahead of the guys in figuring out the boogums needs to be exterminated, not experimented upon.

Maybe she learned everything she knows about the alien from the last movie.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Video review: "Green Lantern"

"Green Lantern" is one of the weakest comic book superhero adaptations we've had in awhile, but I still couldn't quite bring myself to hate it. Sigh with disappointment, maybe, but the strongest feeling I had was the lack of one: I was colossally indifferent to this movie.
Part of it is Ryan Reynolds. I've seen Reynolds do good work, but he's started down an unfortunate career path that I'm not sure he can pull out of. He always plays the glib, fast-talking charmer who comes to realize he's out of his depth, and (usually) rises to the occasion.

I've seen this guy many times now, and I don't like him.

Here he plays Hal Jordan, a reckless and cocky test pilot who encounters a dying alien who bequeaths him a ring of power. It seems the Green Lantern Corp patrols the farthest reaches of the universe, 3,600 of them in all, and Hal's been tapped to take over this neck of the woods.

Alas, Parallax -- the ancient enemy of the Corp -- is released and begins wreaking havoc, manifesting as a giant blob of space goo. Some of his space goo finds its way to Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a nerdy scientist and childhood friend of Hal's, causing his head to swell to melon size and gifting him with telekinetic powers.

With his ring Hal can fly and create objects out of green energy, which is the Force-like energy generated by the willpower of all living creatures.

I certainly don't have the willpower to sit through "Green Lantern" again.

Video extras are quite paltry for DVD, but improve quite a bit with Blu-ray. The DVD has only promotional pitches for you: a preview of a Justice League digital comic and another for the Green Lantern animated TV show.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack adds two making-of documentaries, one about the Green Lantern universe and another about casting Reynolds in the green-and-black suit. There's also an extended cut of the film and deleted scenes. The centerpiece is a picture-in-picture mode with video pods with tidbits about production.

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, October 10, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Footloose" (1984)

For such an iconic film, "Footloose" is a strange bird of a movie. Most people remember it as a rock 'n' roll flick about a kid who brings back dancing to an uptight Midwestern town where the local preacher has successfully had it banned. The songs, the now painfully dated clothes and dance moves and the Rebellion Lite mood have it positioned in most people's minds as a delightful confection.

Basically, it's thought of as a music video -- back when MTV still played those things -- with a hip teenage movie wrapped around it.

Those are the parts that interested me least upon watching "Footloose" for the very first time. (Yes, I know, how can any self-respecting Generation Xer have missed it? The same way I've never seen "Dirty Dancing": They were movies about dancing at a time I was doing everything in my power to avoid it. I was probably trying to sneak into some horror flick instead.)

What I liked most about the film is the stuff most critics seemed to hate at the time of the film's original release: The more contemplative sequences devoted to the preacher, Shaw Moore. I think it's one of John Lithgow's best performances, as a conflicted man of God who swings between righteous certitude and soul-crushing doubt.

Quite frankly, I would love to have seen the same story told from the perspective of the preacher: A man who's devoted his life to binding the community together after the tragic loss of his own son, only to see the entire town and even his daughter stirred up by some cocky young interloper.

Diane Wiest also has a terrific role as Moore's wife, a woman whose position as preacher's wife requires her to linger in his shadow, but isn't afraid to give him counsel and try to nudge him toward the light of modernity.

I feel compelled to point out that Lithgow was only 38 years old when "Footloose" came out, while star Kevin Bacon was 25. Bacon's co-star Lori Singer was a year older, which made her a mere 12 years younger than the actor playing her father, and only nine years older than Wiest, playing he onscreen mother.

Two years earlier, Bacon had gotten his big break in Barry Levinson's "Diner," in a story of a bunch of guys facing post-college angst. Now here he is trying to look 17 -- though I'll admit the transformation is more convincing than a lot of stuff you see.

(At least Chris Penn and Sarah Jessica Parker, both memorable in supporting roles that kick-started their careers, were each 18 when the film debuted.) 

I think the reason studios usually decline to cast actual teenagers in high school movie is that they don't feel they can find actors that age who have the acting chops to pull it off. That, and most people tend to romanticize those years, forgetting the pimples, awkwardness and depression that are what most people actually experience. Better to wait until they're 25, their complexions have cleared up and their bodies filled out.

Filled out, that is, except for Singer, whose costumes emphasized her scary-skinny physique. There are several scenes where she looks downright anorexic.

Singer's role as Ariel, the prototypical rebellious preacher's daughter, is all over the map. She acts sweet and virginal around her parents, but becomes a near-psychotic hellion while hanging with her friends. The early sequence where she balances with one foot each on two speeding cars as a tractor-trailer barrels down on them is totally nutso. As is the bit where she stands in front of an oncoming train screaming her head off, waiting for Bacon's new kid in town, Ren, to save her.

There's actually not all that much dancing in "Footloose." Ren has a big solo dance scene inside the trainyard, where he begins leaping and swinging all over the place like a champion gymnast, that's totally ridiculous -- and not just because the cutaways to Bacon's (several) body doubles are so ham-handedly obvious.

Director Herbert Ross, who had a long and productive career including "The Goodbye Girl," "The Sunshine Boys" and "Steel Magnolias," lets the tone of the movie slip and slide all over the place. The main character, Ren, is actually one of the least interesting people onscreen -- not due to Bacon, but simply because the script doesn't really give him much to do. He ends up falling back on a more or less generic James Dean type of persona, but less angry.

Too many false notes doom "Footloose," giving me little hope this week's remake will be any better.

2 stars out of four

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: "Machine Gun Preacher"

"Machine Gun Preacher" is one of those stories that if it wasn't based on reality, few people would buy it.

Gerard Butler plays Sam Childers, a biker hoodlum who goes straight after discovering Jesus, and builds a church across the street from his house for sinners like himself. This would be enough for most movies, but for "Preacher" it's a mere jumping-off point: Sam goes to Uganda, is repulsed by the bloody civil war spilling over there from Sudan, and dedicates his life to establishing and protecting an orphanage.

But Sam is no pacifist "lamb of God" type of preacher -- he believes the Lord wants not sheep, but wolves with teeth who can fight the evildoers. The film's title is not just hyperbole: Sam gets into frequent firefights, and mows down more bad guys than the first couple of Rambo flicks.

Director Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland") and screenwriter (and Indianapolis native) Jason Keller curiously do not focus too much on the right or wrong of this American bringing the fight to the rebels, who kill wantonly and kidnap children to fight for them as enslaved soldiers. It's more an interior exploration of Sam, and the toll a life of such fierce commitment to a cause takes on his family and psyche.

The bad guys are referred to as simply the LRA, but after a bit of Googling I discover that stands for Lord's Resistance Army. It turns out the Sudanese rebels, led by self-described mystic Joseph Kony, are Christians who follow an apocalyptic form of the religion based on a particularly harsh (mis)interpretation of the Ten Commandments.

This would make for an interesting dichotomy, the two holy men each fighting for their version of the Bible. Forster and Keller briefly flirt with this direction, personified by a female doctor who points out that Kony started out much as Sam did, professing to save the members of his flock from the depravity of the other side.

But as soon as "Machine Gun Preacher" looks like it's going to tackle some tough issues, and really put its protagonist under a microscope, it pulls back and settles for familiar tropes, such as Sam's wife (Michelle Monaghan) calling to complain that he never spends time with his family, they're running out of money, etc.
Not 30 minutes earlier, she was telling Sam to suck it up after the rebels burned down the orphanage, calling it a test from God and to just build it all over again.

Michael Shannon adds a few notes as Donnie, Sam's former running buddy who can't shake off the lure of drugs and crime as easily as Sam did. But his character flits in and out of the story in a seemingly arbitrary way.

Butler is a fiery presence as Sam, and some of the scenes where he witnesses the atrocities of war -- one woman is brought in to the clinic with her lips hacked off, for having talked back to rebel soldiers -- have a genuine visceral punch.

But for much of the time, "Machine Gun Preacher" is curiously flat and wandering. It seems to think that by simply presenting the reality of a colorful man, you don't need to do anything else.

2 stars out of four

Review: "Real Steel"

With "Real Steel," I was expecting a slick and soulless bit of computer-generated mayhem. The story is set about a decade or so in the future, where regular human boxing has been outlawed and the only kind allowed is between 2,000-pound robots.

In other words, "Rocky" meets "Transformers."

What I got instead was a tender and treacly tale about a no-account father bonding with his long-lost (well, abandoned) son. If anything, the movie went too far in the other direction from my expectations . Instead of being overly reliant on special effects for cheap action thrills, it's really a somewhat maudlin story with an excess of gooey emotions.

So, "Transformers" meets "The Champ."

Hugh Jackman plays the dad, Charlie Kenton, a former fighter who always went for the knockout -- and got it a lot, but also ended up on the mat a lot. He's much the same as a robot owner/manager, always seeking the big payoff in the big fight when what he really needs is a few sure things under his belt.

Dakota Goyo plays Max, the son he's barely even met. When his mother dies, it's up to the courts to decide if Max goes with Charlie or with his rich aunt (Hope Davis). Charlie extorts 50 grand out of his sister-in-law's husband to give up custody, but not until the end of summer so they can enjoy a swanky European vacation.

It's all just an excuse to get Charlie on the road with Max, hustling fights and trying to keep their last aging robot on its feet. Charlie uses the extortion money to buy a fancy, famous robot named Noisy Boy, but doesn't even bother to learn the functions of the gizmo's voice command system before pitting him against an opponent against which he's clearly overmatched.

Soon Charlie and Max are out of robots, with a killer cowboy named Ricky on their tail for the money he's owed. Ricky is played by Kevin Durand, who can just look into the camera for three seconds and be scary.

Then Max stumbles upon an old rust-bucket robot buried in a junkyard, names him Atom and proceeds to train him with his dad's reluctant help, putting them on an unlikely path to the championship fight.

The best thing about "Real Steel" are the robots, which seem to convincingly occupy the same space as the humans. Using a combination of CGI and animatronics, they're hefty, clanky behemoths that not coincidentally resemble giant versions of the old Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.

Robot boxing is perhaps the logical evolution of cinematic boxing. People have often complained that more punches are landed in a single round of a movie bout than a dozen real ones -- no human can take such punishment. With mammoth metal automatons, it stands to reason they can take a licking.

Especially Atom. One of the curious things about the story (screenplay by John Gatins, based on a sci-fi story from the 1950s by Richard Matheson) is that Atom's origins remain stubbornly mysterious. He's an older-generation robot, but boasts a few cutting-edge tricks like a "shadow function" that allows him to mimic Charlie's boxing moves. Built as a sparring robot, Atom can take a ton of hits, but is relatively small and weak on offense.

The top champ is a fearsome robot named Zeus, who not only has never lost a fight, but never had an opponent last beyond the first round. Yet Zeus' Russian oligarch owner, Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda), and Japanese programmer, Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), exchange troubled looks when they lay eyes on Atom, as if a mechanical ghost had just lumbered across their grave.

Director Shawn Levy is a certified lightweight ("Night at the Museum") who always goes for the easiest emotional payoff. But Jackman's lovable as a loser, Goyo has spunk and charm, and the robot battles are genuinely thrilling.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The lumps of life

"Boy, things have finally seemed to swing my way. This new job is working out well. Joel has just turned one and is exuding all sorts of personality, and Jean and I have settled into a new, huge house that seems like a mansion to our eyes. It even looks like we'll sell our old house soon. I knew that after the long and dreary stretch, my luck would finally turn. I'm just glad that ... wait, is that a lump on my testicle?"

I do not like to think of myself as a pessimist. Downbeat, cynical people are a turnoff, and no one wants to be thought of that way. Still, a lifelong predilection towards a "no BS" framework coupled with the enforced (un)healthy skepticism of a journalistic vocation leads me to the conclusion that, if not necessarily a "glass half empty" kinda guy, I am certainly not a sunnyside-up fellow, other than how I like my eggs.

We all have our challenges in life, and in my experience they seem to arrive in waves. Happy times follow sad, and we grit and endure during the bad stuff with the knowledge that things can turn around anytime. That's the outlook of a hopeful realist, which is how I like to see myself.

I went through more than two years of some of the darkest days of my time on this mortal coil beginning in December 2008, when I lost my job at the Indy Star. Though I can't exactly claim I was happy as a bug there my last couple of years, it was still a good job doing features journalism in a major metro market. And I was genuinely stunned to be let go.

This happened just a few months after one of the happiest occasions I've known, getting married to my wife, Jean. After wondering if I would ever find someone with whom I could share a life of stability and affection, I discovered this amazing, beautiful person. It took until nearly my 40th birthday, but finally my personal life seemed to have caught up with the success I'd enjoyed on the professional side.

Then, falleth the axe.

Getting laid off stomped on my self-esteem pretty badly, especially when my job search produced few solid results. I took to freelance, keeping myself busy creating websites and appearing on the radio. Things took a major swing upward with the arrival one year ago of our son, Joel.

After delaying having children because of our new economic uncertainty, we decided that since I was at home anyway -- and our respective reproductive bits weren't getting any younger -- it made sense to get crackin' on some kiddies. We managed to get pregnant after just a few months of trying, and a healthy and wonderful boy came into our lives.

Still, as the pendulum of happiness swung back in the right direction, I couldn't shake a sense of worthlessness. Though I had a steady income from my freelance work, I was still relying on unemployment checks to make ends meet, and those benefits would soon come to an end. I think it's harder for a man than a woman, especially a new father, where instincts to be a provider are joined with social norms that look down on a stay-at-home dad.

A married woman who does not work out of the home is a housewife, while a guy who does the same is merely looked upon as a bum (in this case, mostly by myself).

Then, out of the blue, a job dropped into my lap at a small local marketing firm. The pay and benefits were good, the fellow employees pleasant and professional, and as an added bonus the office was just a short drive from our new house. Meanwhile, I was still able to continue doing the film criticism that is my lifelong passion.

So it was that I happened to be taking a rare long, luxuriant shower one recent evening when I came upon a knobby little protuberance down there. My first thought was not fear, or confusion, or anger but the only true reaction of the studied realist:

"Why now?!?"

Visions of long bouts of chemotherapy, hair loss, sterility and death soon followed. My thoughts soon turned to money -- one thinks a lot about money when sudden unemployment occurs. Cold rationality overtook wild emotions. If I died, I pondered, would Jean be able to stay afloat financially without my paycheck? (No fracking way, the numbers quickly told me, when you factor in the astronomical cost of daycare.)

I will cut to the chase and say that I am not yet a cancer patient. The doctor took all of about 13 seconds to pronounce Mr. Lump an epididymal cyst -- aka, a harmless growth.

Being a hopeful realist, I did not jump for joy or do giddy handstands. I simply called my wife and then my parents to tell them the news, and looked forward to putting the whole episode behind me.

But it has brought me a renewed ... well, appreciation isn't exactly the right word, so let's call it cognizance about the ebb and flow of life, the challenges and the triumphs that seem to follow so closely on each other's heels.

And it's dug up a little empathy for those, like my father and an old high school teacher, who are currently fighting cancer with bravery and good humor.

I know that compared to many, my problems are paltry little things. But it's in how we face up to our challenges that we grow and evolve. I prefer to do so head-on, with a smirk of bemusement, and the knowledge that a glass is never half empty or half full, it's just halfway.

Review: "The Ides of March"

Here's the first serious would-be contender of the season for Oscar nominations, "The Ides of March." And it's a solid base hit, but not anywhere near out of the park.

This drama directed, co-written and co-starring George Clooney is a well-intentioned cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of modern electoral politics. It's splendidly acted, with a top-notch cast that in addition to Clooney includes Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei -- Academy Award winners or nominees, all.

But it's simply not up to par with Clooney's other directorial efforts. "Good Night, and Good Luck" showed how to do old-fashioned Hollywood drama right, and even "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" had a zany, over-the-edge frisson.

Compared to some of the films Clooney's starred in lately, like "Up in the Air" or "Michael Clayton," this movie isn't even playing the same league.

The biggest downside of "The Ides of March" is that it's so familiar. There are elements from a half-dozen political films one can pick out, but mostly it seems like the love child of "The Candidate" and "Primary Colors." The crackling dialogue and gutsy performances barely keep ahead of an impending sense of redundancy, rolling in like an inevitable tide, reminding us we've seen all this before.

"Ides" is a well-executed retread that impresses without ever surprising us.

Gosling plays Stephen Myers, the wunderkind political operator who's the number two man on the presidential campaign of Mike Morris (Clooney). The Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Morris is currently the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination going into the Ohio primary.

Morris' campaign manager Paul Zara, a savvy veteran played by Hoffman, is in cautious playing-not-to-lose mode, while Stephen thinks they should be taking the battle for ideas to the voters --and Morris seems to be listening to Stephen.

This includes several scenes of Morris giving speeches championing the type of liberal orthodoxy favored in real life by Clooney that wouldn't last a week in a presidential election (Morris is an atheist, who thinks young people should perform two years of mandatory public service in order to attend college).

These sequences come across as Hollywood types feeling their oats, and drag the narrative to a near dead-stop as the audience contemplates how much they agree or disagree with Clooney's leftist politics, rather than concentrating on the fiction.

On the other side of the chess board is Tom Duffy (Giamatti), campaign manager for Morris' primary opponent. He's down but not out, and Tom has some cards up his sleeve to put Ohio in their column.

Out of the blue, Tom calls Stephen and asks to meet with him, which turns into a fawning play to convince him to jump ship. Stephen isn't having anything to do with it, but that doesn't mitigate the danger of Paul considering it an act of disloyalty.

Then Stephen uncovers some unsettling information about Morris, causing him to doubt his own principles. Ultimately, he makes his own power play that could alter the political landscape.

Tomei has a small but tidy role as Ida Horowicz, a reporter for the New York Times. She and Stephen have a friendly, bantering relationship, but when the moment of truth arrives she makes it clear she's primed to cut his throat to get the big story. (It may not seem like it, but that's actually a compliment.)

More problematic is Evan Rachel Wood as Molly, a 20-year-old campaign intern who makes goo-goo eyes at Stephen. Wood does about as much as she can with the role, but it's written as a human plot device rather than a person, existing merely to make the story turn in one direction or another -- no matter that it requires the character to flip on a dime, absent any logic or reason.

The screenplay is by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on a play by Willimon.

What "The Ides of March" does best is shine on a light on the grubby inner workings of the political machine, the petty rivalries and human failings hidden by the smooth, facile face of a campaign. Clooney pans his camera from the candidate giving a speech in front of a huge crowd to the cramped hallway behind the stage, where workers and cronies literally have to step over each other as they track how every utterance is playing in real time.

It's a well-done film, respectable and serious. The actors acquit themselves with zest and skill. Unfortunately, "Ides" just has all the freshness of a outdated stump speech.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Video review: "Fast Five"

The formula for "Fast Five," the fifth installment in the street racing franchise, seems to be:
  1. Put Vin Diesel, who was absent for the second and third movies, back at the center of the action.
  2. Add Dwayne Johnson as a testosterone-pumped federal agent on the gang's trail, setting up a flying-fists showdown with #1.
  3. Ratchet up the computer-generated imagery during the races, to the point cars pinwheel and slalom all over the street with barely a nod to the laws of physics.
 The most surprising thing is that this combination largely works, easily delivering the most entertaining movie in the series. At 130 minutes, it's way too long and the amount of juvenile macho posing occasionally reaches choking levels.

Still, there's no denying "Fast Five" is an improvement over the previous four, and it's nice to see a decade-old movie franchise discover it has another gear.

After being framed for the murder of some DEA agents, Vin and the crew (Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster) head down to Rio de Janeiro to hide out, and run into trouble with local crime lord Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). They're soon snooping out their next big score, assembling some familiar faces to help out.

Hobbs, the all-snarl-all-the-time agent played by Johnson, complicates things with his pesky habit of showing up at the wrong time. We know it's only a matter of time before the two bald brawlers lay the smackdown, and their melee does not disappoint.

Neither does the crazy, culminating chase through the streets of Rio. Like the rest of the movie, it makes not a lick of sense, but it's agreeably fun sitting back and reveling in the mayhem.
Extra features are generous in both Blu-ray and DVD versions.

The DVD includes an extended version of the film, deleted scenes, a gag reel, featurettes on the journeys of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker's respective characters through the series, and another on the introduction of Hobbs. Director Justin Lin also provides a feature-length commentary.

In addition to those, the Blu-ray version adds a breakdown of the fight scene between Diesel and Johnson, a featurette with Lin, another demonstrating how the big final chase sequence was filmed, and a behind-the-scenes look with co-star Tyrese Gibson. Plus, a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, October 3, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Train" (1964)

For a film with a silly premise, "The Train" is a really gripping action/thriller. It's about a French Resistance member outwitting the Germans to prevent them from shipping hundreds of great paintings to Berlin in the waning days of the war. The protagonist, played by Burt Lancaster, demands early in the story why his men should risk death for a bunch of art. "The Train" never adequately answers this question.

In fact, the antagonist -- splendidly played by Paul Scofield -- articulates exactly thus in the movie's final moments. Alone, defeated, he confronts his opponent and taunts him:

"Labiche! Here's your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Do you feel a sense of excitement at just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing or why...
"Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did."

And he's exactly right. Paul Labiche (Lancaster), the Paris train station master who's secretly the ringleader of a Resistance cel, had already refused to stop the train. If any action were to be taken, he would have preferred to simply blow it up. His primary mission was to make sure another train was delayed long enough to be destroyed in an Allied air raid. Once that was accomplished, though, Labiche suddenly finds an unexplained need to keep the paintings in France.

The Allies' thinking of why exactly they should stop the paintings from leaving is fuzzy. Surely they knew the Nazis would not destroy such prized art. And by August of 1944, with the liberation of Paris days away and the German war machine in full retreat, they must have known it would only be a matter of time before Berlin fell and the paintings were reclaimed.

The reason provided by Scofield's German colonel, Franz von Waldheim, holds no more water. He convinces his recalcitrant superiors to allocate a much-needed train to the paintings' transport by arguing that they're worth a billion German marks, and could supply their fatherland with a trove of weapons and supplies for its defense.

Not likely -- exactly which nation or private enterprise would be in the market of selling massive supplies of guns and artillery to Germany, when it was clearly losing the war? Even assuming they could somehow get through the Allied lines? Col. von Waldheim's claim that the art is a commodity that can be traded like gold was doubtless a ploy to convince his bosses in the Reich. He simply wanted the paintings for himself, or the glory of his nation. He makes it clear in the same final speech:

"The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me, or a man like me."

Finally, there's the central question that goes unasked throughout the story: Why is it the Germans can locate an entire train when they're in critically short supply, but keep having to rely on French engineers to operate them? Especially when one after another turns out to be part of the Resistance? Surely there was a Franz or Hansel somewhere in the local German forces with knowledge of running a train. Or they could have even brought in a German civilian engineer.

And yet, despite all the illogic of the narrative, the film works on most every level. I credit the presence of director John Frankenheimer, who was brought in after Lancaster had original director Arthur Penn fired. Penn wanted to do a more contemplative film that would barely show any of the train stuff, but Lancaster desperately needed an action-filled hit. The studio gave Frankenheimer double the budget, final cut and (according to Wikipedia) a Ferrari to turn it into a taut thriller.

He succeeded. Although I do sort of wonder what the Penn film would've been like.

I really liked Michel Simon as Papa Boule, an ancient train engineer given the assignment of driving the art train. When he learns what is on board, he risks his life to race it out of the bombing attack. We sense that he does so based on his barroom musing that he once had a girlfriend who posed for Picasso; perhaps he thinks her portrait is among the absconded paintings.

Papa Boule has the face of a troll, and the temperament of one, too, but beneath that craggy surface beats the heart of ... well, not a poet, but someone who at least knows what poetry is.

After saving the train, he sabotages the engine by placing French franc coins in the oil line. When it is brought back to the train yard for repairs, the German major demands Papa Boule turn out his pockets, revealing the telltale oil-smudged francs. Old fool, the major says before taking the engineer away to be shot. Why didn't you simply throw them away?

"Four francs is four francs," he says, which is about the only thing you can say when you're about to be machine-gunned full of holes.

Jeanne Moreau shows up as a French tavern/hotel owner where Labiche holes up when he's on the run. She demands to be paid for every scrap of help rendered or damage sustained to her property, and spouts a lot of talk about how men are such fools to always be playing at war. As written, the role feels rote.

The action scenes hold up really well nearly five decades on. And that's because Frankenheimer crashes real steam locomotives on several occasions -- including a three-way pileup that puts any modern Jerry Bruckheimer CGI conflagration to shame. You can't fake the incredible mass of those machines, and the devastating effects when they collide.

There's also a really clever sequence where Labiche, now piloting the art train himself, tricks the German officers on board into thinking they're traveling to Germany, when in actuality they've turned around and headed back for Paris. They get a small army of station masters and collaborators to disguise the names of French towns with German ones, post guards in German uniforms, etc.

The premise of "The Train" may be silly, at least in my view, but that does not preclude it from being based on historical fact. The screenplay, by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis, was based on a non-fiction book by Rose Valland, "Le front de l'art."

In reality, though, the French Resistance stopped the train not through brave sabotage or explosive plastique, but by entangling it in bureaucratic red tape. Proving once again that in real life, desk jockeys trump action heroes every time.

3.5 stars out of four