Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Video review: "The Smurfs"

A merchandising opportunity in search of a movie, "The Smurfs" is the latest bastardization of a beloved cartoon franchise from Generation X's childhood. Like "Garfield," "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "Yogi Bear," the filmmakers layer on the fancy computer animation but fail to add any soul into these stale leftovers.

Also like those other movies, "The Smurfs" unconvincingly pairs the CGI critters with live-action humans, resulting in the fakest person/Smurf hugs imaginable. I can't think why the people responsible for these types of movies feel it necessary to include live people, since the cartoon versions existed quite fine without them. The only answer I can come up with is a cynical one: It's cheaper, since it means they don't have to animate every second of the movie.

The story goes that several of the Smurfs get zapped from their magical land into real-world New York City, including Papa Smurf, Smurfette and some new guy named Gutsy, apparently a replacement for Hefty. They soon befriend Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), a humble Manhattanite.

Their old nemesis, the wizard Gargamel, chases them through the dimension whole. He's played (live-action) by Hank Azaria, who gnashes and clowns and cavorts, managing to bring what little entertainment value to be found in "The Smurfs."

Please note, "The Smurfs" will be released on video on Friday, Dec. 2.

Video extras are quite decent, and are available in three different versions. The DVD contains two commentary tracks, gag reel (dubbed Blue-pers), a music montage, a "Find the Smurfs" game and two making-of featurettes.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you add deleted/extended scenes, another game, one more featurette and progression reels showing the stages of the animation process.

Go for the Holiday Gift Set, and you get an interactive pop-up feature and a new mini-movie based on Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: "The Descendants"

It's nearly December, and I have yet to fall in love with a movie this year. There have been plenty I liked, and a handful I really admired and respected. "The Descendants," the new film from Alexander Payne, is among the latter.

But I've yet to experience a film that truly left me gobsmacked, lifted me up and tossed me around and left me shaking. Movie critics take pains to put on a cynical veneer, but we're actually a lot like teenage girls: we're giddily awaiting the crazy whirlwind romance.

I've been for a spin or two in 2011, but I'm still waiting to be swept off my feet.

Payne specializes in serious, cerebral movies that toe the line between pain and laughter. Accepting a Golden Globe for best performance in a drama in "About Schmidt," Jack Nicholson famously quipped, "I thought we made a comedy." Payne makes the sort of movies -- "Election," "Citizen Ruth" -- that don't so much blur the line between drama and comedy as render the distinction unimportant.

He hasn't made a feature film since 2004's "Sideways," but he's back at the top of his game with "The Descendents." It's a career-changing performance by George Clooney, playing a dad -- that in of itself is a seismic shift; he's nearly always been the lothario or lone wolf -- coping with his wife in a coma.

Clooney is open and vulnerable in a way we've never seen before; his character is at a crossroads in life and doesn't know what to do. He has lots of questions and few answers. It's the opposite of the typical male movie star role, in which the guy always looks like he's in control, or at least pretends to be.

Even in "Up in the Air," which has some thematic similarities, Clooney played a charmer who oozes confidence. Here, Clooney he gives the boot to his too-cool-for-school shtick and isn't afraid to look weak.
Matt King is upfront about how he's put his career as a lawyer before his wife and two daughters: "I'm the backup parent, the understudy," he confides in the opening narration.

With his wife in a vegetative state after a boating accident, Matt is left to deal with his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), who's acting out, and 17-year-old Alexandra (a terrific Shailene Woodley), who's out-and-out rebelling.

Things were a little rocky in Matt's marriage, but it's left to Alexandra to give him the news: his wife was cheating on him. Matt is simply unable to deal with this information. Here's a guy who prides himself on his rationality, and he's left sputtering with chaotic emotions by the betrayal.

Complicating things further is the impending disposition of the family plot in Hawaii that's been the birthright of Matt's clan for 150 years. Many of his wide-ranging cousins are broke, and are clamoring for a piece of the pie if they sell to a developer for big, big money -- we're talking half a billion here, folks.

Did I mention the movie is set in Hawaii? Payne's films tend to be very evocative of a specific place, and "The Descendents" is no exception. There are gorgeous shots of the island landscape, of course, but it's more about capturing the laid-back atmosphere. From the way people instinctively remove their shoes before entering a house to the groovy, free-hugging vibe most of the natives espouse, Payne gives the film a sun-kissed, exotic authenticity.

A few other supporting characters turn up. Alexandra's friend Sid (Nick Krause) is part stoner hanger-on, part boyfriend who says outrageously offensive things but somehow becomes the glue that holds their frayed bonds together. Robert Forster has a blunt, caustic turn as Matt's father-in-law, who does not hold his tongue or his fists when provoked.

Written by Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants has a smart script that's well executed by all involved, especially Clooney and Payne. I really, really, really like this movie a lot. Love will have to wait.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: "Hugo"

"Hugo" is an often-delightful movie that always kept me guessing. It's got a lot of Charles Dickens mixed with a little steampunk fantasy, layered with a rich frosting of tribute to early 20th century silent filmmaking.

In a world where most movies seem to make the entirety of themselves obvious the moment they begin, it was a pleasurable experience to have a film that took its time establishing itself. There doesn't seem to be much of a coherent story for a great deal of the time, just a sprawling group of characters who don't appear to be behaving for the camera. Slowly, though, themes and urgencies coalesce.

This is perhaps the most uncharacteristic movie Martin Scorsese has made, and not just because it's a children's movie, and contains tons of CGI and was shot in 3-D, no less. For once, the 3-D is not just an add-on to pump up ticket grosses, but actually enhances the cinematic experience by adding layers and textures without spotlighting them for their own sake.

The visuals are gorgeous and lush, almost painterly in their evocation of 1930s Paris in winter. The gently twinkling lights, the crisp white snow, the people who dress up in suits and gowns for a simple trip to the train station -- it's a feast for the eyes.

No, this is a departure for Scorsese because he's not exploring his usual theme, the human savagery hidden by urban society. He has made a paean to the dreamers, magicians and tinkerers who strive to reshape their world into something beautiful. This is a story of hope and striving, not sorrow and loss.

Asa Butterfield (who starred in the criminally unappreciated "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") plays Hugo Cabret, an orphan boy who lives inside the clocks and mechanical guts of the Paris train depot. His uncle, the timekeeper, has long ago disappeared in a drunken fling, and Hugo's clockmaker father died. So he's tragically, achingly alone.

Hugo peers through the clock faces and steam grates at the denizens of the train station, with two figures holding most of his attention. One is the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, chewing his vowels), an unctuous man with a bad leg supported by a squeaky metal brace, whose specialty is snatching up lost children and shipping them off to the orphanage.

The other is the owner of the toy shop (Ben Kingsley), from whom Hugo has quietly been stealing parts for his own special project. Hugo and his father began repairing a strange automaton, a little metal man who sits at a writing desk. Hugo has become obsessed with getting this creation working again to see what secrets it holds.

I can't say anything more about the plot for fear of spoiling the film's charms. Suffice it to say the toymaker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) will factor in heavily, plus the local flower girl (Emily Mortimer), an ancient bookshop owner (Christopher Lee), and the movies of the great silent filmmaker, Georges Méliès.

As much as I admired "Hugo," I could not give myself over entirely to it. The movie's emotional connections are tenuous -- Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan, working from Brian Selznick's book, never let things get too dark and dreary. Even the villainous station inspector, presented as a buffoon, is allowed  redemptive love interest. And the toymaker's bile over his shattered dreams washes away a little too quickly and conveniently.

I also noticed a disturbing artificiality to Moretz' performance -- little gestures and facial expressions that seemed overly theatrical and less than spontaneous. She's been terrific in everything else I've seen her in ("Let Me In," "Kick-Ass"), so I can only fault Scorsese's direction of her.

"Hugo" is gorgeous movie-making that, in end, feels mostly like an homage to itself.

3 stars out of four

Video Review: "Super 8"

Director J. J. Abrams self-consciously channels Steven Spielberg in "Super 8," an ode to Gen-X childhood and 1970s filmmaking built around a sense of wonderment. It's the story of a group of boys in small-town 1979 Ohio, who are shooting an amateur zombie movie when a real-life disaster descends upon their community.

The plot is fairly predictable -- if you haven't figured out what the threat is by the time the military starts invading with soldiers, you must've been asleep. But Abrams, who also penned the screenplay, manages to convincingly evoke and specific time and place of his own imagining.

Here, 13-year-olds talk and act exactly like real preteens do, not the glossy, whitewashed versions we're used to in mainstream films. Joe (Joel Courtney), the shy kid who does the special effects make-up, is the main character but brash Charles (Riley Griffiths), the director of the picture-within-a-picture, calls the shots. He's obsessed with putting "production value" into their flicks, and comes up with the idea of casting a girl (a girl!) in their movie.

Thus enters Alice, the rebellious gal at school, played by Elle Fanning in a game-changing performance. Things get rolling with the derailing of a locomotive, in a scene that makes the train crash in "The Fugitive" look wimpy. The mysterious behavior of one of their schoolteachers and other odd occurrences takes the story into serious "Twilight Zone" territory.

Along the way, Joe will have to deal with his distant father (Kyle Chandler), a deputy sheriff who's broken up about the recent death of his wife.

What it lacks in originality, "Super 8" makes up for with spunk and a genuine heart.

Extra material is quite good. If you go for the DVD version, you'll get a feature-length commentary by Abrams and key crew members, and two making-of featurettes.

Opt for the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you'll add six more featurettes, including ones on the excellent musical score by Michael Giacchino and the tradition of 8mm filmmaking. There's also a deconstruction of the train crash scene, deleted scenes and a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Review: "The Muppets"

The recurring theme of "The Muppets" is that the whole gang hasn't seen each other for years, and all their fans have forgotten about them. They're trying to get back together for one last show, ostensibly to save their old theater from destruction but really to remind the world that they're still around, still funny and still capable of putting on a big to-do.

In reality, the return of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppets is charming and welcome reintroduction of the puppets created by Jim Henson decades ago (an early version of Kermit debuted in 1955). They haven't been forgotten so much as misplaced in weak movies and third-rate television appearances.

Rather than returning like a lot of other beloved children's franchises, spiffed up in CGI and modern attitudes -- "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Garfield," "Yogi Bear" -- the Muppets are stubbornly old-school and kinda schmaltzy. They were a throwback to vaudeville even when the first Muppet movie came out in 1979, and now their boisterous singing and razzmatazz feels positively kitschy.

A whole generation of kids grew up on the Muppets, old enough now to bring their own children and catch up with Kermit & Co. The preview audience I attended of 30- and 40-something parents positively swayed with glee when the banjo strumming kicked off "Rainbow Connection."

Jason Segal is the Muppet savior, co-writing the script (with Nicholas Stoller) and starring as Gary. Segal, best known for R-rated comedies and adult-oriented television, mostly stays in the background and plays straight man, letting the Muppets take center stage.

Gary's brother is Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who is obsessed with the Muppets and actually is one himself, although he doesn't seem to realize it. (One hint was a montage of their parents measuring their height, and Gary sprouts up while Walter never grows.) The stubborn conceit of the Muppets is that they're living creatures who don't know they have human hands manipulating them from the inside.

There appears to be little conscious attempt to age the Muppets or even acknowledge that the passage of time weighs on them. What exactly is the age span of frog made out of felt? Though it did seem to me that Fozzie Bear's eyebrows had acquired a touch of gray.

In the one nod to modern irony, there is plenty of breaking of the fourth wall, as the Muppets and their human tag-a-longs comment on the fact they are starring in a film. After assembling Kermit (voice of Steve Whitmire), Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), and a few others, someone suggests that they save time by picking up the rest of the crew via musical montage.

I also guffawed when Gary's long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) quips after the Muppets' pitch for a live telethon is turned down by every television studio in town: "This is going to be an awfully short movie!"

The heavy is Tex Richman, a wealthy oilman who's made an unlikely discovery of oil right beneath the Muppets' old Los Angeles theater. Chris Cooper, known for dramatic roles, attacks the part with obvious glee, even breaking into a rap assisted by his Muppet henchmen. ("Do you think we're working for the bad guy?" one asks the other.)

In one great throwaway joke, whenever Tex Richman is savoring his evil plans, he doesn't just break out into a maniacal laugh, but actually narrates it: "Maniacal laaauuuuugh!!"

Director James Bobin, a TV veteran, seems to grasp the tone and pitch of the Muppets, combining broad physical humor for kiddies with wry observations aimed at their parents. Though the story does get a big draggy near the middle, and the movie feels a little bit overlong.

Still, "The Muppets" is a joyful and successful reboot of a beloved franchise.

The movie is preceded by a 7-minute "Toy Story" short that finds Buzz Lightyear usurped by a micro-version of himself from a fast-food promotional giveaway. It's moderately amusing, though I savored the wink to Disney's mega-merchandising.

3 stars out of four

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: "The Skin I Live In"

If Alfred Hitchcock were making movies in 2011 instead of mid-20th century, he might very well have concocted something like "The Skin I Live In." It's a stylish sexual thriller that takes much of Hitchcock's obsessive voyeurism toward the female form and dials it up to 11. Think "Vertigo," and layer on a whole lot of kinky, fetishistic behavior.

It's a highly disturbing film, and wonderfully so.

Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar -- one of the few filmmakers today who deserves that description -- delivers one of his most original and nightmarish visions. Based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, it wears the clothes of a mystery/thriller, but like most of Almodóvar's movies the outer layer is just dressing for deeper and darker themes rumbling underneath.

The story opens with a wealthy and driven plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who has a woman locked up in a room of his remote mansion. Is she his prisoner? A patient? A caged bird he desires for himself? Perhaps all of these?

Known only as Vera, the woman (Elena Anaya) wears a strange, skin-tight bodysuit that hugs every inch of her body in a cocoon that is both protective and confining -- even her fingers and toes are tightly encased.
Vera is obviously unhappy: Robert returns home to find her having attempted to slash her wrists and chest. Curiously, she has been very unsuccessful in damaging herself. We soon learn that Robert has spent years perfecting a new replacement for human skin that is resistant to burns and cuts.

Because he achieved this miracle through transgenesis -- combining human and pig skin cells -- his work is forbidden and, therefore, kept strictly secret. His only confidant is his servant Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who has been with the family for decades and is privy to, or part of, all of the Ledgard secrets.

Things really get strange when a man named Zeca wearing a tiger costume for Carnival shows up on the doorstep, and eyes Vera with an animalistic lust.

Clues are dropped like so many bread crumbs in the forest -- are they leading the audience to the answer, or luring us further into a bramble of temptation and madness? Either way, the journey is delectable.

The action suddenly switches to years earlier. Robert's wife, horribly burned in a car accident, kills herself in front of their daughter, Norma. Later, at a wedding party Norma will meet Vicente (Janet Cornet), a charming young rake whose actions will set them all on the path to tragedy.

I cannot say more for fear of ruining the filmgoer's experience. Suffice it to say that all I have described is mere prologue.

Almodóvar, known for pushing boundaries, blows past many of them with this daring vision. Anaya spends almost the entire movie either nude or in that odd bodysuit, and at one point during her transformation wears a translucent mask with a cross-like cutout for her eyes and mouth, too.

The director and his cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, shoot with bold close-ups and crisp images, so sharply defined it seems everything is lit up like an operating theater. But with splashes of warm color, the feel is anything but sterile -- the visuals are vibrant and breathtaking.

The film's only weakness is that the main character remains something of a cipher. But then, at some point we come to question who exactly is the protagonist.

"The Skin I Live In" is a wonderfully twisted cinematic expedition into territory rarely traveled.

3.5 stars out of four

Reeling Backward: "Oldboy" (2003)

"Oldboy" is one of those films I've been hearing things about ever since it came out in 2003. Back then I was living/working in rural Florida, where Korean films tend not to invade local cinemas. So it'd been on my must-see list for years.

I actually started watching it a few weeks ago on streaming Netflix, only to discover it's only available there with a dubbed English soundtrack. Dubbing is one of the high crimes of cinema, imho, and I refuse to watch it if I can help it. A few weeks later, a Netflix DVD arrived in the mail.

(Yes, I still subscribe to Netflix, despite their price hikes and polarizing moves of late. They seem to be doing everything in their power to alienate a loyal fan base. But the truth is that for about $16 a month, I can watch as many streaming movies as I want and all the DVDs I can see and return. For less than the price of two tickets to a movie theater, that's still one of the best entertainment values around.)

I was mildly disappointed by "Oldboy." I liked it, but I found the stylized calisthenics of director Chan-wook Park to be more distracting than augmentative. The narrative is also extremely convoluted and hard to follow at times.

I was also very put off that the main character, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), does not seem to have a consistent or central core. Granted, he goes through very extreme circumstances, being kidnapped and imprisoned without apparent reason for 15 years. But he starts out as something of a buffoon, then becomes a desperate wastrel during his confinement, and then suddenly upon being set free morphs into a grim and nearly silent man-with-no-name anti-hero. Finally, he debases himself at the climactic scene, turning from a wreaking god of vengeance into a bowing and scraping man-dog.

These transformations would be more palatable if there were understandable, and we could see the character's internal struggles. But Park and Min-sik Choi deliberately choose to portray him as an inscrutable character, more graphic novel than three-dimensional figure. This is understandable, since the film was loosely based on a manga comic by Nobuaki Minegishi.

The result, though, is that Oldboy remains an externalized character, defined by his action-movie behavior rather than the screaming inside his soul. He has about as much emotional resonance as the hammer he often carries around with him as a weapon.

Speaking of that hammer -- perhaps the film's most celebrated sequence is the one in which Oldboy tackles a dozen goons at once down a hallway wielding only that tool for defense. Park shoots the scene in one continuous take (which reportedly required three days of shooting to complete) from an imaginary side view, as if through one wall of the hallway. It is a ballet of orchestrated violence, and depicted in such a way as to make the feat believable, or at least plausible.

This is not a chop-socky movie in which the martial arts exuberance overtakes the story; the violence in "Oldboy" is up close and personal, grounded by gravity and the fleshy restrictions of the assailants' bodies.

Speaking of flesh, the scene where Oldboy eats a live octopus shortly after being released from his prison is memorable for the lack of CGI, as Min-sik Choi stuffs the squirming body down his gullet like a snake as the tentacles twist and flip and around his head. Not an image I'll soon forget.

The contortions of the plot are often maddening. There's a whole subplot where Oldboy does not trust the young female sushi chef, Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), because she's had some kind of contact with the rich businessman, Lee Woo-jin, who is eventually revealed to be his tormentor. There's a lengthy sequence where they're doing computer searches and running hither and fro; I grasped very little of it. I also did not comprehend why Woo-jin arranges to have the hand of Mr. Han (Byeong-ok Kim), the jailer who imprisoned him for a fee, severed and delivered like a prize to Oldboy.

In a puzzling move, Park and his screenwriters do not do anything to address the aging of the main character. When we first meet him he appears to be a middle-aged businessman with a face full of wrinkles and a paunch. His body is honed by shadowboxing training during his confinement, but otherwise his appearance does not change. The only notable difference is his hair, which grows out into an absurd kewpie-doll like helmet, which is stuck somewhere between too-cool hipness and unfashionable mane.

So how old was Oh Dae-su when he was taken? Because he was already married and had a daughter who was close to 10 (for reasons that are revealed later), he must have at least been in his early- to mid-thirties. Which would put him around 50 when he is released. Lord knows I'm too much of a literalist, but I find it strange that the character losing the prime years of his manhood is not commented upon in any way.

In a further head-scratcher, Lee Woo-jin is played by Ji-tae Yu, who was only 27 years old when the movie came out. And yet he is asserted to have been a classmate of Oh Dae-su's. When I first saw the character, I wondered if he must be the son of someone Oh Dae-su wronged. Perhaps this is Park's way of commenting on Oldboy's aging without directly confronting it, as his enemy seemingly remains young and vital.

The big plot reveal is that Lee Woo-jin had an incestuous relationship with his sister, which young Oh Dae-su discovered and unwittingly spread the word about around the school, causing her to take her own life. Once this dynamic was unearthed, I immediately made the connection that Lee Woo-jin was manipulating events so that Oldboy would be tricked into sleeping with Mi-do, who is actually his own daughter. It's never a good thing when the audience knows exactly where things are heading, and waits for the movie to arrive.

The final act is a big mess. Oldboy begs Woo-jin Lee not to reveal the secret of their incest to Mi-do, promising to become his slave and even slicing off his own tongue as a token of his silence. Then there's a ridiculous coda in which the same hypnotist who ensorceled Oldboy and Mi-do agrees to strip the memory of his transgression out of his head. That way Oldboy and Mi-do can go on with their lives together.

Of course, the result of this action would invariably be ... more incest. So if Oldboy was so destroyed by the knowledge of his incest with his daughter that he would maim himself, why would he choose a course of action that would continue it? He apparently decides to live with a horrible sin as long as he can remain innocent of it, which is a terribly cowardly choice.

I did enjoy "Oldboy." It's got a fresh, original verve, a feeling of a movie being alive within itself. But like so many "best ofs" I see long after the fact, it fails to live up to its towering hype.

3 stars out of four

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Video review: "Conan the Barbarian"

This reboot of the "Conan" franchise was ill-conceived and poorly executed. The film cost $90 million to make and grossed barely more than $20 million, marking it as one of the biggest flops of 2011. It stars a nobody with whose near-total lack of onscreen charisma only reminds us how Arnold Schwarzenegger made Conan perhaps his most iconic film role after the Terminator.

Schwarzenegger had little acting ability when he first started, but he had ineluctable screen presence. Even his thick Australian accent added to the character, making him seem alien and strange. We really felt like Conan could have wandered down from the frozen hinterlands of Cimmeria into the civilized regions, and started brawling and wenching.

Author Robert E. Howard, who committed suicide at age 30, never attempted to give Conan a backstory. He simply was, and one of the things that made the character so appealing was that he did not spend a lot of time probing his inner self, and brought no baggage beyond a desire to slay, fornicate and conquer.

Both film versions feel compelled to give Conan a childhood story. With the original film, it simply was a jumping-off point for his adventures. But with "Conan the Barbarian," director Marcus Nispel and his trio of screenwriters make it the character's central conflict, as he attempts to avenge himself on the warlord who killed his father (Ron Perlman).

Schwarzenegger's Conan was less concerned with vengeance than solving the "Riddle of Steel." But all this new Conan wants to do -- besides pout and glower a lot -- is get one back for ol' daddy. The bad guy here is Zhalar Kym (Stephen Lang), who wants to reassemble the magical death mask the barbarian tribes sundered and split between them. At his side is his daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), who has a funky partially-shaven head and some sorcerous powers.

This brings us to Jason Momoa as the new Conan. Physically, as a fit for the character he's in some ways better than Schwarzenegger and some ways worse. Conan was supposed to be a Northerner whose skin was bronzed by the southern suns, so Momoa's Polynesian heritage actually works for him. I also liked that they gave him lots of scars, including several large ones on his face -- Howard always described Conan as covered with old battle wounds.

Somehow, though, Momoa just isn't as physically imposing as the former bodybuilder. Conan is the rare example where you do want an enormously muscular guy, because he's supposed to be the strongest man in the world.

This Conan's physical attributes seem modest. At one point the damsel in distress is dangling over a fiery pit by a chain, and he struggles to pull her up as his enemy closes in. The real Conan could've flung her around like a sack of sugar. Momoa also keeps encountering big bruisers much larger than himself, a tactic that should've been used more sparingly.

Momoa also falls into the annoying and common trap of speaking all his dialogue from the back of his throat, so it comes out gravely and "intense." Mostly it just sounds like he's choking on his soup.

The story is basically just one long chase. Conan takes prisoner the female monk (Rachel Nichols) who is the Pureblood essential to revitalizing the death mask's powers. His hope is to draw out Zhalar Kym so he can kill him. Of course, things grow more complicated.

The action scenes are largely murky and confusing affairs, with a whole lot of fancy sword-twirling by Momoa. Not to be a Howard purist here, but Conan would be more of a brutal, unpolished fighter. Though one battle between Conan and some sand mummies conjured up by Marique has some sizzle. Left unexplained, though, is why in the final showdown she never resorts to her magic and fights only with her Krueger-esque finger blades.

"Conan the Barbarian" is a dull a witless reboot.

1 star out of four

Thursday, November 17, 2011

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

It has now become commonplace for big film franchises to split up the books they were based on into multiple movies. "The Lord of the Rings" did it in three parts, and the last installment of the "Harry Potter" series was cut in twain. The upcoming prelude to "LotR," "The Hobbit," is getting the same treatment.

I have no problem with this when there's simply too much story to tell in a single two-hour (or even three-hour) movie, and trying to do so would inevitably leave audiences with a disappointing Cliff's Notes version of the book. As long as there's narrative momentum and character development, make 17 movies if it pleases.

But with "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1," there's just not a whole lot of story to tell. What there is feels stretched and pulled like cheap carnival taffy to make it resemble a complete whole, when really all it is is a whole lot of exposition with vampires brooding and werewolves gnashing their frustration.

The result is a draggy, drippy installment in the Twilight series, easily the most boring of the franchise.

Before you accuse me of simply being a Twilight hater, a fuddy too-old critic who's not the target audience of the books by Stephanie Meyer's books and the movies made out of them, let me offer a little preemptive defense. I read the first book, and found it to be an agreeable page-turner. And I actually wrote a positive review of the third film, stating that it "can boast more visceral thrills than the first two movies combined."

Alas, boys yearning for some wolf/vampire battles in between the kissing and yearning will be sadly disappointed. There's virtually no action until near the end, and even that is a truncated and curiously bloodless encounter. For a bunch of natural killers, they sure seem unable to inflict any real and lasting damage on each other.

It's notable that director Bill Condon is the fourth person to helm a Twilight film, with no one ever repeating. Condon, best known for historical dramas like "Kinsey" and "Gods and Monsters," demonstrates a totally inept feel for the few action scenes that do exist, which quickly devolve into indecipherable flurries of fur and pale vampire flesh.

His touch during the (many) relationship-y scenes isn't much better, with a whole lot of manufactured conflicts and momentary dramas. For a century-old vampire who's too cool for school, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) throws a lot of hissy fits.

Laughably, the big issue in the early going is on the honeymoon of Edward and his human lady love, Bella (Kristen Stewart). Edward has agreed to turn Bella into a vampire after they marry, but she doesn't want to do it until after the honeymoon, because that would be, like, lame to suffer the pains of transformation after a big celebration. So Edward is scared that his super-vampire-strength will kill or injure Bella during their lovemaking.

There's a funny love scene where they thrash in the throes of passion, and Edward turns the bed into so much kindling. Of course, no one thinks to have her get on top. But then, no one thinks to ask how an undead vampire can, uh, perform in that way.

Curiously, despite spending a lot of time on the sun-kissed beaches on Edward's private island near Rio de Janeiro, he never displays any of that twinkling effect that was so derided in the first movie. I realize the CGI designers were never quite able to pull it off, but simply pretending that this aspect of vampirehood that the movies were so explicit about  simply doesn't exist is an abject surrender.

Anyway, the rare coupling of mortal and vampire results in an unexpected pregnancy. It grows with astonishing speed, so that she's showing two weeks after the wedding. (Again, how can something that's undead grow in Bella's womb? But ... nevermind.)

They return to the perpetually rainy and gray town of Forks, where it soon becomes clear that the baby will kill Bella. So why doesn't Edward just change her into a vampire right away? Carlisle Cullen, the father figure of their coven, murmurs something unconvincingly technical to say why it's impossible (which it will remain, right up until the moment when the plot requires it to be possible).

Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the angry American Indian werewolf who lost out in a love triangle with Bella and Cullen, is furious at the situation. He doesn't want Bella turned into a vampire, and he certainly doesn't want her to be killed by a vampire baby. Meanwhile, the alpha male of Jacob's pack of wolves considers the vampire/human hybrid an abomination that must be destroyed, forcing Jacob to make a difficult choice.

"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1" is a bad movie not because it's a tween fantasy about dreamboat vampires and the insipid girls who love them. It's bad because it's half a movie, all build-up and no payoff.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: "Like Crazy"

My suspicion is that "Like Crazy" will drive some audience members batty. It certainly happened at the preview screening I attended, where a number of people seemed to be expecting some sort of bubblegum romantic comedy, and (loudly) expressed their dissatisfaction with what they got.

This indie drama from director/co-writer Drake Doremus is closer in mood and tone to last year's "Blue Valentine" than the latest boy-meets-girl confection. It's a tender love story, but weighted with a sense of tragedy and longing. Even during the headiest moments of whirlwind romance, the expectation of rocky waters ahead never fades.

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones star as Jacob and Anna, two lovers separated by an ocean of circumstance. He's American, she's British, both about to graduate from a California university. She's a budding journalist, while he wants to design and build his own furniture. The biggest gasp moment of their story comes not at some huge moment of emotional outpouring, but when he gives Anna a chair he hand-made for her.

Doremus and co-screenwriter Ben York Jones (who also plays a small part) are less interested in stepping in the footprints of previous films about relationships, but mapping out the terrain of modern love among Millenials. The result is a movie filled with pregnant pauses and long silences, where a furtive expression or gesture provides a window into this self-conscious pair's inner lives.

What is left unsaid often speaks louder than their stammering, halting exchanges of dialogue.

Anna is supposed to leave the States when her student visa expires, but decides to overstay for the summer so the relationship can take root. Alas, when she travels back to London for a family wedding, she finds herself unable to return because of her violation. She and Jacob spend weeks, then months apart, trying to keep their affection alive through late-night phone calls and emails.

It makes for an interesting set-up for a long-distance relationship, though the depiction of U.S. immigration laws -- which more resemble a leaky sieve than a tight net -- is fanciful.

During their long separations, both Anna and Jacob find temptation on their respective shores. For her, it's a kind neighbor who's always dropping by (Charlie Bewley). In Jacob's case, he tumbles into Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), an assistant at his workshop who seems willing to accept whatever scraps of Jacob's affections are available when his devotion to Anna has waned.

"Like Crazy" has heft and authenticity, a telling portrait of modern relationships as they really are rather than how we would like them to be. It's a slow, often sad tale that unfolds at its own pace, so the audience (at least those with patience) feel like they're experiencing reality transpire, rather than being embraced by a movie.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Video Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise long ago walked the plank of artistic semblance. After the daffy fun of the first flick, due mainly to Johnny Depp's, tipsy off-kilter take on pirate Jack Sparrow, the series quickly devolved into bloated CGI fests lacking any wit or reason for existence.

The fourth installment, "On Stranger Tides," doesn't do anything to change this score. But at least the story is somewhat comprehensible, and they keep the number of characters trackable.

Alas, new director Rob Marshall -- subbing out for Gore Verbinski -- doesn't have the same flair for action scenes. The sword fights and other set-pieces tend to be murky and disjointed.

Sparrow runs across an old enemy/lover, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), who turns out to be the daughter of legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). At least that's what she's telling Blackbeard. Part of the meager enjoyment of this movie is discerning the intersecting lines of betrayal, as every major character is either actively conning or being conned by another.

The finish line is the veritable Fountain of Youth, which every king and scallywag wants for himself. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) pops up again, having lost a leg but gained a writ of clemency from the British crown.

In the end, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is another fancy treasure chest filled with leaden doubloons.

The video release of this movie was handled oddly. It debuted on Blu-ray last month, but is only coming to DVD now. Video extras are rather scant on all versions except the most expensive one, the 3-D Blu-ray/DVD combo. That includes a feature-length commentary and a number of featurettes.

It's a disturbing trend, this idea that only those willing to shell out for the top-line edition deserve the goodies. It's this sort of thinking that is causing DVD sales to plunge, as more and more consumers would rather stream a quick fix than shell out for a disc package that contains few or no extras.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars out of four

Review: "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview"

You do not have to be an adherent of the Cult of Mac in order to find "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview" fascinating and, at times, mesmerizing. It's a look back at the prodigal son of Apple in 1995, near the end of his exile from the company he started in a garage, before he would take up the reins of leadership again and help transform it into the most valuable publicly-traded company in the world.

The interview by Robert X. Cringely is from a TV show he produced, "The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires." That subtitle is somewhat accurate and somewhat not, for the Jobs revealed in this 69-minute portrait started working on computers as a teenage hobbyist, but displayed tremendous business acumen as well as a visionary ability to grasp the profound effect technology can have on our lives.

Jobs may have gotten started as an accident, but his empire was hardly a fluke.

Let me just say for the record that I am not a wild-eyed adherent to the iconography of the recently departed Jobs. I was among those who expressed bewilderment as my friends poured out their hearts about his death on Facebook and other social media. As a I wrote in a huffy response at the time, Jobs was not an inventor nor a builder -- he would describe what he wanted a product to do, and other people would go build it for him. And he was known to be quite a jerk to those who worked for him.

But the Jobs I see in this wide-ranging interview displays the charm that also earned him a loyal following, both within his companies and his customer base. It's occasionally a sad reflection to see this man in his prime, around age 40, still with a (mostly) full head of hair and fleshy face -- not the emaciated figure in the black mock turtleneck we're so used to now.

The production values are minimalist -- a simple one-shot of Jobs sitting in front of a chair in a multi-hued background, a computer monitor off to the side. The master tapes of the interview were lost, so only a VHS recording, recently found in one of the crew member's garage, survives. It's raw footage, almost completely unedited -- at one point, Jobs even unloads a big, wet sneeze in the middle of his commentary.

No doubt Jobs, who was famous for his fastidiousness about the look and feel of his products, would have tut-tutted the low resolution and streaky lines in the image.

But after awhile, these concerns fade as Cringely probes deeper into Jobs' career and personal feelings about the company that gave him the boot in a 1985 power struggle. Cringely is a subtle interviewer, allowing his subject to occasionally ramble, but nudging him in interesting directions with his understated questions.

Jobs talks about he and partner Steve Wozniak first creating their own computers so they could make free telephone calls. Still in their teens, they used it to call the Vatican in a nearly-successful attempt to get the Pope on the phone. In typical Jobs fashion, he manages to frame that youthful escapade in a broader perspective.

"We were young, and what we learned was that we could build something ourselves that could control billions of dollars worth of infrastructure in the world."

Jobs also waxes about getting rich so young, noting that he was worth $1 million at age 23, $10 million at 24 and $100 million by 25. He professes not to be impressed by his wealth, being so focused on building Apple that he never sold any of his company shares.

In one of his more ruminating moments, Jobs opines that everyone should be required to learn a computer language, because programming teaches you how to think.

Jobs also speaks freely about his enemies and competitors, in terms that are highly disparaging without seeming to contain a large amount of emotion or personal bile.

Saying of John Sculley, the former PepsiCo president he tapped to be Apple CEO, who would eventually force Jobs out of the company, he simply says, "I hired the wrong person."

He deflects criticism about his blunt style, such as telling employees their work was a shorter word for excrement. Brilliant people are confident enough in their ideas to defend them, Jobs says, adding that he never minded being proven wrong.

Jobs saves some of his sharpest barbs for IBM and Microsoft, praising their business success but paying the ultimate (for Jobs) disservice by saying the things they made were ugly and cheap.

"The only problem with Microsft is that they have no taste," he says. "They don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their product...

"They just make really third-rate products. Their products have no spirit to them. There's no spirit of enlightenment about them. They're very pedestrian. The sad part is most of their customers don't have that spirit, either."

Near the end Cringely asks Jobs to look into the future, and he makes two notable predictions -- one wonderfully inaccurate, and the other spot-on.

Jobs says Apple is dying, and calls their slide "irreversible." Of course, 18 months after the interview he would be back at the helm, and quickly set about proving himself wrong.

The other is his recognition early on that the Internet would change the face of not only computing, but much of how people communicate, and how businesses sell their wares.

"The smallest company in the world can look as large as the largest company in the world on the Web," Jobs says. "The Web is going to be the defining social moment for computers."

"Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview" is a lively encounter with a very real, if flawed, oracle.

3.5 stars out of four

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Mallrats" (1995)

I have finally completed my Kevin Smith oeuvre. Somehow I had missed "Mallrats," his sophomore effort that is generally regarded as his worst film. Although they may not be counting "Red State," which I hear is the challenger to the throne.

Smith is a multi-pronged artist who's almost as well-known these days for his live stage performances, "An Evening with Kevin Smith," his comic book writing and considerable pop-culture presence as his movies. He hasn't had a hit movie since ... well, ever. He tends to make lower-budget films, $30 million or less, that gross a little more than they cost.

Quality is another matter. I don't think Smith has made an out-and-out good movie since 1999's "Dogma," and even that was a bit of a mess narratively. His ultra-indie debut, "Clerks," was a brash and brainy exploration of mid-90s slacker culture, a portrait of my generation just as it was exiting college and finding its prospects meager -- not unlike today's kids.

And then there was "Chasing Amy," Smith's third film and masterpiece. I won't spend our time burying "Amy" in praises, other than to say it seems with "Mallrats" Smith was building up to that wonderfully edgy take on modern relationships and stunted youth. Many of the same actors appear, including Jason Lee, a professional skateboarder with zero acting experience who Smith cast in this movie despite resistance from the studio hacks.

That's how I prefer to think of "Mallrats" -- as Smith honing his storytelling skills and gift for sharp characters in preparation for other, better work. Whereas "Clerks" exists as its own piece, "Mallrats" is mere throat-clearing for "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma."

The plot is a lame excuse for a whole bunch of hanging around at the Eden Prairie Mall in Minnesota. Two college-age guys are dumped by their girlfriends, and spend a day trying to win them back ... after a fashion.

For Brodie (Lee), a slacker who lives in his mom's basement and plays Sega video games as a vocation, this involves insulting nearly anyone and everyone he encounters. Brodie is a walking cauldron of bile spewing all over everything in its path, but he's also wickedly funny while doing it.

His ex is Rene, played by Shannen Doherty. Doherty was a hot commodity coming off the "Beverly Hills, 90210" show, and in fact received top billing in the film despite having a rather small part. Smith's female characters in his early films tend to be underwritten, until he cast his real-life girlfriend, Joey Lauren Adams, as the lead in "Chasing Amy."

Adams also has a small part here, memorably being shown topless for a split second when drug dealer/mystic Silent Bob (played by Smith himself) smashes through the door of her store changing booth.

Claire Forlani plays the other ex-girlfriend, Brandi, who has just dumped T.S. (Jeremy London). Unlike Brodie, T.S. attends college and seems to have a plan in life, even if at this point it mostly seems to be playing Brodie's wing-man.

Jason Mewes returns as the other half of the Jay and Silent Bob team, still peddling drugs and hitting on women who don't respond. Together they act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action and jumping into the fray when it suits them.

Ben Affleck also turns up as the villain, the manager of the Fashionable Male store named Shannon, who puts the moves on Rene. Ethan Suplee plays Willam, a stoner who can't see the sailboat in one of those 3-D paintings, despite an epic attempt. Stan Lee makes a cameo, lending advice to comic book uber-fan Brodie.

Michael Rooker plays Brandi's dad, the host of a low-rent television dating show that's supposed to shoot inside the mall, with his daughter as the semi-willing contestant. Brodie and T.S. enlist Jay and Silent Bob to ruin it during live taping.

I enjoyed Priscilla Barnes, the former "Three's Company" star, as a topless fortune teller with three nipples. I suspect Smith only cast her because he, like me, had a boyhood crush on her and endeavored to see her naked. No complaints here.

I also liked the little touch of naming the wordless, scary head of security La Fours -- a nod to the barely-seen lawman who chases the main characters in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." They share a white straw hat and an imposing reputation.

Smith's strength as a filmmaker has always been creating distinctive characters, and working with actors to make them even more so. And, of course, crackling dialogue with lots of funny throwaway lines and quips.

Tying it all together into a satisfying story has always been his challenge, though, and he fails to make the sale with "Mallrats."

2 stars out of four

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review: "J. Edgar"

"J. Edgar" is a curiously flat biopic for one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century. J. Edgar Hoover was either one of the greatest innovators in the field of law enforcement or a power-mad tyrant, depending on who you ask. Clint Eastwood's new drama tends more toward the latter than the former, though it seems clear the great director has some admiration, or at least healthy respect, for Hoover's perseverance and resolve.

No one who becomes the head of a federal agency while still in his 20s, and remains in that post for nearly 50 years, transforming the very face of law enforcement in the process, can be easily dismissed.

The film's period production values are stupendous, seamlessly transitioning from 1919 to the early 1970s without ever missing a beat of authenticity. The suits, cars, decor and more appear spiffy and spot-on without screaming 'look at me.'

The make-up used to transform Leonardo DiCaprio into Hoover is also pretty spectacular. The actor bears little resemblance to the real man, but by giving him woolly hair, a thickening of the middle (some weight gain by DiCaprio augmented by padding, methinks) and enlarging his pupils, they manage to suggest the essence of Hoover without attempting a rote imitation.

DiCaprio's performance is solid, too, portraying a man driven to continually find fault in others as a defense mechanism for avoiding confrontation with his own weaknesses. There's even a scene suggesting that young Johnny Hoover stammered as a child, and acquired his iconic rapid-fire speech pattern through endless drills to correct his stutter. His mother (Judi Dench) appears in fits and starts, as a devout woman who pushed her son in ways subtle and not-so-subtle to always strive for more.

I cannot say I think much of the central theme of Dustin Lance Black's screenplay, which is that Hoover was a closeted gay who had a lifelong platonic love affair with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his number two at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Tolson is portrayed as a fairly progressive and self-aware gay man, who acknowledges his feelings for Edgar to himself even as he is savvy enough to realize he can't do so publicly.

There's one big scene where Tolson throws a fairly extreme hissy fit when Hoover tells him he's thinking of marrying an actress, and they have a fistfight while dressed in their nightclothes that turns into a make-out session and a huge emotional explosion. It's a bold scene, full of energy and exuberance, and feels like total bullshit.

The historical case that Hoover was homosexual is sketchy at best -- he and Tolson spent most of their meals and vacations together, etc. Most biographies say no, and Mark Felt, the number three man at the FBI (who later revealed himself to be the infamous "Deep Throat" to Woodward & Bernstein) insisted their affection was genuine but brotherly.

The whole cross-dressing thing -- which is absurdly addressed in a scene where Hoover mourns in his mother's dress after her death -- is likely a figment. It was based on an account by one woman, a notorious socialite who was a convicted perjurer, but has managed to seep into the communal consciousness as truth.

Personally, I don't find it very interesting to explore if J. Edgar Hoover was gay or not. Even if he did secretly favor men, it would be the least interesting thing about him as a person. The secretive, power-hungry figure who dangled presidents and others wandering the corridors of power on a string is so compelling a subject, the matter of who he slept with pales in comparison.

Eastwood and Black spend most of the first part of the movie exploring this towering figure, and the bulk of the latter half doting on the gay question. The timeline jumps around liberally, with a lot of too-clever jump cuts showing young Hoover and Tolson stepping into an elevator, and their older selves exiting, etc.

"J. Edgar" is a fine-looking movie, and generally well-acted, too. Though some parts seem oversized, others are desperately short-shrifted. The most notable is Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), whom young Hoover admired for her organizational skills and proposed marriage to on their third date. She demurred, but agreed to become his personal secretary, a position she would hold for the next five decades.

Gandy is omnipresent but unimportant, someone who lurks in the background until the filmmakers feel a need for Hoover to have a moment of self-reflection. Then Gandy is trotted in with her Steno pad and concerned expression to facilitate some convenient emoting.

My problem with this movie is it wants to exploit the shadowy whisperings about Hoover's personal life to paint a skewed portrait of his public one. Rumors, guilt by association and fleeting, surreptitious observations are an unreliable way to truly know a man. It's notable that these are the same sort of under-handed tactics Hoover himself used to gain and leverage power to wield according to his own interpretation of morality.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: "Take Shelter"

Dark portents are rising, but only one man can see them. "Take Shelter" is a story of foreboding and madness, as the sky literally seems to close around Curtis, an average blue-collar family man from Ohio.

Clouds roil in over the fields in strange, disturbing twists and formations. Birds fly in vexing patterns with no rhyme or reason, as if they're trying to form their own organic cyclone. When things really get bad, Curtis sees indistinct human shapes through his windows, pawing at him and his family.

The fact that these visions happen both in Curtis' dreams and his waking life make them even more troubling. This is the story of a man who comes not to trust his own mind, and how losing that groundedness of mental integrity causes him to become unstuck from his wife, child, job and community.

Curtis is played by character actor Michael Shannon, known for twitchy supporting roles in mainstream films, including his Oscar-nominated turn as a mentally fractured man in "Revolutionary Road."

There's something about Shannon's looming height and malleable features that makes him a natural fit for playing tortured souls. He tends to keep a straight face that is always on the verge of plunging into a well of emotion. I cannot countenance the notion of a Michael Shannon romantic comedy.

It's an entirely new experience to see him taking the sort of character who would normally populate the background of a star vehicle and giving him his own movie. Shannon is equal to the task, drawing a portrait of a man who is self-aware about what is happening to him, but cannot turn away from the visions.

As time goes on and the dreams grow worse -- threatening his daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart) -- Curtis takes action. He puts his beloved dog, which he dreamed tore his arm apart, in a pen.

Curtis avoids self-denial about his predicament. He checks out books on mental illness from the library and sees his doctor for some sleeping pills. His mother (Kathy Baker) was taken away from him by schizophrenia when she was the same age Curtis is now, so it's clear this descent into mental illness is something he has long feared and guarded against.

Things really grow strange when he decides to expand the old storm shelter in his back yard into a veritable underground fortress, borrowing money they don't have from the bank to do it.

It's notable that in none of Curtis' visions does his wife Samantha appear. That is, until...

Samantha is played by Jessica Chastain, who's had a major career birth over the last year in "The Debt," "Tree of Life," "The Help" and other films. She plays Samantha as more than just the good wife role, as a loving woman who is there for her husband and wants to do everything to help him, but makes it clear there are lines that cannot be crossed. At one point she insists they go to a Lions Club oyster fry dinner, simply because they need to do something normal.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols paints an authentic portrait of Midwest normalcy disrupted by extraordinary circumstances. He wisely puts his focus and his camera tightly on his actors, and keeps it there.

At just over two hours the movie lingers a little too much here and there, and suffers bouts of predictability. The fact that Hannah is deaf and needs cochlear implants paid for by Curtis' health insurance sets up a countdown for inevitable problems on the job.

"Take Shelter" is sometimes predictable, that is, until the very end, which suggests things that seem to come out of left field, until you recall hints that have been dropped along the way. I think this ending weakens the film, which is less concerned with the twists and turns of plot than how a man deals with the whole world crashing in on him, exposing his weaknesses.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Video Review: "Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows: Part 2"

I have not always been Harry Potter's best friend. I liked the first two movies in the series well enough. But by the third -- when most observers believed the 10-year, eight-film epic journey really took things to another level -- I felt like I'd seen this movie too many times already. The saga of the boy wizard and Voldemort, his mortal enemy, had become episodic and repetitive to these eyes.

But the last film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" was the grand payoff that I had been waiting for. No more exposition, no more new characters cluttering up the storyline, no more sense of the filmmakers dawdling -- just the logical, satisfying and sweeping culmination of a long voyage.

The story picks up with Harry, Ron and Hermione returning from exile to challenge Voldemort, who's tightened his death's grasp on the entire wizarding world. There's a climactic assault on Hogwarts School by Death Eaters and their minions, a terrifying chase through a maze of dragons, and of course the epic final showdown between Harry and Voldemort.

The stakes are high, and many people die. There's a sense of grandiose finality to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." This is the end -- and what a glorious one.

Videos extras are decent, though not quite magical. The lack of a commentary track is rather galling.

The DVD has a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, a tour of the Warner Bros. London studio where most of the films were shot, plus three featurettes: "The Goblins of Gringotts with Warwick Davis," "The Women of Harry Potter," and "When Harry Left Hogwarts."

The Blu-ray edition has all those, plus two juicy additions. There's an interactive pop-up collection of behind-the-scenes videos, and a conversation between author J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Attack on the Iron Coast" (1968)

A laughably bad World War II picture from 1968, "Attack on the Iron Coast" registers as nearly a parody of the genre, replete with hammy acting and silly action scenes. The director, Paul Wendkos, made his name with "Gidget" and its myriad sequels, and is mostly known for his television work. After making this film starring Lloyd Bridges -- another TV vet with "Sea Hunt" -- Wendkos would go on to direct the pilot of "Hawaii Five-O" and a couple of its first-season episodes.

I'd say his talent found its perfect match.

Bridges plays Jamie Wilson, a Canadian major who concocts a hare-brained scheme called Mad Dog to ram a British destroyer into the German-held port of La Plagé. The Nazi regime is using the French dry dock to repair its battleships with great efficiency, adding to the massive naval losses of Allied ships. Wilson wants to load a ship up with explosives and blow the whole thing to smithereens.

The story essentially consists of two parts: the hard-charging Wilson trying to convince his conservative British cohorts to OK the mission, and then the mission itself with its greatest critic forced to command the expedition. Andrew keir plays Captain Owen Franklin, who haughtily refuses to have anything to do with Mad Dog at least a half-dozen times, but comes to be its greatest advocate -- even going so far as to ignore an order from high command to abort the mission.

Keir gives a straightforward performance, as unctuousness gives way to stoic English stiff upper lip in the heat of battle.

Interestingly, Franklin is clearly portrayed as being a seasoned older officer, while Wilson is supposed to be the young gun continually challenging his elders with his brash tactics. In fact, the gray-bearded Keir was a 42-year-old youngster when this movie came out, while Bridges was 55 (but looked about 38).

Mad Dog may sound like Hollywood claptrap, but it was actually based on a real raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942 that succeeded using almost exactly the same tactics depicted in the movie. It' a wild enough story that one wonders why the studio didn't simply do a historically accurate story using the names of the real combatants, along the lines of "A Bridge Too Far."

My guess is the producers felt an urge to load up the story with the usual war-movie cliches -- two commanders in conflict, a romance running as sidebar (Wilson's wife is played by Sue Wilson), and a heroically implausible sacrifice by the main character at the end.

The latter occurs when Wilson, buried in wreckage aboard the ship's bridge, struggles to reach the detonation clock. The wires have been severed in the collision with the dry dock gate. A German soldier shoots Wilson, but in his dying swoon he manages to contact the wires and the whole thing goes boom.

Never mind that earlier Franklin had specifically told Wilson (and thereby the audience) that the device was self-contained so it would still detonate if the ship was damaged. And yet two thin little copper wires are left running exposed to the bridge floor. Ridiculous.

The portrayal of the Nazi commanders is knee-slapping goofy. Walter Gotell plays Van Horst, who prefers to eat and drink and debauch rather than pay attention to his duties guarding the coast. When we first meet the German officers, they're literally watching a skin flick while gorging themselves, and cannot even tear their eyes away from the lascivious images of women undressing to duly respond to reports of a strange ship approaching.

"Attack on the Iron Coast" has nothing going for it. The raid upon which it was based may have been a rousing military success, but as war films go the fictional version is totally fubar.

1 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: "Tower Heist"

The tower in “Tower Heist” is, literally, The Tower, a Trump Towers-esque palatial home to the Manhattan super-rich elite who live there and the small army of working-class stiffs who keep their pillows fluffed and the old ladies’ frou-frou dogs walked. The bad guy is a Bernie Madoff-style oligarch who gleefully steals from the rich and the not-so-rich alike, pocketing it all and depending on his money and connections to protect him from the Defarges of the world.

The heist part takes up the second half of the movie, as Ben Stiller leads a team of amateur thieves – and one professional, played by Eddie Murphy – into The Tower penthouse to reclaim their stolen pension money. It’s all about the righteous 99 percent thwarting the evil 1 percent.

It’s like Occupy Wall Street, rewritten as a goofy caper comedy.

I did not buy any of the characters in the movie as real people, and the mechanics of the actual heist doesn’t so much strain credulity as smash it into little pieces and stomp on it. At one point the film asks us to believe that hundreds of thousands of people attending the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade could be looking up into the air at all the floats, and not one of them notices something astonishing taking place at the top of The Tower.

Still, once the actual heist gets going, the movie revs up a decent amount of momentum and finds some sustainable laughs. It’s not quite enough to recommend it, but I’ll admit “Tower Heist” is a lot better than my exceedingly low expectations.

The first thing any potential ticket-buyer needs is to be disabused of the notion that this is a Stiller/Murphy buddy picture. Murphy plays Slide, who remains a fringe character until the 45-minute mark. He’s just some local loudmouth ex-con who shouts at neighbor Josh Kovacs (Stiller) whenever he walks by.

Later, after Josh is canned as the general manager of The Tower for standing up to top resident Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), he invites Slide to join his crew of bumbling burglars. He reminds Slide they used to be nursery-school classmates, which Josh seems to think means they have a relationship, despite having no true interaction for 40 years.

The lack of any real Murphy/Stiller pairing is the biggest disappointment about “Tower Heist.” Both actors have been stuck in a rut of middlebrow comedies lately, so the idea of a couple of aging but still potent funnymen tag-teaming has a great deal of appeal.

Alas, they’re reduced to a few lame, sniping exchanges: “That’s it! I don’t want to talk to you for the rest of the robbery!”

Director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson never really kick the action out of tame screwball comedy territory, despite the daring Occupy overtones.

It’s too bad, considering the killer cast they assembled: in addition to Stiller, Murphy and Alda, there’s Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Judd Hirsch, Michael Peña, Téa Leoni and Gabourey Sidibe. That’s five Academy Award nominees by my count – quite a lot of firepower considering the low-wattage material.

Affleck plays Josh’s dim brother-in-law; Peña is Dev’Reaux, the brash new elevator man; Sidibe is Odessa, a Jamaican maid with an outsize personality; Hirsch plays the unctuous Tower boss; and Leoni is the hard-wired FBI agent gunning for Shaw.

I particularly liked Broderick as Fitzhugh, a former Wall Street whiz turned unemployed evictee, who’s got an air of bottled-up middle-aged desperation just waiting to blow. Broderick has gray hair now, a couple of chins and a mid-life spread, but his boyish face still holds a hint of puckish Bueller charm.

Though held back by its sophomoric, self-imposed limitations, “Tower Heist” rises higher than it has any right to.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Video review: "Cars 2"

“Cars 2" is certainly an entertaining movie, but there's no denying the tang of disappointment that clings to the latest release from Pixar, the king of animation studios.

It may not be fair to judge a movie on anything other than its own merits, but Pixar has set such a high standard that anything less than a wondrous film that delights the soul and mind of children and parents alike registers as a drop-off.

Considered amidst its peers, "Cars 2" is the cinematic runt of the litter.

The sequel takes a bold turn in shunting aside the main character of the original, hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), in favor of his hillbilly sidekick, Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy). The story is that McQueen has been challenged to a series of three races all over the world, but Mater steals the show when he's mistaken as an international super-spy.

As Finn McMissile, a snooty British agent (Michael Caine) puts it, "They're fooled because they're too busy laughing at the fool" -- not realizing Mater really is that dense.

It's all just an excuse for one set of action-packed hi jinks after another, with the bad guys divided between a loud-mouthed Italian racer and a mysterious pack of the worst lemon cars in history -- Yugos, Gremlins, Pacers, etc.

"Cars 2" is a fun bit of animation, but compared to "Toy Story" or "Finding Nemo," it's missing a gear.

It's notable that "Toy Story" is the only other story Pixar has seen fit to sequelize. Whereas last year's "Toy Story 3" was a heartfelt romp with a beloved set of familiar characters, "Cars 2" feels slapped-together and hasty, a merchandising opportunity with a movie attached.

"Cars 2" arrives on video in four different versions, with goodies ramping up as you move up in price point.

The DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo pack come with the same features. There's "Hawaiian Vacation," a cartoon short, plus another all-new short, "Air Mater," and a commentary track by director John Lasseter.

Opt for the five-disc 3D combo pack, and you add deleted scenes, set exploration around the globe, short documentaries and a sneak preview of "Cars Land," a new showcase at Disney's California theme park.

Or you can go all in for the 11-disc Director's Collection, which includes both the original film and sequel plus all the extras.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars