Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: "Albert Nobbs"

Albert Nobbs is more a parable than a person, and "Albert Nobbs" plays out more closely to a fable than an authentic tale.

Glenn Close plays the title character, a woman who has been posing as a male servant for so long in 1800s Ireland that she can't really even remember another existence. Albert (I'll refer to him as he from now on, since that's how he regards himself) is utterly subservient, deliberately nondescript and indeed seems to have no inner core to hide.

He's been playing an exterior role so long, it has become the entirety of the core inside.

It's a remarkable (and Oscar-nominated) performance by Close, who also co-wrote the screenplay with John Banville and Gabriella Prekop, based on a short story by George Moore. She manages to show us an absolutely flawless facade -- the tiny voice, the prim mannerisms, the unflappable reserve.

Physically, Close has always possessed a somewhat androgynous beauty (undiminished as she nears her 65th birthday). But even with some splendid wigs and facial prosthetics, the look isn't entirely persuasive. Albert's appearance takes on a certain elvish bent, seeming not so much masculine as entirely sexless.

As for sex, the thought seems not to have occurred to Albert. His only spare thoughts are to money: he's been meticulously saving his wages and tips in order to buy a business -- perhaps a tobacco shop, he muses. Never mind that he doesn't even know how to roll a cigarette.

Then something startling happens: Albert is forced to share his bed with a easygoing house painter who has come to spiff up the upscale but dowdy hotel where he lives and works. Albert is astonished to discover that this man, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), is also passing himself off as a man. What's more, Hubert has even taken a wife.

Soon Albert becomes obsessed with the notion of doing the same -- not for any sexual reason, but because the idea of hearth and home, with a pleasant girl working the counter at the tobacco shop, appeals to his nature. After a lifetime of fear at his secret being discovered, what Albert craves most is security.
(It seems not to have occurred to him to play it backwards, taking a husband and becoming the girl behind the counter.)

For capricious and naive reasons, Albert focuses his attentions on Helen (Mia Wasikowska), the flirty young maid at his hotel. Alas, she's fallen in with a bad sort named Joe (Aaron Johnson), who dreams of liberty in America. Joe catches the whiff of money about Albert, and sets Helen to leading Albert on in hopes of cracking his skinflint veneer.

Director Rodrigo Garcia elicits consistently wonderful performances from his cast, which also features Pauline Collins as the fussy but domineering owner of the hotel, Brenda Fricker as a cook who's wiser than she looks, and Brendan Gleeson as the boozy doctor who seems to be the hotel's permanent resident.

Yet "Albert Nobbs" can't shake the tinge of feeling counterfeit. Albert is trapped in a maze of his own construction, one he could cast off his narrow shoulders at any time he wished. The film demonstrates this itself, when Hubert and Albert put on dresses and try a day living as women. The result is perhaps the only true moment of unchecked joy in Albert's life.

As for the central love triangle, it's difficult to get caught up in since it contains no actual love. Helen obviously holds scant affection for Albert, Joe adores only money and freedom and Albert regards love the way a whale might behold an elephant it spies upon the shore: intriguing, but incompatible.

2.5 stars out of four

Video review: "Drive"

Director Nicolas Winding Refn won the best director's trophy at last year's Cannes Film Festival for "Drive," and it's not hard to see why. It's a highly stylized take on the traditional heist movie, with a protagonist (Ryan Gosling) who is never named and barely speaks.

There is dialogue in "Drive," most notably from Albert Brooks playing a local mob kingpin whose chatty, congenial surface hides a razor-ship killer instinct.
But for the most part, this is a movie built on visuals, where long gazes and pulsing music substitute a distinct mood instead of the characters explaining to us what's happening.

The driver works as a mechanic in a broken-down car shop run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who's got a gimpy leg and a chip on his shoulder. Shannon sets him up doing car crashes for Hollywood movies. On his own, the driver has his own side gig: wheel man for robberies and such.

Things grow complicated with the arrival of Irene (Carey Mulligan), the new neighbor in his apartment building. She's got a young son, a husband in jail, and trouble written all over her.

For a guy whose entire existence is about carefully managing risk, having his carefully ordered world twisted inside-out plays hell on the driver. His placid demeanor begins to crack, as he finds himself thrown off his own map.

The film feels unstuck from time. Driver wears a gold scorpion jacket that could have come from the late '50s, and Brooks' character could have been a contemporary of Bugsy Siegal. The music and credit titles are out of the 1980s, and the cars range from the muscle era to contemporary.

With its sleek throwback atmosphere -- think "Miami Vice" put through a time-warp blender -- punctuated by moments of horrid violence, "Drive" is a crime drama in overdrive.

Video features are decent enough, though one feels the filmmakers never made an effort to find their high gear when it came to giving the goodies to its audience.

There are four making-of featurettes: "I Drive," "Under the Hood," "Driver and Irene" and "Cut to the Chase." There is also an interview with Refn and ... that's it.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, January 30, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Christine" (1983)

Stephen King in 1983 was an absolute juggernaut, cranking out best-selling novels that all seemed to be turned into popular movies. By the early '80s, Hollywood wasn't even waiting until his books came out, optioning them before publication so they could start work on a film adaptation. Take "Christine," which came out a mere seven months after the book.

"Christine" was regarded as one of the bigger flops of Stephen King movies, but it's held up well over the years and even attained the status of a minor cult hit. (It actually wasn't a money-loser, taking in $21 million in ticket sales against a budget just under $10 million.)

The film has probably had its most profound effect on car collectors who specialize in late 1950s Plymouth Furys, who paint their vehicles in candy apple red with white stripes to obtain their own Christine. Similarly, the remake of "Gone in 60 Seconds" bombed at the box office, but many '68 Mustang fastbacks were converted into Eleanors.

I like "Christine," though I wasn't very much scared by it in 1983 and find it even less so now. What it does achieve is a pervading sense of disquiet -- the film manages to be disturbing without very much overt violence. The movie received an R rating from the MPAA, but the deaths aren't very grisly -- a few F-words here and there seemed to do the trick.

Given the presence of John Carpenter, by then pigeonholed as a director of horror films, working from a script (by Bill Phillips) based on a "horror" novel, it was perhaps inevitable that "Christine" would be judged via the prism of scariness. But if one sits back and lets the movie come to you, it's revealed as quite a decent dark drama with supernatural elements.

Interestingly, both the male leads have since gone on to productive careers behind the camera. Keith Gordon, who had a popular run playing nerds in the '80s ("Back to School"), has directed a bunch of television series episodes, including "Dexter," and helmed several respectable feature films, including "A Midnight Clear."

John Stockwell directed "Crazy/Beautiful," one of Kirsten Dunst's first films, and the horror film "Turistas." There seems to be a nautical theme in his filmography -- the surfer movie "Blue Crush," diver-centric "Into the Blue" and the forthcoming shark movie "Dark Tide."

On the female side, Alexandra Paul went on to a successful television and film career, best known as one of the "Baywatch" babes. And Kelly Preston has a small role as the girl spurned by the popular jock.

Plot-wise, there isn't a whole lot to tell: ostracized high school loser Arnie Cunningham (Gordon) buys a dilapidated 1958 Plymouth Fury and fixes it up. His best friend Dennis (Stockwell) and Arnie's unlikely new girlfriend Leigh (Paul) become convinced the car is haunted by an evil spirit. Soon, bodies start piling up.

The movie varies a bit from the novel, where Christine is possessed by the ghost of her first owner, who killed himself in the car. The film shows the car as evil from birth -- mangling the hand of one worker on the auto assembly line, and killing another who dares to flick cigar ash on her shiny new front seat.

Christine raises some metaphysical questions: What exactly is the source of her foul enchantment? Since she was bad to the rivets once finished, at what stage of construction did sentience manifest? Does the soul reside in the engine, or the differential?

Her main power, of course, is the ability to re-form herself to shiny newness, even after being smashed to a pulp by some local bullies who hate Arnie. Of course, Christine takes her revenge on the hoodlums, running them down or squishing them one by one. The two most memorable death scenes are Christine forcing her bulk into a narrow loading bay to get at one bad guy, ripping her fenders off in the process; and a flaming Christine, emerging from a gas station explosion, chasing the chief bully down a lonesome road in the film's most evocative scene.

Less mesmerizing, and in fact down right hokey is the bit where Robert Prosky, as the surly owner of the you-fix-it garage where Arnie keeps Christine, gets smushed against the steering wheel when she ratchets her front seat all the way forward. Never mind that as far as the seat would go would only give him a bruised belly. Even less plausible is the idea that Arnie would be allowed to continue driving Christine after his boss is found murdered inside of her, instead of being relegated to a police impound lot.

I liked the friendship between Arnie and Dennis. In most movies depicting high schoolers, the nerds and jocks are obligatory enemies, so it's nice to see the football player standing up for his best friend. There's an almost gentle grace between them. Especially touching is the scene where Dennis asks Arnie what he sees in the still-battered Christine.

"I guess I finally found something uglier than me," he says candidly. "You're not ugly, Arnie," Dennis responds, with a genuine note of pity. "I know what I am," Arnie asserts. You don't see too many moments like this in movies of any era, an authentic and heartfelt communication between two 17-year-old guys.

"Christine" was seen as a jalopy when it originally came out, but its reputation has been restored over the last 30 years.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review: "Man on a Ledge"

So there he is, that man out here on the ledge. From the very first moments we glimpse him, we know that the hero in "Man on a Ledge" does not intend to jump off the 21st floor of a swanky Manhattan hotel. He's up to something, that man, whose name turns out to be Nick Cassidy, and is played by Sam Worthington. That something involves making everyone think he's suicidal, including the cops trying to talk him down and the people on the street, who would also like him to come down -- but quicker.

This is not some deep-think drama or character study. "Man on a Ledge" wants to be a fun and zippy thriller, part heist flick and part revenge catharsis. And it mostly carries out its intentions adeptly, under the direction of Asger Leth, a novice to feature films, and screenwriter Pablo F. Fenjves, a television veteran.

Despite the static location of its protagonist, the story is constantly on the move. "Man" is a movie that is plot, plot and more plot. Eventually Nick gets to go places -- otherwise things would get really dull, since the ledge routine is merely a diversion. The real action is across the street, where Nick's brother Joey (Jamie Bell) is breaking into a rich guy's vault with the help of his girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez). The girlfriend milks every existing cliché for the fiery cinematic Latina, including the liberal use of the word "puta," and creates a few new ones.

At first the break-in appears to be a straight high-tech infiltration/robbery, with people dangling from ropes to avoid laser alarms, faking out sophisticated security cameras with simple ruses, etc. We've seen it all before, and other than a few clever twists, it doesn't hold our attention long.

But there's obviously more going on here. The guy they're robbing, David Englander, is an evil real estate tycoon played by Ed Harris, who exploits his steely blue eyes and creased visage with expert, if overly familiar, flair. Nick is looking to get back at Englander for something, but what?

It's the job of Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) to find out. A police negotiator who recently had a high-profile failure on the job, she's specifically requested by Nick to be the one talking to him. Her semi-willing partner is played by Edward Burns, in standard tough-New Yorker mode.

Nick and Lydia establish a connection, but she senses that she's being played. First her mission is merely to learn his real name and identity. Later, it will be to decide who to trust.

Rounding out the cast are Titus Welliver as the officer in command of the scene, Anthony Mackie as a cop who's an old friend of Nick's, William Sadler as a curiously omnipresent hotel worker and Kyra Sedgwick as a TV reporter with an incongruous surname and accent.

I didn't dislike "Man on a Ledge," but its moving parts all fit together a little too neatly and predictably for me to really enjoy.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: "Shame"

Brandon is a sex addict. This may sound like a set-up for juvenile joking -- "What man isn't!" -- but the new drama "Shame" contains not an ounce of smirk. Its cinematic cousins are not T&A comedies but other dramas about addiction, and how it sucks all the joy out of people's lives.

The irony for Brandon is that one of the most beautiful, pleasurable experiences in human existence is the source of his pain. For him, the thrill of sexual intercourse plays like a dirge -- assisted by the film's dour, almost numbing musical score by Harry Escott.

German-born actor Michael Fassbender, best known to American audiences for playing young Magneto in last summer's "X-Men" reboot, gives a harrowing and haunting performance as Brandon. It's a revealing portrait, both physically -- the film's unabashed nudity and sex scenes earned an NC-17 rating -- and at its emotional core.

There's one amazing scene where we see Brandon engaged in vigorous sex with two prostitutes, and Fassbender shows us that the fleeting satisfaction of his physical urges only saps his soul.

Brandon lives alone in a fabulous Manhattan apartment, and works at an upscale ad agency where the boss (James Badge Dale) is a walking sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. Brandon is more circumspect about his desires, though, surreptitiously watching porn on his office computer and masturbating in the men's restroom.

He also takes care to avoid becoming the office lothario, generally shying away from the women he works with, until Marianne (Nicole Beharie) sidles up to him one day and makes her attraction clear. The sequence of their brief courtship is perhaps the most difficult thing to watch in the movie -- Brandon, presented with a genuine woman of wit and soul and charming awkwardness, struggles to relate. It's like a shark trying to go vegetarian.

It becomes clear exactly how alone Brandon is when his sister Sissy arrives unannounced and begs him to let her crash there. Their meeting is revealing: he catches her naked in the bath, thinking a burglar has broken in, and Sissy makes little attempt to cover herself up.

The suggestion that Brandon's obsession has touched even this sibling relationship is like a shadow that lingers over the entire movie.

Sissy is played by Carey Mulligan, in a tender, brittle performance that underlines her status as one of the best actresses of her young generation. The scene where she sings a sad, slow rendition of "New York, New York" at a nightclub while Brandon tearfully looks on is genuinely touching.

Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the screen legend), who co-wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan, paints an unflattering picture of sexual obsession, though the sex scenes are clearly designed to be titillating -- with the exception of Brandon's foray into a gay club when his addiction reaches its nadir.

(I don't think McQueen is attempting to portray homosexuality as ugly, just a sick straight man who will do anything for sex, even if he doesn't enjoy it.)

"Shame" isn't a great movie, but quite a good one showcasing an amazing performance by Michael Fassbender that should get some attention when Academy Award nominations arrive.

3 stars out of four

Review: "A Dangerous Method"

I greatly enjoyed "A Dangerous Method," though I recognize it's not for everyone. It's a fictionalized version of the relationship between three pivotal figures in the development of psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud, his protégé Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Jung's who became his lover and then a pioneering psychologist in her own right.

The movie is a mixture of esoteric discussions on the nature of the human mind and depictions of tortured sexuality. One minute, the characters are debating the way their budding discipline is being ostracized by the greater scientific community; the next, they're engaging in kinky sex -- one getting whipped while she watches herself in the mirror, etc.

I found the juxtaposition of intellectual and carnal impulses delightful, but then I'm a very thin slice of the movie-going demographic -- a psychology major my first two years in college, before switching to film and journalism. "A Dangerous Method" is based on the play "The Talking Cure" by Christopher Hampton (who also penned the screenplay).

For me, it was like watching dry history from my old textbooks brought to vivid, neurotic life. A terrific trio of actors illuminate the (supposed) private lives of these stuffy figures, their collaborations and conflicts.

Others, though, may simply dismiss it as high-brow erotica with a brainy bent.

The film is directed by David Cronenberg, and if ever there were a filmmaker made to delve into the psycho-sexual labyrinths of Freud & Co., it's him. Cronenberg ("Dead Ringers") has had a career flitting between mainstream and art films, straight-out horror and deeply disquieting dramas. His movies ("Videodrome") have always had a healthy dose of id-driven fear and loathing slithering under their slick surface.

Michael Fassbender plays Jung, who in 1904 was a 29-year-old doctor practicing the still-revolutionary "psychanalysis" invented by Freud. He is assigned as a patient Sabina, a 19-year-old Russian Jew who's had thoughts of becoming a psychologist herself, but is currently suffering from crippling mental instability.

Knightley, with her willowy beauty and fierce, large eyes, makes quite an impression as Sabina, contorting her body and unhinging her lower jaw in a convincing physical manifestation of her mind's anguish. She looks like her soul is so offended by the stain of her mortal failings, it's trying to shunt off its own fleshy sheath.

Eventually Sabina's psychosis is brought under control using classic Freudian theories about sexual repression, and she becomes Jung's student. Frustrated by trying to understand sex-based impulses when she has no intimate experience herself, she initiates as affair with Jung, who is married to a very wealthy woman (Sarah Gadon).

Things really get crackling when Freud steps into the picture. Played by Viggo Mortensen with magisterial authority, Freud views himself as both a pioneer and victim, attempting to rewrite the laws of science regarding the human mind, yet stubborn in his insistence that a psychologist's role is not to cure his patients but merely help them understand themselves.

"I can assure you than in a hundred years time, our work will still be rejected," he tells Jung at their first meeting. "Columbus, you know, had no idea what country he'd discovered. Like him, I am in the dark. All I know is I've set foot on the shore, and the country exists."

The two men's philosophies clash in time, with Jung feeling constrained by Freud's view of all psychoses as sexual in origin. "There must be more than one hinge to the universe," he tells Sabina.

Again, thrilling stuff from my vantage point, but maybe not yours.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Video review: "Real Steel"

Every year spawns a few movies that fall into the "love-it-or-hate-it" category, or in the case of "Real Steel," the "like-it-or-hate-it" flick of 2011. Several of my local film critic colleagues have even seen fit to toss it onto their "Worst of the Year" list.

Though hardly a cinematic knockout, I found it to be an amusing, if admittedly overly sappy father/son redemption story with impressively cool robots -- "The Champ" with Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.

Actually, since the movie came I finally figured out why the boxing robots in the movie are so evocative: they bear a startling resemblance to the iron football goon used in promotional bits for NFL games on Fox. People who might abhor the visceral thrill of boxing and other human blood sport can safely revel in watching two automatons turn each other into scrap metal.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former contender in the ring who became a manager of robots when human boxing was outlawed. (The story is set in the near future.) Through a series of unlikely circumstances, Charlie is forced to take Max (Dakota Goya), the son he never met, on the road with him, where they bond through a sequence of misadventures.

Their fortunes take a turn for the better when they uncover a mysterious robot fighter buried in a junkyard, dub him Atom, and before long they're headed to the championship bout.

The CGI battles hit that sweet spot where the robots are just humanistic enough that the audience feels like it has a stake in the outcome, but can safely cheer on the mayhem. We certainly feel more for Atom than we did any of the Transformers in their movies.

"Real Steel" may be overly maudlin, but as lightweight entertainment with a little heart, it's the real deal.

Extras for DVD are fairly OK: a blooper reel, two making-of featurettes, and audio commentary by director Shawn Levy.

The blu-ray edition includes a few upgrades, the centerpiece of which is an interactive "second screen" with videos and behind-the-scenes tidbits. Plus deleted and extended scenes and two more featurettes, including one about Sugar Ray Leonard, who served as boxing consultant on the production.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, January 23, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Wings" (1927)

Watching "Wings," the very first winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, and both the strengths and the limitations of its era are obvious.

The downsides are familiar from silent film acting, and early Hollywood in general: a stilted, theatrical acting style; maudlin portrayals of romantic and familial relationships; plots that often turn on happenstance and (mis)overheard conversations; action scenes constrained by the primitive special effects of the time.

But it's still a terrific picture, with some stuff I didn't expect. The gritty, uncompromising portrayal of World War I is shocking for its bloody mayhem and overt depiction of suffering and death. One of the main characters gets shot out of the sky, blood bursting from his mouth like a fountain. There's some daring sexual depictions, including a pair of lesbians, some naked male behinds at the military recruiting office and a brief topless shot of  Clara Bow.

And the aerial dogfighting scenes, though they contain a number of fake-looking collisions and other weaknesses, are still pretty cutting-edge for their time. Most notable was director William A. Wellman's use of rear-facing cameras mounted on actual airplanes, so he could film his stars as they experienced the real gyrations and wind-swept thrills of open-cockpit aviation.

Bow received top billing in the film, even though her part is a supporting one and she disappears for long stretches of the movie. The "It Girl" had a distinctive look that seems almost quaint nowadays -- kewpie-doll face, boyishly short haircut, huge expressive eyes and petite figure. She plays the (literal) girl next door, Mary Preston, who's been in love with Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) since they were kids.

Alas, Jack only seems to have motors on his brain, tinkering around with his hotrod, the Shooting Star. Soon war arrives and he signs up to be a pilot. After a misunderstanding, he goes to Europe mistakenly thinking that Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), the sophisticated city girl, has given her heart to him.

In reality, she adores David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), the upstanding scion of the town's wealthiest family. Jack goes to war bearing Sylvia's locket with her picture inside, unaware the inscription on the back is made out to David. Meanwhile, Mary signs up as a volunteer to drive trucks for the Allies, hoping to be near Jack.

After an initial period of hostility, Jack and David become fast friends -- and ace pilots. I found it curious that there's very little footage of planes in the air during the film's first half, and then all of a sudden the aerial combat scenes wash over you like a tidal wave.

I've long been a fan of World War I aviation, a period in which new technological breakthroughs seemed to change the tide of the war in the air every couple of months. The film shows real hazards of those claptrap machines, like the machine gun jamming (a frequent occurrence). Though no one ever seems to run out of bullets.

"Wings" also depicts how dogfighting was hardly the epicenter of aerial combat. Attacks on ground targets are frequent, plus one thrilling sequence where Jack and David raid some zeppelins that were used effectively to spot out enemy troop moments.

The love story is less thrilling. Mary does indeed unite with Jack, but he's so plastered while on leave that he fails to recognize her. (Instead, implausibly, becoming obsessed with "lil' bubbles" that he imagines jumping from his champagne glass into virtually every object he sees.) Mary is sent packing back to the States when MPs discover her changing clothes in Jack's room with him passed out on the bed, thinking they've witnessed an unsavory dalliance.

The last extended sequence is emotionally gripping, though doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense. David is shot down during a mission, crashing in German territory. Gravely wounded, he makes his way to a German airfield and steals a plane. Meanwhile Jack, believing his friend dead, goes on a mad killing spree. Seeing David's plane approaching, he peppers it with fire -- somehow missing David's frantic signals. After David crashes into a house, Jack lands nearby to collect a trophy and discovers he's killed his best friend.

The moment is genuinely touching ... though the final sequence after Jack returns home is somewhat maudlin and unlikely. Jack -- having managed to obtain gray hair in between his mustering out and traveling to his hometown -- begs forgiveness from David's parents, giving the mother the tiny stuffed bear David carried with him as a good luck charm. (Of course, he left it behind during his ill-fated final mission.) Having received absolution, Jack meets up with Mary and realizes he's loved her all along.

Gary Cooper shows up for about two minutes as Cadet White, in one of his first major screen roles. It's an electric moment, and I found his more naturalistic acting style in sharp contrast to the stiff antics of Rogers and Arlen.

I very much enjoyed "Wings," even as I realized it was a product of its time. Perhaps the time is now right for a remake?

It was thought for many years that "Wings" had been lost to the ages, but a negative was found and restored. The film is being released on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time tomorrow, Jan. 24. It's a first-class restoration -- they even used different film stocks for the day and night scenes, with sepia for the former and a bluish tint for nighttime.

In addition to the musical score, the soundtrack also includes a number of sound effects -- plane engines, machine guns firing, cannon explosions and so forth. These were actually played during the film's initial release using then-new technology.

The filmmakers also hand-tinted frames to show planes plummeting to earth in flames. The effect is rather primitive, but lends a great deal of authenticity to the air combat.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is not the story of a conventional Everyman as a child -- Oskar Schell is no Everyboy.

No, Oskar is an extraordinary lad -- a smart, painfully shy boy. His only really deep human connection is with his father (Tom Hanks), who recognizes the specialness of his child not as a disadvantage to be regretted but an opportunity to draw him closer and nudge Oskar toward a rich life shared with others. Thomas Schell was a failed biochemist who became a jeweler, but whose real occupation was a Biblical sort of shepherd, tending to a flock of one.

But the elder Schell dies in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and Oskar is left utterly alone. True, his mother (Sandra Bullock) is technically present, but Oskar correctly labels her an absentee parent. That's the sort of kid Oskar is: he knows what an absentee parent is, and he's hurting so badly inside he lashes out at his mother by telling her to her face that she's a failed mom.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, adapted for the screen by Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") and directed by Stephen Daldry, who has made four feature films, all of which I've loved ("The Hours," "The Reader" and "Billy Elliot" are the previous three.)

It is not a movie that consciously tries to be "the" film about 9/11 -- what Oskar refers to simply as "The Worst Day." But in its stark exploration of wrenching loss and the capricious way human lives collide with each other, it best captures the emotional vacuum felt by an entire nation more than 11 years ago, and to a lessening degree since.

Oskar's father often assigned adventurous tasks, or "expeditions" to him. Ostensibly scientific undertakings, they were really exercises designed to force Oskar to interact with new people and explore the real world around him. Precocious and earnest, Oskar recognizes the true meaning of these assignments, but still tackles them with enthusiasm because he so adores his father.

Shortly before his death, Oskar's dad set before him the grandest expedition of all: discovering the mythical 6th borough of Manhattan. This mission takes on new meaning when the boy discovers a key hidden inside a vase in his father's untouched closet. Unmarked, with only the cryptic word "Black" printed on a piece of paper, Oskar concludes this clue must unlock the puzzle of Thomas Schell's death.

With great deliberateness, Oskar sets out to the far reaches of New York City, attempting to interview every person named Black to see if they know about the mystery of the key. Since Oskar suffers panic attacks at the mere prospect of mass transit, he will walk everywhere he needs to go on his free Saturdays. He calculates it will take him three years, which in his unadorned narration Oskar recognizes is his way of extending the time he gets to spend with his father, or at least his fading memory.

With such a non-traditional protagonist, I was not surprised to learn that Thomas Horn, the amazing young actor who portrays him, came to this film project in an atypical way. This is his first acting credit of any sort; he was discovered after winning a tournament of "Teen Jeopardy" at the age of 12. Like Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit" or Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," this is the sort of performance that feels almost ethereal is its ability to tap such emotional depths and complex inner thoughts in one so young.

Other able performers turn up in supporting roles. Viola Davis plays the first woman Oskar encounters in his travels, one who has suffered her own recent loss. Jeffrey Wright plays a businessman mourning the death of his own father. John Goodman is the security guard at Oskar's building who trades good-natured insults with him. Max von Sydow turns up as the mysterious, silent man living as a renter in his grandmother's apartment right across the way, who takes an unexpected role in the boy's quest.

Bullock's role as the distraught mother struggling to come to grips with her son's odd acting out would seem to be a thankless one, but later on she shines a new light on their relationship that shocks even  young Oskar.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" hasn't been in the conversation of the best films of the year, but it deserves to be. It's a viscerally enthralling story about a singular boy trying to find his place in the world when his only anchor is ripped away. What a journey -- Oskar's, and ours.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The proper proportions of optimism, realism, cynicism and negativism

The Recipe for Success must include the proper proportions of optimism, realism, cynicism and negativism.

You need lots of optimism to dream up all the possibilities of things you can accomplish.

A goodly amount of realism is necessary to help you figure out which of those are the best ones to pursue.

Even a dollop of cynicism is a good thing, because it helps you learn from your mistakes and make better choices.

But even a pinch of negativism puts everything at risk, threatening to instill a bitter taste in all your endeavors. Best to leave it in the cupboard.

Video Review: "The Ides of March"

"The Ides of March" is an ambitious, well-executed political drama that loses points because if its utter lack of freshness. From the inspiring presidential candidate with secret dark spots, to the ambitious campaign insiders and journalists ready to cut throats to get ahead, to the naive young thing who gets caught up in the crossfire, there's virtually nothing in this movie that we haven't seen before.

George Clooney directed, co-wrote and has a supporting role in "Ides" as Mike Morris, a liberal governor who's the frontrunner for the race to the White House. Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Myers, Morris' number-two man behind grizzled political veteran Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Paul Giamatti plays the campaign manager for Morris' main opponent, who's got an ace up his sleeve as they head into the Ohio primary. Rounding out the cast are Marisa Tomei as a sly New York Times reporter and Evan Rachel Wood as a 20-year-old campaign volunteer who catches Stephen's eye.

That's a killer cast, and Clooney knows exactly how to exploit it, resulting in many winning scenes of dueling repartee and clashing egos. It's during these times that the movie reminds one of other, better political flicks like "The Candidate" or "Primary Colors."

But the screenplay by Clooney, his longtime collaborator Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on a play by Willimon, continually goes down paths far too well-traveled. The audience knows almost everything that's going to happen long before it transpires.

Inevitability is a quality that may work when it comes to winning elections, but it turns otherwise promising films into cinematic also-rans.

Extra features aren't a landslide, but certainly make a solid showing that should please the electorate of video lovers.

The DVD version comes with a commentary track by Clooney and Heslov, plus two featurettes: "Believe: George Clooney" and "On the Campaign: The Cast of Ides of March."

Upgrade to Blu-ray, and you get two more featurettes: "Developing the Campaign: The Origin of Ides of March" and "What Does a Political Consultant Do?".

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Air Force" (1943)

Written and shot in the heady days after Pearl Harbor, "Air Force" is a cheery bit of war propaganda that struck a chord with audiences when it was released in early 1943, less than 14 months after the surprise Japanese attack. The fictional tale of the intrepid crew of the B-17 "Mary-Ann" in the days before and after Dec. 7, 1941, it was a box office hit, earned a slew of Oscar nominations (including Best Screenplay) and became a rallying call for the war effort.

Seen today, though, it's a borderline cringe-worthy drama in which American soldiers seem extraordinarily giddy about the prospect of near-certain death, coupled with some terrible special effects miniatures that scarcely look better than cousin Johnny's toy planes and ships blown up with firecrackers.

Throw in some nasty anti-Japanese sentiment, virulent even by the standards of the time, and you've got a war film that has aged exceedingly poorly.

Perhaps most disturbing are several references put in during the Pearl Harbor attack scenes of "local Japanese" or "native Japanese" -- aka Japanese-Americans -- engaging in preplanned sabotage or attacks coordinated with the surprise air strike. Subsequent investigations proved that such claims were completely unfounded.

Though screenwriter Dudley Nichols, who received uncredited assists from Leah Baird, William Faulkner and Arthur T. Horman, cannot be entirely faulted for these harmful scenes -- which doubtless contributed to the xenophobic paranoia that helped justify the mass internment of Japanese-Americans. They were working on the movie in the weeks and months after Pearl Harbor, with the script being altered on the fly to reflect the shifting realities of war.

As a result, a number of historical inaccuracies crept into the story -- such as the B-17 crew flying to Manila, when in fact U.S. troops in the Philippines retreated to Australia shortly after the outbreak of hostilities.

"Air Force" is named after the flying division of the U.S. Army, which didn't get split off into a separate military branch until after the war. Curiously, the studio chose to showcase the Mary-Ann as the real star of the picture, despite a large and able cast of B-list stars and character actors.

John Ridgely plays the skipper, Capt. Michael "Irish" Quincannon, who's the perfect mix of inspiration command. Gig Young (an Oscar winner for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?") is the trusty co-pilot. Arthur Kennedy, who I'll always remember as the crusty journalist from "Lawrence of Arabia," is the bombadier. Charles Drake turns up as the navigator with daddy issues, George Tobias is the obligatory New Yawkah crewman, and Harry Carey has a nice turn as the elder crew chief.

Rounding things out are James Brown as "Tex" Rader, a fighter pilot who enjoys a good-natured rivalry with the B-17 crew, and John Garfield as Winocki, the cynical gunner.

It's the familiar mix of characters you see in wartime movies, complete with the green young kid, etc. Winocki is the most interesting, since he was a pilot trainee who got washed out of flight school by Quincannon a couple of years earlier, and has a huge chip on his shoulder. His stint in the Army is set to expire three weeks after Pearl Harbor, but it doesn't take too many guesses to know he undergoes a change.

It's that insipid, familiar everybody's-a-swell-guy syndrome, except for the one not-so-swell guy, who later migrates in a swelltherly direction.

My biggest problem with the depiction of the Americans forces is that everyone's just so damn happy all the time! I quickly grew tired of all the aw-shucks smiles and playful bantering, and men cracking jokes even as they know they're about to be overrun by the Japanese. One commanding officer of a tiny island, already grievously wounded, is offered a flight out on the Mary-Ann and refuses with, of course, a joke and a smile.

The combat scenes range from a few decent aerial sections to absolutely horrible. The miniatures of battleships and carriers at sea are entirely unconvincing, as are the numerous shots of planes taking off and landing. There's just no weight to the images -- we can sense the lack of immense inertia from these great steel beasts.

The stuff up in the air is better, with some actual dogfight footage spliced in with decent special-effects shots of enemy planes seen through the gunners' doors. We get a real sense of how a B-17 crew works together -- the gunner on one side shouting out when a target is about to pass over to the other -- and I can't help but think this movie influenced George Lucas when he was shooting the first "Star Wars" film.

War is terrible, but as seen in "Air Force" it's one great big smarmy smilefest, with toy airplanes.

2 stars out of four

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review: "Contraband"

Here's a tidy little heist/thriller starring Mark Wahlberg doing what he does best: Playing the lone wolf vying against the various forces arrayed against him. Lately Wahlberg's roles have gravitated more toward characters motivated to protect his family, rather than just watching his own back.

But once things get going, it's all about Wahlberg out-muscling and out-thinking his enemies. He specializes in playing the underdog who always seems to gain the upper hand.

"Contraband" is based, very loosely, on an Icelandic film about a smuggler, and is directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who was the star and one of the producers of the earlier movie. I admit I've never heard of the star of a foreign movie directing an American actor in the Hollywood remake. (Imagine Noomi Rapace tapped to helm the American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.")

"Contraband" has misplaced aspirations toward something a little deeper, with a fine cast that includes Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna and J.K. Simmons.

It's a rather large and motley crew of characters, good guys and bad guys and bad guys pretending to be good guys. Walberg is Chris Faraday, the lone good guy who plays at being a bad guy.

The former king of smugglers who went straight, Chris is lured/forced into the quintessential One Last Job when his young brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) screws up a shipment, tossing a batch of drugs overboard when his ship is interdicted. The local drug kingpin, Tim Briggs, is played by Ribisi, who has a flair for skeevy malevolence. Briggs makes it clear that unless Chris covers the loss, Faraday's family will be targeted.

Kate Beckinsale has the thankless role as the wife, Kate, whose job is to look pretty and vulnerable, try to talk Chris out of going back to crime, and never do anything logical. After Briggs invades her home, threatens her sons with a gun and drives a truck through her hair salon, you'd think Kate would've learned 9-1-1 on her keypad.

Instead, she turns to Chris' best friend Sebastian for help. A former partner in crime, Sebastian sets up Chris' job but doesn't accompany him on the trip to Panama. He's played by Ben Foster, who also does skeevy pretty well.

Just to show what a good bad guy Chris is, he refuses to smuggle drugs in order to pay back Briggs, opting instead to bring in counterfeit dollar bills. This presents a logistical nightmare, since the amount of funny money needed will practically fill its own storage container. But Chris is the master of subterfuge, nicknamed Houdini for his ability to slip past other criminals and the law.

On most any level of serious consideration, "Contraband" isn't a particularly good movie. Its plot twists telegraph themselves pretty clearly, and every performer other than Wahlberg is only afforded a few scenes to piece together any depth to their characters.

But darn it, I just couldn't help having fun. The action goes all over the place, so that at one point Chris gets recruited into a Panamanian armored car robbery -- the heist within the heist. (Actually, there's yet another layer of theft, which I'll leave the audience to discover.)

J.K. Simmons is a hoot as the truculent ship's captain, who's not so much offended that a known smuggler like Chris is running an operation on his boat as the fact that he wasn't cut in on the scam.

"Contraband" may not be anybody's idea of great filmmaking, but with its scene-stealing cast, a few clever potboiler scenes and another sturdy performance from Wahlberg, it left me pleasantly snookered.

3 stars out off our

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: "The Iron Lady"

"The Iron Lady" is a fairly standard biopic containing an extraordinary performance. That it is by Meryl Streep is not surprising; I'd say she has made a career resurgence in her 50s and early 60s, except she never really experienced a lull. Streep arguably occupies the place where Morgan Freeman sat 15 years ago: America's greatest living film actor.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science might as well give her a nomination now. This would be her 17th Oscar nod, a number so astounding its impact is dwarfed only by the fact that her last win was in 1983, for "Sophie's Choice."

Based on her riveting, spot-on turn as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, I'd say her dry spell for taking home golden statues may well come to an end.

I often feel that with movies of this sort, containing a performance that is so dominating and full-bodied, the film around it tends to suffer. Like Jamie Foxx in "Ray" or Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote," Streep's gravitational pull is so powerful, story arcs and secondary characters tend to get sucked into the vortex.

Only Jim Broadbent, giving his own golden-caliber turn as Thatcher's long-suffering husband Denis, is given time to add more than perfunctory notes.

Most films about politicians tend to shy away from the politics -- especially when they don't sync up with Hollywood's leftist tilt. Director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan make the bold and I think proper choice to put Thatcher's Conservative party ideals front and center to the story.

The movie isn't a diatribe for right-wing political conclusions, but shows how Thatcher's self-reliant upbringing and tendency to demand the best of those around her colored her way of thinking. In an age awash in self-reflection and where the slacker mentality is idolized, this portrait of the vinegary Thatcher and her stern exhortations has a sort of bracing throw-back freshness.

"It used to be about trying to do something," an elderly Thatcher complains to an admirer. "Now it's about trying to be someone."

The story unspools with old, doddering Thatcher reflecting on her life in flashback. Alexandra Roach plays young Thatcher, a grocer's daughter who ran for Parliament at age 24 (and lost). Over time, though, she gains standing until she believes it's time to run for leader of her party -- not because she thinks she can win, but because she wants to bolster ideals she believes have grown flabby.

In the modern sections, Denis Thatcher has long been dead, but Margaret still talks to him (raising great concern on the part of her handlers). On a conscious level, she knows he's not there, but her soul so aches for his companionship that she refuses to dismiss his apparition.

Ever the chameleon, Streep is made up to resemble Thatcher rather closely, including that famous swoop of helmet hair. She gets the iconic voice just right, a squeaky goose's honk that she employed to scold and argue her point. Once scene, showing her receiving vocal training in preparation for her national campaign, has (deliberate?) similarities to last year's "The King's Speech."

I thoroughly enjoyed "The Iron Lady," or more rather I enjoyed watching Streep embody Margaret Thatcher with a convincing mix of steel and velvet. This is a movie that contains greatness, though it never quite reaches it.

3 stars out of four

Review: "Carnage"

Films based on stage plays are never hard to spot. There's the compressed cast, the static location and the carefully bookended world that exists around the characters. Perhaps most recognizably, and often to the detriment of adapting a work from stage to screen, is the theatricality -- the artifice -- of the proceedings.

"Carnage" is a wonderfully acted drama about two sets of parents, played by Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. That's three Oscar winners and an Oscar nominee, folks.

As one might expect from such a dazzling cast, and one led by an expert director like Roman Polanski, the performances are a delight. The parents, Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Foster) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz), are brought together by a serious brawl between their 11-year-old sons.

Outwardly, everyone is trying to act maturely and magnanimously, endeavoring to resolve the situation without resorting to lawsuits and hysterics. Soon, though, things devolve into a quagmire of clashing egos, ulterior motives and two marriages that have carefully spackled over their deep fault lines.

"Carnage" is based on the play by Yasmina Reza, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski. The dialogue is sharp and stealthy, as four smart Manhattan parents reveal the bile and loathing hidden by their upper-class veneer.

The problem is, I never for a moment bought these characters as real people. As much as I often enjoyed basking in their verbal parries and thrusts, the action is always kept at emotional arm's length, as we watch these carefully constructed creatures run through their paces with all the surprises of a pre-programmed automaton.

Still, the performers themselves are nearly worth the price of admission.

Penelope is a politically correct, New Age-y type with a carefully cultivated sense of victimhood. She takes her boy's injury (the loss of two teeth) personally, and is not looking for revenge, but abject contrition. When she fails to receive it, it uncorks some serious anger beneath the placid surface.

(It's notable that the avowed peace-lover is the only one of the foursome who resorts to violence as things grow tense.)

Mike is garrulous and friendly, always ready to be seen as the mediator of conflict. But his blustery personality hides some troubling issues, from the minor (a pathological fear of his daughter's hamster) to the major (declaring marriage and children the bane of manhood).

Nancy is an investment broker, carefully coiffed and mannered, who's eternally vexed at Alan's eternal interruptions to talk business on his cell phone. A high-profile lawyer, he's handling a huge case in between needling the Longstreets.

Alan is the most mercenary of the bunch, making it quite plain he considers the spat between their sons an overblown waste of his time. But in some ways he's also the most honest, since he doesn't bother to hide the selfish instincts the others work hard to conceal.

Everything plays out in a crisp 79-minute encounter in the Longstreets' apartment, punctuated by conversations about the Darfur atrocity, the best kind of toilet mechanism and an impressive spew of vomit onto some rare art books.

"Carnage" works better when seen as a master class in acting than a workable, believable story.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Video review: "Moneyball"

I truly believe Brad Pitt gave the performance of his career in "Moneyball," far outpacing his overrated work in the pedantic "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Playing Billy Beane, the general manager of the dirt-poor Oakland A's baseball club, Pitt shows layers and nuance that have been missing in his previous straightforward acting turns.

Billy is outwardly brash, even cocky in the face he presents to the his organization, the media and even his family. He has to, when he's trying to beat teams that can spend three times as much on player salaries. Inside, he's a nervous wreck who's convinced he's cursed.

With the help of a socially awkward young computer genius, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Billy institutes the then-radical concept of sabermetrics. Essentially, this means jettisoning tried-and-true methods for evaluating players and instead relying on complex mathematical algorithms to determine the best team to be had at the lowest price.

Soon Billy and his apprentice have assembled a cast of players who are over the hill, injured or playing out of position -- what Peter dubs "an island of misfit toys." After some initial stumbles, they start racking up W's.

Director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian succeeded in making a baseball movie with very little baseball, where the real action happens not on the diamond but in the executive offices.

Video extras are a solid base hit, but they failed to put some mustard on the offerings.

At least the basic DVD edition has a few nice features -- it's so common nowadays to find all the good stuff saved for the Blu-ray. The "Moneyball" DVD comes with a making-of documentary, a feature on the real-life Billy Beane, blooper real with Pitt and Hill, and a number of deleted scenes.

The Blu-ray version adds a featurette on selecting the movie's cast and crew and another about adapting a non-fiction sports book into a feature film. There's also a preview for the 2012 season of the "MLB" video game series.

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

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Scalphunters" (1968)

One of the pleasures of doing the Reeling Backward column is discovering new talents I hadn't heard about before, or rediscovering new aspects of actors and filmmakers with whom I had some familiarity.

I've enjoyed finding more films from Ossie Davis' long movie career, and I encountered another delightful performance in 1968's "The Scalphunters." It was Sydney Pollack's third feature film credit after his TV apprenticeship, an enjoyable Western comedy about a grizzled fur trader (Burt Lancaster,) an educated slave out of his element (Davis), some enterprising American Indians with their own peculiar take on capitalism, and the aforementioned scalphunters.

In a previous column, I marveled at Davis' ability to play a young soldier in "The Hill," despite being nearly age 50 at the time. The year "The Scalphunters" came out, Davis turned 51, yet convincingly portrayed a character much younger.

I think I figured out Davis' trick: He simply declined to age, until he reached the point in his career that he felt ready to tackle older-man roles. Talk about Method.

Lancaster is ostensibly the lead, Joe Bass, but it's worth nothing that he largely disappears from the center of the movie, residing both literally figuratively on the periphery of the story. During this time Joseph Lee, a cagey slave who plays the underhanded motives of the white people against each other, takes the limelight.

In terms of narrative, there isn't much of one. A trapper, Bass has his winter's worth of fur pelts stolen from him by a Kiowa chief named Two Crows (Armando Silvestre, a Mexican actor who makes for a charismatic but unconvincing Indian). As payment, they give him Joseph Lee, whom they had captured from the Comanches.

Bass, with Lee in tow, follows the Kiowa with the intention of stealing back his furs, when the Indians are attacked by a large group of marauders led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas). Indian scalps are worth $25 apiece, and Howie and his gang are the sort to acquire money in whatever way they can get it. Bass' mule laden with furs is merely a bonus.

After slipping down a cliff wall, Lee is captured by Howie, who figures he'll fetch $1,500 at the slave auction before they move on to Mexico and out of the reach of the long arm of the law. Lee, who realizes slavery is abolished south of the border, begins ingratiating himself with Howie and his mistress, Kate (Shelley Winters), in hopes of accompanying them entire way to freedom.

Meanwhile, Bass shadows the wagon train, attempting through various means to get back his furs. The most clever of these is poisoning the next water hole with locoweed, so the group's horses bolt and go crazy, killing several men.

Even though story-wise there really isn't much going on, I so enjoyed the four main actors in their roles. Lancaster does his wonderful high-low thing, playing a man of dubious cultural refinement who somehow seems to retain his sense of human grace. He's an illiterate liar who isn't above stealing and fighting dirty, but by gods, he reasons, at least he doesn't trade scalps for a living. The man's stubbornness is his calling card, and his curse.

Telly Savalas had one of those careers where he could play lecherous villains and noble heroes, and yet the characters had a similar through-line. His Jim Howie is not a truly dastardly man -- he does evil things not because he enjoys them, but because they profit him. And profit is all that Howie truly cherishes. Even his relationship to Kate is largely transactional: She figures he's the best chance she's got at a lifetime of comfort, and he gets regular sex and companionship.

It is a marvel to me that anyone, anywhere, at any time ever considered Shelley Winters an attractive woman. With a brassy attitude, screechy voice, three chins and a girdle that groans mightily at its task, Kate is a walking study in repulsion. She at least treats Joseph Lee with something like compassion, seeing him as a more refined companion than Jim Howie -- especially since he's servile and doesn't hit her.

But Ossie Davis' Joseph Lee is the star that makes "The Scalphunters" shine brightly. I loved the way Davis delivers his dialogue, in bright, clipped readings of perfect enunciation and diction. His voice carries almost like he's on a stage and trying to reach the back row.

I shivered with delight whenever he addressed Joe Bass, calling "Mr. Baaasss!!" with a rising crescendo. That over-the-top enthusiasm hides a mountain of obsequiousness, of course, but that is the plight when you are a slave at the mercy of people far less intelligent than yourself.

It could have been just a minor piffle, but Ossie Davis and the rest of the cast transform "The Scalphunters" into a joyous comedic reverie on the dusty plains of the West.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2012 movie preview

"Baggins, we loves it, we loves it, we loves it forever!"

For super-fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and the film trilogy based on "The Lord of the Rings," 2012 can be summed up this way: the arrival of "The Hobbit," and a bunch of other movies.

With the "Harry Potter" series all wrapped up and the "Twilight" franchise sputtering to an end, there's nothing bigger on the cinematic calendar than the prequel to "LotR," which (in a familiar move) is being split in two.

Super-heroes will flex even more muscle this year, with "Spider-Man" seeing a reboot and the latest Batman iteration attempting to outdo "The Dark Knight." A potential new roster of heroes rises with "The Avengers," who could potentially ride this thing into the 2020s.

Here is a look at the year in movies, with personal favorites starred. (Release dates can and will change.)

*Red Tails (Jan. 20) -- Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. star in this WWII action/drama based on the exploits of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen.

The Grey (Jan. 27) -- Liam Neeson, rejuvenated as an action hero, leads a group of oil drillers stranded in Alaska and hunted by wolves.

W.E. (Feb. 3) -- Madonna (yes, that Madonna) wrote and directed this dramatic take on the affair between England's King Edward VIII and an American divorcée.

The Woman in Black (Feb. 3) -- Daniel Radcliffe tests the post-Harry Potter waters in this supernatural period thriller.

Safe House (Feb. 10) -- Denzel Washington goes deliciously bad again playing a criminal held prisoner in a CIA facility overseen by rookie agent Ryan Reynolds.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Feb. 17) -- Nicolas Cage opts for a sequel of perhaps his most craptastic cinematic effort -- and that's saying something.

The Secret World of Arrietty (Feb. 17) -- A Disney animation effort in the Japanese anime mold about a family of tiny people discovered by big people.

This Means War (Feb. 17) -- Spy action/comedy about two agents who discover they're dating the same woman. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy and Chris Pine.

Wanderlust (Feb. 24) -- Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd play Manhattanites who lose their jobs and end up in a free-love commune.

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (March 2) -- The good doctor's lesser-known titles haven't fared so well as animated adaptations. Taylor Swift and Zac Efron provide voices.

*Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (March 2) -- Could be the year's first big action tentpole, with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as post-fairy tale arse-kickers.

*The Raven (March 9) -- John Cusack stars in this highly fictionalized take on the life of Edgar Allen Poe, recast as a hunter of serial killers.

Mirror Mirror (March 16) -- The first of two very liberal Snow White adaptations, this one starring Lily Collins with Julia Roberts as the evil queen.

*The Hunger Games (March 23) -- A ton of expectations are waiting for this film version of the Suzanne Collins YA novel about a world where teens fight to the death on TV.

Wrath of the Titans (March 30) -- Sequel to the remake of "Clash of the Titans"; Perseus goes to hell to rescue Zeus. Let's hope the 3D is better.

The Three Stooges (April 13) -- Still sounds like a bad joke, but the Farrelly Brothers (remember them?) go retro looking for some nyucks.

*The Avengers (May 4) -- Four super-heroes previously featured in their own films (Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Hulk) team up with some new recruits to battle Loki, the evil god of tricks.

Dark Shadows (May 11) -- Johnny Depp and Tim Burton team up again for a movie version of the cheesy TV show about vampires.

The Dictator (May 11) -- Prankmeister Sacha Baron Cohen's latest stars himself as a fictional Middle Eastern potentate who comes to America.

Battleship (May 18) -- The desktop game becomes a CGI-laden action flick with ships and spaceships. The trailer produced much mockery.

Men in Black 3 (May 25) -- MiB2 was one of the laziest sequels in memory -- can a 10-year layoff improve matters?

Snow White and the Huntsman (June 1) -- The second Snow White movie, and much grimier. Kristen Stewart is Snow, Charlize Theron is the queen, and Chris Hemsworth is the third wheel.

*Prometheus (June 8) -- A lot of mystery surrounds this Ridley Scott sci-fi thriller, with most people guessing it's a prequel to "Alien." Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace star.

Jack the Giant Killer (June 15) -- Jack the Beanstalk gets the big-budget treatment from "X-Men" director Bryan Singer.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (June 22) -- The first of those classic literature/horror mash-ups arrives onscreen, with Abe honestly kicking butts of blood-suckers and slave owners.

Brave (June 22) -- The newest animated film from Pixar stars their first female protagonist in a Scottish-flavored sword-and-sorcery tale.

The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3) -- Just five years after the trilogy ended, Spidey gets a reboot with an all-new cast, including Andrew Garfield as the webslinger. Could be good, but falls firmly into the "But, why?" category.

*The Dark Knight Rises (July 20) -- The Batman franchise has a huge hurdle to top the last film, which featured one of the greatest villain performances of all time. Somehow I doubt Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and Bane will measure up to the Joker.

Total Recall (Aug. 3) -- Colin Farrell replaces Ah-nold in this remake of the 1990 sci-fi minor classic.

Argo (Sept. 14) -- Ben Affleck directed and stars in this action/drama about a CIA "exfiltration" expert tasked with getting six Americans out of Iran during the revolution.

Looper (Sept. 28) -- This sci-fi thriller stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a time-traveling hitman who realizes his next target is his future self (Bruce Willis).

Frankenweenie (Oct. 5) -- Tim Burton remakes his first short film as a stop-animation feature about a boy who jolts his dead dog back to life.

Gangster Squad (Oct. 19) -- This highly stylized look at the fight to keep New York mobsters out of 1940s Los Angeles stars Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn and Josh Brolin.

Wreck-It Ralph (Nov. 12) -- The bad guy of a video game wants to be the hero in this Disney animated flick.

Skyfall (Nov. 9) -- This long-delayed James Bond flick arrives with Daniel Craig battling a villain (Ralph Fiennes) from M's (Judi Dench) past. Sam Mendes directs.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2 (Nov. 16) -- Vampire lovers and werewolf enemies face off against nosferatu royalty in the culmination of the often-hootworthy series.

Gravity (Nov. 21) -- Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut stranded in space trying to get back to Earth and her daughter. With George Clooney.

Rise of the Guardians (Nov. 21) -- Fall's big animation tentpole finds mythical creatures (Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, Tooth Fairy) ganging up to fight the Bogeyman.

Les Miserables (Dec. 7) -- Victor Hugo's epic novel has been made into numerous films, but this version is based on the Broadway musical. Starring Hugh Jackman.

*The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dec. 14) -- Peter Jackson wove magic with "Lord of the Rings," and there's no reason to expect less from the prequel tale. Boring Bilbo Baggins sets off on an adventure with a baker's dozen of dwarves, acquires some jewelry and sees the world. The second half, subtitled "There And Back Again," arrives in 2013.

*World War Z (Dec. 21) -- Based on the best-selling book that takes a serious, sober look at a zombie apocalypse. Starring Brad Pitt.

Django Unchained (Dec. 25) -- Jamie Foxx stars in this Civil War-era actioner from Quentin Tarantino, as a slave-turned-bounty hunter takes the fight to a Mississippi plantation.

The Great Gatsby (Dec. 25) -- Leonardo DiCaprio plays the title role and Carey Mulligan is Daisy in this ambitious adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald book.

*Lincoln (December) -- Steven Spielberg tackles the life of Abraham Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Less a biopic than a portrait of leadership during America's darkest days.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

Like its main character, George Smiley, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" plays its cards very close to its vest -- too close, in fact. The result is a nearly affectless espionage tale, a Cold War spy thriller that's chilly and boasts few thrills.

Smiley is refreshingly different from the standard cinematic spy. He's in late middle age, doesn't move in very much of a hurry, eschews guns (most of the time) and has a personality so dry, it's no surprise that his wife, Anne, has left him. Wearing huge owlish eyeglasses and an unctuous mien, Gary Oldman as Smiley resembles a tobacco store clerk more than he does James Bond.

"Tinker" is based on the 1974 novel by John le Carré, unread by me, which was turned into a seven-part BBC miniseries in 1979, with Alec Guinness playing Smiley. With its dense plot and confusing maze of characters -- I was still struggling to keep the names straight by the end -- the story might have been better suited to the episodic rhythms of television than a two-hour movie.

The film begins with the fall of the leader of British Secret Intelligence Services, known only as Control (John Hurt). He had sent one of his top agents, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), to Hungary to learn the identity of a double agent at the very top of their leadership. The mission goes awry, Prideaux is shot, and Control and Smiley, his right-hand man, are brought down in the ensuing scandal.

But was the theory of a mole really nonsense? Suffering through a lonely forced retirement, Smiley is given a shot at redemption when the civilian leadership appoints him to learn the truth. This proves quite a challenge, since the four men Control suspected now run "the Circus," as the members of the intelligence agency refer to themselves.

They are: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds).

Alleline would seem to be the most likely suspect, since he openly challenged Control's authority and ended up assuming the position for himself. Alleline has had a great deal of success running "Witchcraft," a super-secret operation that has opened up a pipeline of information from inside the Soviet Union.

Smiley only has a few allies, including a promising young agent, Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an old retiree. He catches a break when Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a rakish spy who first uncovered the theory of the mole and had thought to have gone rogue, turns up at his house.

I won't try to summarize the different twists and turns of the plot, mostly because it remains a blur. It's old-school cloak-and-dagger stuff, with everyone simultaneously suspicious of each other and highly on guard.

Director Tomas Alfredson, the Swede behind the moody vampire drama "Let the Right One In" (which was followed by an American remake), and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan seem intent on crafting a film that resembles its protagonist too much.

It's one thing to have the main character be fetchingly mysterious, and quite another to have him remain a total cipher. Despite a fine performance by Oldman, George Smiley has no interior, and serves only to investigate and find things out to further the plot. Watching a movie about him is like playing chess against a computer.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Video review: "Contagion"

"Contagion" is a well-made science fiction thriller that engages the intellect better than must such films generally do, but sometimes fails to grab our hearts along with our brains.

Director Steven Soderbergh assembles a huge cast of stars -- including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law and Elliott Gould -- and sets them to encounter an outbreak of a deadly virus called MEV-1. The human population starts dropping like flies, and it's up to a loose consortium of scientists and government officials to race for a cure before mankind finds itself exterminated.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns cleverly doesn't go for the usual end-of-the-world tropes, in which the disaster is seen through the eyes of a small band of survivors. Instead, he offers a newsier docu-drama feel in which humanity's soaring grace and grimy faults are left to play out with logic and sobering authenticity.

People grow selfish and petty, and governments begin the task of coldly calculating which lives are worth saving and which are not. But amid the panic is self-sacrifice and generosity.

Even though it's better at making us think than letting audiences feel the characters' plight, "Contagion" remains an ambitious, worthy portrait of fear and hope.

Extra features are fair at best. The DVD edition comes with only a single featurette, "Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World."

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo, and you add two more featurettes: "False Comfort Zone: The Reality of Contagion" and "The Contagion Detectives."

Obviously, that's not a lot of infectious enthusiasm on the part of the filmmakers to provide extra goodies for those who pass up the Redbox kiosk to plunk down money to add "Contagion" to their permanent video library.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Roots: Episodes IV-VI" (1977)

Click here for the first part of my essay on "Roots" episodes I-III.

It took me a little longer to get through the second half of "Roots" than it did the first. Part of the reason was my schedule, but I'll admit my enthusiasm for the miniseries waned the longer it went on. If the first couple of episodes was groundbreaking television, a depiction of slavery and its terrible consequences, by the last couple go-rounds things had devolved into fairly standard soap opera-y stuff with a historical backdrop.

The last episode -- which remains the third most-watched television event -- is a borderline embarrassing litany of shenanigans and double-crosses as the descendants of Kunta Kinte, led by huckster/chicken fighter Chicken George, play a game of one-upsmanship with some local Rebs who have started a sort of proto-Ku Klux Klan.

Still, there's far more good than bad here, and I'm glad I took the time -- nine hours, minus commercial breaks -- to cross "Roots" off my to-do list.

Without getting into a rote recitation of the plot, I'd like to comment on a few things I've noticed about the series.

The first is the tendency to cast actors who start out being way too old for their parts. New members of the family are typically introduced using the adult actor while the character is in his or her teen years -- leading to some laughably incongruous assertions of youth.

Leslie Uggams, as Kunta Kinte's daughter Kizzy, was 34 when the show aired. Kizzy is first shown at age 16. Even more interesting is the heavy age make-up used for the time setting 18 years later when her son, Chicken George, has grown to manhood. At this time the character of Kizzy is the same age Uggams was in real life. Doubtless she did not have gray hair and neck wattles.

Similarly, Ben Vereen was 31 when he played young Chicken George, who is eventually shown in old age.

Georg Stanford Brown, playing Chicken George's son Tom Harvey, was also 34 when he took over his teen role. Though he was rather youthful-looking and fairly believable as a teenager.

I'm not sure if this was a conscious choice to show how hard a life slavery made for, so a 49-year-old woman is depicted as a bent old crone. More likely the producers thought it better to cast a mature actor who could pull off the role, rather than trying to coach up a teen performer and then age them decades hence.

The portrayal of white characters varies throughout the miniseries, though they become more cartoonish as time goes by. Lloyd Bridges is the main heavy of the last couple of episodes as Evan Brent, a thoroughly hateful racist who gleefully joins the Confederate Army and drives Chicken George out of the territory, despite having gained his own freedom. Brent single-handedly creates the KKK by musingly burning some holes in a flour sack with his cigar, which become eye-holes for their masks.

Evan's brother Jemmy is even more over-the-top, begging Tom Harvey's help after deserting from the army, then attempting to rape Tom's wife while he is away fetching clothes to cover Jemmy's Confederate grays.

Brad Davis is allowed a redemptive part as Old George Johnson, a scampy young white thief who is appointed overseer of the Harvey plantation but befriends the slaves, calling them his family. He ends up saving Tom's life by pretending to whip him at the orders of Brent and the other masked nightriders, when actually he flails the ground with the rawhide.

I would like to address the authenticity of "Roots," as written by Alex Haley. Historians have largely discounted the accuracy of his tale of his long-ancestor, Kunta Kinte, passing down his story and African traditions through oral history. Though Haley was always clear that the novel was a fictionalized version of his family history, he insisted the genealogical tree was as he described it.

Personally, I tend to favor his side of this argument, since written documents and histories are highly suspect when it comes to an entire people being ripped from their homeland and forced into subjugation, even adopting the surnames of their white owners. Besides, if Haley's great-great, etc. -grandfather was not Kunta Kinte, I have not doubt his story was very much like it.

More disturbing was the claim, upheld in a court of law, that Haley plagiarized "Roots" the novel from Harold Courlander's "The African." Indeed, the similarities were hard to ignore, and made worse by the fact that several sections of text were repeated virtually verbatim.

The judge in the case even told the BBC, "Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public." Maybe, but it made for some great, memorable television.

3 stars out of four