Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review: "A Separation"

"A Separation" continually surprises and astonishes with its depth and authenticity. This drama about two families caught in a legal and moral conflict that threatens to destabilize both clans just won the Oscar for best foreign language film, and deserved to.

Because this is an Iranian film, it adds an extra layer of context to the travails. Our two nations have grown used to accusing each other of wildly malicious intentions, some valid and some fabricated. After more than 30 years of this, we've become accustomed to thinking of the other people as exotic and unreasonable.

The film, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is entirely apolitical in message and theme. Its conflict is between families, and between the personalities within those families. It is a tale of relationships grown frayed, of affection that has been misplaced but not forgotten.

As the story opens, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are divorcing after 14 years of marriage. Simin wants to leave Iran for reasons that are vague, but mostly having to do with finding a better life for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). The child refuses to leave her father's side, and Nader seems to think his wife is bluffing about breaking up their family.

Complicating things is Nader's father (Ali-Asghar Shabazi), who is elderly and in the end stages of Alzheimer's. Suddenly a single parent, Nader must hire someone to look after his dad. Simin uses her contacts to find Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a lower-class woman with a young daughter.

Razieh is not comfortable with the job -- the commute is long, the pay is low, and her religious beliefs put her in a quandary about changing the old man out of his clothes after he has soiled himself. After one day, she tells Nader she must quit.

But then she has an idea: her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) is an unemployed cobbler. Nader meets briefly with the man and agrees to hire him. But the next day Razieh shows up again, explaining that Hodjat has been put in jail by his creditors. Despite her reservations, she agrees to keep coming until her husband can work.

Then something happens. At first it seems fairly innocuous -- an argument, a push out the door. Nader can hardly believe when he is arrested and charged with a very serious crime. Soon Simin and Termeh are embroiled in the case.

What is most genuine about Farhadi's tale is his refusal to portray anyone as a villain. Even Hodjat, who is hot-tempered and at some point in the past beat his wife, is portrayed as a man devoted to his family. Razieh struggles to balance the needs of her situation, her spouse and her faith.

Nader is a good and decent man, and proud -- too proud. He refuses to seek reconciliation with Hodjat and Razieh because he is convinced he has done nothing wrong. Even after he compromises the principles he has worked so hard to instill in his daughter, Nader thinks of himself as the good guy.

Hardest to peg is Simin. In her own way she is as vainglorious as Nader; we sense that if he were to ask her to return to him, she would. But she needs to feel needed. She finds herself getting more and more involved in Nader's legal troubles than an ex-wife ought to.

I was intrigued by the depiction of the legal system in Iran, where the aggrieved parties are shut in a small room with a judge/interrogator. Lacking lawyers, they argue and bicker while the judge attempts to puzzle out the pieces. The women even seek each other out between hearings to try to find a solution.

Adherents to our American jurisprudence structure might be appalled, but I can't help thinking their way boasts some benefits our system lacks. At least when people can confront their accuser, there is a chance to see how your antagonist thinks and feels.

"A Separation" is a bold and gripping portrait of the ways in which we come together, and how we isolate one another.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Video review: "Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season"

In an age of instant on-demand video and streaming movies on Netflix and other venues, HBO by all rights should have been well on its way to the video grave, laid to rest nestled between Betamax and laserdiscs. In 2012 the idea of rotating theatrical feature films on a pay-per-view television channel -- its name is an acronym for Home Box Office, remember -- seems positively anachronistic.

But somewhere along the way, HBO decided to shift to creating its own content, rather than be swept under the tide of competitors playing the same movies (often more cheaply and/or conveniently). Today, it produces much of the best television available -- as evidenced by the fact that HBO regularly cleans up at the Emmys, and other movie-centric channels like AMC and FX have followed their lead into original programming.

Take "Game of Thrones," based on the first book of a popular fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. Produced for upwards of $60 million, the 10-episode season allowed viewers to luxuriate in Martin's epic narrative sweep and sprawling cast of characters.

Written for grownups, with layered characters blessed with moral ambiguities and flaws, Martin's book could not have translated satisfactorily into a two-hour film. With 10 full hours to roam, uninterrupted by commercials or the need to synch with the forced storytelling rhythms of regular TV, "Game" took the sword-and-sorcery genre to a level of ambition not seen since the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy nearly a decade ago.

It's the story of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a loosely-held alliance of factions constantly vying for power. Lord Stark (Sean Bean) is the loyal friend of King Baratheon (Mark Addy), a once-great warrior grown haughty and indolent. When the king taps Stark to be his right-hand man, it forces the noble Stark clan to become embroiled in the high-stakes politics and infighting that swirl constantly around the Iron Throne.

DVD and Blu-ray features are first-rate. The DVD contains a making-of documentary, profiles of 15 major characters, an interactive overview of all the noble houses, and several other features. Most impressive: seven separate audio commentary tracks by the cast and crew, including author Martin.

The Blu-ray edition adds more interactive features, including 24 histories of the Seven Kingdoms as told by the characters themselves with animated illustrations. It also boasts an in-episode guide and hidden "dragon egg" bonus content.

"Game of Thrones" arrives on video Tuesday, March 6.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, February 27, 2012

Reeling Backward: "All the King's Men" (1949)

I will confess to being somewhat disappointed with "All the King's Men," the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1949. It's a well-done movie, certainly a gripping drama and more ambitious stuff than one generally saw out of Hollywood in those days, which tended to avoid overt political messages like the plague.

But somehow the movie seems too small for such a big story -- about power, democracy and in someways America itself. The book by Robert Penn Warren was one of my favorites from my high school days. As I said at the time, Warren could write about politics and make it absolutely thrilling, while Hemingway could somehow write about love and war and manage to make it dull as plain toast. (As you can tell, I gave my teachers fits.)

I stumbled across the movie version of "Men" after learning its relationship to "Champion," the subject of last week's Reeling Backward column. Kirk Douglas, already a bona fide star, lost the Best Actor Academy Award to Broderick Crawford that year. Bigger stars, including John Wayne, had turned down the role of Willie Stark, a Southern hick nobody who claws his way to the governor's mansion.

Crawford, known mostly for playing tough guys and cops in various supporting roles, was nobody's idea of a dramatic lead. But writer/director Robert Rossen saw something in Crawford's pugnacious face and zigzagging broken nose that suggested something of Willie's stubbornness and indomitable will. I am astonished to learn that Crawford was only 38 years old in 1949; I would have guessed closer to 60. He went on to have a long career in film and television.

(I should add that I have not seen the 2006 remake starring Sean Penn, though I recall it being greeted by nearly universally lukewarm sentiments.)

Narratively, the film takes its time setting up the characters and situation. Willie is a troublemaker from the sticks who can't even get himself elected to the local municipal council. He attracts the attention of Jack Burden (John Ireland), a cynical young reporter from the biggest newspaper in the state, who describes Willie as the last honest man left in politics.

Jack, the narrator and eyes of the audience through which we view Willie, is a piece of work himself. He is the son of the richest part of the state, which even bears his name, Burden's landing, where the wealthy and the powerful cavort and aim derision at the rascal politicians. His stepfather is exceedingly wealthy, and supports Jack's meager salary as a journalist.

Jack is deeply in love with Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), the descendant of the state's most revered governor. Her brother Adam (Shepperd Strudwick) is an idealistic doctor and Jack's best friend; their uncle is Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf), an elderly but respected man who ends up serving as kingmaker for Willie during his second, successful run for governor.

Two things disappointed me most about the film: the short shrift given to the secondary characters, and the way Willie's rise to power and conversion from warrior for the little man into corrupt power-monger is skimmed over.

"All the King's Men" was one of the first books I encountered where the supporting characters were as vibrant and well-drawn as the main figures. I particularly remember Sadie Burke, the mercenary political handler who ends up being one of Willie's inner circle, not to mention his lover. She was brittle, caustic and fully fleshed. Mercedes McCambridge won an Oscar for her turn -- her very first film performance; she was mostly known for radio work before 1949.

But in the movie version, the character remains mostly in the background, flitting to the fore whenever the mechanics of the plot require it. McCambridge earned her golden statuette through the tried-and-true "two good scenes" method; she got a pair of meaty scenes with terrific dialogue to sink her teath into, and did.

The Stantons are similarly cut short. Anne goes through an amazing conversion, from idealistic young beau of Jack's to Willie's mistress -- a monumental betrayal that the movie barely comments upon.

For me, the story of Willie Stark is about a man losing his way. When he starts out, Willie is all about pushing out the corrupt good ole boy network so the regular, rural folks who can't fend for themselves -- he proudly calls them, and himself, "hicks" -- won't get run over by the rich and the politically powerful.

It's interesting in this day of 99 percenters vs. 1 percenters to view Willie's populist insurgence. During his campaign swings, he talks openly about "soaking the rich." And yet, in the end it is the Stantons and other denizens of Burden's Landing who push him to the top. Strange, since people of power rarely give it up willingly.

Though it's a powerful performance by Crawford, I never really felt like this film version gets inside the head of Willie Stark. It plays out like a good guy who turns into a villian, but neither he nor those watching him really understand when or how it happens.

That's not what I took away from Robert Penn Warren's wonderful book, which filled in all the blank spaces the movie leaves unmarked.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: "Wanderlust"

"Wanderlust" has some wonderful casting, starting with Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as George and Linda Gurgenblatt, a pair of hapless New Yorkers who find themselves homeless and bunking down with a commune of modern-day hippies. Both actors just exude an aura of niceness and likability, even when their characters are behaving like twits, which is often.

I also liked Justin Theroux as Seth, the ostensible leader of the commune. He's sort of the Burt Reynolds of hippies, exuding a cheesy machismo that's potent but comes with a short shelf life. He talks dismissively about the technology and trappings of the world he left behind, but his references are all antiquated -- laserdiscs and Nintendo, etc. Even though he looks fairly young, we wonder exactly how long it's been since Seth last did anything besides strum a guitar in the woods.

And Ken Marino is a hoot as Rick, George's aggressively upper-middle-class brother from Atlanta who gives him a job after George's company is shut down by federal investigators. Rick makes a nice income selling porta-potties, drives a garish overpriced SUV, and owns a mini-mansion that seems to have a flatscreen television in every single room. His wife walks around in a daily fog of prescription medicine and veiled resentment.

"What did Mom do to you that she didn't do to me?" George asks after one of Rick's more egregious eruptions of assholery.

Other standouts are Alan Alda as the old lion of the commune he co-established 40 years ago; Kathryn Hahn as one of the more strident members, who seems to absolutely loathe George but desperately wants to share their free-love philosophy with him; Kerri Kenney as a babbling bother; and Joe Lo Truglio as Wayne, the commune's sole nudist, winemaker and wannabe author of political thriller novels.

(I should add that Truglio bravely attacks the revealing role in a, shall we say, direct manner. Although apparently he has nothing to hide, since he's blessed in the Michael Fassbender mode of Swinging Thespianism.)

There's so much good stuff happening in "Wanderlust" that it takes awhile to realize the moments that are generally funny are few and far between. This is the quintessential hit-and-miss comedy -- though when the movie is hitting, it packs a pretty potent laugh punch.

Rudd in particular gets to milk several scenes where he's just standing there reacting to the looneyness around him, pulling double- and triple-takes like a champion. His reactions are more engaging than most actors' actions. The sequence where George faces increasing sexual temptation from Eva (Malin Akerman) is like a master course in comedic tension.

Alas, as good as these pieces are, there just aren't enough strung together to recommend the movie.

"Wanderlust" is from the Judd Apatow movement, which seems to be taking over American film comedy with Borg-like inevitability. (Apatow serves here as executive producer.) David Wain directed and co-wrote the movie (with Marino). Wain is most known for "Wet Hot American Summer," an obscure 2001 movie that is regarded in today's Hollywood as some sort of Magda Carta of Funny. I tried watching it once, and wore out the fast-forward button on my remote before giving up.

I'm sure actors really like performing in these movies, because there's so much emphasis on ad-libbing dialogue and zany characterizations. Making this film was probably a blast, but that entertainment value got drained during the transition to the audience.

2 stars out of four

Review: "Act of Valor"

"Act of Valor" is a groundbreaking film, but not in a good way. It's the first Hollywood film to feature active-duty Navy SEALs in lead roles in which they play fictionalized versions of themselves. This works well for the movie's many combat scenes, which combine an unsettling amount of verisimilitude with the shoot-em-up thrills of a high-end Xbox game.

It's not such a hot move during the dialogue scenes meant to establish the characters -- e.g., spending time with their families before the big mission, exchanging letters to their wives in case they die, and so forth.

Here, they display all the acting skill you'd expect of men trained to kill for a living instead of perform for a camera: unmodulated speech, dull expressions and a level of woodenness heretofore seen only from a dime store Indian. It doesn't help that the two main characters are so similar in voice and speech, I could barely tell them apart aside from the toothpick one has continually perched in the corner of his mouth.

"Valor" also does something I've never seen before: the film opens with the co-directors, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, introducing the movie and talking about the unprecedented level of cooperation they received from the U.S. military, and why they felt they had to cast real military personnel instead of thespians.

All I know is movies are like jokes: you shouldn't have to explain them. And even worse than having to give an explanation afterward is feeling the need to offer a preemptive one.

There are actually a few professional actors cast in supporting roles and, notably, as the two primary villains. Roselyn Sanchez plays a CIA agent kidnapped by a Russian arms smuggler (Alex Veadov), whose childhood friend (Jason Cottle) has morphed into a Muslim jihadist, which is odd since they were both born Jewish.

Never mind. From there, the plot morphs into a to smuggle explosive vests made from non-detectable ceramic beads that some Philippine recruits are supposed to detonate at all-American locations like the Sunset Strip in Las Vegas. Those bastards!

I could almost forgive the movie for its gimmicky casting and nonsensical script (courtesy of Kurt Johnstad) if the combat scenes were crisply shot and well-staged. Alas, McCoy and Waugh show little flair or even competence in portraying the firefights, falling back on the tried-and-true cheat of shaky cameras and quick editing to mask the lack of any visual coherence.

It doesn't help that the SEALs all talk in dense jargon-speak that's supposed to sound really authentic: "going downrange," calling each other "operators," etc. My favorite was when one SEAL asks solemnly if a subject will be "ambulatory." The grizzled commander informs him they must assume they will be "non-ambulatory." What they mean is whether the person can walk or not, which is what they should just say.

"Act of Valor" does contain a few moving moments, when the movie bothers to remind us that the guys behind the Kevlar vets and night scopes are representative of the men and women who fight and die to protect us. Beyond that, watching it is like playing a video game that you can hit Restart on anytime, but don't want to.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oscar picks and predictions 2012

One of the few good things about a feeble cinematic year is there is no overwhelming favorite set to dominate the 84th Academy Awards. For 2011, things are especially up in the air.

Consider that the two films with the most nominations, "Hugo" with 11 and "The Artist" with 10, have a combined box office total of less than $100 million. The also-ran, "The Descendents" with five nods, barely passed the $70 million mark.

Brisk ticket sales often don't correlate with quality filmmaking -- just look at 10 most popular movies of last year, nine of which were sequels (and the other was "Thor").

But when hardly anyone has seen the films being honored, that makes for little enthusiasm among potential Oscar-watchers. Even with the blessed return of Billy Crystal as emcee, I expect this year's Oscar telecast to be among the lowest-rated.

For those of us who like to see the awards spread around based on actual achievement, rather than following the bandwagon of a swaggering favorite, it's an exciting time.

Here are my predictions of who will win the Academy Award in each category, followed by my personal pick of who I think most deserves the statuette. For fun, I'll also suggest someone who should've been nominated, but wasn't.


Winner: The Artist
Pick: The Artist
What About...: A Better Life

Very tough call here. It had appeared to be a two-way race between "The Artist" and "The Descendents," but then "Hugo" popped up in a late rally to take the lead in Oscar nominations. There's no end of love between the Academy and Martin Scorsese, flavored with a dollop of guilt because it took him until late in his career before he finally won an Oscar. But I'm betting my own pick, "The Artist," will follow in the footsteps of "The Hurt Locker," and the Academy will vote its conscience for a little film that truly is the best of the year. An even littler film that hardly anyone saw is the wonderful immigration drama, "A Better Life."


Winner: Michel Hazanavicius
Pick: Hazanavicius
What About...: Pedro Almodóvar

It appears the director of "The Artist" will pick up the directing Oscar, and he deserves to. Hazanavicius won the Director's Guild prize, which has proven one of the most reliable bellwethers for the Academy Awards. Though, as noted above, the chance for a Scorsese upset is never to be discounted. Spanish auteur Almodóvar deserved more love for "The Skin I Live In," his most dazzling movie in at least a decade.


Winner: Jean Dujardin
Pick: Brad Pitt
What About...: Michael Shannon

This category is as interesting for who was left off the list as who will win. There was much gnashing of teeth about Michael Fassbender ("Shame") and Leonardo DiCaprio ("J. Edgar") being passed over. But the most worthy snubee was Shannon in "Take Shelter." Dujardin of "The Artist" won this prize from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which usually preludes the Oscars. I would've thought George Clooney was the frontrunner for his game-changing role in "The Descendents;" the Hollywood establishment adores him. For my money, I thought Pitt gave the performance of his career in "Moneyball."


Winner: Viola Davis
Pick: Meryl Streep
What About...: Tilda Swinton

Davis of "The Help" seems to have this award wrapped up, despite early frontrunners status by Streep. It's a familiar spot for the grand dame, who always seems to get passed by a younger competitor late in the race -- despite 17 nominations, Streep is still looking for her first Oscar win in three decades. The feel-good political correctness of "The Help" seems to be buoying Davis; she would be only the second African-American woman to win this prize. Personally, I thought her role, in both scope and depth, was a supporting one. I have a lot of problems with "We Need to Talk About Kevin" -- starting with that title -- but Swinton is amazing in it.


Winner: Christopher Plummer
Pick: Plummer
What About...: Andy Serkis

Plummer, playing a septuagenarian widower who comes out of the closet in "Beginners," has this category totally locked up. A lot of people were angry Albert Brooks wasn't nominated for his turn as a gregariously malevolent mobster in "Drive," but from my perspective it was just Brooks doing a very good Brooks impression ... with razors. Serkis, whose digitally augmented performance carried "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," practically needs his own category.


Winner: Octavia Spencer
Pick: Spencer
What About...: Jessica Chastain

Another foregone conclusion: Spencer took a role in "The Help" that had been custom-written for her by a friend and knocked it out of the park, with sass and soul. Ironic that Chastain was nominated for "The Help," when she was so much better in several other roles during a fantastic breakout year, including "The Tree of Life," "Coriolanus" and "The Debt." Her turn as a supportive but realistic housewife in "Take Shelter" was probably her best.


Winner: Kung Fu Panda 2
Pick: Rango
What About...: The Adventures of Tintin

Astonishing that "Tintin," Steven Spielberg's first animated film, was not nominated. It's not a great movie, but head and shoulders above limp sequels "Puss in Boots" and "Kung Fu Panda 2." Something tells me, though, that one or the other will win -- the history of this relatively young category runs more toward "most popular" than "best." "Rango" was clearly the latter.


Winner: The Artist
Pick: The Artist
What About...: Rango

Many were overjoyed about "Bridesmaids" picking up a screenwriting nomination, but for me it falls into that category of movies that aren't nearly as funny as they seem to think they are. Plus, say what you will, it was a knockoff of "The Hangover." Michel Hazanavicius, who wrote and directed "The Artist," came up with the most truly inventive and fresh story of the year. The only challenger for sheer originality would be the wonderfully weird "Rango," but animated films rarely get nominated for writing.


Winner: The Descendants
Pick: Moneyball
What About...: The Skin I Live In

A competitive category with several really strong nominees. It would seem to be between "The Descendants" and "Moneyball." I thought the latter had the screenplay of the year, by script wizards Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. But the screenplay awards tend to be given out as consolation prizes, and I think Alexander Payne will be honored similarly to his last film, "Sideways," which lost out on the biggest prizes but took home the writing statue.

And the rest...

Sure, it's easy enough to make predictions for Best Actor or Best Picture. But what about those smaller, technical awards that are given out when most viewers run to the bathroom or warm up more popcorn? It takes a true prognosticator of mettle and grit to make picks for Best Soundwave Mix Editing. (That's a fake category ... I think.) Here are my stabs in the dark.


Winner: The Artist
Pick: Hugo

I have plenty of reservations about "Hugo," but not its gorgeous look courtesy of Robert Richardson. I have no complaints, though, about Guillaume Schiffman's vivid black-and-white photography winning for "The Artist."


Winner: Hugo
Pick: Hugo


Winner: The Artist
Pick: Anonymous


Winner: The Artist
Pick: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Winner: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory


Winner: Incident in New Baghdad


Winner: La Luna
Pick: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore


Winner: Raju
Pick: The Shore


Winner: A Separation


Winner: Albert Nobbs
Pick: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


Winner: The Artist
Pick: The Artist


Winner: "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets
Pick: "Man or Muppet"

In an embarrassing occurrence, only two songs were nominated this year -- a clear indication of how weak the field was. How we miss you, Howard Ashman.


Winner: War Horse
Pick: Drive


Winner: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Pick: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Winner: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Pick: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Video review: "J. Edgar"

For a biopic about one of the most polarizing political figures of the 20th century, “J. Edgar” is a curiously flat affair. It’s got great production values, a standout performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, and generally feels like a great big chunk of Hollywood ham.

The central thesis of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Clint Eastwood is that J. Edgar Hoover, who wielded enormous power for five decades as head of the FBI, was secretly a closeted gay man who carried on a lifelong chaste love affair with Clyde Tolson, his best friend and right-hand man.

This may or may not be true – the historical evidence for Hoover’s alleged homosexuality is sketchy at best. Those who knew him best say his relationship with Tolson was close but brotherly. And the now-ubiquitous characterization of his penchant for cross-dressing is based on an account of a single event by a convicted perjurer.

But the great truth the filmmakers miss is that even if Hoover was attracted to men, this would be the least interesting thing about him as a person.

The story slips forward and backward in time, portraying how Hoover’s passion for collecting secrets, and leveraging them to gain political power, was his way of misdirecting others from exposing his own (as he saw them) weaknesses.

Some of the supporting roles seem oversized, while others are desperately short-shrifted. The most notable is Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), whom young Hoover 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.

“J. Edgar” is a fine-looking movie and generally well-acted. But ultimately the film employs the underhanded tactics of its subject: using shadowy whisperings about Hoover's personal life to paint a skewed portrait of his public one.

Video extras are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions, and are limited to a single featurette, “J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World.”

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: Oscar-nominated documentary short films

Note: I started working on reviews of all the Oscar-nominated short films, which are available for viewing on a password-protected press web site. Unfortunately, I only saw three of the five Documentary Shorts before access was apparently cut off. Not reviewed are "Saving Face" and "God Is the Bigger Elvis."

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
40 minutes

Lucy Walker’s meditation on the tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 of last year, unleashing a wave of destruction and a breach at the Fukushima nuclear plant, is a simple juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy. It opens with an astonishing four-minute video of the tsunami rolling in, destroying a town before our very eyes. Later, we watch from this same hillside vantage point at the chaotic debris, and at the cherry trees sprouting gorgeous blossoms. Cherry blossoms have an almost mystical relationship to Japanese culture, and it’s heartrending listening to people talk about the loved ones they lost. But when the blossoms arrive as always, their hearts are partially healed. The film is a bit overlong and slow-moving, but the emotional impact is hard to deny.
2.5 stars

Incident in New Baghdad
22 minutes

An effective look at the war in Iraq, “Incident in New Baghdad” ultimately tips from journalistic portraiture into outright propagandizing. James Spione’s film centers on an occurrence in a Baghdad slum in July 2007 that caused an international uproar when video of it was released by Wikileaks three years later. It’s anchored by the presence of Ethan McCord, one of the Army grunts on the ground that day who’s since become an anti-war activist. He suffers from PTSD from his experiences, including carrying an injured child whose family got horribly caught in the crossfire. While it’s a harrowing tale, Spione undercuts its effectiveness by having the movie climb on a soapbox, instead of reporting what happened.

3 stars

The Barber of Birmingham
19 minutes

James Armstrong, a humble barber in Birmingham, Ala., was a “foot soldier in the civil rights movement,” and this moving portrait of the late, great man – he passed away at 85 in 2009 – serves as a glimpse at the racist legacy of the South. Particularly harrowing are the pictures and archival footage of African-Americans attempting to register to vote, and being greeted with bureaucratic walls (literacy tests), threats and overt violence. This is juxtaposed with Armstrong’s joy at a black man being elected president in 2008. “The Barber of Birmingham” treads familiar ground, but does so adroitly.

3 stars

Reeling Backward: "Champion" (1949)

"Champion" has a great twist ending. It's not a fake-out in the classic sense -- rather, the movie establishes a set of expectations for what will happen, and then something even worse occurs, but once it happens it feels like just the right outcome.

It looks like it's going to be a bad ending for the champion, Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas), as he's getting pounded to a pulp by the challenger. He's barely on his feet, his left eye is puffy and closed, and his face is a ferocious grimace of blood and anger. Enraged at the broadcaster and crowd calling for his blood, Midge rallies his strength and knocks out his opponent. Minutes later, he dies of a brain hemorrhage in his locker room.

Like so many boxing dramas, 1949's "Champion" is about hubris and ambition. A man who has nothing rises up to the top of the fighting sport through sheer determination, and not a little savagery in the ring. As he climbs the ladder, his personal life descends into a morass of failed relationships and selfishness. Midge gives up everything that's important in exchange for glory in the ring, then watches even that slip away.

Also like so many boxing movies, there's someone waiting just outside the ring who's subordinate to the fighter. Sometimes it's a kid, sometimes it's a girl, and in "Champion," like "Raging Bull," it's a brother. Arthur Kennedy plays Connie, who walks with the aid of a cane. (He's literally listed in the credits as "Midge's lame brother.") Connie is supportive and loyal, until he realizes Midge's fountain of ego will eventually drown everyone close to him, including his sibling.

There are three lady loves for Midge in the movie, and it's one too many. Ruth Roman plays Emma, a waitress at the diner where Midge and Connie land jobs. Connie is clearly attracted to her, but Emma only has eyes for the athletic, aggressive Midge. Her father catches them canoodling and forces Midge to marry Emma, at which point he immediately abandons her, angry at his wings being clipped.

The next is Grace (Marilyn Maxwell), a brassy blonde who seems to hang on the arm of whoever is the biggest contender for the championship, switching allegiances as the rankings rise and fall. "I'm expensive," she warns Midge, "Very expensive." She uses Midge, and Midge uses her until such time as he doesn't need her anymore. He dumps her, in a devastatingly cold move, but we don't really feel sorry for Grace. Midge may be a mercenary, but at least he plies his trade in the ring, not the bedroom.

Perhaps the most interesting, but also the most unnecessary, female is "Palmer" Harris (Lola Albright), the much-younger wife of Midge's shyster of a manager, Jerome Harris (Luis Van Rooten). She's a trophy wife, but is comfortable about being one, until she encounters the brooding Midge, who by this time has sunk to almost caveman levels of testosteronal behavior.

Paul Stewart has a nice role as Tommy, Midge's laconic first manager who discovers him. When Tommy tells him he has to take a dive before he'll get his shot at the championship, Midge refuses, thrashing his opponent to the canvas in mere seconds. Soon the mobsters and gamblers are after him. To atone to the moneymen who control the sport, Midge is forced to part ways with Tommy in favor of Jerome. He's not happy about it, but Midge pays whatever price in personal relationships is required to keep climbing upward.

The fight scenes in "Champion" are fairly weak by modern standards, but for 1949 they pack a pretty punch. Douglas has the physique and pugnaciousness of a fighter, though as usual more punches are landed in a single round than in an entire real bout. They are quite obviously stunt punches, with the glove never quite contacting the face, and it shows.

Director Mark Robson keeps his camera roving inside the ring in a dynamic way. The film won an Oscar for editing, and earned a slew of other nominations, including Douglas for Best Actor and Kennedy for Supporting Actor.

Carl Foreman earned his own Academy Award nod for the screenplay, which was based on a short story by Ring Lardner. (Interesting aside: Carl Foreman was Blacklisted during the 1950s, and posthumously awarded an Oscar for his uncredited work on "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Lardner's son, Ring Lardner Jr., was also a Blacklisted screenwriter and Oscar winner.)

I should note that I watched "Champion" in a colorized version -- the only one available (sadly) on streaming Netflix. The movie was shot in black-and-white, and in fact earned an Oscar nomination in Best Cinematography, Black-and-White for Franz Planer -- back when the Academy gave out separate awards for color and monochrome.

I can't say as I found the colorization terribly intrusive. Truth be told, I didn't even know about it until I began my post-viewing research. But the many slanted shadows and inky pools of darkness should have clued me in that "Champion" belongs in the film noir category. Somehow, I can't think of film noir as being anything other than black-and-white.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Video review: "Take Shelter"

A lot of people are squawking about Michael Fassbender ("Shame") and Leonardo DiCaprio ("J. Edgar") failing to receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor, as widely expected among the Hollywood cognoscenti. For my money, the guy who really got cheated was Michael Shannon, whose creepy-yet-charismatic turn in "Take Shelter" earned a lot of critical praise -- but few ticket sales for this little-seen drama.

Shannon plays Curtis, a blue-collar Ohio family man who starts seeing strange apocalyptic visions -- birds flying into vortexes, threatening storm patterns, even indistinct human forms trying to break into the house and get his daughter (Tova Stewart) and wife (Jessica Chastain, filmdom's Miss Everywhere for 2011).

Curtis' own mother had a schizophrenic breakdown when she was about the age he is now, so his first thoughts are that he's cracking up. He seeks counseling at the free clinic and reads books about mental illness.

But nothing can stop his strange impulses -- especially about the old storm shelter buried in his backyard, which Curtis begins transforming into a veritable fortress. He mortgages the house and leverages himself to the hilt in an attempt to slay the white whale only he can see.

It's an extraordinary bit of acting by Shannon, whose face always seems on the verge of melting into a swirl of emotions. "Take Shelter" is a harrowing portrait of Midwest normalcy disrupted by dark daydreams.

Video extras are pretty good. Director Jeff Nichols supplies a feature-length commentary track, and for once the lead actor joins him. I think these commentaries are always better when more than one person is involved, and even better when representatives of both the crew and cast take part.

There is also a behind-the-scenes featurette, Q&A with Shannon and co-star Shea Whigham, and a few deleted scenes.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Battle Cry" (1955)

First of all, they should've called it "Training Cry." Because the bulk of this 1955 so-called war drama takes place during training for a group of World War II Marines. The film's first -- and only -- battle doesn't arrive until the two hour and 10-minute mark. And it's absolutely horrible stuff, some of the worst battle scenes in a Hollywood movie, ever.

Or maybe "Love Cry," since most of the story is about the various romances the soldiers fall in and out of. I'm all for a little female presence in war movies, if for no other reason than to add some context about what the men are fighting for back home.

But "Battle Cry" is so laden wish mushy kisses and jealousy and tortured romance, it plays out like a soap opera with bayonets. Watching it, I kept feeling like the kid from "The Princess Bride," who expects his grandfather to read him tales of adventure and death, and keeps complaining, "They're kissing again."

Mostly, the title of this terrible picture should have just been "Cry" -- because that's what I felt like doing while watching it.

It's based on a novel by Leon Uris, who also wrote the screenplay, who used his own experiences as a Marine as the basis for the story. All I can say is, military life in his depiction seems to consist mostly of frequent, lengthy leaves of absences. Though there are a few depictions of the drudgery of boot camp -- marching, etc. -- most of what happens takes place while the men are on leave.

Raoul Walsh is considered one of the great classic Hollywood directors, but I can't say I thought much of his work here. Although it's generally a nice-looking film -- helped by the vivid colors and CinemaScope photography of cinematographer Sidney Hickox -- the acting is almost uniformly hammy. And the brief war sequence is staged so ineptly, one suspects a film school junior could do better.

You may say that they're typical of that era, but when I think of great war films of the 1940s and '50s, like William A. Wellman's "Battleground," the fighting in "Battle Cry" seems very stagy and hokey. Everyone who dies clutches their chest or whatever dramatically, then slowly collapses to the ground like they're goddamned Hamlet or something.

Speaking of "Battleground," that (vastly superior) movie also starred James Whitmore. Here he plays a sergeant named Mac, who also acts as the narrator. Mac is gruff and tough, but genuinely regards his recruits as more than just soldiers, sticking his neck out to help them out of their romantic entanglements on several occasions. Notably, Mac is the only major character without a wife or girlfriend.

His boss is Major (later Lt. Colonel) Sam Huxley (Van Heflin), aka "High Pockets." He demands much of his Marines -- taking them on two back-to-back 60-mile forced marches for no other reason than to break the local time record -- but also fights for them when he feels the 6th Marine Regiment isn't getting the choice assignments.

In that sense, "Battle Cry" can be given credit for depicting how decidedly unglamorous life could be during WWII. Huxley's Harlots, as they are called, are repeatedly given only mop-up duty in major Pacific battles like Guadalcanal and Tarawa. People forget that the vast majority of people enlisted in the military are in non-combatant roles, and even the fighting corps spend most of their time waiting for battle.

The soldiers are the usual, familiar (to use the kind term) mix of different ethnic and regional types. You've got your cowboy strumming a guitar, Southern loudmouth, tough street kid with a dicey past, upstanding All-American type, the quiet bookworm, the American Indian, the loudmouth Lothario, etc. Virtually every war movies does this, but it's still a pain to endure.

The story essentially plays out with one Marine's romance taking center stage at any given time, until they yield the floor to the next guy. I have to confess that by the time the last smoochy story rolls around, I had pretty much forgotten the first one -- which involved "Ski" Wronski, a penny-pinching guy saving his dough to bring his girl out to California, who gets a Dear John letter.

For me, the most interesting character was Marion Hotchkiss, dubbed "Sister Mary" by his fellows because of his spectacles and constantly having his nose in a book. Marion prefers to ride the ferry than go bar hopping while on leave, and talks openly of writing a book about his wartime experiences. He falls for a gal he meets on the ferry, only to have his heart crushed when's revealed as a floozy. I was disappointed with the way his death is handled; we learn through Mac's laconic narration that he bought it.

It's a testament to the weak storytelling throughout this movie that a minor character can be brought to the fore, his love story occupying center stage for a good chunk of the film, and then his passing is dismissed with a line of dialogue.

The longest romance tale involves Danny Forrester, a blond kid from Baltimore played by Tab Hunter. Danny has a sweet girl-next-door type back home, but falls hard for Elaine Yarborough, the older wife of Navy man who's never home. She's played by Dorothy Malone, who had an interesting career playing good girls and then suddenly morphed into a femme fatale type.

Malone wears tight sweaters with those prototypical torpedo bras of the 1950s that result in a very, um, horizontal profile. (That probably looked out of place in 1942.) Hunter and Malone's scenes are the only ones in the movie with any real heat. (Ironic, since Hunter was a gay actor forced by the studios to stay in the closet until late in life.)

The least interesting romance for me is the last one, involving the lumberjack Andy Hookens, a strapping guy who doesn't believe in getting tied down by just one girl, until... well, you know. His love interest is Pat Rogers (Nancy Olson), a New Zealander whose husband was killed in the fighting in Africa.

Andy is played by Aldo Ray, who definitely looks like a lumberjack. He's built like a linebacker, with a bull neck and wide shoulders, but has a curiously pinched face, with slightly buggy eyes. His raspy voice sounds like he screamed until his voice box shattered.

He's also blond, which is notable in that four of the main actors -- Heflin, Ray, Hunter and Lupton -- are fair-haired. As I've discussed before, yellow-haired performers had a better chance of making it in Hollywood a few decades ago than they do now.

1.5 stars out of four

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review: Safe House

"Safe House" has a lot going for it, and a few bad things that don't spoil the ride.

It's a slick, plot-driven thriller about the nasty underside of the spy game. It's got Denzel Washington doing his smooth-talking thing, playing the man of quiet confidence who doesn't feel a need to broadcast his exceptional skills to the world. His actions speak louder than.

The action scenes, especially the car chases and hand-to-hand fisticuffs, are crisp and well-staged. And the supporting cast is top-notch, including Vera Farmiga, Brenda Gleeson and Sam Shepard, not to mention Ryan Reynolds, who for once is not doing that smarmy cad with the heart of gold thing.

Some of the plot twists aren't twisty enough to prevent the audience from seeing them coming a ways off, and the movie's villain might as well be walking around with an 'X' on their head. But still, it's an undeniably engaging piece of entertainment, a bit of sweet cinematic candy with a little salt to it.

Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a junior CIA agent with the worst posting possible: babysitting a safe house in Capetown, South Africa. These are the sort of places the spooks bring bad guys when they want to do things while the international community isn't watching. But Capetown is a sleepy burg, and Matt yearns for bigger things.

He gets his chance when a present arrives on his doorstep: none other than Tobin Frost, a living legend in the international espionage community. Tobin was once a top CIA agent himself, until he went rogue a decade ago.

Now he's got something really valuable, a computer file with Very Important Secrets. It's a classic MacGuffin -- nobody really knows what it is, but everyone wants it. Soon the safe house has been breached by bad guys, and it's up to Matt to bring Tobin in all by himself.

Tobin is one cool cat. When the goon squad threatens to waterboard him, he calmly informs them they're using the wrong thread of cloth to cover his face, then brags that he can last longer than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who managed 20 seconds. (A bit of Hollywood hoopla; Mohammed was reportedly waterboarded 183 times.)

Gleeson, the wonderful Irish actor, falls down while attempting an American accent -- no black mark there, since every U.K. thespian from Anthony Hopkins to Kate Winslet has punted in that regard. (The only truly good one I've heard, by which I mean I couldn't even detect the effort, was Aaron Johnson in "Kick-Ass.") He plays Barlow, a senior agency man and Matt's mentor.

Farmiga is Linklater, an ambitious rival of Barlow's who views Matt as an untested liability. Ruben Blades turns up as an old associate of Tobin, and Robert Patrick has a weary, professional air as the chief of the goon squad, tasked with doing stuff that isn't very pretty.

Rookie screenwriter David Guggenheim falls into some clichés, but the story has good pacing and chirpy dialogue. Director Daniel Espinosa provides a sure hand, pinning Matt as the unimpeachable white knight surrounded by figures of dubious intention -- including Tobin and the CIA bosses who want his head on a platter.

The interplay between the wily old Tobin and the inexperienced Matt is rather predictable, but is often delicious. Robin lectures and berates Matt like Hannibal Lecter toying with Clarice Starling, offering sage advice one minute and trying to rip his throat out the next.

Talk about on-the-job training.

3 stars out of four

Reviews: Oscar-nominated short films -- Live Action

12 minutes

In 1977 Ireland, football-obsessed Damien (Scott Graham) is an unwilling altar boy at the local church, whose job is to carry the incense burner at Mass. Alas, after a (accidental?) catastrophe, he’s out of a job and forbidden by his strict father to watch the big upcoming match. But when the Archbishop comes to town, he’s the only censer-carrier available. This darkly comic bit is highlighted by a priest giving a hilarious motivational speech to his “team” before the big event, punctuated by the command to “Go out there and have the Mass of your lives!”

3 stars out of four

24 minutes

This harrowing drama looks at the issue of international adoption with a sobering perspective. Jan and Sarah, a loving young German couple, arrive in Calcutta to adopt Raju, an impossibly winsome 4-year-old Indian boy. Their lives seem destined for happiness, until the boy disappears in the street market on their second day together. During his excruciating search for the boy, Jan discovers a secret that threatens to tip all their lives in unexpected ways. This film is hard to watch at times, but deserves to be seen.

3 stars

The Shore
31 minutes

I adored this heartwarming dramedy about an Irishman named Jim (Ciarán Hinds) returning to the Emerald Isle after 25 years with his daughter (Kerry Condon) in tow. He’s there to see old friends and relatives, but there’s a ghost trailing him. He has unresolved relationships with his former best friend Paddy (Conleth Hill) and fiancée Mary (Maggie Cronin), who have since married each other. Paddy lost an arm in The Troubles, and spends his days digging mussels and crabs out of the kelp that washes up on the seashore, while collecting government unemployment assistance (“the dole”). A brave and joyful little film, with laughs and tears in that distinctly Irish way.

3.5 stars

Time Freak
11 minutes

A wonderfully inventive comedy about a young scientist, Stillman, who creates a time machine with the intention of visiting ancient Rome. Instead, he gets caught in a web of his own making, trying to re-do all his social interactions until he gets them just right. The result is a super-funny take-off on “Groundhog Day” courtesy of writer/director Andrew Bowler. Kind of a one-joke movie, but it’s a good joke.

3.5 stars

Tuba Atlantic
26 minutes

This daffy black comedy from Norway is about Oskar, an elderly fisherman who spends his time battling seagulls – including shooting them out of the sky with a machine gun, and stepping on their eggs. He learns he has six days to live, which are made even more aggravating by the enforced presence of Inger, the teenage “Death Angel” assigned to stay with him so the authorities will allow him to die at home instead of a hospital. Oskar becomes obsessed with the ide of communicating with Jon, the brother he hasn’t spoken to in 30 years. Since he doesn’t know where Jon lives, the answer may lie with the monstrous mechanical tuba they built decades ago, reputedly capable of transmitting sound waves thousands of miles. Kooky, wry and surprisingly touching.

3 stars

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reviews: Oscar-nominated short films -- Animated

10 minutes

In Patrick Doyon’s elegiac little tone poem, a small boy in a tiny town must endure the various constructions of grown-ups designed (in his mind) to torment him: uncomfortable clothes, boring church, gross fish dinners and, most dominantly, the speeding trains that rush by the village constantly, shaking the walls and rattling nerves. He places a Canadian coin in the tracks to flatten it, resulting in a somewhat scary flight of fancy involving a bear. Doyon employs a minimalist animation style – I adored the people’s stretched noses, and the fat little crows who act as a sort of Greek chorus.

3 stars out of four

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
15 minutes

Oh, what a tidy treasure. This slick-looking but soulful piece of computer animation draws inspiration from “The Wizard of Oz,” Buster Keaton and a trove of literary references. A man watches as the wind blows away the letters in the book he is writing in, then turning into a hurricane that transports him into a magical land where books fly and communicate. He becomes their caretaker/librarian, and finds a new life that he understands very little, but which gives him meaning. I loved the various small touches, like a Humpty Dumpty book becoming his best friend, flipping its illustrated pages to show emotion, and the subtle transitions from color to black-and-white.

4 stars

La Luna
7 minutes

There’s no Pixar film represented in the animated feature category this year – a first – but the computer animation wizards still have an Oscar nominee among the short films. And it doesn’t disappoint, a whimsical portrayal of a young boy being indoctrinated into the family business. He rows out to the middle of the ocean with an old man and a younger man; are they fisherman? They give him a hat like just theirs, arguing – wordlessly, like the rest of the movie – about the proper way to wear it. Then they produce a ladder and climb up to an adventure. Short, sweet smart, poignant.

3.5 stars

A Morning Stroll
7 minutes

I loved this clever, slightly demented story, sort of a parable and sort of a rim shot joke. In 1959, a man -- depicted as an almost abstract stick figure -- walks down the street to a jazzy score. Suddenly, a chicken rounds the corner and strides purposefully toward a nearby door, where it pecks to be let in. Then things shift to the same scene 50 years later, now depicted with sleek computer animation … and then, forward another 50 years. Something delightfully different.

3.5 stars

Wild Life
13 minutes

In 1909 Alberta, a young upper-crust Englishman arrives in the Canadian prairie to make his fortune – if by that you mean a whole lot of musing and writing letters (narrated in a starched British accent) and not much working. It’s a beautiful-looking bit of hand-drawn animation, though the voice actors appear to have been coached to seek out and replicate every vocal cliché they could find. A meditative musing on transplanted cowboys and comets.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Video review: "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1"

It's now a common thing for film franchises based on popular books to split them into more than one movie. "The Lord of the Rings" did so successfully, then "Harry Potter" played copy-cat (as is his wont). Now the Twilight books, which exist several rungs down on the literary ladder, have done so, with much worse results.

I have no problem splitting up a book 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 Cliffs 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 tale to tell. What there is feels stretched and pulled like cheap carnival taffy to make it resemble a complete whole, when it's really a whole lot of exposition about 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.

Immortal vampire dream boy Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) finally gets to put a ring on it with human lady love Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). Alas, their sun-kissed honeymoon results in a hybrid baby growing in her belly, threatening to kill her in the process. Meanwhile, grumpy werewolf/spurned lover Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) must defend them against the rest of his wolf pack, who see the half-breed vampire as an abomination.

Those mutts got something right: movies, like vampires, shouldn't settle for half-measures. And foisting half a movie on audiences as a cynical ploy to generate twice as many tickets sales just plain sucks.

At least the film is arriving on video with a package of extra features that don't suck. Goodies appear to be the same for both Blu-ray and DVD editions.

There's an audio commentary track with director Bill Condon, and an extensive six-part making-of documentary. Also Edward and Bella's wedding video, and featurettes dubbed "Jacob's Destiny," "Edward Fast Forward" and "Jacob Fast Forward."

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, February 6, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Mortal Storm" (1940)

"The Mortal Storm" contains often stilted acting, stiff dialogue that sounds written even as it's being delivered, topped off by a pseudo-religious opening monologue about god and men and fate that's supposed to sound portentous and important, but just comes off as ponderous and goofy.

And a shorthand description of the story -- Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan escape Nazis on skis -- sounds like a recipe for a really corny drama worthy of send-up a la "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Despite some legitimate flaws, though, "The Mortal Storm" is actually a top-notch thriller that has the distinction of being one of the few Hollywood films that explicitly criticized Nazi Germany prior to America's entrance into World War II. Large sections of the country supported staying out of "the war in Europe," and even when movies did take on Adolf Hitler and company, it was generally obliquely.

Although the film rarely refers to Germany specifically and uses carefully veiled wording -- Jews are never mentioned by that name -- there's no mistaking the film as a full-frontal assault on Nazism. MGM actually thought their slight vagueness would allow them to distribute the film in Germany, but the Third Reich took one look at "The Mortal Storm" and banned it, along with all other movies from the studio.

Forget about the brief skiing segments, which are indeed quite hokey -- long shots of figures slicing down pristine white mountain banks, intercut with ridiculously smooth two-shots of Stewart and Sullavan coasting along while talking in a conversational tone, their heads not even bobbing a fraction of an inch.

What really impressed about this movie was the way it depicted the insidious nature of groupthink, where everyone decides that their way is the only reasonable way. Previously admired people are derided and cast out of civil society, once-lifelong friends are shunned, and tolerance for others' ideas dissipates into a churning river of "progress."

Take Professor Viktor Roth, played by Frank Morgan. An adored teacher of medicine at the local university, he has just celebrated his 60th birthday surrounded by awed students, supportive colleagues and a large, loving family.

But things turn around almost overnight when Adolf Hitler is appointed chancellor in 1933. Soon his classrooms are filled with jack-booted thugs (Dan Dailey chillingly plays the sneering ringleader) who denounce his objective claims that non-Aryan blood is no different than Aryan. Before long he's sent to a concentration camp.

Stewart's character remains on the sidelines for awhile, comes to the fore, then disappears for most of the second act. He plays Martin Breitner, a local veterinarian-farmer and old friend of the Roth clan who secretly adores their daughter, Freya. The real star is Sullavan as Freya, a headstrong girl who has the courage to stand up to her own brothers when they morph into Nazi toadies.

A young Robert Stack has an impressive turn as Otto, the Roth's eldest child. While it's never specifically stated that Professor Roth is a Jew, the implication is pretty clear. It's one area where the script by Claudine West, Hans Rameau and George Froeschel rings false, since any child of one Jewish parent would be branded a Jew as well, and never allowed to join the Nazi party. The film is based on a book by Phyllis Bottome.

Director Frank Borzage had a long and busy career with more than 100 films behind the camera, one of the few filmmakers to successfully transition from silent to sound movies. He started out as a silent-era actor, with another 100-plus movies under his belt in front of the camera.

The cinematography by William H. Daniels is really rich and deep, lots of layers of visual landscape both indoors and out.

Stewart and Sullavan would make four films together, and "The Mortal Storm" was the final one. I didn't find their coupling particularly convincing -- Freya is intially engaged to another Roth family friend, Fritz Marberg, played by Robert Young. But he goes along with the Nazi crowd, they soon break up, and she's ready to fall into Martin's arms rather quickly.

But the terrible, almost claustrophobic feeling of being a champion of free thought in a herd of those intent on trampling those who stray is brought to vivid life.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review: "Big Miracle"

Yes, “Big Miracle” is a sappy story about some whales trapped in the ice, and the people who came together to save them. It’s a family-friendly tear-jerker, unabashedly trying to wring heartfelt emotions out of the audience, and impart a tasty feel-good message covered by a light sauce of environmentalism, with a side of can’t-we-get-along political optimism.

For one great big Warm Fuzzy, it’s an extremely watchable movie. The cast, led by John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore, are enjoyable to hang out with, and the story has a certain weight of authenticity, since it’s based on a true story that happened in 1988.

The movie uses lots of news clips with Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and others to show what a big story it was back in the day, though I confess I have no memory of it whatsoever.

Krasinski is known for his smart-aleck role on TV’s “The Office,” but he’s had a busy if largely unnoticed film career (16 credits over the past six years, including the little gem “Away We Go”). Here he plays Adam Carlson, a television reporter stuck in Barrow, Alaska, who stumbles across three California gray whales trapped beneath a thick layer of office.

No one quite knows why the mammoth mammals haven’t already migrated southward, though it may have something to do with the fact they’re a family: father, mother and baby. The locals quickly dub them Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm.

Barrymore plays Rachel Kramer, head of the Alaskan Greenpeace chapter, who spends most of her time railing against the big oil companies drilling in the neighboring oceans. When the whales become a national story, she’s soon to arrive on the scene, complicating matters since she and Adam recently ended a romance.

I was pleased that the film does not make their relationship the centerpiece of the story. Most Hollywood movies would have played up the love angle to the maudlin hilt, so credit to screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (working from a book by Thomas Rose) for sticking with the whales. An aura of sexual tension colors Rachel and Adam’s interchanges, but it doesn’t suck all the air out of the room, narratively speaking.

I also enjoyed the way director Ken Kwapis juggled a large cast and competing story elements.

There’s stuff about the tension between the local Eskimos, who hunt whales for food, and the environmentalists; Ted Danson as the chief of Alaska Northern Oil, who volunteers to help as a way to get the pesky Rachel off his back; a National Guard helicopter commander (Dermot Mulroney) unhappy about being handed a PR assignment; a White House official (Vinessa Shaw) who sees a chance to burnish then-outgoing President Reagan’s (weak) environmental record; and Adam’s ambition to get a job in the Lower 48 by sucking up to a star reporter (Kristen Bell) from Los Angeles.

Particularly nice is the interplay between Adam and Malik, the local Eskimo chieftain, and his grandson Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney). The Eskimos see harvesting the whales as the most humane thing to do, but Adam warns Malik how it will play out in the media. Malik is played by first-time actor John Pingayak, who exudes a warm mix of nurturing and command – I was not surprised to learn he is a teacher in real life.

I won’t bother discussing how “Big Miracle” turns out, since even if you don’t remember it’s not hard to guess (or to Google).

All I’ll say is, if one has to have your emotions manipulated, it’s at least a comfort to have them jerked around expertly, with style and wit.

3 stars out of four