Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review: "Wrath of the Titans"

"Wrath of the Titans" has such an obligatory feel to its, starting with that title. "Wrath" kind of sounds like "Clash," and could reasonably be interpreted as an escalation of it. First you clash, then you get mad about it.

 The 2010 reboot of the '80s ham classic wasn't great filmmaking, but it at least was fun and breezy and action-filled. The quick-and-dirty sequel also boats plenty of fights, but it gets bogged down by too much existential angst and father-son conflicts.

Perseus, proud half-god son of Zeus, has spent the years since defeating the Kraken as a humble fisherman, teaching his own son to follow in his decidedly un-divine footsteps. He resents Zeus for foisting his gifts upon him.

But then Zeus' full-god son Ares joins leagues with banished uncle Hades to capture Zeus and suck him of all his power. It seems Ares, the god of war, is jealous of all the attention daddy has been giving to his half-brother. Their plan is to use Zeus' god juice to release Cronos, the titan all-father of both Zeus and Hades, whom they defeated long ago and imprisoned in the underworld.

Perseus joins forces with Agenor, the smirky half-god prince of Poseidon, to head down to Hades to save Zeus. So basically, every single guy in the movie has daddy issues.

Louis Leterrier, who ably helmed the last movie, is given the boot in favor of Jonathan Liebesman, who like a lot of directors these days doesn't seem to know which end is up when it comes to filming fight scenes. He falls back on the tried-and-true tricks: quick flash editing, jumpy camerawork and a tendency to leave all the special effects shots with a fuzzy, indistinct feel.

At least the 3-D is better, though probably not worth the $3-4 ticket upgrade. Andromeda doesn't look like half her head is heading down the hallway, like in the last movie.

The movie can boast a few cool moments. I liked Cronos' demon warriors, who look like two molten men strapped back-to-back, who whirl around in a devastating cyclone of sword strikes. Cronos himself is pretty badass, resembling a mountain of lava and smoke that has come alive.

Sam Worthington gets to be a little more soulful this go-round, and he brings what few emotive moments the movie has.

At a little over 1½ hours, "Wrath of the Titans" isn't a very long movie, but it still manages to drag at times. Altogether it's an unnecessary sequel to a remake that we didn't really need, either, but at least it was less Freudian and more fun.

2 stars out of four

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: "Mirror, Mirror"

There was nothing about "Mirror, Mirror" that I hated, but there was also nothing that I really loved. I like the idea behind this movie, but am largely indifferent to the movie they did make.

Director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar and screenwriters Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller seemed to have set out to make a dizzyingly funny, satirical take on the classic "Snow White" fable by the Brothers Grimm. But the film repeatedly steps back from pure comedy and goes for amusing and charming. You can almost hear the studio honchos whispering in their ear, "Remember the 18-35 female demographic."

The tone is less "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and more "Ella Enchanted." I think they should have given up on the sweet, mushy parts and gone for the Full Gilliam. Actually, I'm sort of piqued to see what Terry Gilliam could have done with this material and budget.

As you probably know, this is the first of two Snow White adaptations arriving in theaters this year. Later we get the dark-and-scary version, "Snow White and the Huntsman," where Snow gets into knife fights and wears more grime than ball gowns. Personally, I was much more looking forward to this one.

Julia Roberts plays the evil queen and serves as narrator, telling us right from the start that this is her story, not Snow's. That's not really true, but it should have been -- Roberts is easily the best thing about the movie. Instead of the whole cruel-and-evil stepmother gig, Roberts plays the queen as an over-spoiled movie star, toying with her vassals and using her vast powers to keep herself sitting pretty. She doesn't so much like ruling the kingdom as being the center of attention.

By contrast, Snow is a drab and flat character. As played by Lilly Collins, she's a castle shut-in who years for her long-lost father, who married the queen and then disappeared chasing a mythical beast in the forest. For a post-feminist princess, she's rather passive, only taking action after various male figures urge her to take up arms.

The prince here is Alcott, played by Armie Hammer as a vainglorious but good-hearted guy who gets caught between Snow and the queen. The queen wants to marry him and claim his vast wealth to refill her kingdom's empty coffers, but Alcott seems totally unaware of her erstwhile ardor. He's smitten by Snow instead, but then she disappears and takes up with the Dwarves.

The minimalist seven are a hoot, and the filmmakers actually manage to imbue each of them with some distinct personality. Danny Woodburn plays Grimm, the world-weary leader. Martin Klebba is Butcher, who's hardcore and wears a cowboy hat. Grub (Joe Gnoffo) is a big eater, Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark) is a giggler and Wolf (Sebastian Saraceno) is the bruiser. Jordan Prentice adds a little soul as Napoleon, and Half Pint (Mark Povinelli) has an amusing, unrequited crush on Snow.

The dwarves in this iteration are itinerant highwaymen who live in the forest and rob travelers. They wear funky stilts that can expand and retract like accordions, turning them into giants who leap and twist about like Cirque du Soleil performers gone medieval.

The movie's version of the magic mirror is strange, and a little confusing. Instead of it being a mirror in her castle with a face that the queen converses with, she steps through a mirror into another dimension. She surfaces on a giant lake or ocean where some wooden huts have been built. Inside is the mirror with the magical spirit who is her servant, but looks like her own reflection -- though without any wrinkles, it wryly notes.

"They're not wrinkles! They're ... crinkles," the queen pouts adorably. One of the running jokes is that the queen is in denial about her own aging -- she insistently tells the prince that he and she are "about the same age" -- and kudos to Roberts for bravely tweaking her fading ingenue status.

So Snow joins up with the dwarves, becoming a thief, though a good-hearted one who returns the people's taxes to them. As is the staple in these sorts of movies, she also manages to become an expert swordsman over the course of a single musical interlude and montage.

My biggest problem with "Mirror, Mirror" is that it contained no surprises for me. Once you've established the slightly fractured take on the fairy tale -- which one can get just from watching the trailer -- all the story elements and character arcs fall neatly and predictably into place. Even the oft-referenced Beast in the forest contained no secrets, as I guessed his final disposition before we ever even see him.

"Mirror, Mirror" certainly isn't a bad movie, and there are a few wickedly funny moments and some glimpses of inspired characterizations. Alas, this spell only works sporadically.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: "In Darkness"

Was ever a film more aptly named than "In Darkness"? This true story about a group of Polish Jews who hid out in the sewers under their town for more than a year to escape the Nazi regime is a harrowing and deeply affecting tale with a solemn, at times morbid undertone. The film, directed by the great Polish director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa, Europa"), often exists in deep inky pools of little light.

The eye can hardly make out anything beyond a few fingers, the whiskers and feet of the ever-present rats, and perhaps a pair of eyes staring out from the self-imposed abyss. It reminded of one of John McCain's favorite quips, "It's always darkest before it turns totally dark."

Watching it is an often excruciatingly sad affair, but for those patient enough to endure the hard journey, there is joy in the human perseverance it spotlights. The movie well deserves its Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.

The movie, based on a book by Robert Marshall (screenplay by David F. Shamoon), begins unexpectedly. A pair of men wearing rough clothes are ransacking a ritzy house. A pretty young girl accompanied by a young man in a German uniform walk in on them. After a fight, the head thief stands over the fallen Nazi and berates the girl in the Polish language they share: Find a Polish boy to fuck instead, he orders.

This is Socha, who ostensibly is an inspector of the sewers under the town of Lvov, but is really a dabbler in various schemes to make himself ... well, certainly not rich, but more comfortable. He shares a cramped one-room apartment with his wife and daughter, whom he loves deeply and wants to provide for. If that means stealing, or taking bribes, or extorting money, then so be it.

Robert Wieckiewicz plays Socha with conviction and and a rough sort of purity. His blocky face and burly torso give the impression of a man not given to giving up easily. Socha begins the story motivated purely by self-interest, and by the end he has become a sort of Polish Oskar Schindler.

When Socha discovers a group of Jews who have burrowed out of their ghetto and into his sewer tunnels, he instantly sees an opportunity. For a handsome daily fee, he will lead them to safety and hide them from the Nazis. When the Germans decide to empty all the Jews out of the ghetto and put them into concentration camps, a small horde of them make their way into the sewers. Socha is adamant: He can only hide 10. He coldly forces the Jews to decide which of their number will be saved.

The leader of the remaining Jews is Mundek (Benno Fürmann), who calls himself Pirate, and is something of a nefarious counterpart to Socha himself. The two are wary of each other, mentally circling one another like wolves, but eventually form a bond that's not exactly one of trust, but perhaps mutual regard for the other's steadfastness.

Chiger (Herbert Knaup) is a wealthy professor who insists upon bringing his entire family, a wife and two small children, into hiding in the labyrinths of the sewers. Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska) is a young woman who frets for her sister, who refused to make the journey into the dank underground and (perhaps?) still lives in one of the camps. Mundek clearly adores her, but is respectful of Klara's fears not to foist his intentions upon her until the fate of her sibling is resolved.

As the months roll by, the situation becomes more and more desperate. Socha moves them from one corner of the sewers to the other to keep them hidden from the Germans, who have reports of Jews living among the rats. Socha is friends with the Ukranian local commander, and leads him on wild goose chases.

Meanwhile, Socha's financial killing becomes more of a burden. The local grocer, suspecting that the huge load of food he buys is not for his family, starts charging him double, eating into his profits. Soon Chiger, who had been bankrolling the operation, runs out of cash and has to trust Socha with some jewels he had buried aboveground for emergencies. Socha's wife (Kinga Preis) threatens to leave him because of his insistence on helping Jews to the point where his own family is endangered.

Some people may tire of these troubling tales from World War II, but I never do. It was such a pivotal event in human history, you could keep telling stories from it for a hundred years and never come near to exhausting all the stories of human grace and debasement. "In Darkness" does both, with power and filthy majesty.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Video Review: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is probably the most disrespected film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

This challenging drama was directed by high-toned director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot," "The Reader") and adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling novel by screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"). Despite that prestigious pedigree, and the presence of major stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, "Loud" barely received a theatrical release. And reviews generally ranged from indifferent to openly hostile.

Me? I rushed it into the #3 slot on my Top 10 slot at the last minute.

Those lambasting the film seem to regard it as cynically manipulating the decade-old tragedy of 9/11, as a young boy searches the city of New York for clues to a game he played with his father, who died in the World Trade Center. I think these critics erroneously tried to force the label of "the definitive 9/11 movie" on the film, when really it's more a ruminative tale about a very specific, very unusual child.

As played with devastating effect by newcomer Thomas Horn, Oskar Schell is a brilliant but shy boy, possibly autistic, whose only substantial human relationship was with his dad (Hanks). When he dies, Oskar doggedly pursues the mystery behind one of the puzzle-like adventures his father would concoct for him, mostly as a ruse to force him to interact with other people.

As he traipses all around New York, encountering strangers and learning to come out of his shell, Oskar retraces the steps of his family life, and discovers that the mother he’d always kept at a distance is anything but uncaring. It’s a bracing, sad and joyous journey.

Video extras are pretty good, but not spectacular. The Blu-ray/DVD combo comes with a digital copy of the film and several featurettes.

The heart of the package is a making-of documentary that includes substantial participation by Daldry, his cast and crew. Other mini-documentaries focus on the search for an actor to play Oskar – Horn was, astonishingly, a total novice – and the lasting impact of 9/11 10 years later.

One of the more original pieces is a featurette about Max Von Sydow’s Oscar-nominated turn as a mute stranger who wanders into Oskar’s life, directed by Von Sydow’s own son.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Under Ten Flags" (1960)

"Under Ten Flags" is a really amazing true-life story that would make a great subject for a movie, but the one they did make is horribly executed.

Consider: During the early days of World War II before American entered the conflict, a single German merchant ship was converted into a stealth weapon that single-handedly destroyed 22 enemy boats. It did so by disguising itself as a harmless fellow merchant vessel, taking its targets by surprise so they rarely even had a chance to get off a radio signal -- capturing and/or sinking them with no warning and very little bloodshed. Allied forces and the mighty British navy pursued this "ghost ship" for more than a year, but the brilliant German captain outwitted them again and again.

The saga of the Atlantis is indeed a true tale, one known widely in circles of academics and naval history buffs but novel to most audiences. Unfortunately, the 1960 movie about her exploits is a ham-handed and convoluted mess that unnecessarily piles on sexy girls and a long espionage sequence on top of the seafaring adventure.

The title refers to the ability of the Atlantis to disguise itself into ships of different nationalities -- carrying paint, lumber, a dummy smokestack funnel and even costumes for the crew members to wear. In the first battle in the movie, the Germans dress in kimonos and pretend to be Japanese women, before unfurling their guns and ordering a British merchantman to stand to. In fact, according to the ship's Wikipedia page, it was capable of transforming itself into 26 distinct silhouettes.

Dino De Laurentiis was known at this time as a producer of schlocky Italian movies, and "Under Ten Flags" shows its low-rent roots. The battle sequences are essentially stitched-together pieces of stock footage, including the same ship's guns being fired over and over again. The shipboard sets and backgrounds are cheesy and dull, and the camera is always kept so tightly on the actors we suspect nothing was built more than a foot out of frame.

Van Heflin and Charles Laughton are the stars. Heflin tries to put some oomph into his character, Captain Bernhard Rogge, as the lonely man of integrity in a hellish, dehumanizing war. In fact, that's one of the few ways in which this film stands out, as an early depiction of German heroics during WWII. Even two decades later, "Das Boot" caught plenty of flack for showing members of the Nazi military armada as noble and ingenious.

Laughton, though, looks like he's just collecting a paycheck, scurrying through his dialogue with up-and-down cadences that are often hard to follow. All of his scenes take place inside the British naval command center, which means the most he has to do is occasionally get out from behind his desk and walk down some stairs into the map room to bellow orders.

In all movies showing WWII Germans as anything but uniformly evil, there's always an obligatory flunky who burns with the righteousness of a true believer in the Reich, and threatens to report his commander for not wantonly slaying all of Germany's enemies. Here his name is Krüger (John Ericson), who appears to be wearing black eyeliner to depict his character's evil ways.

Perhaps the film's most oft-putting aspect is the time spent exploring a few of the prisoners who are kept aboard the Atlantis. (They cannot be released because they would tell the Allies about the ship's secretive methods.) When they're finally released near the end, they're positively giddy with joy and thank Captain Rogge for his hospitality -- a pretty doubtful outcome for people kept forcibly in a dank ship's hold for months on end.

Mylène Demongeot plays Zizi, a Parisian sexpot who cavorts around in short-shorts and a hairdo that's Bridget Bardot circa 1960, not a French traveler in 1940. She makes some goo-goo eyes at Krüger, before deciding he's not bold enough to deserve such a hot babe as herself.

There is also a Jewish couple who try unsuccessfully to hide their identity from the Nazis, but are protected by Rogge from Krüger's machinations. This is doubtless showbiz hoopla, but curiously the film does not reveal why Rogge might be sympathetic to their case -- in real life he had a Jewish grandparent, and had to receive special dispensation before he was allowed to serve in the Nazi regime's military forces.

The other big distraction is an extended espionage sequence where an American spy is given plastic surgery to impersonate a German intelligence officer so he can sneak into their Berlin headquarters and steal some navigational codes used to track the Atlantis. It goes on and on, and the payoff is laughably bad.

He gets into the room where the codes are kept in a big safe, with high-tech "infrared beams" ready to set off an alarm. (Again, this seems the sort of thing plausible in 1960 but not 1940.) Wearing special glasses, the spy scoots across the floor between the beams, which are represented in the film as wires or sticks criss-crossing the room -- you can even see where they're anchored into the floor!

I have no idea if this whole spy angle is true -- screenwriters Vittoriano Petrilli, Duilio Coletti (who also directed), Ulrich Möhr and Leonardo Bercovici worked from the personal diaries of Rogge. What I do know is that it distracts the story completely away from the Atlantis and its travels.

Though, considering the cheesy and overly self-serious goings-on aboard the Atlantis, perhaps as little time spent there, the better.

1.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Video review: "The Muppets"

The Muppets are back, and now they're Oscar-winning Muppets!

The successful reboot of the dormant puppet franchise of Jim Henson is a joyous walk down memory lane for Generation X kids like me who grew up on Kermit, Missy Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the rest of the gang. Now they can bring their own moppets to see the Muppets, and the cinematic circle of life is competed.

The film even picked up an Academy Award for best song (though I am compelled to point out it only had one competitor, in one of the weakest contests in Oscar history).

Jason Segal and Amy Adams are the human stars, though they're mostly just hanging around to set up the Muppets and their antics. (Segal also co-wrote the screenplay.) The running gag is that the Muppets are washed up and forgotten, until their old theater in Los Angeles is scheduled to be demolished by an evil oil tycoon (Chris Cooper), who thinks there's black gold underneath it.

The new character is Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), a Muppet who grew up with humans and thinks he is one, too. He's always been obsessed with Kermit & Co., and gets a chance to track down his old heroes and bring them back together for the proverbial One Last Show.

Director James Bobin goes for a blend of high and low humor -- pratfalls and silliness for the kiddies, and wry puns and breaking of the fourth wall for their parents. It's a good mix, and it's good to see the old gang again.

Video extras are quite good, though you have to ante up for the Blu-ray combo edition to get most of the best stuff. The DVD comes with a single featurette, dubbed "The Longest Blooper Reel Ever Made."

Upgrade to the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack and you gain several more featurettes, including the full version of the rap song sung by villain Tex Richman. You also get deleted scenes, Easter eggs and audio commentary with the director and screenwriters.

Go for the three-disc "Wocka-Wocka Value Pack," and you add the musical soundtrack.
The feature that's the most fun: when you pause the Blu-ray, the Muppets take over the screen for a special "Disney intermission."

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Yojimbo" (1961)

I have a suggestion that may shock some students of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa: "Yojimbo" is actually a comedy.

The 1961 jidaigeki (period drama) is representative of Kurosawa's career: A lone warrior finds himself at the center of a struggle between two gangs running an isolated town, and works to leverage the situation to his advantage. The movie was greatly inspired by American Westerns, especially the final showdown with a duel in the street (though our hardy protagonist takes on 10 villains, not just one).

In turn, "Yojimbo" became a touchstone for Westerns and other genre films, essentially launching the Spaghetti Western movement with the 1964 Sergio Leone remake, "A Fistful of Dollars." Consider: No "Yojimbo," and today Clint Eastwood would probably be (barely) remembered as a TV star.

So many memes emerged from this film that would affect cinema for decades hence, especially the idea of the "man with no name," where the identity and background of the hero is less important than the actions he takes. Also notable is that the protagonist takes great pains to present himself as an opportunistic mercenary, but repeatedly performs altruistic acts in the face of depravity (often paying a harsh personal price for his good deeds).

But what gets lost in all this discussion about the film's iconic status is just how damn funny it often is.

Start with the rambunctious, percussive musical score by Masaru Satô, especially the jaunty little march that accompanies the ronin (masterless samurai) whenever he is about to take some significant action. Listening to that jig while he saunters boldly up the street gives the impression of a preening rooster reveling in his status as the cock of the walk.

Clearly, the hero himself (Kurosawa mainstay Toshirô Mifune) enjoys the action unfolding in front of him, often commenting upon how entertaining or amusing he finds the conflict between the two gangs. The epitome of this is when he positions himself upon a tower to watch the coming battle between the henchman of Ushitora (Kyû Sazanka) and Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu) in the street below. He laughs at their posturing and halfhearted charges, which invariably falter as they approach the enemy and actual bloodshed is threatened.

One of the running jokes in the movie is how terrible all the warriors are except for Two Bit -- as the ronin is disparagingly nicknamed by Ushitora's men. Expert combat skills are a hallmark of Kurosawa's films, as evidenced by "The Seven Samurai" and other movies where samurai spend their entire lives honing amazing abilities with the blade. In "Yojimbo," the henchmen recruited by the two sides are runaway farm boys and small-time thieves who rely more on bullying than actual skill.

For all we know, Two Bit may be an only modestly talented combatant, but compared to the scags he's up against, he's a whirlwind who goes through them like butter. He takes on six at once without breaking a sweat, and even the final showdown vs. 10 is only marginally tougher for him.

For Kurosawa to make a movie in which skill at swordplay is so terrible is a pun in of itself ... imagine John Ford making a Western where nobody could hit anything with a six-shooter.

It also seems that the ronin doesn't take himself too seriously, either. As the film opens he comes across a fork in the road, and throws a stick in the air to decide what direction to take. He also declines to give anyone in the town his real name, staring out a the window before offering "Kuwabatake Sanjuro," or "30-year-old mulberry field." He also has the playful habit of tucking his arms inside his robes, reaching through the neck hole to scratch at his whiskers in a display of uncouth casualness.

Whether or not you agree that "Yojimbo" -- the title means "bodyguard" -- is intentionally funny, it's hard to deny that it's one of the truly great Japanese films.

4 stars out of four

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: "21 Jump Street"

I give "21 Jump Street" a lot of points for trying. What looked to be a cynical reboot of an '80s TV show is actually a decently funny spoof that doesn't take itself too seriously.

It's the sort of flick in which the 30-ish stars seem slightly mortified at the idea of passing themselves off as high-schoolers, even as undercover police officers looking to infiltrate a ring of drug dealers. The joke-within-a-joke, of course, is that nearly every Hollywood movie set in high school regularly features actors in their mid- to late-20s portraying teens, and plenty north of 30.

I appreciated the nudge-nudge-wink-wink scene where two bumbling cops get told about their assignment to the 21 Jump Street program, which the police chief describes as revived thing from the 1980s that's being brought back because nobody has any new ideas, so they're just recycling old ones.
Pretty cool when a movie will zing itself.

Jonah Hill came up with the story along with Michael Bacall, the screenwriter who also penned the inventive "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller previously made "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," making them the latest in a string of animation guys to jump to live-action films. (Though "Meatballs" was their first feature film, so it wasn't like they were cartoon for life.)

Hill plays what his become his typical character, the nerdy loser who discovers untapped reservoirs of talent and confidence. In the amusing opening sequence, set in 2005, he's decked out in Eminem 'do and outfit, clumsily asking a girl to prom and being shot down very publicly. His chief tormenter is Tatum, a popular jock and would-be prom king, except his grades were so bad the principal wouldn't let him go to prom. (Not quite sure what academic system allows you to graduate but not go to a party, but there you have it.)

Hill's character is repeatedly teased for being fat, which is curious because of course Hill had a well-publicized massive weight loss, and could not even properly be called chubby now.

Flash to the present, and the two become best buds at the police academy. Unfortunately, they're assigned to the bike patrol in the city park, and somehow manage to mess up even that. As a last resort, they're assigned to Jump Street, where Ice Cube plays the captain, an angry black man who knows he's a caricature, but with these two idjits it's hard not to be P.O.'d all the time.

They're passed off as brothers and sent to infiltrate Sagan High School. In one of the movie's funnier riffs, the cool kids are no longer status-seeking snobs but politically correct ego-advocates. Tatum, trying to replicate his brash BMOC routine from back in the day, finds himself ostracized for punching out a gay kid and his gas-guzzling vintage muscle car. Hill, though, unexpectedly finds himself accepted as part of the new ruling elite, causing friction between the best bros.

There are plenty of good laughs, some witty and some crude, like the scene where they score drugs but are forced to take them on school grounds to prove they're not narcs, and try to make each other puke by sticking their fingers down the other guy's throat.

But the movie goes sideways somewhere in the middle, getting bogged down by Hill's budding romance with the cool drama girl (Brie Larson) and Tatum's bonding with some science nerds.

I liked the way "21 Jump Street" played around with the conventions of the genre -- including the two cops' repeated disappointment that more things don't explode during their big car chase. I didn't quite like it enough to give it a full green light, but it's nice to see a flick that far exceeds your expectations.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Video review: "The Descendants"

George Clooney is having a spectacular film career, but at the age of 50, he was about due for a shakeup.

For years now he'd been coasting by on roles that exploited his easy, natural charm and the rascally twinkle in his eye. Most of his leading men over the last decade fell into a recognizable pattern: loners who have a way with the ladies, but have difficulty making a commitment, to a relationship or to a cause.

Even his more ambitious roles, such as "Up in the Air," featured some variation on this character recognizing the inevitable dead end of his ways. It is notable that the men he plays are almost invariable single.

That's why "The Descendants," aside from being one of the best films of 2011, was a really bold choice for Clooney and a game-changer for the path of his career.

He plays Matt King, a harried, hectored married father of two daughters whose existence is thrown into turmoil when his life is left comatose in a skiing accident. A detached "backup parent" by his own admission, Matt cannot grasp the level of resentment directed at him by his oldest child, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), until she reveals that Matt's wife had been cheating on him.

For once, Clooney was not playing the suave guy with all the answers, but the befuddled and very vulnerable man searching desperately for a way to make sense of it all.

Here's hoping that Clooney's career in his 50s will continue down this audacious path -- perhaps mirroring that of Jimmy Stewart, who set aside his aw-shucks persona for his most daring roles ("Vertigo," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," etc.).

Video extras are long on quantity but a little short on quality. The DVD version comes with just three featurettes, one about Clooney's popularity, another about writer/director Alexander Payne and the third on the movie's Hawaiian setting.

Upgrading to Blu-ray essentially brings more of the same, with featurette titles like "Working with Water" and "Waiting for the Light." You do get a handful of deleted scenes, some music videos and a Q&A with Clooney and Payne.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Robinson Crusoe" (1954)

Here's an oddity: the 1954 film version of Daniel Defoe's castaway novel, in vivid Technicolor, directed by Surrealist Luis Buñuel and starring Dan O'Herlihy, best known to my generation as the aged corporate honcho in "Robocop" referred to simply as The Old Man.

O'Herlihy had a low-profile but interesting career, careening back and forth from film to television and back again, in leading and supporting roles. All told, he worked with great regularity from the mid-1940s until the late '90s -- few can say as much.

As the castaway Crusoe, O'Herlihy narrates the story in a soft, meditative tone. But whenever Robin speaks during the film, it's in a deep stentorian voice that sounds like he's trying to call out Shakespeare to the back of the auditorium. Far raspier in his old age, we still get a taste of the old basso profondo pipes at the end of "Robocop" when he delivers the best line of that movie, "You're fired, Dick!"

Buñuel is best known for his playful and sometimes disturbing surrealism, including collaborations with Salvador Dali, but he also made plenty of straight narrative pictures. "Robinson Crusoe" is more or less devoid of freaky-deaky images, with the exception of one dream sequence where Robin sees his father's face disappearing into of a pool of water, and so forth.

The story of the loner trapped on an island or similar desolate place has become an iconic one, and Defoe's novel -- first published in 1719 -- is more or less the wellspring of that mythos.

I noticed that Buñuel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hugo Butler, kept some of the visuals from the book's original illustrations (you can view them on Wikipedia) in the look of the film -- especially Robin's costume as he approaches the end of his 28 long years on an island off the coast of Brazil.

By the end he's transformed into a wizard-like figure trailing robes of stitched-together animal hides, carrying a patchy umbrella, sporting a long bushy beard and a towering pointed cap. The result is a rather silly figure, sort of a crazed South Seas Santa. The hat is especially incongruous -- peaked headgear like that is designed for trapping in heat in cold climes. In the blazing tropics, I'd imagine Robin would cook his noodle wearing that thing.

Robin has plenty of the trappings of his former life to sustain him, though. He manages to salvage a treasure trove of supplies from the wreck of his ship (which curiously produces no corpses or other castaways of the human variety). He's got furniture, tools, chests of gold, books, even tobacco. He also appears to have a seemingly endless supply of gun powder and bullets, not to mention casks of rum.

Outfitted like a well-heeled safari for one, Robin's survival never is really in doubt. He even has a cat and dog to keep him company, until the cats -- somehow his singular kitty becomes impregnated -- run wild and the dog, Rex, dies of old age. This is actually one of the movie's few genuinely moving scenes, when Robin returns from hunting up a "tasty" for the lame Rex to find the animal has crawled out after him into a monsoon, dying in a pool of water.

The savages are anything but noble in Buñuel's depiction. Robin spies cannibals performing a flesh-eating ritual on his beach, though they soon return to their own nearby island. In a particularly gruesome scene for 1954, he looks over the bones and skulls of their victims afterward.

Eventually, of course, Robin confronts the cannibals to free one of the prisoners they're about to eat. This becomes His Man Friday, named after the day of the week upon which he's rescued. Interestedly, Friday (Jaime Fernández) wears the exact same garb and hairdo as those who were about to eat him. One generally thinks of cannibals as preying upon other tribes, but in this case it appears they literally eat their own.

Robin insists upon being called Master, and during the time he works to gain the native's trust -- i.e., train him to speak and become his servant -- he even briefly locks Friday up in slave manacles. Of course, this was the initial purpose of his seafaring travels, to obtain slaves from Africa for the South American plantations.

Even though it's set nearly three centuries in the past, it's still hard to relate to a slaver as the hero of any fictional story.

I also found it interesting that Defoe's novel and most cinematic adaptations of it have been presented as rousing adventure stories. Most people would think of spending nearly 30 decades on a rock in the ocean as Job-like torture, not high adventure. More recent iterations, including the wonderful "Cast Away" starring Tom Hanks, focus more on the toll such an existence exacts upon the soul.

"Robinson Crusoe" is a great-looking film, with crisp colors and beautiful island vistas. In the end, though, the tale is too antiquated to translate to modern audiences.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review: "John Carter"

Watching "John Carter" is literally an overwhelming experience. There were times when I honestly had little idea what the heck was going on. There's such a dizzying array of names, tribes and mythologies to keep up with, all wrapped in a dense thicket of science-fiction jargon and technological doohickeys.

And yet the one thing I was certain of was that I had a great deal of fun watching it. This mega-expensive movie ($250 million by some accounts) is an epic in every sense of the word, an action-packed thrill ride that for sheer audacity is the biggest thing to come down the cinematic pike since "Avatar."

Like James Cameron's film, "John Carter" also features bouts of unintended silliness, and relies more on computer-generated images than big-name stars -- or, indeed, actors you've probably even heard of.

Friends tell me Taylor Kitsch was a big deal on the TV show "Friday Night Lights," playing a high-schooler. (He appears to be at an age where you start looking for gray hairs instead of popping pimples, but that's about par for the course in Hollywood.)

He does have a solid presence as the title character, a dour Civil War veteran accidentally zapped from 1881 to the surface of Mars. His John Carter is a tragic figure and reluctant hero, and Kitsch gives him notes of unspoken regret and layers of complexity not found anywhere in the script. Though he does fall back on that unfortunate action hero trope of speaking most of his dialogue in a growl of strangled urgency.

Director Andrew Stanton is the second Pixar animation director to peel away to live-action filmmaking. I can't say I thought his grasp of real-world kinetics was quite as sharp as Brad Bird's with "Mission: Impossible Ghost Recon," but the movie's many action scenes have an undeniable cartoony zip to them.

The Martian world -- based on a story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known for "Tarzan" -- is a sun-drenched cocktail of old and new technology. The human-like inhabitants fly through the air on solar-powered ships and have energy weapons, but for some reason favor armor and swords for really putting it to their enemies.

Everyone has neon-colored tattoos, even on their overly bronzed faces, shows lots of skin and is really buff. It's like Jersey Shore in Space. By comparison, the pasty Carter looks like he was locked in a fridge for five years.

The people of Mars (they call it Barsoom) have been locked in a 1,000-year war between the two major city-states, Zodanga and Helium. Carter gets caught in the middle of the conflict, falling in with Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a Helium princess.

He also becomes a friend/slave to Tars Tarkas (voice by Willem Dafoe), the chieftain of a race of green four-armed nomads called Tharks who populate the desolate areas outside the cities. Sola (Samantha Morton), a Thark outcast, becomes Carter's companion and protector. A toothsome slug-like creature who zips around faster than the Road Runner becomes his loyal hound.

Due to Earth's heavier atmosphere, Carter finds he has amazing powers on Mars, chiefly the ability to leap hundreds of feet in a single bound. One would think his upper-body strength would be equally Superman-like, yet Tars Tarkas (and several others) smack him around like a chihuahua.

The plot (screenplay by Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon) is a muddle of different elements of Burroughs' Mars stories, plus some of their own made-up stuff. It has something to do with mysterious advisors called Therns (Mark Strong is their leader) who manipulate the red planet's geopolitics, giving a fantastic blue energy force called The 9th Ray to the Zodangan general (Dominic West).

"John Carter" will hardly be confused with great filmmaking; nothing about it is destined to linger long in the mind or the soul. But for two-hours plus, this Mars is certainly an amusing place to visit.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Video review: "The Skin I Live In"

The sort of psycho-sexual thriller that Alfred Hitchcock only wishes he could've made in his era, "The Skin I Live In" is the best film in a decade by the Spanish auteur, Pedro Almodóvar.

This wild, kinky story is about an obsessive plastic surgeon named Robert (Antonio Banderas) who has a woman cooped up in his country mansion. Wearing only a nude skin-tight bodysuit, Vera (Elena Anaya) is a walking enigma, observed through a barrage of video cameras.

Is she Robert's lover? His prisoner? His patient? Perhaps, somehow, all three?

Vera is anguished, having just attempted suicide as the story opens, but the strange new skin Robert has grafted onto her is nearly impervious to her knife slashes. Things get even stranger when a malevolent interloper invades their sanctuary, and makes lascivious overtures toward Vera.

This story is intercut with flashbacks to a few years ago when Robert and his teen daughter struggled to come to grips with the self-inflicted death of his wife. It's a thorny bramble of a story, leading the audience into temptation and chaos even as we draw closer to the answers to the film's mysteries.

What a weird, wondrous journey.

Extra features, which are the same for Blu-ray and DVD versions, are decent enough without being transformative.

The highlight is a collection of seven making-of featurettes that come together to give an extensive behind-the-scenes peek at the filmmakers' process. True, a feature-length commentary track would've been better. But coupled with a video Q&A with Almodóvar, viewers can get a pretty good insight into the Spaniard's creative process.

There is also an "On the Red Carpet" featurette at the movie's New York premiere.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, March 5, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Aces High (1976)

As regular readers of this space may know, I have a long fascination with World War I aviation. I've continually sought out movies about pilots of that era to watch -- and mostly continue to be disappointed in what I've found. I'm afraid "Aces High," a 1976 film starring Malcolm McDowell that had stirred in me a great deal of anticipation, will be added to the list of less-than-sterling WWI dogfighting flicks.

The source of my interest started in an unlikely venue: video games. I was thrilled with the 1990 game "Red Baron," which offered a historically accurate portrayal of air combat from 1914 to 1918. From there, visits to the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum and reading several books on the subject only increased my ardor for the derring-do of these 20th century knights jousting in the skies, often with an antiquated notion of chivalry.

A big part of my fascination also likely explains why so many of these films leave me wanting more. I loved researching the airplanes, guns and hardware of WWI air combat. Remember, barely a decade after the Wright brothers first flew, men were using the rickety contraptions in warfare. Technological innovation soars during times of war, as various sides try to gain the strategic upper hand -- in this case, by gaining tactical advantages in the air.

The introduction of a new model of plane could tip the tide of the battle in the skies, as pilots with now-inferior aircraft attempted to take on adversaries with faster or more maneuverable planes.

I liked the fact that in "Aces High" the pilots actually discuss the various airplanes, their capabilities and advantages. Most of the squadron uses R.A.F. S.E.5s, a mainstay of the British flying corp, while one of the older pilot favors the French Nieuport 17.

The combat sequences in the film are generally quite good -- showing the air duels from the perspective of the pilot's cockpit. I also appreciated the fact that director Jack Gold often shot two or more planes together instead of just using special effects. So we can see exactly how close the combatants in a dogfight really were. (Allegedly the film re-used some air combat footage from "The Blue Max" and a Roger Corman movie.)

McDowell plays Maj. John Gresham, commander of a British squadron headquartered in a dilapidated air field 10 miles from the front lines. Gresham is an excellent pilot and stern commander, relying on small core of veterans to see their missions a success. There is a constant stream of inexperienced recruits coming through who quickly die -- 14 days is the current average -- and the stress has driven Gresham to drinking heavily.

His right-hand man is Capt. Sinclair, whom everyone calls "Uncle," due to his being older and less brash than the cocky younger fellows. Sinclair is played by Christopher Plummer, in a subtle turn.

Things change when young Stephen Croft (Peter Firth) is assigned to the squadron. He was Gresham's protege when they were at school together, and his sister is engaged to the commander. Over the course of a week of increasingly dangerous missions, Croft goes from being completely inept in the cockpit to more confident, has his heart broken and sees his admiration of Gresham angrily rejected.

"Aces High" just never really comes together as a human story. Though the air fights are well done and engaging, the on-the-ground action relies on familiar tropes about young men at war. As a glimpse at the early history of aviation combat, it scores well, but as a complete story it's shooting blanks.

I've got a few more WWI aviation flicks in my Netflix queue -- maybe I'll get lucky someday.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Review: "The Lorax"

More a civics lesson than a story, "The Lorax" is based on one of Dr. Seuss' lesser-known books -- and it's not surprising that the pint-sized yellow furball with a walrus mustache isn't nearly as iconic as the Grinch or the Cat in the Hat.

Voiced by Danny DeVito as the cantankerous protector of the forest, The Lorax doesn't go on any zany adventures or experience a turnaround of heart from his once-wicked ways. He doesn't even use his magic to zap the bad guys chopping down his beloved Truffula Trees. He's just an environmental steward who gets his way by lecturing people to do the right thing.

His heart may be in the right place, but this woodland sprite comes across as a shrill nag.

Lou Dobbs and some other right-wing bloviators have taken to preemptively criticizing this movie for its leftist, tree-hugging themes. Normally I'd dismiss this sort of self-righteous hot air for what it is, but "The Lorax" sure gives them an obvious target to aim at.

The story concerns the Once-ler, an inventive young man who uses the Truffula Trees, which resemble rainbow-colored swirls of cotton candy, to make his Thneed. The Thneed, an indistinct cloth-like object, is the quintessential cinematic red herring, since nobody (even the Once-ler) knows exactly what it does. But he's determined that everyone will want one.

At first content to harvest the feather-like leaves, the Once-ler soon decides the needs of the Thneeds outweigh those of the adorable forest creatures -- impossibly cute roly-poly teddy bears, singing fish and friendly ducks. He starts lopping down all the trees, until nothing but a barren wasteland is left.

One musical number is especially un-subtle, with the Once-ler (Ed Helms) singing about his property rights and growing the economy as his Thneed factory belches out horrid black goo and choking smog. He even has a framed newspaper story about himself, titled "Too Big to Fail!"

Occupy Whoville, anyone?

The movie isn't helped by the wobbly framing story set decades into the future, involving an inquisitive young lad named Ted (Zac Efron) who wants to find the last tree in the world so he can impress Audrey (Taylor Swift), the older teen he adores. He ventures beyond the confines of Thneedville to seek out the Once-ler, who has turned into a mythical loner chewing over his misdeeds.

The computer-generated animation is quite good -- too good, in fact, for the plasticized world of Thneedville, where no living thing grows and the evil industrialist Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggle) makes a killing by selling fresh air to the people. It's a bright and shiny menagerie of twisted Seussian buildings and overinflated one-wheeled vehicles, that in some ways is more fun to spend time in than the Lorax's virgin pastures.

Director Chris Renaud and screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, the same team behind the likeable "Despicable Me" from a couple years back, make a questionable choice in adapting the book. Seuss was careful never to show the Once-ler, other than a pair of arms. By fully revealing him as an engaging young fellow who turns bad, it breaks the conceit of the fable and makes everything seem a little less magical.

"The Lorax" isn't bad as far as entertainment for wee tykes. It fails not because it has an environmental tilt, but because -- like the Once-ler -- the movie isn't content to merely plant a few seeds of thought, opting instead to mow down the audience with is message.

2 stars out of four