Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Video review: "Coriolanus"

Shakespeare has rarely translated well to film, and even when it does -- "Shakespeare in Love," "Romeo + Juliet" -- it's usually in a modernistic, revisionist way that steps outside the rigid confines of the Bard's plays. And the reason is simple: with nigh on half a millennium separating our version of the English language from his, it's very difficult for anyone who's not a PhD in literature to comprehend just what the heck the characters are saying.

"Coriolanus," based on one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works, lies somewhere in between classic and revisionist approaches. The dialogue is tweaked enough to make it so the layman can usually follow along, but the bones of the story is unchanged.

Ralph Fiennes, who also makes his directing debut, plays the title character, an over-proud general just returned triumphant to Rome. A rigid, inflexible man, he thinks his honor has won him the right to become consul, but the common people do not love him, and scheming politicians maneuver to rob him of the title. Enraged, Coriolanus joins forces with his mortal enemy to wage war against the empire.

It's grandiose, heavy stuff, and both Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave were passed over for Academy Award nominations they probably deserved. Gerard Butler plays Coriolanus' enemy Tullus Aufidius, and the cast is rounded out by Jessica Chastain and Brian Cox.

Bonus features are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions, and include a making-of featurette and an audio commentary track by Fiennes.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, May 28, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943)

"The law is slow and careless around here sometimes. And we're here to see it speeded up."
Thus speaks the central villain in "The Ox-Bow Incident," a 1943 prairie morality tale that, in truth, contains no real bad guy. That's because virtually everyone in it is morally compromised in some way. The speaker, a vengeful cowpuncher named Farnley (Marc Lawrence), is simply the most overt about it.

This film is from director William A. Wellman; the more I see his movies, the more I become convinced this largely unheralded figure is one of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers. The screenplay is by Lamar Trotti, whose credits include "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Drums Along the Mohawk," from Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel.

It reminded me very much of "12 Angry Men," also starring Henry Fonda, in that it's about the pitfalls of the group mentality applied to a law-and-justice scenario. A bunch of men who are convinced they are doing right eventually come to see that they've been woefully misguided all along. With "Men" it happens before the verdict is rendered, but in "Ox-Bow" the realization doesn't occur until after three men have been wrongly hanged for crimes they did not commit.

The movie is also notable in that the story unspools in more or less real time -- Wellman includes a single fade-out/fade-in to indicate the passage of time. The film essentially only has three scenes: the first where the townsfolk learn of the murder of a local rancher and form a posse; a brief (and mostly unnecessary) interlude where they erroneously chase down a stagecoach; and the confrontation with the accused trio.

At a spare 75 minutes, "The Ox-Bow Incident" has a stripped-down feel, like the narrative has been boiled down to its barest essence.

Interestingly, Fonda is not the central character, nor is there really any protagonist in the story. Fonda plays Carter, a rather surly and hot-tempered local cowboy who gets caught up in the posse mostly out of fear -- he and his partner Art (Harry Morgan) take part because if they did not, they might be suspected of being involved in the cattle rustling and killing of an upstanding rancher named Kincaid.

Carter acts as sort of the nexus of the plot, whose own story is not central to the narrative but a figure around whom all the other characters travel in close orbit.

Carter and Art ride into town, dusty and thirsty, and find not much going on. They sidle up to the bar for some rotgut whiskey, and Carter learns that Rose has suddenly left town. She was perhaps the only unmarried woman in town under the age of 80, and if she was not exactly Carter's betrothed, then certainly he felt promises had been exchanged between them.

Agitated over stories of cattle rustling, Carter starts a fight with Farnley, getting the best of it but then getting knocked out by a bottle over the head from the bartender. Art revives him with a splash of water, explaining that Carter always feels better after a fight, win or lose. Carter grows ill and stumbles into the street to retch his guts out.

Still bent over, he complains to Art: "Holy cow, now I'm gonna have to start all over again!"

Instead, everyone is riled up by the news of the murder of Kincaid and the theft of his cattle. The sheriff is out of town, but the lackadaisical deputy Mapes (Dick Rich) decides to commission a posse. From the beginning it is clear that they're looking for a purpose, a cure for their idleness, more than justice -- that, and the thrill of seeing somebody swing.

The town drunk (Paul Smith) uses a rope to act out a googly-eyed, tongue-lolling imitation of a man being hanged. It's funny the first time he does it, less so the second, and positively chilling when he does it in front of the accused to taunt them.

Perhaps the film's one major flaw is a chance encounter with a stagecoach along the trail. Stupidly, the posse gives pursuit, instigating the stagecoach hands into shooting Art in the arm. After running them down they learn the coach contains Rose and her new husband, a rich and snooty type from San Francisco. It seems like this sequence is setting up the narrative for more developments, but we never see the newlyweds again.

While the scene has its own momentum, plot-wise it's dead weight.

The most enthralling section is the quick capture and long "trial" of the three men, including Dana Andrews as Martin, the leader, and Anthony Quinn as Juan Martinez. Martin insists they bought the 50 head of cattle from Kincaid wish cash, although they lack a bill of sale. After trying to escape, Juan is also found to be carrying Kincaid's fancy engraved pistol. The third member of the accused is a feeble-minded old man.

The posse includes a large cast of characters. Beyond Farnley, the self-appointed leader is Tetley (Frank Conroy), a former Confederate major who still wears his gray battle uniform 20 years after the end of the war. Tetley is imperious, with a thick veneer of polite gentility masking his harsh, uncompromising ways. He mostly comes along as a way to instill some manhood in his gentle-minded son (William Eythe).

Jane Darwell, forever Mrs. Joad from "The Grapes of Wrath," has a disturbing turn as a hard-bitten woman who's as bloodthirsty as any of the men. She has several scenes where she cackles with glee at the plight of the three accused men, and it's positively vile.

The group also includes Davies (Harry Davenport), an elderly store owner who tries unsuccessfully to have the men brought back to town for a trial, and Sparks (Leigh Whipper), a negro preacher who acts as the moral conscience of the group.

Once the interrogation gets underway, there's a doomed, haunting feel to the movie, as the audience surely knows how things will end. Martin tries to reason with his captors, then pleads with them, and finally begs them. This draws a sharp retort from Darwell's character to "take it like a man."

The film ends on a bit of a false note, as Carter reads the letter Martin has written to his wife and children, asking them to forgive the men who murdered him in the name of justice. The language is rather highfalutin for a humble farmer, and it's doubtful any man not a living saint could summon that sort of big-hearted perspective a few minutes before is to die for a crime he had nothing to do with.

Still, "The Ox-Bow Incident" is a riveting story about how right and wrong are sometimes hard to distinguish, and why laws are necessary to keep justice out of the eager hands of the unruly mob.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: "Men in Black III"

"Men in Black III" gets brownie points simply for not being "Men in Black II."

It's been 10 years since "MIIB," and while I've completely forgotten the plot of that movie, the bad taste it left in my mouth lingers. I remember thinking it was one of the laziest sequels I'd ever seen, simply taking the quirky original film and repackaging its key elements for a cynical, money-grubbing do-over.

Despite that, it made something like a half-billion dollars, so the question becomes: why did it take a decade to make another movie? The jaded, cynical critic in me can't help but take note that the careers of star Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld have not exactly been afire as of late.

Sonnenfeld's been stuck doing low-profile television since the disastrous "RV" six years ago, which also pretty much marked the end of Robin Williams as a leading man. Smith hasn't starred in anything since 2008, when he gave us the lackluster "Seven Pounds" and the lackluster-er "Hancock."

Even if "MiB III" exists simply to gobble up cash and rejuvenate some careers, it's a reasonably engaging bit of disposable entertainment. It's not nearly as funny as it ought to be, and I kept feeling like the characters were explaining the movie to me rather than letting it just happen. But there's plenty of slapsticky action, more enjoyably scary/goofy aliens, and a few unexpected poignant moments.

Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones) are back as footmen in the Men in Black, a super-secret agency serving to protect the many alien species that are secretly residing on Earth (and the humans from them). Their jobs and their relationship have grown stale, with J frustrated with K's inability to ever open up to him. "I'm getting too old for this. I can only imagine how you feel," J riffs after a particularly nasty dust-up in a Chinese noodle shop.

Unfortunately, a superbad dude named Boris the Animal -- "It's just Boris," he repeatedly insists, not that anyone pays any attention -- breaks out of Lunar Max, the alien prison on the moon. A creepy alien with camera lenses for eyes and a pet that lives inside his hand and spits deadly spikes, Boris (Jemaine Clement) swears vengeance on K, who blew his arm off back in 1969.

Boris goes back in time and alters the temporal reality so K no longer exists. Now it's up to J to travel back to the days of hippies and decent rock 'n' roll and put things right.

Josh Brolin plays the young K, expertly mimicking Jones' curt mannerisms and high-pitched Texas drawl. The '60s-era aliens are a trip, made up to resemble extra-terrestrials from movie and TV of that time.

I really enjoyed Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, the sole survivor of his alien race who can see across the dimension of time and envision all possible outcomes at once. He's a got a daffy lost-puppy vibe, sweet-natured but with a bit of bite.

There's also a clever bit where J and K encounter Andy Warhol, who turns out to be another Men in Black agent in deep undercover (Bill Hader) to infiltrate the counterculture. "I'm so out of ideas I'm painting soup cans and bananas!"

The run-up to the big showdown is a blur of chases and quips, culminating in a fight on the launch pad of the Apollo 11 rocket as it's getting set to shoot the moon. There's also something about an ArcNet protecting the earth from a Boglodite invasion, and a love flame for K (played by Alice Eve when young and Emma Thompson when not) and a half a dozen other untidy story threads that screenwriter Etan Cohen never bothers to knit together.

It's hard to say that "Men in Black III" is worth the wait, since I don't get the sense much of anyone was really waiting for it. But now that it's here, at least you won't feel like zapping yourself with one of the MiB forget-it-all gizmos after watching it.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Video review: "Red Tails"

 World War II movies are something I just can't get enough of, and well-done films that focus on the war in the air are few and far between. Aviation films made during and in the years after the war tended to rely on stock footage for the combat scenes, with results that felt constrained by their eras.

Strange that now that Hollywood has all sorts of computer-generated tricks up their sleeves, they haven't tried very often to go back and tell some of these stories with more engaging fighting scenes. "Red Tails" attempts exactly that.

This movie, produced by George Lucas and with CGI provided by his legendary Lucasfilm special effects studio, contains some of the best air combat scenes ever captured on film. Imagine the best video game every made, and "Red Tails" puts you in the cockpit as American pilots engage in dogfights and bombing runs.

It's pulse-pounding, engaging stuff.

Alas, the characters and storyline have all the depth of a video game, too. Ostensibly the tale of the all-black pilots from the Tuskegee training program, "Red Tails" in actuality is an amalgamation of seemingly every cliché ever contained in a war movie.

The troubled squadron leader with a drinking problem? Check. The bed-hopping lothario who thinks he's fallen for The One? Check. The wild hot dog ace who suddenly loses his nerve? The racist white general trying to keep the African-American heroes from earning their glory? Check, check and check.

It's too bad that anytime the movie isn't in the air, the audience will want to check out.

Say what you will about Lucas' wobbly instincts as a filmmaker, but the man knows how to load up a video release with goodies. The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of "Red Tails" is stuffed with all sorts of extras, including "Double Victory," a documentary on the actual Tuskegee Airmen.

There are also featurettes on director Anthony Hemingway, composer Terence Blanchard, the entire cast and Lucas himself. Other features focus on the creation of those amazing air combat scenes.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras:3 stars

Monday, May 21, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Wing and a Prayer" (1944)

"Wing and a Prayer" would be little remembered as a rather standard World War II propaganda movie, except for a couple of things. The first is the absence of an obsessive focus on a disparate cast of characters with predictable geographic backgrounds and personalities -- the tough guy from New York, the laconic Texan, the All-American Midwesterner, etc. I've written before about my fatigue with the whole "swell bunch of guys" thing in war pictures.

What stands out more about this 1944 movie directed by Henry Hathaway is its innovative battle scenes. It combines some convincing footage of real planes photographed on an aircraft carrier with stock battle footage. For once, the stock stuff is actually blended well into the action, so the cutaway moment isn't totally obvious like it usually is when using canned stuff.

Even better are several scenes where Hathaway juxtaposed actors in the foreground against a background of battle footage. Though the combination isn't seamless, it was still impressive for its day -- perhaps one of the first uses of a "green screen" type of technology.

I was also impressed with a tactic employed by Hathaway during the climactic battle. Since it would have been unfeasible to depict a battle between American planes and Japanese carrier fleet while the war was still ongoing, the director cuts away to the captain on the bridge listening to the radio byplay among the pilots and their crewmen. He orders this piped through the ship's P.A. system, so we watch as the sailors react to the pilots' exultant shouts after shooting down a Zero, their screams of pain and their shouts suddenly being cut off.

At first I thought it to be a corny cost-saving measure, but Hathaway expertly manipulates the verbal diaspora so the audience feels like it's in the middle of the action, despite no corresponding visual element. One exchange is particularly memorable, as a pilot learns his gunner is paralyzed and cannot bail out as their stricken plane careens toward the ocean. "Guess we'll take this last ride together..."

Of course, it was probably not technologically possible to beam the entire radio transmissions of a flight of bombers throughout an aircraft carrier, and even if it was I seriously doubt a naval commanding officer would do so. But as I said, it makes for an effective narrative ploy.

"Wing and a Prayer" got its title from a hit song that came out in 1943, and its plot from a fictionalized version of events leading up from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of the Coral Sea and eventually the Battle of Midway. Sometimes subtitled "The Story of Carrier X," the film follows a single carrier as it runs a series of maneuvers meant to distract and misinform the Japanese high command into thinking the American Navy is dispersed and disorganized.

Their orders are simple: fly missions to look for the enemy, then run away as soon as they're spotted. Needless to say, the pilots are dismayed at fleeing from the enemy. Eventually, of course, they get to have their big fight.

An interesting thing about "Wing and a Prayer" is how subservient characterization is to the plot. If the theme of this movie, like many of its ilk, is that "we're all in this together," then it's underscored by having no one character stand out.

Dana Andrews is ostensibly the lead playing the redoubtable commander of the pilots, though a close second is Hallam "Oscar" Scott, a callow young pilot whose cocksure nature is not matched by his prowess at the plane's controls.

In an interesting ploy, Scott (William Eythe) is supposed to be a movie star who joined up to fight. He got his nickname from the Academy Award statue he won and carries with him in the cockpit as a good luck charm. The rest of the crew beg him for stories of kissing Betty Grable and other big Hollywood stars, and in one scene they watch one of her movies, "Tin Pan Alley."

The third lead is Bingo Harper, the taciturn flight commander played by Don Ameche. It's an unrewarding part, as Ameche scowls his way through the entire movie, his character's stubbornly by-the-book ways earning no adoration from the rowdy pilots. In the end he's portrayed as an honorable man of duty who sublimates his emotions to protect the entire ship.

Also notable in the sprawling cast is Charles Bickford as the grizzled captain, Kevin O'Shea as a veteran ace battling the shakes, Richard Jaeckel as an underage gunner and the inimitable Harry Morgan as a loudmouth ensign.

The planes used in the movie were SB2C Helldiver bombers and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, sturdy little ships with a crew of three. Curiously, I noticed that the pilots fly almost the entire time with the glass cowl of their cockpit slid back, exposing them to the wind and elements. I suppose this must be historically accurate, since a contemporaneous movie made with the cooperation of the Navy surely wouldn't get such an important detail wrong.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review: "Battleship"

I don't have a problem with video game movies. I like video games, and I like movies, and despite the protestations of some cinematic purists, it's a natural fit for flicks that just want to give a good time.

The problem with "Battleship" is that it spends so much time denying that it's a video game before turning on the fireworks that everyone came to see. Yes, yes, the movie is actually based on the classic Hasbro board game, in which opponents try to blindly guess where their enemy's battleship is. (And, at least in my case, attempt to stave off mind-numbing boredom while playing it.)

But it's a big-budget special effects summer movie, make no mistake.

To those wondering what the heck the game has to do with the film: yes, there is a sequence about halfway through where the good guys use a clever trick using a grid-like pattern to track the alien boogums they're fighting. And, of course, nearly all the mayhem takes place aboard Navy vessels.

If you're looking for metaphysical ruminations about the first contact between man and an alien race, you won't find them here. The aliens come to Earth for purposes never really made clear, other than they're here to give humans something to shoot at.

They come out of the ocean in big seafaring hovercraft-y things that sort of jump around the water's surface and cfhange shape. Think "Transformers" meets "Independence Day" meets "War of the Worlds," and you've got a pretty good handle.

Eventually they do emerge from their ships, and are surprisingly un-buggy and humanoid. They could be first cousins to the blue dudes in "Avatar," but they favor mechanistic armor and weaponry over a biometric hair hookup.

Liam Neeson is featured prominently in the film's trailers, but it's just a walk-on role as the stern admiral, who promptly gets sidelined as soon as the sea spray hits the fan. The real star is Taylor Kitsch as Alex Hopper, a ne'er-do-well rebel who joins the Navy as a last resort, and somehow ends up commanding the battle against the aliens.

Kitsch has presence as an action star, but the wind-up involving Alex's transformation from zero to hero takes way, way too long. It's 45 minutes or so into the movie before the critters from outer space show up, and until then it's a bunch of familiar pabulum about learning to grow up, work as a team, etc.

Director Peter Berg and screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber cling so desperately to the idea that their movie is about the human element, when Alex and all the rest (including singer Rihanna) are really just arcade avatars ready to be put through their paces.

Brooklyn Decker plays Alex's love interest, who just so happens -- gosh! -- to be the daughter of the mean ol' admiral. Decker has the notable luck to be featured in two big Hollywood releases this week (the other is "What To Expect When You're Expecting"), but neither one is much to brag about.

Gregory D. Gadson, an actual Army veteran who lost both his legs in Iraq, has a solid turn as a disgruntled war veteran who rediscovers his inner warrior battling the aliens.

Now, the movie is named "Battleship," but of course battleships are military anachronisms -- huge, hulking behemoths designed to batter the enemy with its huge guns. The Navy prefers fast, nimble destroyers these days. There's a turn of events late in the going that rectifies the discrepancy, which is both extraordinarily unlikely and a cheap applause moment.

There are a few times in this movie to cheer and thrill, but the filmmakers don't seem to want to own up to its bubblegum nature. The worst kind of video game movies are those that pretend not to be.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: "What to Expect When You're Expecting"

Unless you're pretty slow on the uptake, you already know that "What to Expect When You're Expecting" bears little relation to the self-help book aimed at educating pregnant women about the little darlings growing in their bellies.

In fact, it's such a deliberate departure, one wonders why the producers insisted on keeping the title, other than nefarious purposes to lure in millions of moms and mama wannabes, who don't really require much luring for bubbly romantic comedies. Of course, this is the same industry that is also this week releasing a movie based on a board game about sinking military naval vessels, so starting off assuming the worst is probably going to work out pretty well.

There is no advice to be contained in the movie version of "WTEWYE," which is what I will call it henceforth, since I don't feel like typing it all, plus it seems like that would come out "wha-TOO-wee," which is good aural representation of how I felt about it.

Directed by Kirk Jones from a script by Shauna Cross and Heather Hache, "WTEWYE" feels like it was cooked up in a Hollywood laboratory ruled by poll-testing tubes and focus group beakers. Despite this, there actually are a few moments that shine.

The story takes a disparate group of five women, loosely interconnected and located mostly in Atlanta, who learn they're to become mothers right around the same time. There are also their male counterparts, plus friends, relatives, various hangers-on and a walk-on by some unrelated fathers known simply as The Dudes Group (more on them in a bit).

Now, that is a whole heapin' lot of characters to keep straight, let alone make them believable and identifiable. The result is that one couple's story works so well that I was annoyed whenever the movie focuses elsewhere, two other orbits of pregnancy feel forced and faked, another is really just a secondary story to the first one, and the last one has no purpose for even existing.

A quick run-down:

 Jules (Cameron Diaz) is a celebrity fitness trainer who just won a "Dancing with the Stars"-type reality show and fell in love with her gorgeous dancer to boot. They're rich, famous and busy, and find there's not much they truly agree upon.

Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) runs a store called The Breast Choice devoted to everything about having a baby, but she and her hubby Gary (Ben Falcone) have had trouble conceiving on their own.

Gary's dad Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), a retired race car driver, knocks up his second wife with twins. She's younger than Gary, a plastic-y Barbie type who makes pregnancy look like a breeze.

Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) can't get pregnant, so they look to adopt a baby from Ethiopia. Alex is getting cold feet, which gives Holly the jitters.

The last couple is Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford), early-20s owners of competing food trucks and recovering from a high-school split. They get back together for a one-nighter, she gets knocked up, and then they have a lot of Very Important discussions to share.

I genuinely enjoyed the Wendy/Gary storyline, with Banks getting some of the best lines and scenes as a woman who's spent her adult life pushing the motherhood-is-magic theme, only to find it's more about cankles and hemorrhoids. "I didn't get 'The Glow,' I just got bacne."

The one with the young kids is given the shortest shrift, which is OK since it feels like it was only included to rope in a certain demographic.

The Dudes, a club for dads to hang out with their kids, are also worth a laugh or two, with their mantra of total acceptance of each other's substandard parenting. But their sequences bring the movie to a dead stop.

I wasn't expecting much from "WTEWYE," but audiences certainly deserved more than this.
1.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: "The Dictator"

It goes almost without saying that "The Dictator" is not as funny as "Borat" or "Brüno," Sacha Baron Cohen's two other comedies about crude foreigners who come to American shores and haplessly inflict their outrageous behavior on the natives. Really, no other outcome was possible.

"Borat" had a fresh, vibrant feel coupled with a mad hatter's sense of spontaneity. (It actually received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, which I do not take issue with beyond questioning how much of anything was written down before they started filming.) "Brüno," if not nearly as consistent, cleverly uncovered some uglier parts of pop culture.

But the big difference those two movies had from this new film is that they were, at least ostensibly, mockumentaies. That is to say, most of the people reacting to Baron Cohen's antics were regular rubes trotted in as unwitting victims.

The joke was not Brüno or Borat acting out, but the reaction it provoked .

"The Dictator" is fundamentally different in that it's a scripted comedy in which everyone is an actor hired to play a role. Instead, their reactions to General Aladeen, the despotic ruler of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Wadiya, are preordained. And that just drains all the juice out of the movie.

In large part, that's due to the fact that the supporting cast doesn't really have any reaction. Aladeen will say or do something incredibly racist, or sexist, or some other -ist, and the people just sort of stare at him quizzically like they're addled.

No one personifies this better than Zoey, Aladeen's would-be American love interest. A crunchy, Birkenstock-wearing "sustainable Earth" type, Zoey (Anna Faris) is absolutely appalled when all that hatred comes tumbling out of Aladeen's mouth, wrapped into a twisted braid of bent vowels that's supposed to represent a Wadiyan accent. But other than a couple of mild admonishments, she never tells him where to go.

Director Larry Charles and Baron Cohen, who co-wrote the screenplay with three others, don't attempt much in the way of plot. Aladeen comes to America after the United Nations threatens action over his country's development of nuclear weapons, and somehow he gets switched out with his simple-minded sheepherder of a body double.

Tamir (Ben Kingsley), Aladeen's ambitious right-hand man, sees an opportunity to install a puppet and run the show himself. Curiously, Tamir's big plan is to turn Wadiya into a democracy so he can start selling his country's vast oil wealth on the international market.

As evil schemes go, it's a pretty benign one.

I won't deny there are some good laughs in "The Dictator." I counted three that actually got me guffawing loudly, and perhaps a half-dozen others that evinced a smile and a chuckle.

But there are also many long, dull stretches where not much is going on. Despite the movie's skimpy 83-minute run time, it often seemed to drag itself out unnecessarily.

The interesting question is where Sacha Baron Cohen's career goes from here. He's too famous now to pass himself off for goofs, and clearly his model of humor isn't geared toward scripted fare. Based on "The Dictator," I'd say his reign of funny has come to an end.

1.5 stars out of four

Video review: "Rampart"

"Rampart" is one of those independent movies that get a decent amount of buzz but never quite break free of orbit ... or even show up in theaters in most towns. Woody Harrelson was thought to have a decent shot at an Oscar nomination for his brutal, mesmerizing performance as an L.A. cop whose corruption goes down to the bone.

But in a year in which Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender got snubbed, it wasn't surprising that a little-seen crime drama was overlooked.
Harrelson is indeed hard to take your eyes off of, though the film itself is a little disjointed at times.

It also has one of those unfortunate endings that's supposed to seem ambiguous and "arty," but feels like the movie just stops arbitrarily.

Set in 1999, "Rampart" is the story of Dave Brown, the original dinosaur cop. He's a racist, violent throwback and he knows it -- he just happens to think back in his daddy's day was better. He drinks on the job, extorts favors from businesses, shoots suspects and then plants weapons on them, and every other dirty trick you've ever heard of.

After a quarter-century of bad deeds on the force, Dave gets in serious trouble after a random auto accident ends in him viciously beating a man, the whole thing caught on video and played endlessly on television.

As the noose draws slowly but inevitably tighter around his neck, Dave gets more and more desperate, and woe to anyone who gets in his way.

Director and co-writer Oren Moverman seems to be in the Woody Harrelson business; his first feature behind the camera was the acclaimed "The Messenger," which did get an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay.

Video extras are not bad. There's a feature-length commentary track by Moverman, interviews with the cast and crew, and a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes.  

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four  
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Time After Time" (1979)

Sigh. After my recent attempt at revisiting the time-traveling craze of the late 1970s and early '80s led me to watch the wrong movie, the mushy romance "Somewhere in Time," I thought I'd circle back and watch the movie I meant to see: 1979's "Time After Time." This film, which came out a year earlier, promised to be more of a straight action/fantasy than a kissy-kissy story.

Alas, it was another disappointment.

This was the debut feature film of director Nicholas Meyer, a novelist who segued into movies as a screenwriter. He would go onto a distinguished career, including directing "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," universally recognized as the best in that series, and the sixth Trek movie, which was pretty good, too.

His screeningwriting career has outpaced his directorial efforts, with other notable script credits including "The Informant," "Sommersby," "The Prince of Egypt," the under-appreciated "The Human Stain," and "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," based on his own book, for which he received his only Oscar nomination.

I saw "Time After Time" as a kid, and remembered as being a much darker film. It's a fanciful story about writer H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time using a machine he built. David Warner made a lasting impression as the gentleman serial killer, but Malcolm MacDowell as the protagonist is something of a wet blanket -- a socialist dreamer who's disappointed that the future hasn't turned out to be the workers' utopia he'd imagined.

The premise, of course, is a total lark. The story is set in 1893, when Wells was 27 and had yet to write any of his famously futuristic novels. The first, of course, was "The Time Machine" in 1895, and the idea is supposed to be that Wells got the notion for his writings by traveling 86 years into the future. Never mind that Wells wasn't a scientist, and couldn't have successfully built a toaster oven, let alone a time-traveling machine.

But even if one swallows the time-traveling thing, not to mention the idea that Wells' best friend was secretly The Ripper, the story -- based on a novel by Karl Alexander -- just doesn't do all that much with the premise. Jack (actual name: Dr. John Leslie Stevenson) realizes the coppers are about to nab him, so he jumps into Wells' machine and dashes off to 1979. (Why he chose that date, other than it is the same year the movie came out, remains a total mystery.)

Fortunately, Wells designed the machine with an auto-return function that automatically brings the gizmo back unless one has a long reddish wand-key. He goes after John, making sure to stuff his pockets with money before the trip.

The biggest downside of the movie is that it focuses too much on the stuck-out-of-time aspect rather than the conflict between the two men. When Wells does finally catch up with John, he simply knocks on his hotel room door and demands that the killer return with him back to 1893 and face the authorities. Only a simpleton would expect a man responsible for dozens of murders to comply, so it's no surprise when John assaults Wells and dashes off.

Instead, the plot focuses too much on Wells' romance with Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), a modern liberated woman who more or less throws herself at Wells. ("I'm practically raping you," she exclaims when Wells hesitates when their first date ends up with them in bed.) Needless to say, The Ripper soon focuses his ire on her, building up to the inevitable showdown, and of course the predictable moment where Wells has to tell Amy he's a time-traveler, which puts a kink in their sex life.

Given my reaction to "Somewhere in Time," one might reasonably conclude that I'm simply anti-romantic. I don't believe that's true, but I do object when movies brazenly introduce a character, usually a woman, into movies that don't require a romantic angle.

"Time After Time" is about hurtling oneself through the fourth dimension, experiencing gobsmacking culture shock and (in Wells' case) profound disappointment, while chasing the most infamous killer in history. That's not enough to build an engaging tale around? Why does there have to be a girl?

I should also mention that the movie romanticizes Jack the Ripper by turning him into a standard-issue killer who slits women's throats or stabs them in the torso. Though there is one moderately gruesome scene where the police find a body they think is Amy's, including a severed hand. That's curious, since John is always show favoring small, scalpel-like implements -- it'd be pretty hard to lop off a whole limb.

In reality The Ripper was the gruesomest of murderers, not just killing prostitutes but disemboweling them, removing the uterus or other organs, stuffing foreign objects in their mouths or body cavities. People who kill like that do so out of a fetishistic obsession, and we never really see why John is so obsessed with his bloody trade.

Warner's still a hoot, penetrating the screen with an icy stare. I also enjoyed the transformation of John from a three piece suit-wearing Victorian gent into a 1970s dude with a hippie flair, including one denim jeans-and-vest outfit, complete with large square sunglasses, that was probably considered quite fashionable at the time.

Yet another reason why, despite some terrific filmmaking, I still think the '70s represents the cultural nadir of America.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: "Monsieur Lazhar"

In "Monsieur Lazhar," the eponymous Bachir Lazhar has the ideal temperament to be a teacher. A reserved man who holds respect and courtesy as almost sacred ideas, he adores children (though not in a creepy way) and values knowledge and learning.

Lazhar shows up at a Montreal school a week or so after a horrendous event: a popular teacher has committed suicide, hanging herself in her classroom while the children are at recess. One can only fathom the mind of a person who commit such a gruesome act with the obvious intention that her students discover her that way.

Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is an immigrant from Algiers, and claims 19 years of teaching at university. The harried principal (Danielle Proulx), desperate both to protect the psychologically wounded children and to get bureaucratic pressures off her back, hires him as the replacement.

Cultural differences, not to mention the understandably extreme emotional turmoil of the class, make for rough going at first. Lazhar gives one unruly boy and light cuff on the back of the head, and learns that the Canadian educational system frowns upon such things. Indeed, political correctness has taken things to such an unwieldy extreme, teachers are not allowed to touch students at all -- even disallowing the P.E. coach from steadying a child during gymnastics exercises.

This is a film of quiet joys and hidden sadness, of frustrations that bubble to the surface and emotions kept carefully tucked away. "Monsieur Lazhar" was an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, and its spare grace is easy to see.

Writer/director Philippe Falardeau mimics the reserve of his main character, eschewing loud emotional epiphanies for moments of quiet struggle and resolution. The result is a movie lacking sweeping, syrupy catharsis -- and sometimes that's a good thing.

Two students among the 11- and 12-year-olds stand out from the rest. Alice (Sophie Nélisse) is the smartest in the class, and also the most willful. She approaches the suicide with a forthright maturity lacking among the students -- and even the adults.

Simon (Émilien Néron) is the class cut-up, whose jokes have taken on a nasty, bullying tinge as of late. He was especially close to his former teacher, and takes her death as some sort of attack.

In terms of plot, there really isn't much. Falardeau focuses almost exclusively on the school and its lessons, though there are a few scenes that give some insight into Lazhar's mysterious background, which contains its own tidal forces of sadness.

"Monsieur Lazhar" reminds me somewhat of "The Illusionist," a French animated film that was nominated for its own Oscar a couple of years ago. It's the sort of rare movie that chooses not to focus on the dramatic, pivotal moments that happen in life, but what comes after. It's not the wave crashing upon the shore, but the gradual receding back into the ocean.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Video review: "Albert Nobbs"

Albert Nobbs is more a parable than a person, and "Albert Nobbs" plays out more closely to a fable than an authentic tale. "Albert Nobbs" is the classic example of a terrific premise for a movie that doesn't follow through. Glenn Close, in an Oscar-nominated turn, plays a woman living in 19th century Ireland who's been passing herself off as a manservant. After decades of cultivating a humble, inconspicuous exterior, Albert seems to have developed no real identify of his own. (I'll use male pronouns, since that's how Albert thinks of himself.) Seemingly uninterested in sex, his only real desires are for security and stability. After a chance meeting with another female living as a man (Janet McTeer, in a hefty performance that got its own nod from the Academy), Albert latches onto the idea of using his savings to open a small tobacco shop. He even wants to marry Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a callow young co-worker, and install her as a sort of business partner and life companion. The movie faces a couple of problems. Despite some impressive wigs and makeup, the transformation of the women into men isn't entirely convincing. It's hard to buy that anyone wouldn't take one look at Albert realize he's in disguise. McTeer, wearing obvious shoulder pads, is even more obvious. The other challenge is that Albert remains a total cipher even after the credits have rolled. He seems not so much masculine or feminine as sexless. The character also comes across as being not very bright. Pair that with his stubbornly mysterious motivations, and the intrigue surrounding this little figure soon fades. Special features, which are a little on the scanty side, are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions. They consist of a handful of deleted scenes, and a feature-length commentary track by Close -- who also co-wrote the screenplay -- and director Rodrigo Garcia. The pairing is pleasant; I've always felt the best commentaries are achieved when filmmakers and cast members collaborate on them. Please note, "Albert Nobbs" will be released on video May 15. Movie: B-minus Extras: B-minus

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Warlock" (1959)

"Warlock" exists in that nether region between classic Westerns and revisionist ones, the period where the idea of two men staring each other down in the street with six-guns was beginning to seem less like grand adventure and more like a morally ambiguous bloodbath.

It's an ambitious film, lacking a clearly heroic figure -- and even the would-be villains have more than a single dimension, more than simplistic motivations.

It reminds me very much of "Unforgiven," Clint Eastwood's late-era masterpiece, so much so that I wonder if this movie played any role in inspiring it.

Henry Fonda is ostensibly the star, playing Clay Blaisedell, a notorious gunman who makes a living going from town to town. Officially he's a rent-a-marshall, but his real job is to kill outlaws ... or whoever it is that's currently stirring up trouble in the area. As he patiently explains to the town council of Warlock, eventually they'll grow fearful and resentful of him, at which point they'll have had full satisfaction from each other, and it will be time for him to leave.

He actually makes most of his money as a gambler, bringing games of chance and an entire saloon operation to town. Blaisedell even travels with a sign for "The French Palace," a bit of self-appointed royalty that he takes wherever he goes.

"The 400 dollars a month I get from you would hardly pay for the ammunition I use up in practice. Fortunately, as a faro dealer I'm an attraction. Things work out very well," Blaisedell intones.

Blaisedell is accompanied by his best friend and right-hand man, Tom Morgan, who runs the saloon and watches out behind Clay for "back shooters" sneaking up on him. Tom, who has a club foot and is nicknamed the Black Rattlesnake of Fort James, is a real piece of work. He loves Blaisedell fervently, seeing himself as his protector -- not just his life, but his reputation. Anthony Quinn plays Morgan with a slithery sort of braggadocio, and carefully hides the deep-seated resentment Morgan has toward Blaisedell.

The real protagonist, in my view, is Johnny Gannon, a member of the local gang of troublemakers, known simply as the San Pablo cowboys. Johnny only throws in with them to protect his headstrong 19-year-old brother, Billy. In an unlikely turn of events, Johnny takes up the empty job of the local deputy sheriff, which ends up putting him in between Blaisedell and Abe McQuown, the powerful cattle baron who leads the cowboys.

Johnny, if not exactly a lowlife, hasn't led a very respectable life, at one point admitting that he participated in the cold-blooded murder of 37 Mexicans who trailed McQuown's gang after they had rustled their cattle. But he takes his job as deputy seriously, even if it means sacrificing his life.

Director Edward Dmytryk makes a deliberate contrast in appearance between the hired gunslingers and Johnny. Blaisedell and Morgan are always dressed in fine waistcoats and ties, with expensive hats and groomed hair. Blaisedell is famous for his pair of gold-handled pistols, though he never actually is seen with them until the final showdown.

Meanwhile, Johnny is scruffy and unkempt, sporting a denim jacket most of the time. He upgrades his wardrobe a bit after donning a badge, but then McQuown nearly cuts off his fingers during a confrontation, so he spends the latter part of the movie looking rather pathetic, holding his bandaged hand in a timid manner.

I think it's an attempt to mix up the conception of heroes and villains, of the brave and the craven, with Johnny mincing up and down the dusty street in an unmanly gate, while Blaisedell strides slowly and purposefully in classic Western fashion. The renowned gunslinger relies more on his reputation, not to mention his back-up man, than his guts. And the reformed thug-turned-lawman is willing to stand up to 20 armed men while barely being able to hold his gun.

"When you stand to win, you gotta stand to lose, too," Johnny says.

Things inevitably build to a showdown between Blaisedell and Billy, who asks Johnny to stand with him. "I ain't backin' him, because you're my brother, and I ain't backin' you, because you're wrong," he responds.

I'm quoting so much of the dialogue from "Warlock" because it's so consistently good, screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur, adapted from the novel by Oakley Hall. It's not the naturalistic sort of exchanges you see in later films like "Barbarosa." But it's not the dull claptrap you often found in Westerns prior to this film.

Here's one terrific piece in the only significant exchange between Blaisedell and Johnny, and probably the most words Blaisedell has ever spoken in an unbroken string in his entire life:

I remember when I first killed a man. It was clear and had to be done. Well, I went home afterward and puked my insides out. I remember how clear it was. Afterwards, nothing was ever clear again. Except for one thing. That's to hold strictly to the rules. It's only the rules that matter. Hold onto 'em like you were walking on eggs. So you know yourself you've played it as fair and as best you could. But there are things to watch for ... in yourself. Don't be too fast. When there are people after you, you know it and you worry it. Then you think, "If I don't get drawn first and then kill first--. You know what I mean?"

Here, the icy Blaisedell allows a bit of self-doubt that he never shows to the public. What if he twitched during a gunfight and actually drew a split-second earlier? Then he would have shot first, and found himself bereft of the rules he clings to as both cloak and shield for his killing.

It's a tiny sliver between murder and upholding the law, it would seem.

I should also mention that DeForest Kelley, forever Bones from Star Trek, has a delightful role as a Southern-drawling member of the cowboy gang whose loyalties are constantly in flux.

"Warlock" isn't a perfect movie. There's a pair of female complications that seem completely unnecessary to the plot. Dorothy Malone plays Lily Dollar, an old girlfriend of Morgan's who bears a death wish against Blaisedell for one of his previous exploits. And Dolores Michaels is Jessie, a pure-hearted townswoman who finds herself attracted to Blaisedell's dark sense of honor.

Both women's mushy scenes have enough momentum on their own, but in context with the story's high-minded themes, taking continual breaks for some kissy time just saps the movie of some of its narrative strength.

Still, "Warlock" is a minor masterpiece, a forgotten relic that doesn't fit easily into notions of the Western.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review: "The Avengers"

Critics are not supposed to be dispassionate – we are, after all, in the business of offering opinions – but there is an expectation of a certain level of restraint, of being the impartial observer as opposed to the slobbering fanboy. So I regret to inform you of my failing, a moment during “The Avengers” when my fist pumped the air jubilantly and I bellowed, “Oh, YEAH!!!”

Even worse: I do not regret my outburst.

The long-awaited superhero supergroup is finally assembled, and their film does not disappoint. It’s a smashmouth extravaganza of outsized proportions, six heroes reluctantly brought together to battle a deliciously hateful villain who’s got an army of hideous alien boogums in tow.

The fight scenes are frequent, frenetic and tremendously well-done. For once, the action is not sliced and diced into an incomprehensible flurry of edited morsels -- cinematic death by a thousand cuts. How wonderful it is to watch someone capable of doing things that are otherworldly, and yet it remains perfectly comprehensible.

In addition to battling the bad guys, the supes often tangle with each other. It’s a delicious carryover from the Marvel Comics universe, whose creators knew entire generations of kids grew up arguing over how a throw-down between Iron Man and Thor would play out.

Now we know. And it’s a helluva a lot of fun finding out.

Writer/director Joss Whedon does a yeoman’s job of balancing a sprawling cast of heroes, giving each of them enough scenes and character moments to make them register as more than CGI-assisted brawlers.
He’s helped by the fact that four of the six were previously featured in their own solo films. (Though the Hulk only partially counts, since two previous iterations of the green behemoth in the past decade – each starring a different actor than this movie – have been quasi-disowned.)

In case you weren’t up to speed already, here’s the roll call:

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is billionaire Tony Stark wrapped in a metal super-suit that allows him to fly and blow things up. A boozy rebel, Stark has a hard time playing well with others.

The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is brilliant scientist in self-imposed exile, because when angered he turns into a raging green beast of destruction. Ruffalo brings a brittle tension under the placid surface, forever worried about letting "the other guy" out.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is literally a bygone relic of long ago, a World War II Nazi-kicker who was frozen and revived. The sole successful result of the Super Soldier experiment, Captain represents the peak of human physical perfection, though he feels rootless in a strange new world.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is, literally, a god -- the Norse god of thunder. And he has the ego of a god, along with incredible strength, the weather at his command and a magic hammer made for smiting. He also views the Earth as his own private protectorate, and isn't terribly pleased when others start mussing it up.

The other two members of the team are, by definition, B-listers since they've only previously shown up as supporting characters in the other flicks. They're also regular humans with no special powers but their incredible skills: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a super-spy legend, pairing hand-to-hand combat skills with unparalleled subterfuge; Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is a master bowman whose quarrel always has some new tricks at the ready.

Loki, Thor's evil brother, returns from exile to seize the Tesseract, a mysterious object capable of limitless power. He plans to use it to open a portal to bring through the Chitauri, a chitinous alien race that ostensibly are his allies. Tom Hiddleston plays Loki with zest and glee, smiling and sneering.

Loki is also the reason for that "Oh, yeah!" moment -- you'll know it when you see it.

The movie is also surprisingly funny at times, with Stark providing most of the comic relief via snappy one-liners. After his fight with Thor: "No hard feelings, Point Break. You pack a mean swing."

What a way to kick off the summer. "The Avengers" is everything you've been hoping for, and more.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: "The Hunter"

"The Hunter" has the mood and feel of an understated spy drama, a la "The American," but shifted to an environmental story backdrop. Willem Dafoe plays a gun for hire sent to find, and kill, the last Tasmanian Tiger in existence.

It's the story of a man whose soul has been hollowed out by his profession, until he is given a quest that seems impossible. At first he is irritated by the distractions surrounding his job, but over time the job itself takes a back seat to the humanist themes.

Director Daniel Nettheim and screenwriter Alice Addison, who adapted the story from a novel by Julia Leigh, go for a minimalist approach with the characters and plot, keeping things spare and close to the chest. They rely on the audience to intuit the roiling emotions going on behind Dafoe's cool mask of detachment, rather than employing overt displays or manipulative techniques.

The result is a film that is more cerebral than visceral, with the gorgeous, untouched Tasmanian landscapes providing the lush ornamentation that the narrative does not.

Martin David -- we are certain this is not his real name --  is hired by a company called Redfish, which believes that the Tasmanian tiger holds the secret to a nerve toxin that will bring them billions if weaponized. Not only do they want it, but they want to make sure no one else has it.

(The tiger is not really a tiger, but a thylacine, a marsupial more closely related to a kangaroo than a feline predator.)

When he arrives on the Australian island, Martin finds himself the subject of much more scrutiny that he would like. He's put up in lodgings in the remote home of a family in a state of disarray. Two children, Sass and Bike (Morgana Davies, Finn Woodlock), seem to be running the show while their mother (Frances O'Connor) stays entirely in bed.

Sass drops f-bombs like a sailor, while Bike doesn't speak at all. The house is a total mess -- the bathtub is coated in grime, the electrical generator quit long ago -- and Sass reassures Martin their father will return soon to fix it all. But Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), a helpful local, reports that the man of the house, a tree-hugging type, when missing last year.

Most of the local industry is tied to logging, but the local "greenies" have temporarily put a stop to it with an environmental impact study, raising tensions to a keen edge. The loggers take Martin for one of their foes, and his SUV is vandalized.

At first Martin spends most of his time out in the bush, setting traps and carefully marking his map in an attempt to find his elusive prey. Nettheim follows the particulars of the craft with an almost fetishistic attention to detail.

But Martin finds himself spending more and more time at the house, interacting with the kids and the mother, once she emerges from her fog of narcotic isolation. Dafoe gives us glimmers of his character's inner changes, as he suddenly beholds a life within his grasp beyond stalking and slaying.

The story rushes a little too fast toward the end, as Martin makes some bold choices based on his feelings for the family he has semi-adopted. But the movie hasn't really earned this sudden transition, showing us the beginnings of Martin's step away from his old life, but not the middle.

Still, "The Hunter" is an exercise in lean storytelling, chilling and sharp.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Video review: "Haywire"

"Haywire" is a gimmick movie, and not a very good one. Its entire premise is built around the now-ubiquitous figure of the globe-trotting super-spy, a la Jason Bourne, who has amazing hand-to-hand combat skills. Except in this case, the butt-kicker supreme is a woman -- specifically, novice actress and MMA star Gina Carano.

Director Steven Soderbergh doesn't do anything particularly bold or imaginative with this tired genre other than flip the gender of the protagonist. It's almost as if he and screenwriter Lem Dobbs are saying, "See! We can make a movie with a female lead where the characters are just as stilted, the combat is just as repetitions and the plot just as much a nonsensical bramble as one starring a dude."

Imagine any Jason Statham movie with long hair and breasts, and you've pretty much got the flavor.
The film stars a lot of recognizable male actors -- Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender -- most of whom get into fisticuffs with Carano, seemingly just to see them get pasted by a girl.

Carano, who resembles Rachel Weisz on human growth hormones, isn't asked to do much beyond scowl and kick. If the movie's entire reason for existence is to prove that a woman can be convincing as a brutish action star, then Carano certainly passes muster.

If, on the other hand, the idea is to create a believable, identifiable character and see how they react to seemingly insurmountable circumstances, then this mixed martial artist is out of her league.

Soderbergh keeps threatening to retire from movie-making, and un-clever projects like this don't exactly give us a reason to convince him to stick around.

Extra features, which are the same for both Blu-ray and DVD editions, are mercifully brief. There's "Gina Carano in Training," a 16-minute featurette whose title says it all, and the 5-minute "The Men of Haywire," which also pretty much says it all.

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 stars