Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review: "Celeste and Jesse Forever"

I really wanted to like "Celeste and Jesse Forever" more than I did. It's a smart, wryly funny dramedy about a divorcing couple who can't quite seem to let go. Rashida Jones is a revelation in it, playing as distinctly drawn a female character as we've seen in a while.

My disconnect is that it's supposed to be the story of two people, when really it's about Celeste. Jesse is certainly in the picture, but his role is more to hold up the frame and let the audience gaze at her. We never get into his head the way we do Celeste's.

Given that this is a pet project of Jones -- she also is a producer and co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack -- it's not surprising that the light shines mostly on her. But the imbalanced nature of the way they're presented leaves us with a film that feels only partially complete.

Late in the story, Jesse complains to Celeste that she never saw him as an equal in their relationship. The same can be said for the movie.

Things aren't helped by Andy Samberg's lackluster performance as Jesse. A goofy actor from "Saturday Night Live" and several film comedies, Samberg simply doesn't have the acting chops to pull off something like this, with aspirations toward depth and complexity. He reads his lines as if he's searching for the hidden joke inside.

Although there are plenty of funny moments in the film, its essence veers more toward the somber than the profane. Samberg's presence makes the material seem more lightweight than it wants to be.

The story opens with a typical evening of the pair hanging out, cracking jokes and generally fitting together like hand in glove. These are the rare lovers who are also best friends. Except, at the end of their reverie, we learn they split up six months ago, and divorce proceedings are underway.

Certainly their friends have difficulty grasping the notion. They tell the couple they're just putting off the pain, but Jesse and Celeste insist their friendship will outlive their breakup. That seems a possibility, until they start getting interested in other people and sparks of friction begin flying.

Celeste is the more ambitious of the pair, a professional "trend forecaster" who's co-founder of a successful marketing firm. Elijah Wood has a neat little turn as her partner, who keeps making lame attempts to play the role of the catty gay pal, except he's too much of a business type to be convincing.

Meanwhile, Jesse is a failed artist who's never had a real job or even a checking account. Without it being said directly (at least initially), it would seem their breakup was initiated by doubts about Jesse's fitness to be a father, both hers and his.

The movie, directed by Lee Toland Krieger, is at its best when it's not trying to do too much. The story has a loose, easygoing feel and the characters interact the way real people do (or at least they way we'd like to think we do).

Most every person we meet turns out to be a little more nuanced than our first impression. For instance, Celeste's firm takes on a Ke$ha-like singer as a client, the sort of shallow pop songstress she despises, and finds out there's more to the young woman (Emma Roberts) than she thought. Or the slick business guy (Chris Messina) who tries to pick her up at yoga class.

"Celeste and Jesse Forever" is still a worthy movie, even if it's really more about one-half of a breakup than a whole.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: "Cosmopolis"

A deeply unaffecting journey through a labyrinth of high finance and base humanity, "Cosmopolis" is a parable with no punch.

Based on the novel by Don DeLillo, unread by me, writer/director David Cronenberg has given us a highly stylized affair with a string of actors delivering long, rambling exchanges of dialogue with all the portentousness of a Shakespearean drama and all the coherence of a psychoanalysis session.

What is meant to be deadly serious is often quite silly, when it's not stultifyingly dull.

The action takes place largely inside a luxurious stretch limousine over the course of a single day. Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire, decides he needs a haircut. This being New York City, getting there takes a very long time, additionally complicated by a visit by the President and a street funeral procession for a beloved rap artist.

Along the way Packer picks up and dispenses passengers, including underlings (Jay Baruchel, Samantha Morton, Emily Hampshire among them), his current mistress (Juliette Binoche) for an in-car romp, and his newly-married wife Elise (Sarah Gadon). They mostly talk about their finance schemes, including a risky bet against the Chinese yuan.

At one point Packer, who receives a physical exam from a doctor every single day, converses with a female employee while receiving a thorough prostate exam that leaves him quivering with ... something.

To these people, money is not just power but fodder for outwardly deep intellectual discussions about life, humanity and destiny. "Capital is intent," asserts one flunky, whose job title includes the word "theory," a moniker that suggests a visit from the SEC may be forthcoming.

"People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do," another says, and he's got a better handle. Packer is like the Wizard of Oz, existing behind a carefully guarded veil that hides him from the 99 percent, who object not just to their lack but to the shameless way he exerts his surplus.

Certainly, Packer's trappings suggest the rarified world in which he lives. His limo puts the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise to shame, replete with glowing blue lights and computer screens -- even a bar stocked with booze and snacks, plus a convenient way to dispose of the resulting byproducts. At one point, he inquires about purchasing a famous chapel, ancient stone walls and all, and having it sequestered in his apartment.

There are mysterious references to The Complex, a shadowy group that seems to know about impending events before they actually happen, such as a spontaneous Occupy Wall Street-type uprising complete with people immolating themselves, or an important global finance minister being brutally attacked on live television.

How do they know these things? Is The Complex reading the very vibrations of the collective human unconscious to discern what lies in its soul? Or, more likely, is it just a bunch of apocalyptic-sounding mumbo-jumbo?

Torval (Kevin Durand), Packer's hulking chief of security, walks on foot outside the creeping limousine, occasionally poking his head in the window to pass on new threat calculations from The Complex.

Packer does eventually get out of his car, which only leads to stranger encounters. He tries repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to entice his wife, who is practically a stranger to him, to have sex. We eventually meet the driver of the limo, and the barber. And the Pastry Assassin. (You'll see.) Things culminate with a potentially deadly confrontation with a deranged(?) man (Paul Giamatti) who claims to know everything there is to know about Packer.

The characters speak to each other in off-putting formal tones, like grad students debating in a philosophy seminar. "I know this" is an oft-repeated line, as if they were trying to pinpoint their place in the universe by demonstrating how much knowledge they possess, and how they wield it to crush or be crushed.

An ambitious disaster, "Cosmopolis" is a preening, pretentious mess of a movie. I know this.

1.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Video review: "Battleship"

A light-in-the-loafers action flick with pretensions of becoming a serious drama, "Battleship" is half of a decent summer movie.

The second hour, in which Navy sailors go toe-to-toe with some evil creatures from outer space, is entertaining in a carefree way, even if it is totally preposterous. It ends with them pulling a retired World War II battleship out of retirement to turn its big guns on the alien ships -- which can fly but for some reason stay entirely over the ocean, making for convenient targets.

This film flopped here in the U.S. but did terrific business overseas. Perhaps foreign folks learned the secret to "Battleship" -- skip the first 45 minutes and you'll have a good time.

Liam Neeson was in all the trailers, but Taylor Kitsch is the star, playing a standard-issue bad boy who learns to calm his rebellious nature and work as part of a team. Somehow, despite being in the Navy for what seems like a minute and a half, he winds up commanding the battle against the buggy bad guys.

If only director Peter Berg and screenwriting siblings Erich and Jon Hoeber had been content to crank out a simple fun shoot-em-up instead of boring us with an overlong windup, "Battleship" would have packed more punch.

For the film's few fans, they'll at least be pleased to know it has been given a top-notch video release, especially if you opt for the Blu-ray edition.

The DVD version comes with two making-of featurettes focusing on how to turn a board game into a blockbuster. These include cast interviews with actors talking about how it felt to be in the middle of a (simulated) firefight.

Upgrade to Blu-ray, and you get plenty more goodies, including "Second Screen," an interactive viewing experience that works with a networked tablet or computer. This includes 3D modeling of aliens, spaceships and explosions.

Other extras include a tour of the U.S.S. Missouri, behind-the-scenes humor and a featurette on visual effects.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, August 27, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Kansas City Confidential" (1952)

"Kansas City Confidential" isn't as well-known as some other film noirs, but it's something of a lodestone for the genre.

Quentin Tarantino used it as inspiration for his first film "Reservoir Dogs," borrowing the notion of a gang of criminals brought together for a heist without knowing each others' identities. Instead of hiding behind names assigned by colors, they wear extraordinarily creepy masks, with only the boss knowing who everyone is.

Of course, the kingpin turns out to be a disgraced police captain who's planning to turn them all in to restore his name -- not to mention get a 25 percent cut of the $1.2 million take being offered by the insurance company.

"Confidential," directed by Phil Karlson from a screenplay by George Bruce and Harry Essex, is notable for the several ways in which it diverges from Hollywood movies of its time.

For starters, the main character isn't really established until about 15-20 minutes into the movie. Joe Rolfe -- played by John Payne, a song-and-dance man who segued into tough guy roles -- shows up briefly, working as a deliveryman for a flower shop. But it's not until after the heist has been planned and executed that the audience realizes he's "the guy" -- when the police arrest him.

Because the robbers used a duplicate of the flower truck as their cover, the cops think Joe is in on the job. Which brings us to another notable aspect of this film -- its decidedly negative portrayal of law enforcement officers.

Beyond the depiction of Tim Foster (an effective Preston Foster) as the former captain turned bank robber, the way the police treat Joe after his arrest is quite shocking. He's shown being roughed up and denied attorney representation, and it's quite clearly implied that he is repeatedly beaten during his interrogations with an especially rough detective. Lacking evidence, they finally let him go, and Joe lets it be known what he thinks of police who abuse innocent men instead of solving crimes.

There is a brief disclaimer during the opening text crawl that the depictions in the movie are unrepresentative of law enforcement professionals in general. But that's a pretty timid tide wall to brace against the powerful expectations of the era, which dictated that criminals always had to get what had coming to them, and police were the means for making that happen.

Another interesting thing is the portrayal of the three hoods. Jack Elam grabs most of our attention during the first half of the film as Pete Harris, a nervous type with a googly eye. (Of course, all of Elam's characters had that.) A compulsive gambler, Pete is a walking potpourri of tics and trouble -- until he's gunned down by the police in Tijuana.

Lee Van Cleef, in one of his first big roles, plays Tony Romano, a cool-as-ice lady killer. Van Cleef's snake-like face and reptilian eyes led to a lifetime of villainous roles, which he seemed to relish. Neville Brand is blunt and brutal as Boyd Kane, a gum-chewing thug.

They all wind up together at a resort in Mexico, where Foster has arranged to split the money, planning to double-cross them and turn them over to the authorities. Of course, if the idea is to keep their identities secret from each other, it makes little sense to direct them all to a tiny little Mexican hotel where hard-bitten guys hiding revolvers in their coats stand out like a sore thumb.

Joe, having tracked down Pete and seen him slain, plans to take over his spot and collect his share of the dough. A war hero who ran afoul of the law over gambling debts, Joe loses his flower shop job and finds his prospects dim with his face splashed all over the newspapers.Of course, Foster immediately recognizes him as an imposter.

Then Joe runs into Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), a smart young gal studying to take the bar exam and become an attorney. She's sassy and self-confident, and finds herself drawn to the star-crossed Joe. She's also the daughter of the police captain, which is bound to lead to complications.

The plot gets sucked into a bit of a vortex once all the principles have arrived at the resort. There's a half-hour or so of one-upsmanship between Joe and the two robbers, where they go back-and-forth sticking muzzles into each others' ribs and slapping people around. I lost count of how many times one guy got the drop on another, only to find himself disarmed by a sudden move, with the upper hand changing quickly and often.

It's very sweaty work -- literally, as blobs of perspiration roll off the mens' faces and necks. Though never from Helen's ... during that time in Hollywood, leading ladies didn't sweat, they glistened.

"Kansas City Confidential" is a first-rate film noir that dared to break the mold of what a crime story could be.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: "Premium Rush"

At one point in the early going of "Premium Rush," a man driving a car hurtling after a bike messenger cackles to himself with disbelief, "I'm chasin' a bicycle!!" And I felt like yelling back, "And I'm watching a movie about you chasin' a bicycle!!"

"Premium Rush" looks and feels like a lightweight movie, because it is. But it also happens to be an unusually well-made one. The premise is so absurd that it sounds like a put-on: daredevil bike messenger is chased around Manhattan by a corrupt police detective after the secret envelope he's carrying.

The really preposterous thing is that the filmmakers and cast manage to engage us in this hyped-up thriller, and actually care about the characters.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a legend in the bike messenger community (which seems to consist entirely of lean, scruffy twentysomethings with a plethora of piercings and tats). Wilee rides without fear, using a steel-frame bike with set gears and no brakes. He's like a shark on wheels, believing that to stop moving is to die.

Director David Koepp, who also wrote the screenplay with John Kamps, approaches the material with a documentary-style mindset, inserting all sorts of details about these crazy people who weave in and out of New York City traffic like the world's most dangerous Olympic event.

There's the thick, chunky chains and locks they wear around their waists like a belt, so they can quickly lock up their rides when dropping off and picking up packages. And the way they despise cabs for their abrupt stops and perilous opening doors, but save their worst insults for pedestrians.

Wilee's a classic sort of protagonist for this type of film -- he graduated from Columbia Law School, but hasn't taken the bar exam because he prefers to ride the streets for $80 a day. (No mention how he's repaying his student loans on that trickle of cash flow.) He's recently been dumped by his girlfriend, fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who can't understand all the risks he takes.

His main nemesis is Manny (Wolé Parks), a preening show-off who has designs on Wilee's top-dog status and his lady, too.

Wilee is finishing out a normal day when he gets called to pick up a package from Columbia and take it to a Chinatown restaurant. It turns out the customer is Nima (Jamie Chung), Vanessa's secretive roommate, who has recently asked her to move out. Wilee doesn't care much, other than it's an extra $30 in his pocket.

Until, that is, Robert Monday shows up, demanding the envelope Nima gave him. Wilee declines and gives him the slip, declaring that even if he is a humble bike messenger, "Once it goes in the bag, it stays in the bag." He maintains this attitude even after the man gives chase in his car, and is revealed to be a cop.

Played by Michael Shannon, Monday is a terrific bundle of nervous energy and malevolence, part clown and part psychopath. Hooked on gambling and loaded with debts, Monday is like a one-man circle of victimization, inflicting and receiving punishment in turn.

At one point he submits to a vicious beating by some Chinese enforcers because of his debts, but becomes incensed when they knock one of his teeth out. "There are rules!!" he hollers, quickly turning the tables on them and upping the ante. He's easily one of the most memorable villains we've seen this summer.

Things go from there, with the action playing out in more-or-less real time, with the boring parts cut out and replaced with flashbacks to earlier moments as we flesh out the background and characters a little more. This has the effect of making the people more sympathetic -- even Detective Monday, who's such a self-destructive mess that the loan sharks and bookies even feel a little sorry for him.

In this type of movie, the thing Wilee is carrying is generally a classic MacGuffin -- an object whose exact nature or meaning is unimportant, other than everyone wants it. Except that about halfway through, he learns the significance of the tiny slip of paper he's carrying, and the stakes are raised considerably.

The action scenes are exciting enough, with impressive stunt work interspersed with some computer-generated crashes and effects. One of the neat gimmicks is Wilee's ability to approach a congested intersection stuffed with all sorts of perils, and instantly envision different outcomes depending on which way he turns.

I went into "Premium Rush" expecting nothing much, and in truth I came away without much of any lingering substance. But it's a zippy, fun ride, and more skillfully made than you'd expect.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Video review: "A Separation"

An Iranian film winning an Academy Award? That might seem unlikely given the high tensions existing between our countries, but this excellent drama did take the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

The film, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, has nothing to do with politics or international intrigue. Rather, it’s an intimate story about the collision between two families, and how a seemingly minor dispute rises into a life-changing event for both clans.

Nader (Peyman Maadi) is young in age but old-fashioned in his traditional beliefs about family. He is dismayed that his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran, and is suing for divorce because of his refusal to leave. Their young daughter is caught in the middle.

Nader’s father is suffering from dementia and needs to be looked after constantly, so he hires a lower-caste woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat). Her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) is unemployed and ill-tempered.

Razieh and Nader get into an argument, there’s some shoving, and the next thing Nader knows he’s under arrest and charged with a serious crime. The two families end up hashing out their differences in a tiny, sweaty courtroom.

A big movie about seemingly small things, “A Separation” is first-rate storytelling, from a culture that remains largely a mystery to most Americans.

Extras are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions, and are a little scant in scope but hefty in their impact.

Director Asghar Farhadi provides a feature-length commentary track. There are also two featurettes: “An Evening with Asghar Farhadi” and “Birth of a Director,” which explore his development of this film and evolution as a filmmaker.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Champ" (1979)

"The Champ" did not get very good reviews when it came out in 1979, with the general consensus being that it was a brazen, manipulative tearjerker. That's true, but it also happens to be a very effective manipulative tearjerker. To wit: I welled up several times watching it.

That's mostly what people remember about the movie these days: that it's very sad. In fact, a few years ago the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article dubbing it "The Saddest Movie in the World," based on some research by some at the University of California, Berkeley. They tested clips from hundreds of movies, and determined that the final scene of "The Champ," where young Ricky Schroder bawls his eyes out weeping for his dead boxer father, elicited the strongest emotional response from people.

What's lost in all this is the absolutely amazing, unforgettable and emotionally vibrant performance of Schroder, who was only 8 years old when they shot the film. It truly is one of the most affecting things I've ever seen on film.

I've often said that identifying good child acting is like that Supreme Court justice's quip about pornography -- you know it when you see it. I definitely see it with Schroder, who was acting in his very first feature film after several years apprenticing in television commercials.

What's so arresting about the towheaded youngster is how utterly unfiltered his performance is. Whether he's crying, or experiencing a fleeting moment of happiness, or just glumly soldiering on as the son of a never-do-well washed-up former boxing champion, Schroder is completely in the moment. There's no barrier between his emotions and the audience. It's so raw, it's difficult to watch at times.

I'm officially bumping Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense" as the crownbearer for Best Child Acting Ever in favor of Schroder. (Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet" probably comes in third.)

Schroder won a Golden Globe for his performance, but wasn't even nominated for an Academy Award, which I find just appalling. Great acting by very young performers often gets overlooked when it's Oscar time. But another kid, Justin Henry, got nominated the same year for his turn in "Kramer vs. Kramer." Henry's solid in that movie, but he can't hold a candle to the mega-wattage of talent radiating off of Schroder in "The Champ."

The other thing that struck me about "The Champ" is how little boxing there is in it. To me, it's not really a sports movie. Director Franco Zeffirelli, known for high-toned material like "Romeo & Juliet," and screenwriter Walter Newman keep the focus on the human story rather than the fisticuffs.

Billy Flynn, the 37-year-old fighter and single dad played by Jon Voight, doesn't even begin training for his comeback until the 90-minute mark of this two-hour film, with the actual bout taking up perhaps 12 minutes of screen time. The aftermath, with young T.J. watching his father die, then pulling at his corpse hollering "Wake up, Champ!" and "I want the Champ!" goes on nearly as long.

And, as those Berkeley scientists concluded, it's heartrending stuff. I think what makes it so powerful is that other men are in the room, trying to hold it together for the sake of this little boy who just lost not just his father but his heroic idol, and several of them break down themselves in the face of T.J.'s eruption.

It's never quite clear exactly why Billy climbs back in the ring, other than saying "I gotta do something for my boy." They are flat broke, but that's not a new experience for them. They live on the backstretch of the Hialeah, Fla., horse racing track, where Billy works as a horse walker.

(I noticed that many summaries for the movie erroneously refer to him as a "horse trainer," which is something else entirely. A trainer is a prestigious job, someone who often oversees an entire stable of racehorses and all the employees who work there. They pick the horses, train them, decide how and when they'll race, and oversee breeding. Successful ones are famous, get interviewed on television and become quite wealthy. A horse walker merely warms up or cools down the animals before and after races, and is even lower on the thoroughbred racing rung than the African-American stable boys. They're nobodies.)

Billy is good-hearted, but selfish and weak. He constantly goes out and gets drunk, gambling away whatever money they've earned. When he says he wants to do something for his boy, I think Billy really means that he wants to do something for himself. He wants to recapture his old life from seven years ago, before his wife left him and when he was the champion of the world. He was good enough to hold the title for another five years, so we're told, but he admits he just didn't want it anymore.

Now that he finds his life a shambles, Billy wants to be the idealized -- and idolized -- version of the father figure T.J. sees in him.

T.J., for his part, already thinks he's the greatest dad in the world, refusing to call him anything other than "Champ."

This movie is, of course, a remake of a 1931 film starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Beery and writer Frances Marion both won Oscars for that movie, unseen by me. I think a lot of older critics are bedazzled of that movie, which likely adds to their inability to connect with the remake.

If the 1979 version has a weakness, I think it's the portrayal of T.J.'s mother Annie, played by Faye Dunaway. She walked out on them, and Billy has told T.J. that his mother died in a car crash. She married a rich gerontologist (Arthur Hill), and they spend their days cruising around on a magnificent yacht and giving fashion shows.

Billy is extraordinarily angry at Annie for leaving them, and at first refuses her requests to spend time with T.J. (without telling him who she is). Over time, though, his brittle exterior softens, and he even ends up offering to let her come back to him. She refuses him, again, which seems to be what pushes Billy to put on the gloves again.

Dunaway's just fine in this; my main problem is that I never really bought her and Billy as a couple in the first place. Dunaway's refined, aristocratic manners contrast so sharply with Billy's loutish ways and Brooklyn accent, it's difficult to grasp the concept of what would've drawn her to him in the first place. An ambitious, smart woman with a craving for the finer things, she possibly would've had an opposite-attract type of feelings for him.

Narratively it probably wouldn't work, but maybe a scene or two of them before T.J. was born would have made their screen pairing more palatable.

Mary Joe Catlett also has a too-small role as Josie, a friend who helps out Billy and T.J., and seems to have an attraction toward the aging fighter. She's the sort of solid, loyal woman who would make a perfect complement to their harried little family, but because she has plain looks Billy takes her for granted as simply someone to lean upon.

I should mention that several iconic screen actors appear in brief supporting roles: Elisha Cook, Jr. as Billy's bucket man, Strother Martin as an amiable member of the crew at the racetrack, Joan Blondell as a rich horse owner, and Jack Warden as Billy's old boxing trainer, who takes his corner in the ring despite some reservations.

Sometimes it seems like Jack Warden appeared in every single movie made in the 1970s ... not that that's a bad thing.

"The Champ" may be a weepie, but it's a damn fine one. I really can't overpraise how good Rick Schroder is. I will carry the experience of watching him with me always.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: "The Odd Life of Timothy Green"

Bad movies are less pleasant to watch than mediocre ones, but it’s a lot more fun to review a terrible film than one that you were totally indifferent to.

With a stinker, you just hone in on what you hated. Movies like “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” sort of lie there, inert. It’s like the difference between complaining about a food you detest and trying to describe eating something that is completely tasteless.
I had absolutely no emotional connection to “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” -- and that’s not a good spot for a touchy-feely modern fable to be in.

The tale of a childless couple who literally dream up their ideal kid, this is supposed to be one of those laughing-through-the-tears deals where the audience walks out feeling wistful and, most of all, moved. I’m all up for a good mushy movie, but this one is softer in the head than the heart.

Writer/director Peter Hedges has made some quality films -- “About a Boy,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Pieces of April” – but loses his way here with some often lazy storytelling. The screenplay is like a Cliff’s Notes version of a real one, skimming over important events or exchanges as if it’s describing what happens rather than actually showing it.

This movie doesn’t earn its moments.

Often, the film feels like it’s going over a checklist. That’s perhaps inevitable, since Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) write down the qualities of their ideal child and put them into a box they bury in their garden. One magical storm later, Timothy appears, covered in mud and 10 years old, and he starts marking off all the moments of the life his parents have written for him.

What’s really odd is that no one, from the school principle to the Greens’ family members, questions the sudden arrival of Timothy. Things move along so hurriedly that 45 minutes into the film, Timothy has already experienced birth, bullying, true love and a death in the family.

The person who perishes is played by a veteran character actor, and it’s a cheap moment -- it feels like he was cast just so he could die.

I liked CJ Adams as Timothy. He has a frank, intelligent way of looking at the other characters, as if daring them to prevaricate or dissemble. Timothy was born with a bunch of bright green leaves growing around his ankles, so he has to keep his socks pulled up to prevent the discovery of his Big Secret.

Not surprisingly, it’s a girl who does. Joni (Odeya Rush) is several years older than Timothy and a loner, cruising around on her bike near the soccer games attended by seemingly everyone in the small town of Stanleyville, “The Pencil Capital of the World.”

Like the other relationships in the movie, their connection is more a marker for a deep bond than the actual depiction of one. We see them hanging around together, going off into the woods to do what not, and we’re supposed to assume something meaningful has passed between them.

Certainly the adults are not any more fun to hang around. Hedges has constructed a sprawling cast of grown-ups who all behave in petty and juvenile ways. Cindy’s sister loves to rub her perfect trio of children in the Green’s faces. Jim makes Timothy join the soccer team because his own dad (David Morse) never came to his games when he was a kid.

The soccer coach (Common), recognizing how terrible Timothy is at sports, makes him the water boy and, when forced by circumstance to put him in the big game, instructs him not to move.

There’s a whole distracting subplot of how the Stanleyville pencil factor is in danger of going under, due to the tired leadership of the Crudstaffs, the town royalty (including Ron Livingston and Diane Wiest).

Better to erase the whole thing.

The final fate of Timothy is never in doubt. The framing story has the Greens talking to some adoption officials, where they use the story of their time with Timothy as evidence of their earnest qualification to be parents. So we know from the outset he’s just some kind of enchanted practice child.

Perhaps that’s why this movie feels like nothing is at stake.

1.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Video review: "The Hunger Games"

"The Hunger Games" is officially a global phenomenon, racking up enough ticket sales to make even the "Twilight" franchise take notice. Both are based on young adult novels, but rather than just vampires and werewolves competing to see who can out-smolder the other, "The Hunger Games" actually has a story to tell.

In a dystopian future where the North American population is divided into a dozen districts, a male and female youngster from each are selected every year to compete in the Games, a brutal modern form of gladiator fighting. The games are televised, with the audience able to send assistance to their favorites.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a proud girl from a poor district who volunteered to protect her younger sister from being conscripted. The story follows her as she and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy selected from her district, go through the training and initiation process, which combines the pageantry of the Olympics with the pop culture crassness of a reality TV show.

Eventually, of course, they're dropped into the wilderness and the bloodletting begins. "The Hunger Games" has some great action scenes, but also some brains and storytelling ambition. I'm actually looking forward to the sequel.

Video extras are rather good, and you don't have to shell out top dollar to get some worthy goodies. The DVD comes with a making-of documentary, and a featurette about the books by Suzanne Collins.

Other features include "Letters from the Rose Garden," "Controlling the Games" and a conversation between director Gary Ross and film critic Elvis Mitchell. There's also a faux "propaganda" film ostensibly from the nefarious forces organizing the Games.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition, and you add an interactive feature, " Preparing for the Games: A Director's Process."

Movie: 3 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, August 13, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Gallant Hours" (1960)

"The Gallant Hours" is a war movie with no depiction of war. Other than a few far-away sounds of cannon fire or pinging submarine sonar, there is nothing in the film that even alludes to combat. Rather, the action takes place in cramped shipboard offices, inside jungle tents or the back of a jeep. It's not about the bond that forms between foot soldiers during a war, but the loneliness of command of the admirals and generals sending them into the fray.

"Gallant" is a biopic of Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey, but rather than attempting a sprawling narrative of his entire life, it focuses entirely on the five-week period leading up to the naval battle of Guadalcanal, a key turning point in World War II. Halsey made some bold decisions to take the fight to the Japanese despite having an inferior fleet, and the movie depicts these choices as making the difference in the Pacific campaign.

It's unabashed hagiography, but done well and with a minimum of historical chicanery.

James Cagney, outfitted with some caterpillar eyebrows, zestfully tackles the role of the larger-than-life Halsey. If anything, they tone him down quite a bit, since Halsey was known for his salty language and quicksilver temperament. This was one of Cagney's final starring roles, and he made the most of it.

Director Frank Montgomery made his own bold choice in how the story would play out. He alternates between scenes of the American and Japanese commanders conferring and planning (though obviously more time is spent on the Yanks). It would seem to be rather dull stuff -- pulling papers out of attache cases, pointing at maps, etc. But Montgomery makes it engaging and often even compelling.

Usually in war movies the focus is on the "man on the ground" perspective, amidst the mud and blood, often with dismissive references to the generals issuing deadly orders while safely ensconced in the rear. "Gallant" shows that, even if the fellows with all the brass weighing down their collars have much cushier accommodations, the burden they bear can be crushing.

Montgomery and his screenwriters (Bernie Lay Jr. and Frank D. Gilroy) make the interesting choice to provide a lot of narration (by Montgomery himself) about what we're seeing, and about virtually every individual we encounter. So when we first meet a character -- even one who might disappear in a couple of minutes -- there will be some newsreel-ish exposition saying who he is, where he came from, his personality and combat experience, etc. Sometimes it will even reveal that he will die later in the war.

Again, this has the potential to become repetitive and even comical if overdone ("Arthur Jones, ship's cook, from Baton Rougie, a miller's son, quick with a smile and quicker with a spatula..."). But somehow the tactic works, and we feel like we're getting a more complete picture of the men surrounding Halsey.

Only two really stand out as personalities. Harry Black (Ward Costello) is the by-the-book man who's initially affronted by Halsey's seat-of-his-pants style of command, but ends up fiercely loyal. Dennis Weaver plays Andy Lowe, a pilot from the South with a thing for the ladies. His laconic, slightly mocking manner and molasses-slow line delivery act to lighten things up whenever it gets too intense.

"The Gallant Hours" is also notable for its remarkably even-handed depiction of the Japanese commanders, who are shown as honorable, diligent and resolute. Perhaps by the time this film came out, a decade and a half after the war's end, audiences were ready to accept a portrayal of their former enemies in a way that was not single-mindedly jingoistic.

Overall, the historical accuracy of the film is pretty scrupulous, with one glaring exception: the interception and destruction of the aircraft carrying Admiral Yamamoto, the revered Japanese naval commander. "Gallant" shows this happening extemporaneously with the big final battle, and suggesting it was a ballsy call by Halsey that allowed him to take out his counterpart.

In fact, Yamamoto's death occurred months later, and according to Yamamoto's Wikipedia page Halsey was consulted on the operation to dispatch the plane, but did not conceive of the plan.

I can see why the filmmakers inserted this bit of flimflam. The back-and-forth nature of the opposing commanders' schemes plays out like something of a chess match -- which, the film reminds us several times, was a personal passion of Yamamoto. Including his death acts as the knocking over of the king piece, the final victory in their battle of wits.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: "The Bourne Legacy"

At 2¼ hours, "The Bourne Legacy" is essentially one big long chase scene that never wants to stop, and with good reason. Because whenever it does, the audience starts thinking about the characters and the plot -- how thinly-drawn the former are, and how the story structure crumbles to ashes with even a cursory examination.

As you probably know, this is the fourth movie in the Bourne super-spy franchise, and it's missing one notable quantity: Jason Bourne. Matt Damon is out, and Jeremy Renner is in, but it's not just a cynical recasting of the same character by a different actor. Instead, it's an entirely different guy, but set in the same universe and caught in the same situation.

Jason Bourne is apparently still around -- at one point, we hear he's spotted in Manhattan. But the CIA spooks cooped up in their now-ubiquitous high-tech control rooms are instead focused on Aaron Cross (Renner) instead. They peer at computer screens, which seem to be wired into every video camera on the planet, plus satellites up above, and shout urgent orders at each other that seem to have no real-world effects whatsoever.

One wonders if across town, another group of spymasters are jammed into another room barking their own orders in pursuit of Bourne.

No matter. Director Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote the screenplay with brother Dan, is less concerned with the whys and wherefores of the story than just keeping the action moving.

Cross first appears in a snowy mountain range, stalked by wolves and other dangers. Why is he stranded out there? Neither he, or we, are ever really sure. But it seems that Outcome, the ultra-secret program of which he was an agent, has been deemed too dangerous to continue to exist. To wit: the CIA is busy killing all the spies, and Cross is the last one left.

It's a bit of a cheap ploy that all the Bourne movies have recycled. Bourne was in a program called Treadstone, but when its cover was blown they initiated another program, Briarpatch, to clean up the mess of Treadstone. Now it's Outcome that is the target and -- yes, you guessed, there's another program beyond that one that's supposed to be even more extreme.

Based on these movies, it seems the CIA doesn't do anything but create and then shut down super-soldier operations, and all of its agents die trying to kill the "dangerous" agents.

The control method the spies have over the Outcome recruits is that they're genetically enhanced, and must continually take drugs to maintain their physical and intellectual boost. Thus Cross and his fellows can jump across mountain ravines, take out drone airplanes with a hunting rifle, and be shot, stabbed and pummeled and keep on going. But only if they keep taking their little blue and green pills.

Rachel Weisz plays Marta Shearing, a doctor who administers the drugs to the agents, but is willfully ignorant of what they do. Until, of course, she becomes a target herself. Cross rides to her rescue, and they're on the run across the Eastern seaboard, and then the action jumps to Manila in the Philippines.

With the original Bourne movies, there at least was the conceit of Jason's amnesia to keep the narrative momentum rolling, as he labored to find out who he was, why people were trying to kill him, and who was behind it all. Here, the chase is the first, and only thing.

The action is engaging and daring, including a motorcycle chase that's positively rousing, as the two-wheeler carrying our heroes skitters and screeches all around the mayhem.

Gilroy, though, has a tendency to place his camera too close to the action, especially the hand-to-hand fight scenes, so we're never quite aware of exactly what's happening. Gilroy's previous credits behind the camera were "Michael Clayton" and "Duplicity," and his lack of action-movie experience is glaring.

"The Bourne Legacy" isn't a bad movie, and those just wanting a couple hours of mindless diversion may find it suits the bill. As spy thrillers go, this one's dumber than the average bear.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: "The Campaign"

"The Candidate" really slows down in its last half-hour or so, as this raunchy, no-holds-barred take on modern politics pulls up its pants, gets a little serious and tries to say Something Important. But the first hour or so is loose and carefree, and is as gut-bustingly funny as anything I've seen in awhile.

Call it two-thirds of the funniest movie of the year.

There's one scene that nearly made me cough up a lung. Marty Huggins, the prissy Christian family man played by Zach Galifianakis, is telling his clan the sort of scrutiny they can expect now that he's running for Congress. He asks them to lay any embarrassing secrets out on the dinner table so they can confront them. The two cherubic young boys and his prim wife proceed to lay out a litany of scatological transgressions that would have Dante warming up his inferno.

His opponent, four-term incumbent Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), gets into plenty of his own hilarious escapades. One involves babies, and in his zeal to beat out Marty to lay some kisses on them in the time-honored political tradition, he ends up ... well, kind of the opposite of kissing the baby.

Much of the humor is over-the-top and zany, and bears no relation to even the worst antics we've seen in this or any election cycle. (Thought Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got pretty close with his line, "He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain.")

Later on, though, things go from crazy-funny to crazy-implausible -- such as when one candidate shoots another during a hunting "accident," or another seduces his opponent's wife, tapes it, and uses the footage as the basis for a campaign ad. In both instances, their poll numbers go up.

These moments pierce the bubble of carefully cultivated disbelief, and the movie just becomes one big goof job.

Finally, there's the schmaltzy finale, in which we're asked to believe that one candidate would take an action that has never been performed in the history of politics, and probably isn't even legal. Also, oddly, that both campaigns would share the same hall for their victory parties. All to set up a big moment where things get tender and teary.

You can practically hear the windbag gas escaping.

Director Jay Roach and screenwriters Chris Hency and Shawn Harwell are careful to keep the political barbs nonpartisan, or more accurately multi-partisan: everybody comes off looking bad.

In a bit of a switch, it's the Democrat Brady who's a boozing, corrupt tool of the big corporations, represented by the not-even-slightly subtle duo of super-rich brothers named Motch. They're played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, and their presence mostly serves to remind us that Aykroyd is now old enough to play the aged evil tycoons he battled in "Trading Places."

Huggins, meanwhile, is the humble do-gooder who's chosen to run as a patsy, and even has to take lessons on how to appear more manly from his appointed svengali, played by Dylan McDermott. With his Cheetos mustache and slightly swishy manner, Galifianakis paints a complex comedic portrait of a man who doesn't really fit into any neat box.

Ferrell, meanwhile, is mostly doing a takeoff on his caricature of George W. Bush, with a thick coating of North Carolina molasses. Think of a DNA splicing of John Edwards and Sean Hannity. (His motto: "America. Jesus. Freedom.")

"The Campaign" is definitely worth a ticket, though be forewarned the language and sexual terminology is about as nasty as you can get without an NC-17 rating. Keep the little ones at home, and keep your expectations low for the last act, and you'll have a good time.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Video review: "The Lorax"

Subtle as a buzz saw mowing down those cotton-candy-colored Truffula Trees, “The Lorax” (PG, 86 min.) fitfully combines a heavy-handed environmental message with bright, shiny animation for little kiddies.

Adapted from one of the lesser-known books by Dr. Seuss, this story has as its hero a grumpy little yellow furball who acts as the protector of the forest. His nemesis is the Once-ler (voice of Ed Helms), an amiable young man who wants to use the Truffulas to make his Thneed, a mysterious product (even to him) that will make him rich.

The Lorax (voiced well by Danny DeVito) possesses magical powers, but he never actually uses them to put a stop to the Once-ler’s nefarious antics. Instead, he waits until the devastation is complete and then tries to make people feel bad about it.

As eye candy goes, “The Lorax” is a treat, with wonderfully crisp images and fanciful critters who feel like they jumped right off Dr. Seuss’ pages. Even the supposedly sterile city that sprung up in the Once-ler’s path is fun to spend time in, with its gravity-defying buildings and one-wheeled vehicles.

“The Lorax” will likely keep tots engaged, but this one’s meant for the adult to hit “play” and go read a book.

Like a lot of fare aimed at younger audiences, “The Lorax” is being given a strong video release with lots of extras.

Both the DVD and standalone Blu-ray editions come with a feature-length commentary track, plus three featurettes: “Seuss to Screen,” “Seuss It Up” and “Once-ler’s Wagon.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you get three new mini-movies, plus a making-of featurette about them. There’s also a deleted scene, sing-a-long song, a game and a digital copy of the film for taking with you on the road.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reeling Backward: "My Name is Nobody" (1973)

By 1973, spaghetti Westerns had descended into comedy, and sometimes even self-parody. There was always an element of laughs and leers in the kitschy Italian/American fusion, but by the time "My Name is Nobody" rolled around, the clown princes with six-shooters were riding tall in the saddle.

The plot of this comedy Western, produced and partially directed by Sergio Leone, is quite spare. An aging gunman, Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda), wants to make one last big score before hanging up his spurs and retiring to Europe. Sullivan (Jean Martin), the front man for a failed gold mine, has a history with Beauregard and is looking to rub him out with the help of his partners, the 150-man-strong Wild Bunch, who launder their stolen gold through him.

(As near as I can figure, all the Wild Bunch -- an obvious nod to Sam Peckinpah, who also has his name on a tombstone -- do nothing but ride around en masse with dynamite in their gaudy studded saddlebags, which eventually proves their undoing.)

The X factor in all this is Nobody, as he dubs himself, a goofy young admirer of Beauregard who wants to take his place -- but only after seeing his hero go out in a blaze of glory. Terence Hill, an Italian who adopted an American-sounding name as a publicity stunt, plays Nobody.

Hill has an offbeat but undeniable screen presence. With his perfect bone structure, lagoon-blue eyes and cleft chin, he's almost too pretty to convincingly play a Western protagonist. But he sells the idea of a roving prankster, who's honed his own skills with a revolver (and other forms of combat) to a surpassing edge. He's like a reverse Don Quixote, whose mission is just while his methods are comical ... but deadly.

The "Nobody" moniker is employed for some pretty obvious jokes -- the most notable being for Beauregard's epitaph, after they stage a fake duel in which the old gunslinger is "killed" so he can slip off for his quiet retirement, his reputation assured. "Nobody was faster on the draw," it reads.

Director Tonino Valerii was a Leone protege, an assistant director who soon stepped behind the camera himself. Leone actually directed the opening and closing gunfights himself, according to legend.

It's an interesting and entertaining film, if somewhat baffling. The motivations of Nobody are never really clear. He just sort of sidles around, acting innocent and making strange non sequitur comments, in almost a Buster Keaton-esque fashion. Then it comes time to demonstrate his awesome speed and accuracy.

The stunts and gags used in the movie's many fights are as impressive as they are impossible. For instance, that Nobody could down several large glasses of whiskey, flip the empty mugs over his shoulder and shoot them before they hit the ground. (What would that blood-alcohol level be? Like 3.0?) Or that he can reach into an opposing gunfighter's holsters, pull out his weapons and slap them in the head with them before the man can reach them himself.

Beauregard displays similar skills, despite the suggestion that his vision is failing. (He wears glasses in several scenes, and one shot of Nobody from his viewpoint is deliberately blurry.) At one point, Beauregard shoots Nobody's hat of his head four times in a row -- each time, passing through the exact same hole. I can't imagine what sort of robotic-type calculations would be necessary to make a bullet pass through the exact same millimeters of a hat atop the head of a moving man at about 50 feet. But if one actually could do that, then what makes the hat fly off?

The showdown with the Wild Bunch carries no narrative or emotional weight, since it happens for no reason at all. Beauregard has no beef with the Bunch, other than their association with Sullivan. But Beauregard chooses to take a payoff in gold dust rather than risk raising the ire of the Bunch. Only Nobody's misplaced hero worship, plus the sheer challenge of one man taking on 150, convinces Beauregard to try. Of course, all he has to do is shoot those bags of dynamite to make the whole gang -- or at least a goodly percentage of them -- go kablooey.

(Also, since no one is around except Nobody, Beauregard and the Wild Bunch, who exactly is it that's going to relate this tale for the history books? One doubts the gang would freely share the story of how they were defeated by one near-sighted old man. And Nobody's grasp on coherent facts is somewhat in doubt.)

"My Name is Nobody" is notable for being one of those manly movies in which no significant female characters exist. A woman cook gives Nobody a skillet of beans and bacon, but other than that no female has any lines of dialogue, or are even glimpsed until that final showdown in the street.

The last thing I'd like to talk about for this film is the musical score by Ennio Morricone, a longtime Leone collaborator and one of my personal favorites. It's a bouncy, comic theme with his usual mix of orchestral instruments and non-traditional noisemakers -- including what sounds like drops of water run through a synthesizer. He also borrows strains from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" for the Wild Bunch sequences, with the notes bent and flattened to make it a mocking tribute.

It's silly, touching and exciting simultaneously -- much like the film it serves to enhance.

3 stars out of four

Friday, August 3, 2012

Review: "Total Recall"

I didn't think it was possible, but they've actually done a remake of "Total Recall" that is a less contemplative movie than the 1990 one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is not an insult.

This redo starring Colin Farrell is a slick and expensive-looking chase movie that never really lets up. It doesn't amount to anything more than one big long chase, so if you're looking for freaky-deaky ruminations about the metaphysics of implanted memories, you'd best move along.

But the actions scenes are crisply staged, Kate Beckinsale makes for one of the best female cinematic villains we've seen in a while, and the visual backdrop of the cramped, dystopian future is pretty ambitious -- even if director Len Wiseman did crib at least 75 percent of it from "Blade Runner."

The new "Recall"and the old are both based on Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," with both movies taking extreme liberties with that short story. Dick was a fecund talent who wrote about the intersection of technology and alienation, and his characters fretted constantly about whether their own thoughts were falsified or compromised by scientific "progress."

The first movie version, directed by Paul Verhoeven, was horrifically violent R-rated action/adventure built around the star persona of Schwarzenegger. The Austrian ironman had done a couple of comedies by then poking fun at (or making use of) his mechanical acting abilities and warped pronunciations, and that smirky tilt got folded into the mix. The film generated several of the most memorable "Arnie-isms" -- "See you at the party, Richter!" and "Consider that a divorce" being the most often quoted.

The remake diverges in many ways from the 1990 version -- no doubt you've heard about the most noticeable way, in that the action never takes our hero to the planet of Mars, his lifelong wish. But Wiseman and screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback take pains to offer up several visual and dialogue cues as a nod to the first film.

The infamous three-breasted prostitute is here, and a certain big-boned woman with red hair is conspicuous at a security checkpoint. (I remember how strange and unlikely that idea seemed two decades ago -- being scanned and prodded and questioned, just to travel from point A to B. Now we accept it as a matter of course.)

Farrell also utters another Arnie line verbatim -- "If I'm not me, then who the hell am I?"

The basic setup is the same. Doug Quaid is a shmo blue-collar worker who dreams of traveling to Mars, but lacks the dough. He goes to a dream factory to have some memories of adventures as a secret agent implanted -- but something goes awry when their scans reveal he actually is a secret agent. Doug takes out an entire squad of police, then returns home to find his loving wife Lori (Beckinsale) is a plant tasked with watching over him.

Doug killed Lori in the first movie pretty quickly, but here she's turned into his tireless nemesis. Despite her willowy physique, Beckinsale is convincing as an acrobatic ass-kicker, and the relentless nature of her pursuit gives her an almost supernatural aura.

Instead of mutants on Mars, Doug fights for the rebels in The Colony -- once the nation of Australia but now once again a vassal of the English empire, reborn as the United Federation of Brittania. Most of the world is a toxic wasteland, the Brits need some elbow room, and the Colony has it.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this world is The Fall, the only mode of transport between Europe and Australia. It's a massive elevator that passes right through the core of the Earth, with the gravity reversing itself halfway through. The first time we see this, we know it will be a plot point later on.

Also cool are the synthetic policemen, who sort of resemble Robocop if he'd become a dancer in "The Black Swan" and gone on a starvation diet. There's some subplot about a "kill code" that will instantly shut down all the robots at once, but we're not sure if that's a ruse or a part of Doug's false memories.

Jessica Biel plays Melina, a rebel girl who has a thing for Doug. Her character doesn't make as much of an impact as Beckinsale, but it does give an excuse for several girl-on-girl fight scenes, which the filmmakers happily obliging.

Bryan Cranston plays the head poo-bah of the Federation, and he cackles and snarls and taunts with obvious relish. This is the second movie this summer in which Cranston, who's become something of an acting demigod for his work on that TV show "Breaking Bad," plays a tawdry villain, and both are pretty one-note performances with a heavy pinch of schmaltz. Someone, please find this man better film roles, now!

Bill Nighy appears as the head of the resistance, and I'll save you the trouble of wondering by stating that he does not emerge from some other guy's potbelly.

The violence in this "Total Recall" is rather aesthetically pure in a decidedly PG-13-rated way. Both Farrell and Biel get kicked and punched in the face so much their heads should've swelled up to the size of watermelons, but instead they get a bunch of small facial cuts that bleed profusely and then disappear two scenes later. (Except for one on Doug's right ear that appears to be "sticky.")

Is this "Total Recall" decidedly better or worse than the other one? Not really. And I'll cop to missing Schwarzenegger's dominating, grinning, vowel-strangling presence.

But it's a fun, fast-moving story that will entertain and occasionally amaze you. That already puts it into the "save" pile, ahead of many other movies I'd like to be able to hit a button to forget.

3 stars out of four