Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: "Looper"

"Looper" starts out with an audacious and novel premise, develops it in a logical and satisfying manner, and then sort of spins sideways with it.

For awhile I worried I was witnessing a non-comedy version of "Funny People," another film that started out bold and promising, and then we watched it slowly and painfully slide off a cliff with an extended visit to the main character's ex-girlfriend's house.

Something quite similar happens here, as about an hour into the story Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds himself on a lonely farm where he encounters a sullen young boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon) and his hard-bitten, protective mother, Sara (Emily Blunt). Joe is a looper, an assassin who kills victims who have been sent back in time by mysterious criminal syndicates 30 years into the future.

His misadventures have brought him to this farmhouse, and at first I thought this encounter was merely a diversion in a harrowing journey in which Joe tries to solve a vexing time-travel puzzle. But it turns out this farm is not the story's way station but its destination, and everything else that transpires is centered on Cid and Sara.

I felt like the movie had lost me, as the dynamic involving these three characters comes to dominate the tale, which had been focused on the dynamic between Joe and another important character (more on that in a minute).

But eventually writer/director Rian Johnson brings things all together. The ending is not entirely unexpected, but as we sit and ponder it we realize no other finale would have made sense.

"Looper" is a challenging film, grandly ambitious and demanding of its audience. This means Johnson treats them with intelligence, but also that he knows he will leave some percentage of them scratching their heads when it's over.

Johnson relies on inference and suggestion rather than just showing you the tease and then the payoff. For example, at one point when Cid is throwing a temper tantrum, Sara runs out of the room and into her closet, where she has a massive thick steel safe embedded. She climbs into it and closes the door, and we get the distinct impression this ritual has been performed many times before. What possible reason could she have for this strange behavior? Eventually we learn, but it's not a quick or obvious deduction.

As assassins go, loopers are not the highly-trained and sophisticated killers we usually see in movies. In fact, they ply their trade in a rather sad and boring way. They are told when to show up in a deserted place, with a crude shotgun called a blunderbuss trained on a certain spot covered by a tarp. The victim appears there, already bound and gagged and helpless, and the looper blows them away. Their payment, in neatly-ordered bars of silver, is even conveniently strapped to the soon-to-be-dead guy's back. Basically, they just pull a trigger and dump the body.

Like many of his fellow loopers, Joe is living the high life in a dystopian future that they know for certain is bookended, at least for them. He wears fancy clothes and does designer drugs ("drops" that you put in your eyes) and drives a flashy red sports car -- all things that most people can't do in 2044 Kansas City. Most of the population are vagrants who live on the streets.

Without it ever explicitly being stated, it seems clear something horrendous has happened between now and 2044 -- even more so than between that time and the future from where looper victims are sent.

Technology seems to have gotten churned up, with communications no further advanced than today. Cars are still around, seemingly the very same ones from 2012 that have been retrofitted with solar panels and alternative fuel lines. The criminals carry one of two types of weapons, powerful blunderbusses like Joe or enormous revolvers called "gats." They favor long coats and mid-20th century ties and apparel, and it seems like the mid-21st century is a crude amalgam of the cultural leftovers of the two previous centuries.

Loopers know their career, and their lives, are finite because one day the victim that shows up will be themselves, 30 years older. They get a big payoff -- gold bars instead of silver -- and forced retirement, knowing they have three decades to live and plenty of money to live high while doing it. This is called "closing your loop."

Unfortunately for Joe, his loop (played by Bruce Willis) has obviously spent his time preparing for this day. Old Joe easily overpowers young Joe, which puts them both on the run. Young Joe is desperate to kill his "loop" and get back in the good graces of Abe (Jeff Daniels), the boss man who was sent back from the future to oversee the loopers. Old Joe keeps making overtures to young Joe to try to convince him there are bigger forces at work here, a mission that will eventually lead them all back to that farm.

Gordon-Levitt wears special prosthetics and contact lenses in an attempt to make him more physically resemble Willis. The effect is arresting but not entirely successful. He doesn't so much look like a young Bruce Willis as a young third person unrelated to either of them. For example, they give Gordon-Levitt thick, arching eyebrows that Willis has never possessed.

The relationship between the two Joes should be the fulcrum of the story, and for a time it is. Johnson shows us flash-forward sequences of what happens to Joe in the intervening 30 years, and why Old Joe is doing what he does. He has very good reasons and is torn up inside about what he feels he has to do, but that doesn't keep it from being terrible, dirty deeds.

Other story elements flitter around the edges. There's a new syndicate boss in the future referred to only as The Rainmaker who becomes important without ever being seen. There are also genetic mutations that about 10 percent of the population has allowing them to do very minor telekinesis.

One brilliant story element is that the future is not set, so once the two loopers exist in the same time zone, freaky-deaky things can transpire. For example, anything that happens to the young looper becomes a part of the older looper's persona -- instantly altering their memory and even their body. In a horrifying early sequence, a friend of Joe's (Paul Dano) lets his loop get away. Then we witness some truly terrifying things happen to the older man, which is how we know what is happening to his younger version.

Joe, a sharp cookie, uses this knowledge to his advantage when his own loop is on the run, finding a way to communicate with him that is both inspired and depraved.

I don't mind saying that "Looper" has been one of the films I've most been looking forward to this year. I experienced a small tinge of disappointment because I didn't come out of it with an immediate rush of satisfaction, and the movie didn't have as much emotional punch as I would've hoped. Joe's story is a compelling one, but it feels like we're observing it rather than being engaged in it.

But I think this is the sort of film that bears repeated viewings to fully understand and embrace its complexities. I'm reminded of Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," a movie that demands our respect more than our adoration. I give "Looper" for its boldness -- this is way, way more than a standard sci-fi/action flick.

3 stars out of four

Review: "Won't Back Down"

"Won't Back Down" is predictable but powerful, an inspirational drama based on a true story that, if it actually happened the way it's depicted in the movie, means that life is now unfolding in conventional three-act story arcs just like they teach in screenwriting programs.

This movie about two mothers, one of them a teacher, attempting to take over a failing school comes from the same studio that last year released the documentary "Waiting for Superman." The film, directed by Daniel Barnz from a script he co-wrote with Brin Hill, serves as a narrative feature counterpart to the same dilemma, about parents in rotten school districts looking for a way out for their kids. It's based on events that happened in California but is set in the inner-city school system of Pittsburgh.

Half of the heroine duo, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a walking hot mess of a person, a working-class woman who toils at two jobs but can't afford to send her dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) to private school. Jamie is one of those single moms barely holding it together, but she has spunk, determination and the ability to charm others.

It's a flashy part, and Gyllenhall milks it for every ounce.

More challenging is the subtler role of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a teacher who was once impassioned but is now barely keeping her class above water. Such is the abject morale at Adams Elementary that the teachers are ordered to falsify the attendance records to hide how many students skip class, for fear of losing their funding. It's no surprise that Adams has been labeled a "failing" school for 19 years in a row.

Davis has to show us a woman who's become part and parcel of a broken system, but finally has the guts to stand up and fight back. Of course, she's inspired by the poor educational progress of her own son. Davis displays layers of steely strength, fear and conviction a lesser performer might not.

The movie is careful not to portray teachers as the bad guys, though teacher unions fare less well. Holly Hunter plays a sympathetic local union president who's appalled by the bare-knuckle tactics employed by those around her -- one of whom openly states that they should start fighting for school children over teachers when the kids begin paying union dues.

"When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?" he laments, unironically.

It's an interesting point in our history, after unions in the early 20th century fought bravely to secure basic protections and rights that we take for granted today. Still, like many public institutions some groups got self-indulgent and greedy and turned into the entrenched system standing in the way of progress.

In "Won't Back Down," this translates as Malia's absolutely horrific teacher, who texts on her phone while the kids are bullying Malia, blithely protected by tenure.

Although it strives for some semblance of fairness, this sum total of this film's thrust is firmly on the side of those pushing for change. But I give it points for at least trying to see things from the level of the classroom, where overtaxed teachers strive to do some good and not constantly worry about losing their jobs.

Since this story is driven by strong female characters, Oscar Isaac has the thankless duty of playing the role of the love interest who gets swept up in his partner's cause. He's a young guy straight out of Teach for America who strums a ukulele in class and is beloved by absolutely everyone. He exists more as an ideal than a real character.

"Won't Back Down" is worth it for the powerhouse performances of Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the rah-rah story with an undeniable emotional hook. I have to deduct a grade, though, for its embrace of reformist impulses through rigidly conformist storytelling methods.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: "Hotel Transylvania"

Monsters as heroes is a pretty popular theme in pop culture. Vampires are more likely to be dreamy lovers than smelly undead bloodsuckers these days. And long before "Twilight" and its ilk, Tim Burton made the ghoulish seem normal with "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

Heck, "Sesame Street" took the word "monsters" and stood it on its head more than 40 years ago but using it to refer to cute fuzzy Muppets.

Maybe that's why "Hotel Transylvania" doesn't feel terribly original. The entire premise is based on the idea that werewolves, mummies, vampires, alien blobs and zombies are outcasts hiding out from the fearsome clutches of humans who want to destroy them. The eponymous inn is the place where they get to come once a year to hang out and party in safety.

Of course, if things are so bad out there, it begs the question of why they don't all just live in the hotel year round. But applying logic to a movie like this is like Dracula deciding he needs a tan.

Speaking of Dracula, he's voiced by Adam Sandler doing a sort of Borscht Belt version of the familiar Bela Lugosi accent. Here he's a single dad trying to run a business where the help consists of mindless zombie bellboys and haunted suits of armor. Meanwhile, he's raising a rebellious teen daughter -- as in 118 years old -- named Mavis (Selena Gomez).

She wants to go out into the world to see what there is to see, but Drac takes steps to convince her to stick around. After all, the big annual event on the monster calendar is her birthday, and he's invited all his friends and regular guests to celebrate.

The animators did a great job with the various creatures, giving them a cool cartoony look with exaggerated features. The target audience here is kids who count their age in single digits, so nothing's terribly scary. (The PG rating is mostly for a few moments involving gastrointestinal humor.)

If anything, director Genndy Tartakovsky, a TV veteran making his feature film debut, doesn't linger long enough on the monsters so we can appreciate all the little details. This movie often feels like it's being spurred on by hurry-up pacing.

I did like the way Frankenstein (Kevin James) is held together with flimsy stitches that are apt to give way, leaving him a collection of parts. Or the werewolf is named Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and resembles a hectored businessman with a pushy wife and rambunctious passel of pups.

Other notable cast members are a mummy (CeeLo Green) and Invisible Man (David Spade), who's rendered as a disembodied pair of glasses.

The fly in the ointment is Jonathan, an adventure-seeking young human (Andy Samberg) who stumbles upon the hotel while backpacking across Europe. Dracula makes him up to resemble a distant cousin of Frankenstein and introduces him as the party planner for Mavis, who soon is casting goo-goo eyes at him.

The whole thing devolves into a slamming-doors farce, with people chasing each other, stumbling into awkward situations, doing double-takes and spinning webs of lies that are soon found out.

Jonathan is about as endearing as Samberg's live-action losers, hyperfast-talking slackers who register somewhere between mentally challenged and just plain dim. I kept thinking what the movie would've been like without him. Better, certainly.

With its emphasis on boingy action and goofy comedy, "Hotel Transylvania" is meant to do little more than distract wee tykes for a little while, and for that demographic it might do the job. The adults accompanying them will just wonder how soon they can check out.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Video review: "The Avengers"

Even if you're not a fan of superhero movies, you've got to appreciate "The Avengers" for its near-perfect execution of everything great about the genre.

Start with the obvious: instead of one person wielding super-awesome powers and abilities, this flick's got six: Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow, Captain American and Hawkeye. Four of them have already been featured in their own solo movies, so "The Avengers" represents one big honkin' pot of hero gumbo where they get thrown into the mix together.

Their investigable clashes result in a movie that's a helluva lot funnier than you'd expect.

Then add in a terrific villain, Thor's half-brother Loki, who has recruited a mysterious race of alien creatures to attack Earth at his behest. Loki snivels and pouts, boasts and taunts, and is wonderfully delicious to hate.

Finally, give credit to director Joss Whedon for delivering a film that's packed with action, but doesn't seem overwhelmed by computer-generated effects. The fight scenes are crisply and clearly staged, so even though the characters are doing extraordinary things they remain entirely comprehensible.

Just as movies based on comic books seem to have hit middle age, with many franchises falling back on reboots and tired storylines, "The Avengers" are hitting their stride.

The movie is available on home video in four iterations: a single-disc DVD, two-disc DVD combo pack, two-disc Blu-ray or four-disc "Super Set" with both formats.

Video features are good, though you have to pay for the higher-end sets to get the really good stuff. The DVD comes with a feature-length commentary track by Whedon, plus a making-of feature about assembling the team of heroes and the actors who played them.

The centerpiece of the Blu-ray edition is "A Second Screen Experience," an interactive database of images and video that take you deep in the Marvel Comics universe. Unfortunately, it's only accessible with a Blu-ray-equipped laptop computer, iPhone or iPad.
Other goodies bridge the gap. There's "Marvel One-Shoot: Item 47," an original short film, a featurette on the visual effects in the film, gag reel, deleted scenes and "Live To Rise" music video.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras:3 stars

Monday, September 24, 2012

Reeling Backward: "King of the Hill" (1993)

"King of the Hill" is exactly the sort of picture a rising young filmmaker tackles for their third feature. In 1993 Steven Soderbergh had enjoyed his breakout with "Sex, Lies and Videotape," followed by the more esoteric "Kafka." For his third go-round, he went for a classic coming-of-age story about boy abandoned during the Great Depression.

These sorts of tales are so common they have gotten their own literary designation: "Bildungsroman," named for fairy tales in which a young person goes out into the world, encounters hardship and seeks to define themselves through their experiences. Though in young Aaron Kurlander's story, much of his journey occurs within the confines of the crumbling San Francisco hotel where he lives.

At first, it was the whole family crammed into that single room -- German immigrant father (Jeroen Krabbe), kind mother wracked by consumption (a luminescent Lisa Eichhorn) and scrappy, trouble-making younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd). They were poor, along with everyone else in the Empire Hotel, where the mercenary bellboy Ben (Joe Chrest) acts as thuggish enforcer, locking people out of their rooms if they get too far behind on their bill.

But at least they were together. Father is fitfully employed as a salesman, but is a dreamer/schemer who always has a plan up his sleeve about finding a better gig. They decide to send Sullivan off to live with an  uncle to save a dollar a week in costs. Then mother's tuberculosis flairs up and she's packed off to the sanitarium.

Dad actually manages to land the job he boasted about selling watches for the Hamilton Watch Company, but it forces him to leave Aaron (who's about 12) alone for the summer in the apartment. He gives the hotel manager $17 (against a debt 10 times that) to hold him off, and arranges for one meal a day at a local diner. But Ben the bellboy has been tasked with strong-arming all the riff-raff out in favor of dance hall girls, and the diner worker was pulling a scam. So Aaron is left with an armful of dinner rolls and his instincts to make it through.

 Soderbergh's wonderful screenplay, which is based on a memoir by writer A.E. Hotchner, is filled with all sorts of authentic little details about life back in 1933. The people speak in the lingo of the times. Visually, the film is a sumptuous representation of the era, from the Model T Fords to the leather straps the children use to carry their books to school. Even the fat, corrupt policeman, who lives to pinch little kids' ears, wears a natty Clark Gable mustache.

Aaron is a bright boy, and even receives the top award at his school for the student who best represents the ideals of academia and good character. He has the former in spades, but has a penchant for lying. Asked to write an essay about his personal hero, he fabricates a tale of a personal friendship with aviator Charles Lindbergh. His supportive teacher (Karen Allen) sees it as fanciful initiative, but is more disturbed to learn Aaron has been lying about where he lives so he can attend the "rich kids" school district. She doesn't squeal on him, though.

Adrien Brody has a nice role as Lester, an older kid down the hall whom Aaron idolizes. His street smarts trump Aaron's book smarts, and he's constantly helping the kid out of scrapes or into ones -- like picking the lock on the hotel storeroom, where Ben has stashed all the belongings of former residents who got the boot. He eventually gets arrested for selling stolen hooch to the homeless people (they were called bums back then) living in the Hooverville catty-corner from the hotel.

One quiet, small moment with a lot of power is when Aaron barges into Lester's apartment looking for him. Lester never let anyone in, protesting that his sick mother needs her rest. Turns out Lester invented her, to conceal the sad, squalid little life he actually lived.

A young Katherine Heigl has a small role as a wealthy girl who spies Aaron stealing food off another kid's plate at school, and invites him to dinner with her family. Aaron is embarrassed when, at a big birthday party right before that dinner, his trail of lies catch up with him. He runs off, even leaving behind his school award medal, and holes up in his room, hiding from Ben and his box full of locks.

Interestingly, the film depicts most people in Aaron's community has being sympathetic and helpful. Even the hotel manager who wants to give him the boot does so at the behest of the bank that owns it. Ben and the abusive cop are the only true villainous figures in the movie. Instead, Aaron self-ostracizes himself through his shame at his lowly circumstances, and his many distortions of the truth.

I think the movie really shines in its portrayal of a tentative, furtive romance between Aaron and Ella, a slightly older girl who lives on the same floor, who never seems to leave their apartment. She's supposed to be unattractive and awkward, though in the finest cinematic tradition the girl (played by Amber Benson) is actually gloriously cute, simply hidden behind glasses and an unbecoming hairstyle.

Aaron is at first put off by Ella's attentions, stopping him in the  hallway to talk and inviting him over for a hot dog. He is at that age where boys begin to notice the female allure, but they're still held back by their little-kid notions of girls as The Enemy. He is horrified when she has an epileptic seizure while they're dancing, and beats a hasty retreat. But Aaron, to his credit, returns again to see her.

A few other elements don't quite get baked in to the pie. There's an on-again, off-again exchange with Mr. Mungo, the patrician gent who loves across the hallway. Played by writer Spalding Gray, Mungo is a formerly rich man brought low by the Crash, now content to eke out his last few dollars and his last few days as a wastrel prince lording it over the poor man's hostel. He dresses elegantly and keeps a prostitute (Elizabeth McGovern) around as a bored retainer -- her job, aside from some assumed sex we never see, is apparently to annoy and belittle him.

Ultimately, the physical journey in "King of the Hill" is rather small. Mr. Kurlander dreams of getting a better job so he can move his family out of the Empire Hotel and across the city to the Carlton Court Apartments, and in the end he does. It's a nice though hardly lavish abode in a better neighborhood. The Carlton is weightier in its significance than its trappings, though, as Aaron has grown and learned immeasurably in his time alone.

"King of the Hill," in tone and theme, reminds me very much of "Empire of the Sun," an  unheralded film from 1987 that remains my favorite directed by Steven Spielberg. The story is smaller in scope, as there is no world war in the backdrop, but the import approaches.

3.5 stars out of four

Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: "House at the End of the Street"

Just a quick review. Joe Shearer is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so head over there to check it out.

I am not a fan of the PG-13 horror film. Yes, a couple have been decent -- notably "The Others" and "The Ring." But by and large, the experience is like going to a steakhouse and ordering a salad. If you enjoy the things that make scary movies scary, then dialing back on them so the studio can hook in the under-17 crowd automatically turns it into some kind of Horror Lite.

"House at the End of the Street" is not awful, but it's not outstanding, either. The only thing that makes it stand out from the other dreck being flushed into theaters during these dark days of September is that it stars Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar nominee from a couple years back.

She's solid enough in it, but is restricted by the parameters of the story that require her character to do amazingly stupid things. It's the time-honored tradition of horror flicks to entice the audience to yell, "Don't go in there!" and similar warnings. It often seems like the people populating scary movies are collectively about 50 I.Q. points lower than those watching them.

The story has familiar themes: a teen girl and her single mom move from Chicago into an idyllic rustic town where everything's Not Quite As Perfect As It Seems. The cute neighborhood boy that all the grown-ups love turns out to be a jerk with date rape inclinations, and mom (Elisabeth Shue) is a doctor who's working all the time and sloshing down wine when she isn't.

The big mystery in town is the house next door, where a girl horrifically butchered her parents four years ago. The body was never found, so...

Property values have plummeted as a result, which is why poor Elissa and her mother can afford to rent such a huge, fabulous house in the woods -- because we all know how criminally underpaid physicians are. It's a wonder they could afford gas for the trip!

Turns out the son of the murdered family is still living there quietly, ostracized from the community. Ryan (Max Thieriot) turns out to be dreamy in an awkward, shy sort of way, so it's not too long before Elissa and he are hooking up.

I'm not going to bother hiding the fact that Ryan's sister, Carrie Anne, turns out to be still alive and living in a secret room under the house. The movie reveals this about 20 minutes in. The true mystery is in revealing the relationship between her and Ryan, why she murdered their parents, why he's determined to protect and hide her, and why he keeps leaving her door unlocked or the key in an easily accessible place so she can keep escaping and causing havoc.

Director Mark Tonderai and screenwriter David Loucka occasionally get a few flashes of inspiration. But mostly they feel like they're going through the paces, relying on a whole heap of boo-gotcha moments to generate momentary scares rather than carefully crafting a pervading sense of dread.

"House at the End of the Street" is the sort of movie a young actress stars in when she's just starting out, hoping to land meatier roles and develop some real acting chops. Lawrence, an Academy Award nominee at 20, has already been down that path. This role feels like a step backward for her artistically and career-wise.

I guess we shouldn't blame her too much. Unfortunately, there just aren't a lot of great parts out there for ingenues. Next week, another Oscar nominee, Anna Kendrick, is starring in a "Glee" knockoff called "Pitch Perfect." Ah, the cinematic ides of September...

2 stars out of four

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: "Trouble with the Curve"

"Trouble with the Curve" exceeds the sum of its parts. An imperfect movie, it has modest flaws and inconsistencies that one can point to. But in the theater with the light flickering, it all just works.

It's like a baseball pitcher who displays shaky form in his windup and delivery, but he hurls strike after strike. The fact that you recognize where it goes wrong only makes how everything ends up in the right place even more amazing.

You sit there, marveling.

This excellent drama stars Clint Eastwood in his most vulnerable performance ever, and is easily one of the finest movies of 2012. It acts as a perfect counterpoint to last year's wonderful "Moneyball."

Both films are set in the world of baseball, but are not really sports movies. Instead, they explore the mix of obsession and fear inside the players, the coaches and the scouts.

In "Moneyball," the heroes were the young nerds with their computers and cutting-edge statistical analysis, which allowed them to circumvent the hard-bitten experience of the old-timers. Here, the crotchety veteran scouts are the good guys, and the whippersnappers who stare at screens but never watch a game play the heavies.

Gus Lobel (Eastwood) is an aging scout for the Atlanta Braves, his specialty being snapping up young talent from the Carolinas. But it's been awhile since he recruited any big names, and his eyesight is starting to go. Gus has been a widower a long time, and an ornery cuss even longer, so it's no surprise that he keeps his macular degeneration a secret.
Perhaps his only friend in the world is the head of scouting, Pete Klein (John Goodman, in a solid, comfortable performance). He senses something is wrong, and convinces Gus' daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to go be with her dad on his big trip. Gus has been given a make-or-break assignment, to judge whether a beefy young swatter named Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill) is the real deal and should be taken with the Braves' first-round pick.

Mickey and her dad are hardly close, and if he's a piece of work, she's studying to outdo him. A lawyer who hasn't taken a Saturday off in seven years, she has a boyfriend dropping hints about marriage, but treats his overtures like a scheduling conflict.

Mickey has a big case looming that will determine whether she makes partner at her firm. Spending a week trying to reconnect with her standoffish father, and serve as his eyes at games, is not high on her list. The dutiful child, she goes anyway.

It's in plumbing this tenuous relationship between father and daughter that the movie saves its best pitches. Adams and Eastwood have an easy, organic connection -- which is a hard thing when playing characters divided by a lifelong inability to see eye-to-eye.

Playing the third wheel is Justin Timberlake as Johnny Flanagan, a former pitching ace signed by Gus who blew out his arm and is now working his way up the food chain with the Red Sox, doing some scouting while hoping to break in as an announcer.

Johnny and Mickey share a timid, funny little courtship -- two lost souls feeling each other out, natural enemies who can't help bantering. For awhile the movie shifts almost entirely away from Gus and onto them, and we don't mind because it feels so natural.

Timberlake has a tendency to be glib and superficial in his performances, oft skating by as the fast-talking charmer, but here he gets a chance to show a few deeper notes and doesn't falter. As an actor, he's getting there.

The real revelation, though, is Eastwood. At age 82, he does things he simply couldn't have done 25 years ago, balancing moments of humor or tragedy on a risky edge. At one point he sings sweetly to his wife's gravestone, and in another he rejects his daughter's heartfelt outreach.

Given the sorts of movies he used to make and the way he played them, the old Eastwood would have just landed on these moments, hit them solidly and moved on. Here, he caresses and elevates them, like a jazz musician holding a long note, bending it and adding colors unwritten on any sheet of music.

The last time Eastwood acted in a movie he didn't direct himself was 1993's "In the Line of Fire," for veteran Wolfgang Peterson. Here he's doing it for a rookie screenwriter, Randy Brown, and first-time director Robert Lorenz, who's been a producer/assistant director on a number of Eastwood projects.

It says something when someone of Eastwood's stature entrusts himself to a creative team who are novices. From the bracing success of "Trouble with the Curve," it would seem he shares Gus' knack for spotting new talent.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fall film preview

Even by the forgiving standards of the bubblegum summer movie season, this May through August was an extravagantly inconsequential time for film lovers.

Most of the big box office wannabes garnered a massive ho-hum from American audiences, and had to troll overseas for most of their moolah. Luckily, Hollywood appears to have lined up a very strong showing for this fall and winter.

It's the season when the movie biz slips out of its T-shirt and into a tux, gets a shave and haircut and puts on its respectable face. There's a glint in their collective eye that says, "It's Oscar time."
Even with "The Great Gatsby," which had portended to be a top contender in the Academy Award race, pushing its release back to summer 2013, there appears to be no shortage of high-minded movies: "Anna Karenina," "Argo," "Lincoln" and "Les Miserables" among them.

There's still plenty of lighter, fun fare to be had. A number of kid-themed animated movies are on the way: "Hotel Transylvania," "Frankenweenie," "Wreck-It Ralph." The long-delayed 23rd James Bond movie falls to Earth. And the prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" finally arrives after years of uncertainty ... well, at least the first one-third of it: "The Hobbit," planned as a duo of films, has now become three.

So here is our cinematic outlook for the next few months. Films with early Oscar buzz are marked with a golden "O." (Release dates are subject to change.)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Sept. 21) -- Emma Watson attempts her first major non-Harry Potter role as half of a fun-loving teen duo that attempts to bring a shy high school freshman out of his shell.

Trouble with the Curve (Sept. 21) -- For the first time in 23 years, Clint Eastwood stars in a movie he didn't direct. He plays an aging baseball scout with failing eyesight who gets an assist from his ambitious daughter, played by Amy Adams.

The Master (Sept. 21) -- Paul Thomas Anderson, in his first movie since 2007's "There Will Be Blood," directs this drama about a 1950s cult figure (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that is purported to be a thinly-veiled portrait of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Also marks the return of Joaquin Phoenix after his stunt retirement.

Dredd 3D (Sept. 21) -- Yup, they're rebooting the comic book franchise that Sylvester Stallone nearly destroyed. In an irradiated wasteland in the future, Karl Urban plays a man with the combined powers of judge, jury and executioner.

Won't Back Down (Sept. 28) -- Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal play crusading mothers fighting an entrenched bureaucracy to turn around a failed inner city school. Probably not going to be on the NEA's recommended list.

Looper (Sept. 28) -- One of the more original concepts this fall. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an assassin with a special niche: he kills victims sent back in time. The gig goes sour when the new guy he's supposed to plug is himself, 30 years older and played by Bruce Willis.

Hotel Transylvania (Sept. 28) -- This fun and creepy animated flick resembles early Tim Burton. The vampire proprietor of a hotel catering to creatures of the night is perturbed when a human interloper shows up and starts wooing his daughter.

Taken 2 (Oct. 5) -- Liam Neeson is back in this action/thriller as a man with "a very particular set of skills." Having rescued his daughter from kidnappers, he finds they're out for revenge.

Pitch Perfect (Oct. 5) -- Finally, someone realized the musical stage-singing phenomenon -- "Glee," "American Idol" -- was ripe for parody. Anna Kendrick leads a group of female singers into the fray of competition.

Frankenweenie (Oct. 5) -- Director Tim Burton, coming off a long slog remaking moldy intellectual properties, is back with ... a remake. At least of it's of his own stuff: Burton's own 1984 live-action short film. Now the tale of a pooch brought back from the dead is a stop-motion animation feature.

Argo (Oct. 12) -- Ben Affleck continues his evolution into a serious filmmaker by directing and starring in this dramatic thriller based on a little-known event: the CIA rescue of Americans who escaped the storming of the U.S. embassy during the 1979 Iran uprising.

Alex Cross (Oc. 19) -- Tyler Perry, practically a one-man moviemaking empire, steps out from behind the camera for a lead role where he's not wearing a dress. He plays a homicide detective/psychologist on the trail of a killer. Based on the James Patterson novels.

Cloud Atlas (Oct. 26) -- Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, each stuck in something of a career rut, try something bold in this sprawling, elliptical drama about human lives intersecting over the course of centuries. From the Wachowski duo behind the "Matrix" trilogy.

The Sessions (Oct. 26) -- This Sundance favorite is based on the true story of a writer (indie fave John Hawkes) paralyzed by polio who enlists the help of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. Kinky and life-affirming.

Chasing Mavericks (Oct. 26) -- Gerard Butler plays a surfing legend who takes a young gun under his wing to tackle the most dangerous waves in the world. Together they form a bond and learn important truths, like that those wetsuits really ride up on ya.

Wreck-It Ralph (Nov. 2) -- Disney's latest animation wonder has a zippy premise: Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) is a video game villain who rebels against his programming because he wants to be the good guy for once.

Flight (Nov. 2) -- Robert Zemeckis, after a fitful decade-long experiment with motion-capture animation, returns to live-action filmmaking with this promising drama starring Denzel Washington as an airline pilot who's hailed as a hero, then vilified.

Skyfall (Nov. 9) -- Following legal and financial troubles that threatened the James Bond franchise, Daniel Craig is back for his third outing as Agent 007. Bond, presumed dead, goes rogue to combat a madman (Javier Bardem) who wants to take out M (Judi Dench) and all of MI6.

Lincoln (Nov. 9) -- The season's powerhouse biopic arrives courtesy director Steven Spielberg and star Daniel Day-Lewis, focusing on the last few months of the 16th president's life. This one looks like a can't-miss.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2 (Nov. 16) -- The teen vampire mega-franchise wraps up its tale as young Bella, now transformed into a bloodsucker, and her love Edward fight against the vampire nobility. Some of us still think that Kristen Stewart/Robert Pattinson breakup is a publicity stunt.

Life of Pi (Nov. 21) -- Filmmaker Ang Lee is back with this epic adventure about an Indian boy who is shipwrecked and stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Think "The Black Stallion" meets "Slumdog Millionaire."

Silver Linings Playbook (Nov. 21) -- Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Jennifer Lawrence star in this oddball dramedy about a man who went crazy, and after four years in a mental institution tries to reconnect with his family and a lonely widow. From director David O. Russell.

Red Dawn (Nov. 21) -- This oft-delayed reboot of the 1980s action/drama sees American taken over by ... North Korea. What, Burundi seemed too unlikely to play the heavy?

Rise of the Guardians (Nov. 21) -- The embodiments of childhood whimsy -- Santa Claus, Easter Rabbit, Sandman and the Tooth Fairy -- team up to combat a pitch-black bad guy who wants to take over the world in this DreamWorks animation effort.

Anna Karenina (Nov. 21) -- Keira Knightley stars in a lavish adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel, directed by Joe Wright. A high society Russian wife finds herself embroiled in family and romantic entanglements. Co-starring Jude Law and Aaron Johnson.

Hyde Park on the Hudson (Dec. 7) -- The notion of comedian Bill Murray portraying Franklin D. Roosevelt isn't so screwy when you consider his turn toward dramatic material of late. Plus, the material is funnier than you'd think. Set in 1939, FDR prepares to host the King and Queen of England.

Les Misérables (Dec. 14) -- Victor Hugo's classic novel about crime and punishment has been adapted to film many times, but this is the first attempt to translate the stage musical version to the screen. Starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dec. 14) -- Set several decades B.F. (Before Frodo), this prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" relates the tale of how humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins set off on an adventure with 13 dwarves, slew a dragon and acquired the Ring of Power. Now expanded to three films -- from a 300-page book -- director Peter Jackson is apparently incorporating a whole lot of background from J.R.R. Tolkien's universe to pad things out.

Zero Dark Thirty (Dec. 19) -- This much talked-about war drama from director Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") gives an insider's view of the 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

This Is 40 (Dec. 21) -- Increasingly unfunny comedy auteur Judd Apatow tackles middle-aged angst, starring Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as a married couple looking to put the zip back in their lives.

On the Road (Dec. 21) -- No one's quite sure why it took 55 years to bring Jack Kerouac's seminal Beat novel to the screen, but here it is starring Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund as drifters searching for an identity. Kristen Stewart's sexy scenes caused a stir at Cannes.

Jack Reacher (Dec. 21) -- Tom Cruise brings the titular star of a series of bare-fisted novels to life, playing an ex-military cop who roams the land, looking for criminals to punish. With Robert Duvall.

Parental Guidance (Dec. 25) -- Billy Crystal and Bette Midler team up as an aging couple unexpectedly tapped to look after their three grandkids. Good to see both of them back in the comedy saddle.

Django Unchained (Dec. 25) -- Quentin Tarantino's latest mash-up of grindhouse sensibilities takes him back to the 1800s, starring Jamie Foxx as a runaway slave who returns to the plantation to reclaim his wife, action-hero style. Co-starring Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Video review: "Hysteria"

"Hysteria" had me until about two-thirds of the way through. This witty, funny movie is a highly fictionalized but not entirely ludicrous account of the invention of the vibrator, circa 1880 London. Yes, that's right, the world's most popular sex toy was created by starchy doctors seeking a way to address upper-crust housewives reporting vague physical and emotional problems.

Up until the 1950s, "hysteria" was the catch-all diagnosis that medical men gave to an umbrella of symptoms displayed by women that they didn't understand: frigidity, depression, etc. Going back to antiquity, the prescribed remedy was vulval massage performed by a medical professional. In other words, women would go into a doctor's office to be manually stimulated by the hand of a doctor until they achieved ... remedy.

Director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the material, concocting a story of an ambitious young doctor, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who took out the first patent on a vibrator.

Apprenticed to a wealthy physician who treats the vexations of London's finest females (Jonathan Pryce), Granville woos his mentor's proper daughter (Felicity Jones) but is intrigued by her sister, the brash, idealistic proto-suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

At first, the dashing young doctor is a boon to the practice. But he soon finds himself plagued by hand cramps, and has to come up with a mechanical alternative with the help of his friend and rich patron, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett).

It's all played for jokes and winks, to generally successful effect. I should point out that despite the film's R rating, all the "treatment" takes place under modest drapes appropriate to the Victorian era, and beyond the risqué subject matter the movie is unlikely to shock even the most matronly of grandmothers.

The last half-hour or so gets a bit forced, as the filmmakers find ways to nudge Charlotte and Granville together in ways that aren't entirely convincing. Charlotte's over-the-top progressive attitudes also become grating, seemingly stitched on to the story to benefit the sensibilities of the modern audience, rather than any temporal believability of the characters.

Video extras, which are the same for both Blu-ray and DVD editions, are substantial but not terribly expansive.

Director Wexler teams up with Dancy and Pryce for a feature-length commentary track. I like it when actors participate in commentary tracks, but it's a shame Gyllenhaal chose not to contribute. Similarly, the featurette "An Evening with Tanya Wexler, Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce" exasperatingly excludes the female lead.

There are also a handful of deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, and "Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm," a 43-minute documentary on the history of power-assisted sexuality.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reeling Backward: "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961)

I didn't think I'd like "One-Eyed Jacks." It was directed by Marlon Brando at the precipice of his acting career, right before he slid off into a decade-long fallow period revived only by "The Godfather" in 1972. He had never directed before, and never stepped behind the camera again. Usually, that sort of thing happens for a good reason.

All in all, it has the ingredients of an overstuffed vanity project, a la Kevin Costner's "The Postman."

Early on, the film's languid pace (2 hours and 20 minutes) and Brando's mush-mouthed delivery of lines seemed to confirm my suspicions. But soon the film won me over with its curious mix of Western mythology, revenge story and romance.

It's perhaps the actor's most distilled expression of his persona as a performer, a moody wash of resentment and pride. His gunslinger Rio is the apotheosis of Brando's young rebel roles, now grown a little older and more cautious. He's not always quite sure what he wants or what the right thing to do is, but whatever path he chooses Rio commits to with all-consuming passion.

In his late 30s, Brando was no longer the smoldering screen presence of the 1950s. His torso had started to thicken, his jawline soften, and if his hairline wasn't yet fleeing back across his head, it was at least looking for the exits.

Set in the dusty foothills of Baja California and then moving to the idyllic seaside town of Monterey, "One-Eyed Jacks" is about a friendship gone bad.

Rio and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are longtime roustabouts robbing banks and having a good time. Dad is considerably older, a veteran bandit who picked up Rio when he was a kid and taught him the ropes. Even though he's far surpassed him as a gunman, Rio still looks up to Dad, who's starting to lose a step.

In Brando's close-mouthed, Southern-fried vernacular, "Dad" comes out sounding like "Ndahd." The same can be said for the rest of Rio's speech, which Brando delivers like he's chewing over every syllable and reluctant to spit it out.

A heist goes bad, the lawmen have them pinned on a mountain peak with only one spent horse and a rifle between them, and Rio suggests one of them hightail it down to a little ranch they know about nearby, pick up a pair of fresh horses and save the day. They opt to leave it to chance to see who rides off with the gold while the other waits.

Rio suggests Dad pick which of his hands is holding the bullet, but rigs it by pulling a cartridge from his gun belt so Dad will be the one to ride. Why? Perhaps he figures the older, slower Dad deserves a break. Maybe Rio figures that Dad, lacking a hat or shoes from their hasty getaway, won't last in the broiling heat. Or maybe he just loves Dad and trusts him.

In any case, Dad gets a fresh horse and then flees with the gold, leaving Rio to be captured by the Federales. Before he's taken in, the posse stops by the ranch where Rio learns of Dad's betrayal.

Flash five years later. After busting out of the Sonora prison with a Mexican pal (Larry Duran), Rio begins searching for Dad to exact his revenge. Along the way he throws in with Bob Armory (Ben Johnson), a quietly malevolent sort who wants to knock over the fat bank in Monterey.

Turns out that's where Dad has gone to ground, reforming his ways and even being elected sheriff. He's also married a widow named Maria (Katy Jurado) with a teen daughter, Louisa.

She's played by Mexican actress Pina Pellicer, who had a short but memorable career kicked off by her performance in "One-Eyed Jacks." With her thin, sallow face and languid eyes, Pellicer had a dark, unconventional beauty for her era. She also managed to instill more depth and emotion in the dialogue than screenwriters Calder Willingham and Guy Trosper did. Sadly, she committed suicide three years later.

The genesis of the screenplay is a little fuzzy, with Willingham, Trosper, Stanley Kubrick and Brando himself all contributing drafts at various points. It's a very, very loose adaptation of the novel "The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones" by Charles Neider.

It's at this point that the plot goes kind of sideways, but things get really interesting. Rio, Bob and their crew ride into town, but Rio peels off for a visit at Dad's place. Dad lies to him about the circumstances of his betrayal, and introduces him to his family, with an immediate spark between Rio and Louisa.

Now, this sounds like an exceptionally lousy way to go about robbing a bank. But Rio is less concerned about getting rich than getting even -- or, at the very least, getting satisfaction for being treated so shabbily by his best friend.

After a huge carnival party, which Rio uses as a cover to seduce Louisa and deflower her as a way to get back at Dad, the gunman realizes he doesn't really know what the wants. At various points Rio means to kill Dad, or run off with Louisa, but things don't quite work out.

After Rio kills a drunk in a fair fight, Dad uses the incident as an excuse to take revenge for Louisa. He beats Rio to a pulp, flays his back to shreds with a whip, and pulverizes his gun  hand with the butt of a rifle. Rio spends a couple months at a nearby fishing village healing up, with Bob and his partner growing increasingly frustrated. They signed on for a rich bank scheme, not a Shakespearean revenge drama.

Bob finally robs the bank without Rio, shooting a girl bystander and getting killed himself in the process, but Dad uses it as an excuse to hang Rio and rid himself of his troubles. Malden's steely, internal performance suggests that Dad doesn't really hate Rio, but he despises that his presence reminds Dad of his own failings.

Rio, for his own part, is incensed that Dad has managed to turn his life around as easily as flipping over a poker card. "You're a one-eyed jack around here, Dad. I seen the other side of your face," he accuses.

Also notable is Slim Pickens as Dad's jackal of a deputy, Lon, who has designs on Louisa. Pickens usually played bumbling, cartoonish characters, but he's chilling here.

Like other novice directors, Brando made the wise choice to hire a veteran cinematographer, Charles Lang, to handle the visual look of the picture. The result, nominated for an Oscar, has a scuffed-up kind of a beauty, vivid colors mixed with off-putting close-ups.

The most interesting thing to me about "One-Eyed Jacks" is that it relies more on the power of inference than overt depictions to demonstrate the internal workings of its characters, especially Rio and Dad. Rio is such a deviation from the classic Western protagonist, in that he's a man of action who often isn't sure how to act.

Six-shooter characters, even when they aren't supposed to be heroic, are often defined by their single-minded pursuit of a goal -- think John Wayne in "The Searchers." Rio is more akin to Brando's urban characters of the '50s, torn apart by misdirected passion and existential angst.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: "For a Good Time, Call..."

There's a difference between comedy and zany behavior. "For a Good Time, Call..." aims for the former but mostly contains the latter.

This Sundance Film Festival favorite is about two down-on-their luck Manhattan roommates who start a phone sex business to make ends meet. Now, phone sex is like prostitution lite -- a sex act is involved, one-sided in terms of pleasure received, money is exchanged, though the parties never meet in person.

Big in the '80s, it seems anachronistic in this day in which countless terabytes of free porn are available on the Web. I would think visually-inclined men would go that way instead of opting for an audio-only format. Not to mention, at $4.99 a minute, the Great Recession must have shrunk the customers base considerably.

But it's also why Katie and Lauren are able to clean up so well. Katie (Ari Graynor) is blonde, outspokenly slutty and under-motivated. Lauren (Lauren Miller) comes from privilege, is prim and a bit awkward. Katie works the phone sex thing as a side gig, making $1 a minute.

Lauren is predictably appalled when she finds out, but has the business sense to point out Katie could make a lot more if she stopped being a contractor and went into business for herself. They name their company "1-900-MMM-HMMM," which seems a recipe for misdialing the competition.

Over time, the two opposites learn to work together and even become close, the uptight one loosening up and the crazy cohort gaining some semblance of responsibility. I should point out that this is essentially the same plot as "Night Shift" with Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler, minus the morgue component.

In the finest Judd Apatow tradition, "Good Time" is a product of nepotism. Lauren Miller is married to comedian Seth Rogen, who appears in a cameo along with other famous funnymen and -women like Kevin Smith, Justin Long and Nia Vardalos.

Miller is also a co-screenwriter and co-producer with Katie Anne Naylon, her actual college roomie when they were at Florida State University. They supposedly based the story on their real-life experiences. (University of Florida alum, insert joke here.)

As we see in flashback, Lauren and Katie have A History. Back in college they barely knew each other, until there was an incident involving a brand-new car, a plastic cup and a full bladder. Ten years later, their mutual best friend -- catty gay caricature Jesse (Long) -- suggests they shack up together when they're both low on cash.

Katie inherited her grandmother's fabulous apartment overlooking Gramercy Park, but the rent control is going bye-bye. Meanwhile, Lauren's lawyer boyfriend (James Wolk) tells her he needs some space to evaluate, and wants her to move out of their apartment.

Sugar Lyn Beard has a short but memorable turn as a business recruit with an impossibly squeaky, girly voice -- and then, she takes it up (or down) a notch.

First-time feature film director Jamie Travis is a bit shaky with the pacing. Sometimes the jokes and loony bits fly at us so fast the audience can't hardly field them all. Other sections linger and mope.

The language coming out of the girls' mouths while they're working the phones is supposed to be shocking in its filthiness, but the wind-up overshadows the pitch.

Graynor has the bigger, flashier role as the hard-bitten girl with an embarrassing Big Secret, but I never bought her as authentic -- she's more personality than person. Lauren is more relatable, but it seems like the movie has all her moves are laid out for her five minutes in.

"For a Good Time, Call..." has a handful of genuinely funny bits. But compared to other films in the recent trend of R-rated female-centric comedies ("Bridesmaids"), it doesn't find the sweet spot.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: "Neil Young Journeys"

“Neil Young Journeys” is as elegantly simple as its title suggests. Director Jonathan Demme recorded two days of Young’s performance at Massey Hall in Toronto during a 2011 solo tour. Before that, the camera crew followed the iconic singer/songwriter on a drive from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, on his way to play at the concert.

The film intercuts footage from his performance with reminisces about growing up in 1950s small-town Canada. Young, driving a 1956 Ford Fairlane, talks about where he started as a boy, while his music relates the tale of his journey as an artist.

For hardcore Neil Young fans, it’s a mesmerizing and intimate visit with a performer who is identified most closely with rock ‘n’ roll, but whose artistic curiosity has taken him in myriad directions musically throughout his 40-plus-year career. To those like myself whose appreciation is more casual, it’s an opportunity to encounter some of his lesser-known recent hits as well as classics like “Ohio” and “Hey Hey, My My.”

In his mid-60s, Young’s high tenor voice is eerily unchanged from his youth. It’s a great instrument that he’s made full use of throughout his long time on the stage. He can bend it smooth like soft butter, or sharpen it into an angry knife.

Young, dressed in a loose-fitting white suit and matching fedora, stands alone on a multi-tiered stage full of instruments, which he putters around between for various sets. In one of the most engaging bits, he dangles his electric guitar by the neck in front of a series of amplifiers, moving it around back and forth to take the keening yawl of distortion and turn it into an ethereally beautiful series of chords.

Demme makes some daring stylistic choices with his camera, most but not all of which pay off. For a couple of songs he ties a small camera to Young’s microphone for an ultra close-up; for long stretches we only see him from nostrils to jowls. It’s meant to be a distracting, offbeat angle, but it’s held for too long and becomes unnerving.

The mix is about 80 percent singing and 20 percent traveling, and I wish it had been more like 60/40 in the other direction. Not because the performance isn’t entertaining, but because the private moments are so much more so.

Young looks at how much his small town has changed, as bulldozers turn over the earth and reshape the landmarks he once knew. "It's all gone. But it's in my head. That's why you don't have to worry when you lose friends,” he muses.

He also talks about his love of the road and old cars, and how they combine with his own appetites as a consumer of music. “When I do my listening, I do it in cars. I don't give a sh** if I'm doing it on a speaker this big,” he says, holding his fingers slightly apart.

“I can tell if I like the music by listening to it in a car.”

We also get a glimpse at his backstage ritual before heading out before the crowd. In a darkened corner, a few candles cast a dim glow over a small table set up like a shrine. He drinks some tea for his throat, takes a few swigs of a domestic beer and sucks on a lemon wedge, savoring each

Soothing and sharp, comforting and off-putting – that combination of flavors could also describe the musical progress of an artist who has always seemed to appreciate the voyage more than the destination.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Video review: "Snow White and the Huntsman"

The only thing worse than having two different Snow White adaptations competing for our attention is that neither one of them turned out to be worthy of more than five minutes of it.

First came "Mirror, Mirror" in the spring with a winsome, comedic takeoff on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. It managed to be more cute than funny. Then for summer we got "Snow White and the Huntsman," a down-and-dirty version where Snow grabs a sword and shield and takes it to the evil Queen.

Alas. First-time director Rupert Sanders and star Kristen Stewart may have shared some heat in real life, but it's certainly not up on the screen. This is a long, listless affair featuring a whole bunch of pouting, interrupted occasionally by action scenes with a heavy CGI assist.

And we get the insertion of an unnecessary element, a pumped-up repository of Y-chromosome fortitude -- the eponymous Huntsman, played by Chris Hemsworth fresh off his "Thor" stint. The Huntsman is big and brutish, tagged by the Queen (Charlize Theron) to kill young Snow, but instead signs up as her right-hand man.

Usually in these sorts of movies, it's the useless female character crammed into mix. It turns out doing it the other way doesn't work any better.

The seven dwarves are here, suitably grizzled and alienated as befits the material. And Theron has a few cool scenes as the sorcerous queen, who wants to ensnare Snow so she can suck out the soul to preserve her unearthly beauty. The Mirror on the Wall is turned into a creepy, drippy golem of molten gold whispering in her ear.

Video extras are splendid. The DVD comes with an extended version of the film, a making-of featurette and feature-length commentary by Sanders and his creative team.

Go for the Blu-ray upgrade, and things really get interesting. An interactive viewing feature for tablet or computer lets you pop in and out of the story for behind-the-scenes peek. There are also featurettes focusing on rejuvenating the fairy tale, casting the key roles, creation of special effects and a 360-degree tour of the kingdom.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, September 10, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Street Smart" (1987)

Morgan Freeman has had one of the greatest film careers in cinematic history, in my opinion, and perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that it didn't take off until he was 50 years old.

He had supporting parts in mainstream movies, including 1984's "Teachers" with Nick Nolte, but in 1987 most people knew Freeman as a cast member on "The Electric Company" during the 1970s, playing a variety of urban caricatures helping to educate little kiddies: "Top to bottom, left to right, reading stuff is outta sight!"

"Street Smart" did not make any lasting impression on audiences, other than Freeman's amazing turn as Leo Smalls Jr., aka Fast Black, a chillingly unscrupulous pimp and killer. It earned him the first of five Oscar nominations -- he eventually won for "Million Dollar Baby" -- and he soon found himself cast in leading roles in "Driving Miss Daisy," "Lean on Me," "Se7en" and "The Shawshank Redemption," not to mention supporting turns in high-profile films like "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Glory," "Unforgiven" and more.

Such was the pinnacle of Freeman's reputation by the 1990s that when he was cast as the U.S. President in "Deep Impact," it caused little stir to see a black man in the role -- a full decade before a real-life African-American would be elected to that post. By the 2000s, when producers needed somebody to convincingly play God Himself in "Bruce Almighty" and its sequel, I doubt if any name other than Freeman's even came up.

"Street Smart" is in some ways analogous to "Girl, Interrupted." It was the pet project of an established star who wanted to use the material to showcase their more serious side, but another largely unknown performer stole the show and would eventually leave them in the dust. Just as Anjelina Jolie's career has soared while Winona Ryder's crashed, Freeman's took flight right as Christopher Reeve, having recently hung up Superman's cape, saw his falling to earth.

(Indeed, according to Reeve's own account, the studio only agreed to finance the low-budget "Street Smart" in exchange for him signing on to do the fourth, unmemorable Man of Steel flick.)

Freeman is terrific as Fast Black, charismatic and chatty one minute and threatening to kill or maim the next. He wears a coiffed Afro, flashy clothes, a gold tooth and has long, sharp white fingernails that give him an almost supernatural look -- abetted by what appears to be eyeliner, which makes Freeman's steely gaze electrifying.

He's so damn good, in fact, that whenever he's not on camera, the movie drags and heaves, like a glacier crumbling under its own inertia. Based on his sixth-place billing in the credits, however -- after such luminaries as Jay Patterson and Andre Gregory -- it's clear the studio wasn't expecting him to be such a mesmerizing presence.

Reeve plays Jonathan Fisher, a nondescript name for a nondescript man. A well-heeled magazine writer for the fictional New York Journal, he's desperate to get ahead. The patrician editor (Gregory) doesn't like any of his story ideas, so he pitches him a left-field notion about an insider's view of a New York pimp, which grabs more attention.

Unfortunately, the preppy-dressing Jonathan doesn't have much luck getting anyone to talk to him from the Big Apple's seedier side. In desperation, he makes up a character and a story to go with it. The editor runs the piece on the cover, it makes a big splash, Jonathan becomes a celebrity and even gets a side gig doing an investigative TV segment, dubbed "Street Smart."

Things get complicated when a D.A. prosecuting Fast Black for murder becomes convinced that Jonathan based the story on him, and demands his notes as evidence. Fast Black's lawyer cleverly embraces the ploy, realizing the case will turn into a First Amendment crisis and remove the focus from his client. The pimp and the writer even buddy up to one another -- which lends Jonathan a way to satisfy his boss' demand to meet the subject of the story at a fancy cocktail party.

Tagging along, and eventually getting into the middle, is Punchy (Kathy Baker), one of Fast Black's top call girls, who connects the two of them together. Other than Freeman, Baker is the only other actor with any real presence in the film, a mix of small-town innocence and streetwise allure.

My biggest problem with the movie is that director Jerry Schatzberg and screenwriter David Freeman don't delve very deeply into Jonathan's anguish and guilt. I know I'm biased given my own journalistic background, but there should be more focus on the way his lies keep piling up atop each other. As with Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Jonah Lehrer, Janet Cooke and other fabulists, their dreamed-up stories are exposed in the end.

For Jonathan, it should feel like the walls are closing in on him, as he dreads the day his fabrications are revealed and his career is ended. Instead, the story focuses on the threat of Fast Black, who wants him to create fake notes that exonerate him. Their budding friendship soon turns into one of victim and victimizer -- a challenge to stage convincingly, given Reeve's imposing 6-foot-4 build.

Jonathan has one brief conversation with his girlfriend (Mimi Rogers) in which he discusses the ramifications of concocting a story and then lying repeatedly about it.
"How do you feel about this?" she asks.
"I'm amazed that I got away with it. And I'm ashamed that I got away with it. What the hell, back in business, right?"
Not exactly Dostoevsky-esque torments of the soul, that.

In fact, the story ends with Fast Black dead, the lieutenant who had been fooled by Jonathan into killing him in jail, Punchy murdered and mutilated -- and Jonathan still on the streets, doing his TV reports.

We can thank "Street Smart" for helping put Morgan Freeman on the big stage. Considered in of itself, though, it's a film of little consequence.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Video review: Harry Potter Wizard's Collection

Everyone loves collector's editions, especially videophiles who like having the entirety of a film franchise in one handsome repository, complete with special goodies to go with them. The problem with these collections is that just when you think you've got the "ultimate" edition of something, another, supposedly better, one comes along.

(iPhone owners know all too well of what I speak.)

Just this month, "Bond 50" will encompass the first five decades of James Bond, 22 films in all. Of course, that won't include the 23rd Bond film, "Skyfall," coming out in November, or the 24th or any thereafter. Nor will it have any "unofficial" Bond movies, like David Niven's 1967 spoof or Sean Connery's 1983 spinoff, "Never Say Never Again."

A few years ago I was thrilled to get my hands on "The Adventures of Indiana Jones: The Complete DVD Movie Collection," with all three films. Since then, the quality bar has been raised with the Blu-ray format, and Harrison Ford donned the fedora and bullwhip again for another movie. So, you guessed it, "Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures" arrives Sept. 18.

So where does "Harry Potter Wizard's Collection" fit in this spectrum?

Fans of the boy wizard saga are at least assured of one thing: it is very unlikely there will be any latecomer movies to crash the party. Author J.K. Rowling has assured the literary world repeatedly that she will write no more Pottery books past the seventh. So these eight films (the final book was split into two movies) are it.

The "Wizard's Collection" includes both Blu-ray and DVD versions of all movies. So how do the extras stack up? For a $350 list price, the 31-disc Wizard's Collection comes up short.

It's essentially all the extras included in previous individual film editions, plus five hours more of behind-the-scenes footage, including a one-on-one chat between Rowling and star Danielle Radcliffe.

The really special stuff comes in the physical collectibles.

The edition arrives in a 19-pound chest that folds out in all sorts of ways, every corner stuffed with something neat. Included are high-quality prints of concept drawings, a blueprint of Hogwarts School, a cloth map of the wizarding world, a 48-page hardcover book detailing all of Harry's magical artifacts, a Hogwarts Express train ticket, and even your own Horcrux Locket.

You'll have to conjure up a lot of cash for this collection, so I would deem it for hardcore Harry Potterites only.

Movies: B
Extras: B

Monday, September 3, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Fahrenheit 451" (1966)

Francois Truffaut called "Fahrenheit 451" his "saddest and most difficult" filmmaking experience, and it's not hard to see this disappointment translated onto the screen.

Star Oskar Werner battled throughout the production with the filmmaker, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Louis Richard, based on the seminal novel by science fiction icon Ray Bradbury. It was Truffaut's first film in English and with color.

Werner was Austrian and spoke English with a heavy accent, which makes him stand out from the rest of the cast, which is largely British. Truffaut himself spoke little English, and as a result he failed to properly monitor the tone and intonation of his actors. Most speak in a curiously flat cadence, like Werner, or rush through their dialogue as if they're in a race, like Cyril Cusack.

These things could actually work for the film, since it's about a dystopian future where all books are banned and society molds its citizenry into anti-intellectual complacency. Since people talk without thinking, their speech would tend to be scattered. And because Montag is a  fireman who eventually rebels against his comrades, in some ways it makes sense for him to be different from the pack.

But I think these are not attributes of the movie; rather, they are unintentional problems that creep into the mix. Truffaut himself preferred the French-dubbed version of the film, by all accounts.

Of course, in Bradbury's haunting vision, firemen do not put out infernos but start them -- bursting into houses, jackbooted thugs dressed in militaristic black uniforms. They are highly trained in the ways of hiding, and uncover all the illegal books in the abode and set them ablaze. If enough books are found, they may just condemn the entire house and put it to the flamethrower torch.

As the story opens, Montag is the finest fireman in his station, and is informed that he has been selected to replace the Captain (Cusack) when he retires shortly. But with the help of a young schoolteacher who lives near him, Montag begins secreting away the books and reading them instead of destroying them. All that reading gets him to thinking, which is the last thing the controllers of this strangled society want.

What's interesting about "Fahrenheit" the movie is that the leaders of this system are never glimpsed or overtly referred to. Bradbury often said that his book was not about censorship so much as the way television and a lack of reading has a brain-deadening effect on people. Large television "wall sets" occupy every home, blaring virtually nonstop and lulling viewers into a state of dreamlike passivity.

We see the effects wrought by the great and mighty Oz, but not Oz himself. Who actually runs the government and the media? We never know.

In perhaps the film's strangest scene, Montag's wife Linda is selected to "appear" in a live play broadcast over the airwaves. (It's never made explicit, but it seems clear that there is only one channel playing.) This consists of two men discussing arrangements for a dinner party, and occasionally turning toward the camera to seek as Linda's advice, which she delivers from memorized dialogue. Presumably, the rest of the audience sees Linda's responses during this time. She flubs her first line, but the play keeps rolling along as if nothing happened.

Linda is played by Julie Christie, who also plays the rebellious schoolteacher Clarisse (wearing a horrendously fake-looking wig.) Truffaut obviously sees Clarisse and Linda as two sides of the same coin, but the gimmick casting is a distraction. (Terence Stamp, who was cast prior to Werner, left the project because he felt Christie's dual roles would upstage him.)

The only other notable actor is Anton Diffring as Fabian, a fellow fireman, Montag antagonist and competitor for his position. I'm not sure if he ever speaks more than a line or two of dialogue; the role operates strictly by having the hawk-faced Diffring cast suspicious glances at Montag from time to time.

Visually, the film is an orgy of oversaturated colors, intended I think to give everything a hyper-real look that's supposed to be disconcerting.Truffaut's camera work is surprisingly staid and pedestrian -- other than a few pans, the view hardly ever seems to move. The musical score, highlighted by a fast-paced little march whenever the firemen are on the move, is repetitive and silly.

Truffaut stripped much of the futuristic science fiction elements out of the story, perhaps to make it more relatable to everyday life but probably also for budgetary concerns. The one genuinely "sci-fi" shot, of a group of policemen wearing jet-packs searching the countryside for Montag, is simply laughable. They move in precise formation, instead of spreading out to make their search more effective. I think Truffaut was simply enamored of the image, logic be damned.

A morality lesson with little juice, "Fahrenheit 451" never brings the human story to a boil.

2 stars out of four