Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: "Anna Karenina"

In adapting Leo Tolstoy’s iconic novel “Anna Karenina” for the screen, director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) have gotten too clever by half. The result is a sprawling, overly ornamented mess in which the theatricality of the production overwhelms the storytelling.

I don’t generally get too cynical about the motivations of filmmakers, but this movie seems like it was made with Oscar ambitions in mind. From the classic literary touchstone to the extravagant costumes/sets and high-toned performances, everything has a very self-satisfied pedigreed feel to it. I don’t mind films with ambition and even a little swagger, but in this case the braggadocio is misplaced.

Wright and Stoppard run afoul by adopting the notion of Tolstoy’s novel as a grand stage play in which the characters are both audience members and participants. Many scenes involve Anna and the people around her attending the theater, and then our perspective shifts so now they are performing in front of the lights. Or they go about their daily lives, with stagehands moving the scenery around into place and placing props in the characters’ hands, just in time for them to deliver their dialogue.

This is a bold concept, and one that might have worked better of exercised consistently. But the theme goes away for long stretches at a time, so when we are abruptly reminded of the filmmakers’ conceit – say, when Anna’s husband watches his children frolicking in a field, and then the camera pulls back to reveal the entirety of the theater filled with wildflowers – the effect is more discombobulating than thought-provoking.

Tolstoy’s story is stripped down – how could it not be for the famously long-winded author? – but the bones of the tale remain. Anna (Keira Knightley) is a member of Tsarist Russia’s pampered nobility circa 1874. Married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a rich and powerful senior government official, Anna is seen as an irreproachable woman of high society.

But then she falls for a dashing young cavalry officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and finds her world crumbling around her. Even when faced with social ruin and estrangement from her children, Anna finds herself unable to tear away from her powerful desires.

“You are the murderer of my happiness,” Anna whispers in Vronsky’s ear during their first frenetic, almost violent coupling – which should give you a flavor of the sort of arch dialogue spoken throughout the film.
Knightley tries valiantly, but is not entirely convincing in the role of a woman torn asunder by forbidden love.

Part of that has to do with her androgynous looks -- she's beautiful and alluring, but in a curiously sexless way. It's not necessarily a bad thing for an actress -- Audrey Hepburn possessed the same quality. But it makes roles in which passion is the major dynamic a challenge for her.

Taylor-Johnson primps and smirks, and we never really get to see any layers beneath the superficial one the story presents. Since the audience immediately recognizes Vronsky as a cad, it only diminishes Anna that she falls for him so completely.

Law is terrific as Karenin, a man who gives his wife utter devotion but little in the way of intimacy or emotional connection. It's not that he withholds these qualities, but rather that he simply does not have them in his makeup. He does give Anna all that he does have to offer, and is genuinely crushed when that is not enough for her. Ostensibly the villain of the piece, Karenin ends up being the most identifiable person we encounter.

I respect the cast and crew of "Anna Karenina" for trying to do something different with a classic tale. But even sincere experiments sometimes fail.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: "Hitchcock"

If Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t been a bona fide figure, Hollywood would’ve invented him. With his inverted-light-bulb physique and that pained slur of a monotone drawl, the great film director stood out both for his exemplary craftsmanship and his oddball image. In some ways his personal iconography has endured every bit as much as his movies.

“Hitchcock,” which puts the filmmaker under the microscope during the making of his landmark film “Psycho,” features a spot-on impersonation by Anthony Hopkins. Wearing an impressive body suit and extensive facial prosthetics to mimic the droopy mien of “Hitch” (as he preferred to be called), Hopkins evokes the spirit and personality of the man behind masterpieces like “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo.”

In this portrait, Hitchcock is both supremely self-confident and filled with obsessive fears about being a washed-up failure. At age 60, Hitch frets that his best days were behind him, that he is tainted by his association with television, and that he will never receive the accolades (i.e., an Academy Award) he feels are surely deserved.

But the movie, directed by Sacha Gervasi from John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay (based on a book by Stephen Rebello), goes further by exploring the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville. And it’s in this journey that the film rises from amusing bauble to a full-throated and satisfying depiction of a great man and the unheralded woman who helped make him so.

Alma, played by Helen Mirren, dutifully performs the role of the loyal wife in public, but quietly seethes with resentment underneath. A talented editor and writer in her own right, she married a promising young director and made his career her own. Reville rewrote scripts, played the part of Hitch’s main sounding board and even (if this film’s depiction is to be believed) stood in for him behind the camera when his health failed.

As the story opens, Hitch is coming off the resounding success of "North by Northwest," but hasn't a clue as to what to make for his next picture. Some, including Alma, are quietly suggesting he retire with grace. Those calls become increasing urgent as he lights upon the gruesome story of Ed Gein, a serial murderer who chopped up his victims.

When the Hollywood press is repulsed by the topic, Hitchcock digs deeper. When Alma dismisses the story as cheap horror show, he is intrigued by the challenge: "What if someone really good made a horror picture?" he asks.

Realizing that his dream female star, Grace Kelly, is now unavailable due to having married into royalty, Hitch settles on Janet Leigh. As played by Scarlett Johansson, Leigh is a paragon of niceness and professionalism in a cutthroat business. At first she's ambivalent about Hitchcock, especially how he will handle the famous shower scene. But she eventually finds herself in his corner.

"Compared to Orson Welles, he's a sweetheart," she muses.

Her counterpoint is Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), whom Hitch had hoped to make a big star, but she rejected him to play the real-life role of wife and mother. It was part of his long fixation on "these blonde women of mystery" who regularly populated his films.

Hitchcock can't get the studio to finance "Psycho," so he ends up writing a check for $800,000 out of his own pocket. It threatens to bankrupt them, and Alma responds to being shut out of the creative process by collaborating with an old friend (Danny Huston) who's a little bit too familiar with the married "Mrs. Hitchcock."

Director Gervasi's only other film was the documentary "Anvil: The Story of Anvil," which looked at a washed-up heavy metal band. His switch to narrative storytelling is a seamless one, as he expertly plucks the audience's strings, much like composer Bernard Hermann's screeching violin strings in "Psycho."

At a crisp 98 minutes, "Hitchcock" is as taut as one of Hitch's own mystery thrillers.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Video review: "Men in Black 3"

"Men in Black 3" has an obligatory feel to it, like it was made to provide a few people a career boost and satisfy quarterly profit margins for the studio. Arriving a full decade after the second (horrible) film in the franchise, "MIB3" is reasonably entertaining, contains some nice special effects and a few interesting new characters.

But there's very little heart and soul in it, making it the perfect home video rental. Pop it in, get a few yukks and thrills, and never think of it again.

Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) are back as members of the secret government agency that protects humankind from the knowledge that bug-eyed aliens are living among them in disguise. But when a particularly nasty alien criminal named Boris the Animal fiddles with the flow of time, J must travel back to 1969 and team up with Agent K's younger self (Josh Brolin) to set things right.

The 1960s fashions and vibe are a hoot, and I liked how director Barry Sonnenfeld and his crew make sure the aliens from back then resemble products of era-appropriate pop culture. (Think Sleestaks and planets full of apes.)

"MIB3" may just be warmed-up leftovers, but at least it slides down pretty smooth.

The movie comes with decent extras, though you'll have to shell out for the pricier Blu-ray editions to get the best stuff.

The DVD comes with only a making-of documentary and a music video of Pitbull's "Back in Time."
With the Blu-ray combo pack, you add a gag reel, three more making-of featurettes, special effects progression reels and a "Spot the Alien" game. Go for the 3-D Blu-ray version, and you add a pair of extras focusing on 3-D modeling.

Please note, "Men in Black 3" arrives on video Friday, Nov. 30.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, November 26, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Purple Plain" (1954)

"The Purple Plain" is two movies in one, each of which work decently independently but don't really meld together in any sort of satisfying or even logical way.

It's one of Gregory Peck's darker roles, playing a Canadian pilot in the British Royal Air Force assigned to Burma in the waning days of World War II. Squadron Leader Bill Forrester is widely ostracized within the unit, because of his daredevil flying tactics and his churlish behavior toward his fellow officers. The universal assessment is that he's "over the bend."

Despite sharing a tent with a man named Blore (Maurice Denham) for several months, they know virtually nothing about each other -- other than Blore's continuing insistence that Forrester would find his life more purposefully if was married like himself. Little does he know (since Forrester won't say), but Forrester lost his newlywed bride during a London air raid early in the war.

Since then, he's been on a one-man suicide mission in the skies.

The first half of the movie is taken up with Forrester gradually coming out of his shell with the help of Anna, a refugee from Rangoon who is helping the local Burmese refugees along with Miss McNab (Brenda De Banzie), an indomitable Scottish missionary. The quiet, soulful Anna soothes and calms Forrester, and he tells her the source of his pain when his wife was killed.
"After that I didn't want to go on living. You'd think that'd be easy enough in war, but it didn't work. I wanted to die, but I got medals instead."
Anna is played by Win Min Than, a luminous beauty whose appearance in "The Purple Plain" constituted her one and only film role. The romance between Anna and Forrester is notable for its fairly progressive take on interracial romance -- none of the other Brits or Burmese seem to regard it as any big deal. Though it should be noted that their only kiss is filmed from an obscuring angle behind a large boulder. The film ends with an image of Forrester climbing into a bed where she lies sleeping, which was something of a taboo circa 1954.

As soon as the audience gets engaged in this love affair, though, the manly adventure portion commences and Anna is not seen again (except once, briefly) until that ending.

Forrester and his young new navigator Carrington (Lyndon Brook) are assigned to fly Blore to his new assignment. The aircraft depicted in the film are Mosquitos, peppy little two-seat fighter/bombers depicted in other films such as "633 Squadron." Blore is ensconced in a hammock hung in the bomb bay. Unfortunately, one of their engines bursts into flames and they crash-land 20 miles deep into Japanese territory.

Movies of this ilk usually set up a race between the heroic stranded Allied servicemen and the relentless enemy hounding their tails, but here we never see or hear any trace of the Japanese. The only race is between the three men and their own impending demise from exposure to the brutal Burmese heat and lack of food and water.

Forrester determines that no rescue mission will ever find them, and urges them to march to the river that marks the boundary of enemy territory. The pugnacious Blore, a desk job man with little grasp of the intricacies of aviation tactics, insists they stay. Eventually Forrester forces the decision, and they rig up a stretcher for Carrington (whose leg was burned in the crash) and set off.

Director Robert Parrish manages to capture the overheated atmosphere of Burma, showing the sweat pouring off the characters' heads and staining clear through their clothes. He also adds a constant buzz of insects to the soundtrack during the sequence on the eponymous plain, which adds to the oppressive feeling of that portion of the film.

"The Purple Plain" was a box-office hit that was nominated for Best Film in the BAFTAs, the British equivalent of the Oscars.

The story was based on a novel by H.E. Bates, a military reporter who traveled to Burma during the war, and translated for the screen by Eric Ambler. It ends up feeling like two incomplete halves of a good movie. In the second half the central dynamic is the contrast between Forrester, who remains resolute and brave, and Blore, who becomes increasingly unhinged and eventually abandons his fellows.

This would seem to set up the idea that Blore's assertion had been true, that having a purpose in life -- i.e., a family and/or loved one -- allows a man to persevere. Forrester, having found love again with Anna, is able to endure. But this then begs the question of why family man Blore succumbs when confronted with life-threatening challenges.

So Blore is right for Forrester, but wrong about himself?

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review: "Red Dawn"

Like its predecessor, “Red Dawn” is a bunch of silly, jingoistic claptrap – but it’s decently well-done claptrap.

The 1984 original starring Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and C. Thomas Howell was most famous for being the first movie released with the new PG-13 rating (“Dreamscape” followed five days later), and for being emblematic of the rah-rah patriotism of the Reagan era. The Soviets and their allies stage a surprise military takeover of the U.S., but are ultimately beaten back by a ragtag group of teenage guerilla fighters.

Since the Reds are mostly gone or gleefully practicing capitalism these days, how to approach a remake? Originally, screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore cast the Chinese as the heavies. But then somebody remembered how many movie tickets get sold in China, so a post-production retooling turned the North Koreans into the bad guys.

(“Red Dawn” was actually shot more than three years ago and shelved until the studio honchos figured out what to do with it.)

Now, there’s no denying that North Korea remains a bad actor on the global stage, constantly threatening warfare and firing off test missiles. But former leader Kim Jong Il was a comical figure known more for bluster than any actual capacity to wreak havoc. Indeed, the impoverished, isolated country can’t even feed its 24 million people without coerced food assistance from the international community.

And these are the nefarious villains we’re supposed to believe bring America to its knees?

A montage of news clips sets the improbable stage, with the financial instability in the EU handcuffing our friends across the pond when North Korean launches some super-secret pulse weapon that shuts down our power grid and communications. In Spokane, Wash., the townsfolk are astonished to see paratroopers descending upon them, setting up blockades and shooting those who don’t comply.

The main baddie is Captain Cho (Will Lun Lee), the local prefecture in charge of running the area. Cho and the rest of his soldiers are presented as generic bad guys, which tempers some of the illogic of a North Korean invasion. But it also renders them as mindless automatons waiting to be blown away by the good guys. The original movie at least presented a Cuban soldier with some depth and empathy.

As to those good guys, they’re a fairly standard-issue bunch. Jed (Chris Hemsworth), the leader, is a little older than the rest, a Marine veteran of Iraq who’s constantly having to whip his hot-dogging little brother Matt (Josh Peck) into line. Matt endangers one of their missions to rescue his girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas), who was captured and put into a reeducation camp.

Josh Hutcherson plays Robert, the resident hothead, Adrianne Palicki is Toni, a soft girl who grows tough and pines for Jed, and Edwin Hodge and Alyssa Diaz are expendables. It’s the usual collection of actors in their mid- to late-20s playing 17, with the notable exception of Connor Cruise. As Daryl, the son of the mayor who collaborates with the occupiers, Cruise gets to have a few conflicted, emotive moments.

Calling themselves Wolverines after their high school mascot, the troupe transitions from shaky escapees to badass killers in record time. A 5-minute training montage is all that’s needed, and soon the North Koreans have a bona fide uprising on their hands.

It’s reasonably thrilling stuff, though rookie director Dan Bradley is an ardent devotee of the Shaky Cam School of Action Filmmaking. Car chases and fisticuffs are reduced to virtually indecipherable rides in a high-speed blender.

But Bradley and his cast hit the right emotional crescendos, with an end result that feels decidedly less lunk-headed than the original. For goofy escapism, you could do worse than this "Red Dawn."

2.5 stars out of four

Christopher Lloyd is co-founder of The Film Yap.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: "Rise of the Guardians"

This has been a down year for animated films, but “Rise of the Guardians” arrives for the holidays just in time to stoke enthusiasm for family-friendly movies.

This visually dazzling and emotionally affecting tale sounds gimmicky at first, what with giving Santa Claus and other holiday icons the super-hero treatment, banding them together into a supergroup set to battle evil a la “The Avengers.”

Santa certainly looks the part, morphed into a sword-wielding brute with a buff physique that’s more WWE than bowlful of jelly. He even has corresponding “Naughty” and “Nice” ‘tats on his burly arms, plus a fearsome, Slavic-tinged growl (courtesy of Alec Baldwin).

The Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is even more pumped up, turned into an Australian-accented 6-foot badass rabbit with moves like Bruce Lee and an arsenal of boomerangs and other weapons on his bandolier.

And have you checked out Jack Frost? As voiced by Chris Pine, Jack is depicted as an impish teenage skater-boy rapscallion, using his magic staff to spread sudden blasts of cold air and mischief wherever he goes. With a flyaway platinum hairdo, bare feet (brrr!) and contemptuous smirk, he resembles every parent’s worst apprehensions for underachieving offspring.

Directed by first-timer Peter Ramsey based on the books by William Joyce, “Guardians” would at first appear to be nothing more than an action-packed thrill ride for slightly older kiddies – the sort who prefer Wii games to “Sesame Street.” But screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) adds subtle layers of heftier thematic elements that lift the material to a higher plane.

The result is a terrific blend of PG-rated battles and soulful character dynamics.

The story begins with Jack Frost’s birth as a creature of magic, and subsequent induction into the Guardians – powerful beings who protect the children of the world. In addition to Santa and the Easter Bunny, the other members are the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), who resembles a multi-hued hummingbird, and the Sandman, a mute little fellow whose golden sands send out happy dreams.

The Guardians derive their powers from the belief wee ones invest in them. Alas, that makes them susceptible to dastardly types like Pitch Black, aka the Bogeyman, who specializes in sowing cynicism and turning dreams into nightmares. He launches his attack on the outposts of the Guardians one by one, turning Easter into a dud and leaving all those teeth waiting under pillows unexchanged.

The filmmakers make a bold choice by making Pitch, voiced in a devilish purr by Jude Law, as alternately soothing and threatening. He’s even somewhat sympathetic, since his big beef is that he’s perpetually forced to hide in the shadows where no one believes in him, or even acknowledges his existence.

This is the same challenge facing Jack Frost. He moves unseen amidst the human world, gifting children with closed schools and snowball fights, but never receiving acknowledgement for his efforts. It’s a simple yet powerful metaphor easily grasped by child and adult alike – finding your place in the world so you won’t be ignored.

The computer-generated animation is a dizzy delight, filled with lots of kinetic energy and audacious camera moves. I adored how Santa’s elves resemble little pointed hats with bells, and serve more as amusing mascots while yetis do all the real work of building toys. Ditto for the Bunny’s enchanted forest, where the eggs help decorate themselves for the Easter hunt.

I went into “Rise of the Guardians” not expecting very much, and walked out convinced I had just seen the best animated movie of the year. What a gift.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Silver Linings Playbook"

“Silver Lining Playbook” is about two mentally unstable people who fall in love. If that sounds like a setup for an exploitative comedy, then you won’t be surprised to learn that this film from writer/director David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) does contain many moments of levity. But it’s also a serious exploration of a couple of lost souls flailing to get through the everyday existence that seems so mundane to the rest of us.

Movie depictions of mental illness tend to fall into one of two categories: somber, dramatic portraits or giddy exaggerations. “Playbook” breaks away from the herd by showing its two main characters as authentic souls who recognize their problems even as they try to distance themselves from these issues and pass as “normal.” It goes a step further by compassionately depicting the family and friends around them, who strive to cope with their behavior and attending complications.

A great cast is headlined by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, with Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker in key supporting roles. All should get consideration from Oscar voters.

Cooper plays Pat, a high school substitute teacher who’s just been released (against doctor’s orders) from a mental institution after eight months. Apparently he walked in on his wife Nikki with another man and beat the guy to a pulp, and since then his entire world has become unglued.

Pat is convinced the alpha and omega of regaining is sanity is getting back together with Nikki. That’s a challenge because she sold their house and moved away, and has a restraining order against him to boot.

Cooper, known for smarmy comedic roles, is convincing as the motor-mouthed Pat. He’s the sort of guy who can’t help himself from obsessive behavior, but is smart and caring enough to immediately apologize for it afterward. At different points he tears up his therapist’s waiting room and accidentally elbows his mother in the face, but we sense there’s no belligerence in him.

De Niro and Weaver play his parents, long-suffering but still patient and kind to Pat, if a little frustrated. Pat Sr. is obsessed with his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, and wants his son to sit and watch the games with him, both for luck and for some father/son bonding. Dolores is the family’s center and glue, tough as nails in a passive sort of way.

Tiffany (Lawrence) pops up as the sister-in-law of Pat’s best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz). Her husband died recently and she just lost her job. Tiffany lives in a converted garage out behind her parents’ house, and shares Pat’s sense of being both embraced and ostracized by her loved ones.

At dinner, Tiffany and Pat exchange laughs about the debilitating effects of various psychotropic drugs – which is sort of the crazy person version of a Meet Cute. She immediately offers to sleep with him, but Pat refuses, committed to the notion of resuming his non-existent relationship with Nikki.

It’s a wonderful, charged, loopy cinematic pairing. Each thinks the other person is the more messed up one, which sets up a weird power dynamic. Tiffany is generally the aggressor, even going so far as to insist he practice with her for a big dance contest. Soon they’re spending all their time together, and their respective families fret about their troubles colliding and compounding.

Tucker plays Danny, a friend of Pat’s from the hospital who keeps getting released and unreleased, but hangs around long enough to offer some dance advice and help cheer Pat up. Anupam Kher plays Dr. Patel, Pat’s therapist; Julia Stiles plays Ronnie’s hectoring wife, Tiffany’s sister; and Shea Whigham is Pat’s older brother Jake, who nurtures a sense of superiority.

I appreciated the skill with which Russell and his cast adapted the novel by Matthew Quick. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a film of subtlety, wit and empathy for its characters. I did find myself having trouble completely embracing them and their plight, feeling like I was sitting back and watching them perform rather than becoming absorbed in their story.

Still, this is worthy, ambitious filmmaking – an oddball ray of sunlight peeking through the clouds.

3 stars out of four

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Where Eagles Dare" (1968)

"Where Eagles Dare" is a substandard World War II action/adventure film with a few notable qualities.

Clint Eastwood had just become an American film star, after the Spaghetti Western trilogy was released here in 1967. He'd also had modestly successful turns starring in "Hang 'Em High" and "Coogan's Bluff." This movie was an opportunity to play a supporting role opposite a huge international star like Richard Burton in a big-budget extravaganza.

Eastwood's role, and performance, are both rather flat, since the script doesn't really give him much to do other than execute action scenes and occasionally grunt out one-liners in response to Burton's wittier quips. It would be a long time before Eastwood played a supporting role again.

The story is simple in concept but convoluted in the telling. An American general with secret war plans is captured by the Germans after his plane crashes, and held in a remote base, Schloss Adler (actually Hohenwerfen Castle), which sits on a high peak and can only be accessed by cable car. A crack team of British agents, with Eastwood as the token Yank, are sent in to disguise themselves as German soldiers, infiltrate the base and rescue the general.

At 154 minutes, the movie is overlong and pedantic. Once the mission gets started, the action unspools in more or less real time. That's a fine technique if it's used to build tension, but here director Brian G. Hutton and screenwriter Alistair MacLean focus too much on the minutia -- getting in and out of vehicles, donning or doffing disguises, setting explosive charges, etc. It reads more like a primer on how to infiltrate a WWII German base than a dramatization of a team doing it.

Incidentally, Alistair wrote the book and screenplay together, both becoming hits. This was his first screenplay; he'd had a number of his novels turned into movies, most notably "The Guns of Navarone" and "Ice Station Zebra." A producer asked him to come up with an original idea, and he delivered the script six weeks later. This is interesting in that movies had been made before based on books that were not yet published, but this was an early, rare case where the book came after the script.

The film's stunts and special effects were, for 1968, pretty impressive stuff. Hutton and cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson employed front-screen projection effects -- a progenitor of the modern green screen technique -- to depict the scenes where the spy team infiltrate the base by riding on top of the cable car, plus the daredevil fight scene on the way back down. Burton and Eastwood spent so much time waiting in the wings while stand-ins and stuntmen took their place that they took to referring to the production as "Where Doubles Dare."

I found it hilarious that the filmmakers made absolutely no attempt to shift from English to German as the team infiltrates behind enemy lines. Usually movies of this ilk will do a single scene in the other language, then show some sort of transition to let the audience know that English will stand in for whatever. Here, everyone just speaks English all the time -- except for a few gunfights where the German officers yell commands in their own language.

But probably the thing that makes "Where Eagles Dare" stand out -- and not in a good way -- is its unnecessarily twisty and occasionally incomprehensible plot. Hutton and MacLean take their good time clearing the air. For a long while we're not sure of the motivations of Burton's character, Maj. John Smith. Once they get into the German town below the base, he meets up with a beautiful woman spy named Mary (Mary Ure) with whom he apparently has a long-standing romantic relationship. She appears to be a member of the team that Smith has not even told his commanders back home about.

Other members of the team start dying mysteriously, one by one. The clear implication is that one of their own operatives is doing the dirty work -- perhaps even Smith himself? Maybe the stoic American (Eastwood), Lt. Morris Schaffer?

Things finally come to a head in a sprawling, ridiculous scene inside the castle's great hall. Smith and Schaffer, having been separated from the three remaining members of their squad, burst in on the German general (Ferdy Mayne) and colonel (Anton Diffring) interrogating the captured American general (Robert Beatty).

Here's where things get really hinky, and absurd. It would seem that everyone is trying to double-cross everyone else. The result is a rambling sequence that goes on for nearly 15 minutes, with Burton as the mastermind pulling all the strings. He appears to change sides several times, resulting in what I believe is the exceedingly rare and dramatically unhinged quintuple-cross:
  1. Smith reveals that the American captive is in fact a thespian corporal selected to impersonate the general.
  2. The other three NCO members of Smith's team, who supposedly were "captured" while infiltrating the base, turn out to be German double agents. They've been killing the other Brits and have been trying to ensure the mission's failure.
  3. Smith claims that in fact he is the double agent working for the Germans, while the NCOs are actually triple agents who really work for England. He makes Schaffer drop his weapon and has the German colonel phone up another German intelligence officer to confirm his identity. In order to prove that the NCOs are not who they say they are, he has them write down the names of every German spy stationed in London, to compare to his own original list.
  4. Smith hands his original to the German colonel, who is enraged to find it is blank. It turns out it's Smith who's really a triple agent, and the NCOs are who they say they are, double agents. Smith has spent the last two years feeding false information to his German counterpart to set up the identity of a double agent. Really, he's been working for the Brits all along. Schaffer is allowed to retrieve his gun again. Smith announces that the entire operation, including planting the false general and infiltrating the base, was a scam to allow them to expose the German double agents in the U.K. and obtain the names of their collaborators.
  5. A German Gestapo major bursts in on them, demanding to know what is going on. Smith bluffs that he has just uncovered a plot to assassinate the Fuhrer and placed everyone in the room under arrest. Sufficiently distracted, it allows Schaffer to get the drop on him and shoot the Gestapo officer. The German colonel and General get bullets, too.
 Got all that straight? I seriously doubt if audiences back in 1968 did.

The sequence inadvertently turns into a total laugh fest, as Smith jumps from one side to the other and back again, and concocts one outlandish tale in succession. In the end it felt like an "Austin Powers" spoof -- "I'm on your side!" "Actually, I was fooling you!" "No I wasn't!" "He's the triple agent!" "No I am!"

After having executed such (in his mind) brilliant espionage moves, Smith then spends the last hour of the movie behaving like a numbskull as they attempt to fight their way out of the base. For some reason, Smith takes along the three NCO double agents, who have to be kept covered and inevitably fight back -- on top of that cable car, of course.

Why would he bring them? He's already gotten the information he needed out of them -- what could possibly be gained from keeping them around? Well, because somebody has to be left for that dramatic cable car melee.

"Where Eagles Dare" is one of the most bone-headed and turgid spy thrillers I've ever seen. Other than the primitive use of green screens and some cool stunts, this bird falls to earth with a thud.

1.5 stars out of four

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Video review: "Lawrence of Arabia: 50th Anniversary Edition"

“Nothing is written,” T.E. Lawrence famously says. But almost from the moment “Lawrence of Arabia” hit theaters in 1962, it seemed destined to become one of the most iconic films ever made.

It is by most reckonings the pinnacle of the epic movie-making impulse that surged in the 1950s and ‘60s – a grand, lush drama filled with exotic foreign trappings and a history-making tale to tell. It won a slew of awards, including the Best Picture Oscar, and deserved them all.

A restoration of director David Lean’s masterpiece was released in theaters in 1989 – one of the last films distributed in a 70mm print. Now, a new digital remastering from the original film negative has been completed for the movie’s 50th anniversary. After a brief theatrical run, it debuts in two Blu-ray collections.

The story is familiar to any serious film-lover: an oddball British lieutenant (Peter O’Toole) is plucked from obscurity during World War I to act as liaison to the disparate Arabic desert tribes, and ends up forging them into a united army that helps take down the Turkish Empire. As he becomes a famous and charismatic figure, Lawrence finds his sanity crumbling as his lust for power grows.

“Lawrence” has seen a number of video editions, but this represents its first time on Blu-ray. For comparison, I popped in my copy of the film from its 2001 DVD edition and then watched the same scenes on the new Blu-ray. The gap between the two was simply astonishing.

Of course, the image was much crisper and cleaner in the higher-resolution Blu-ray based on Sony’s 4K remastering. But what really struck me were the colors, which were dazzlingly vibrant in the new edition.
If you thought the golden sands and aching blue skies of the desert looked good before, you won’t believe how much they leap off the screen of the Blu-ray. When Lawrence first dons his white Arabic robes, it seemed like O’Toole was standing right before me.

Of course, it comes with a host of extra features – some seen before in previous editions, and some all-new. The highlight is a new graphic-in-picture track that allows the viewer to learn about the customs and rituals of the desert tribes. There is also a featurette featuring O’Toole looking back on the film, newsreel footage of its New York premiere, and more.

The 50th Anniversary Edition is available as either a two-disc version or the four-disc Gift Set. Opt for the latter, and you’ll receive several more featurettes, a never-before-seen deleted scene and conversations with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

The Gift Set also comes with a handsome 88-page coffee table book, a CD of Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable musical score (including previously unreleased tracks) and an authentic 70mm film frame (newly printed and numbered).

“Lawrence of Arabia” has never looked so good.

Movie: 4 stars out of four
Extras: 4 stars

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2"

The first half of "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2" is much like the rest of the vampires-as-dreamboats franchise: tedious, sappy and filled with dialogue so gut-bustingly absurd that even George Lucas and James Cameron could be heard to mutter, "Maybe you should bring in another writer to fix this up."

But surprisingly, the fifth and last film builds to a finale that's filled with cool action scenes and meaningful emotional exchanges. It's a satisfying -- and fitting -- end to a storyline that's been epic in scope but often felt amateurish in execution.

The audience at the preview screening I attended screamed and clapped during the big battle on a frozen lake between the "bad vampires," aka the Volturi, and the good blood-suckers: Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), his newly-transformed wife Bella (Kristen Stewart) and their brood. As werewolves -- once Cullen foes, now allies -- snapped their jaws over Volturi faces and the Cullens and their crew beheaded their black-cloaked oppressors, the filmgoers cheered each gruesome decapitation.

(Well, gruesome-ish ... like the rest of the "Twilight" series, "Part 2" is kept at a reasonably safe PG-13 level of violence and sexuality, so as not to turn off their target demo or, more accurately, their parents.)

Michael Sheen as Aro, the Volturi chief, positively slithers with reptilian charm and danger. He's worried that Edward and Bella's daughter Renesmee is a violation of the vampire laws against turning children into nosferatu. She's actually something else entirely -- the product of the coupling of Edward and the as-yet human Bella. But Aro and his lieutenants are on a rampage, looking to behead now and ask questions never.

"Part I" tediously covered the subject of the duo's nuptials and impregnation, and at first "Part 2" feels like more of the same endless exposition. The narrative table is set, and we're just waiting for director Bill Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (based on Stephenie Meyer's books) to move all the pieces into place.

This involves recruiting vampire allies to stand against the Volturi, which means introducing a whole slew of new characters just as the franchise is approaching its 11th hour culmination. Some of them make an impression, like a pair of Amazon vampiresses who have the power to blind others, while others like the Irish contingent barely register a presence.

There's one new vampire named Alistair who's constantly turning up to spout dolorous ruminations on their impending fate, but as near as I can figure he never actually does anything.

Now that the love triangle of Edward, Bella and Jacob has been resolved -- with the lycanthropic Jacob (Taylor Lautner) coming up with the short straw -- the early going loses the sexual spark that had buoyed the series for much of the way. Of course, Jacob is now "imprinted" on Renesmee -- "It's a wolf thing," he helpfully explains -- which means he will one day become her lover, I think, which is transcendently creepy, but for now he plays the role of stoic protector.

Bella doesn't take it well when they first explain the whole imprinting thing to her, especially when Jacob refers to Renesmee as "Nessie," resulting in perhaps the most cringe-inducing line of all the "Twilight" flicks (and that's saying something): "You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster!?!"

A few notes on powers. As a newly-turned vampire, Bella is the physically strongest of her kind, even out arm-wrestling Edward's lumbering adoptive brother Emmett (Kellan Lutz). She also learns that her special "gift" -- every vampire has one -- is to act as a "shield," i.e. she can negate the powers of other vampires. This will come in handy.

As for Renesmee. She grows at an astonishing rate, reaching the size and mental cognizance of a kindergartner after just a few weeks of life. She has her own power, too, which involves telepathic communicate by cupping someone's cheek. (It's unclear if an elbow would've sufficed, but this is supposed to be more endearing.) Mackenzie Foy plays Renesmee at every stage, with CGI effects placing her face and mannerisms on a babe and subsequent toddler.

There's a big twist at the end having to do with that massive battle, which will come as no surprise to fans of Meyer's books -- which I would conservatively estimate as 96% of my fellow audience members -- but certainly caught me off guard. It's kind of a cliched storytelling trick, but Condon and Rosenberg employ it skillfully.

Thus the "Twilight" saga is ended, with millions of adolescent feminine hearts touched and tweaked, and many a middle-aged mother's libido plucked by frequent shirtless scenes of an underage Taylor Lautner. I can't say as I've always enjoyed the long ride, but then it wasn't built with people like me in mind.

Still, I had a few fond memories along the way, and the last hour or so of "Part 2" lives up to the excitement so long promised by these movies. Condon & Co. wrap things up on a classy note, giving every actor with a significant role in the series a little face time during the credits -- even ones like Anna Kendrick who don't appear in this movie. Now that doesn't suck at all.

 2.5 stars out of four

Review: "Lincoln"

There exists a sweet spot for film biographies of pivotal American figures. Somewhere after enough time has passed following their death for some perspective to form on their life, but before their exploits and persona pass into legend, filmmakers have an opportunity to capture the essence of a great life.

For example, Martin Luther King Jr. belongs in the former category – his enormity, and the pain of his loss, is still too near. Older figures like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have become so iconic that Hollywood has largely stayed away for many decades. They’re of the ages now, hence too remote to be truly examined.

Steven Spielberg’s grandiose “Lincoln” attempts to bypass this notion, and largely succeeds at doing so through a mesmerizing lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th, and many feel greatest, American president.

It’s a bold film that sidesteps the standard sort of hagiography, peering at Lincoln sideways and slantways, trying to get at the man behind the mythology. In the crafting of Spielberg, Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the portrait that emerges is of a brilliant but isolated figure, who could enthrall the men he led while remaining a vexing riddle to them. They stare at Lincoln, recognizing his greatness but put off by their inability to truly fathom it.

In essence, the film pulls back the veil of history on Lincoln to reveal a man who was beloved but remained largely a mystery, even to his family and in some ways to himself.

Day-Lewis’ performance seems a little strange at first, especially the high, tremulous voice he employs for Lincoln’s soaring oratory. Perhaps it’s because it’s so at odds with the rumbling sonorous tones associated with prevailing fictional depictions of the president’s speech. Day-Lewis also holds his body at odd angles and moves in a strange hunched shuffle, evoking a decrepit bird of prey.

But after a slow start, the film gets moving and these affectations stop being distracting and start to seem part of the gestalt of Day-Lewis’ character construction. We cease thinking about the actor and his choices and submerge into the story of Lincoln.

Adapted from the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, “Team of Rivals,” the film concentrates on one month of his presidency: the lead-up in January 1865 to the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery. For history buffs like myself it’s riveting stuff, full of inside stories and forgotten bits of lore. Though I fear casual audiences may occasionally be lost amid the vast sea of characters and wonky discussions of constitutional law.

(I think of one section where Lincoln, an accomplished lawyer, parses out the different legal interpretations of his Emancipation Proclamation, acknowledging that the Supreme Court would be within their rights to declare it unconstitutional.)

Speaking of all those other characters – it’s a tremendous supporting cast, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as their son Robert, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward and James Spader, John Hawkes and Jackie Earle Haley as a trio of flimflam men brought in to round up votes. One of the film’s revelations is that Lincoln and his allies were not above skullduggery, including bribery and blackmail, to achieve their noble goals.

The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln is a troubled one, in which Abraham felt compelled to cede marital ground to the strong-willed Mary even as his armies marched inexorably deep below the Mason-Dixon Line. At one point he regrets not having her committed to a mental institution, and flogs her selfishness for creating problems for a man already bearing so much on his soul. “You may lighten this burden or render it intolerable, as you will,” he fumes.

Aside from Day-Lewis, the performance that really stands out is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a fiery Radical Republican who demanded not only total emancipation for the slaves but universal equality between the races – something even Lincoln resisted. It’s a strong portrait, a man who was heroic in his ideals but dastardly in his countenance.

Jones spits out his speech in clips and snarls, intimidating those around him like an angry alpha dog. When Stevens’ demands for harsh treatment of the post-war South threaten to tip both the passage of the amendment and the peace negotiations Lincoln is conducting in secret, the two men engage in a brooding contest of wills.

“Lincoln” is a spellbinding but imperfect film. Kushner’s screenplay is filled with several moments that seem constructed with a winking eye to how things will be perceived in the here and now. For example, Mary comments that she will be remembered only as the half-mad woman who provoked a president.

I also thought the coda about Lincoln’s assassination was included inappropriately. This movie was not intended as a comprehensive look at an entire life, but focuses on his leadership and vision, illuminated by a critical point in our nation’s history. Everyone knows the tragedy of his death, so including it feels like a ham-handed grasp for an unnecessary emotional crescendo.

Still, “Lincoln” aspires to much more than simple deification of its subject, opting to demystify Abraham Lincoln rather than merely exalt him. In aspiring to unwrap this puzzle of greatness, the film achieves some of its own.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Video review: "Brave"

Given the state of most entertainment geared towards kids these days -- take "Hotel Transylvania," please -- "Brave" stands head and shoulders above the rest. It's an energetic, engaging story of a Scottish princess who throws off the yoke of traditional expectations.

I especially give it points for having the girl not wait around for some derring-do dude come save her, but taking matters into her own able hands.

But the fact that it comes from the Pixar Animation studio means that, fairly or not, it's automatically held to a loftier standard. Put against gems like "Finding Nemo" or "Up" or "Wall·E," this movie has a tang of disappointment.

Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the daughter of the king and queen (Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson), who have spent their whole lives preparing her to be married off to some prince for the good of the kingdom. But she'd rather shoot arrows and ride horses than play the maid-in-waiting.

The land has been plagued by a "demon bear" who ripped off the king's leg when Merida was a girl, and when she makes a rash choice involving a local enchantress, the curse is brought home in terrible ways.
Visually the film is a wonder, full of splashy colors and gorgeous details that just pop off the screen. The red of Merida's curly hair and the bear's bristly fur are sights to behold.

I still recommend "Brave." It's a well-crafted piece of family entertainment. It's just that on the tall totem pole of Pixar's animated legacy, it comes in at the bottom.

"Brave" comes only in a Blu-ray/DVD combo, either the standard 3-disc version or the 5-disc "Ultimate Collector's Edition" that includes a 3-D version of the film.

Both editions are nicely stocked with extras, including a pair of animated shorts and a host of making-of featurettes, extended and deleted scenes, director commentary, an alternate opening, art gallery, animation bloopers and more.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Warriors" (1979)

I'd been meaning to see "The Warriors" for a long time. A modest hit with audiences but not critics in 1979, its footprint has grown as it has taken on a reputation that's somewhere beyond cult film status and less than cultural touchstone. If you're a Generation X male, this movie probably means something to you. If you're older or younger than that, or lack a Y chromosome, not so much.

"The Warriors" exists in a quavery dimension between silliness and sobriety that is largely impenetrable. Generally movies with a heightened reality take pains to let the audience see the smirk at the corner of their mouth to let the audience know that despite the brutality they're witnessing, it's not really meant to be taken seriously. Director Walter Hill, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Shaber, does not tip his hand with any lighter moments to break the mood.

The story has both pulp and classic literary antecedents. It was based on the novel by Sol Yurick, who in turn created a modern-day version of "Anabasis," the most famous work of the soldier Xenophon. It involves an army of Greek mercenaries who find themselves trapped deep in the Persian Empire surrounded by enemies on all sides, and must fight their way out. In Yurick's vision, the soldiers are members of New York City gangs in a dystopian near-future where society is fraying around the edges.

Hill, though, approaches the material with a comic book mindset -- even separating the story into "chapters" with cut scenes that freeze-frame and transition to illustrated panels.

Then there are the various gangs, which are more like tribes mixed with theatrical troupes. All of them wear their uniforms or "colors," which range from the plain to the outlandish. There's a group who dresses like 1920s dandy boys in neon sparkles, brightly-hued clowns, thuggish skinheads and more. Each gang is not so much a military force squabbling over small sections of turf in New York's seven boroughs as an ethos that is constantly performed for an audience that consists mostly of each other.

In this we can see various cinematic ancestors. There are the Sharks and the Jets in "West Side Story," of course. What is their antagonism based on? The fact that they're in different gangs. I also think of the roving gangs of the Australian wasteland in "Mad Max," which came out the same year as "The Warriors."

But I believe the film that most heavily influences this one is "A Clockwork Orange." There the "droogs" dressed in outlandish mash-ups of fashion and eras of time, mixing 17th century codpieces with Prohibition bowler hats -- not to mention grown men wearing makeup. They are supposed to look ridiculous, but the fact that they're heartless killers makes their outlandish gear even more disturbing.

The Warriors, the gang that controls Coney Island, has an American Indian flavor, favoring buckskin vests over bare chests and even feathers and jewelry for some members. They are notable in that they appear to be the only one of 100 gangs invited to a big meeting in the Bronx who are racially mixed. Most of the others are split between white, black and Hispanic -- such as the Gramercy Riffs, a militant Black Panther-esque outfit that happens to be the most powerful gang in New York.

Cyrus, the leader of the Riffs, has called the meeting in an attempt to meld all the city gangs into one coherent force that will overwhelm the police and take over New York. He's assassinated by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the head of the Rogues, who tool around in a 1956 Cadillac hearse and delight in causing trouble for its own sake.

The Warriors are fingered for the outrage, and so they must make their way back to the sea with every other gang howling for their blood. A largely unseen radio DJ keeps the "boppers" apprised of the progress.

Two scenes from the film have become certifiably iconic. One is Luther taunting the Warriors, clanging together beer bottles stuck on his fingers while playfully singing, "Warriors ... come out to plaaaaaaayyyyyy!!" It's emblematic of the entire movie -- a childish gesture intended as a chilling moment of deadly intimidation that plays out as a goof.

The other is a fight in a park between the Warriors and the Baseball Furies -- a gang that dresses in Yankees pinstripes with garish face paint. They carry baseball bats as weapons, and their leader whips his around like a master samurai in a Kurosawa epic. The scene is likewise a total guffaw, meant to be frightening but instead quite schlocky.

Other notable gangs that turn up to harry the Warriors include the Orphans -- low-level tramps who are infuriated at not having been deemed important enough to be invited to the conclave -- and the Lizzies (think "Lezzes"), tough girl gangsters who act as sirens to entice a trio of the warriors away from their quest, and then nearly kill them.

The Warriors themselves are more character archetypes than distinct individuals. Their leader, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), is killed by the Riffs as misdirected vengeance for Cyrus, leaving the stoic -- nearly mute, in fact -- war chief Swan (Michael Beck) in charge. He's challenged by hothead Ajax (James Remar), who quickly grows sick of all the running and simply wants to fight everyone, no matter what the odds.

Cochise (David Harris) straddles the thin line of hostility between the two would-be leaders. Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez) is the youngest Warrior, almost angelic, who marks their passing with spray cans. Cowboy (Tom McKitterick) wears a hat and Vermin (Terry Michos) is a lothario with a hairy chest.

It's interesting how lean and un-pumped the bodies of the Warriors are compared to the overmuscled Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the following decade. It's also notable that most of the principle cast members were about 30 when the movie was made, though the undertone of spent youth would seem to indicate teenagers.

Movies of this ilk often have a totally extraneous and unnecessary female character, and here her name is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). Women, including the Lizzies, are treated by the gangs as fungible commodities, to be bartered and won through combat. Indeed, the Lizzies entice Vermin, Cochise and Rembrandt by essentially offering themselves as sexual prizes to the Warriors to reward their prowess.

When we first meet her, Mercy is more or less the sex mascot of the Orphans. Immediately sensing that Swan and his gang represent a trade up, she abandons her old crew and tags along. It's never explained why she's there and why the Warriors tolerate her presence, since she's got a mouth on her. Swan or somebody is perpetually grabbing Mercy's arm, pulling her this way or that, demanding she stop slowing them down -- why, exactly, don't they just dump her?

The unreality of the Warriors' situation continually undercuts our ability to get caught up in their great adventure. For example, the Warriors are completely reliant on the subway system to get around -- virtually all of their battles take place inside a station or on their way toward one. It's amusing that these all-powerful gangs are considering a move to take over the entire city, yet they are almost entirely reliant on public transportation to get from here to there.

The Rogues seem to be the only gang that possesses both a gun and a vehicle. (The skinheads are the only others with mechanized transportation, piling onto a dilapidated dump truck.) Luther's use of a pistol is depicted as a dishonorable thing, a violation of the warrior (small "w") code that implies hand-to-hand fighting is the purest expression of combat. The Lizzies also have a gun, but it's not the same since, y'know, they're just girls.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Review: "Skyfall"

 Of all the taunts we’ve heard a dastardly villain sneer at James Bond over the last 50 years, I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this: “Your knees must be killing you.”

The cocky newly-certified Agent 007 played so vibrantly by Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale” is gone, replaced by an aging, edgier spy who’s been written off as dead – following a typically thrilling opening action sequence, culminating in a fistfight on top of a speeding train.

When Bond does turn up again, he’s haggard, bloodshot, twitchy and graying. He’s been seriously wounded, turning to booze and pills to dull the pain. The icy bravado is still there, but the hands are shaky.
The consensus, among friend and foe alike, is universal: Bond has lost a step.

And it’s not just 007. In “Skyfall,” which arrives a half-century after the first James Bond film, the entire espionage racket as practiced by MI6 is being condemned as antiquated and clunky.

Spy chief M (Judi Dench) is being urged into retirement. Politicians such as Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) are cracking down. Field agents like Bond are increasingly seen as antediluvian throwbacks, blunt instruments to be employed only when the technological wizardry of whippersnappers like Q (Ben Whishaw) won’t suffice.

Things are brought into stark relief when a mysterious antagonist manages to hack MI6’s database of secret agents and blow up a big chunk of their building, too. Suddenly, it’s the spymasters who appear one step behind.

As much as “Casino Royale” felt like a game-changer six years ago, “Skyfall” moves the ball further down the field. It is both grander and grimmer. The storyline is stripped down and spare, excised of extraneous supporting characters, distracting subplots and an emphasis on gadgetry.

When Bond receives his new field kit from Q, it consists of a gun and a radio transmitter. “Not exactly Christmas, is it?” he quips.

Even Bond’s legendary libido is shunted to a back burner, with the usual menagerie of “Bond girls” restricted to a fellow operative (Naomie Harris) who talks the talk but teeters along the walk, and the top villain’s henchwoman (Bérénice Marlohe), whose tale evokes more pity than sexual energy.

Speaking of the bad guy, he’s a distinct twist on the familiar, too. Played by Javier Bardem, Silva possesses some very reasonable reasons for wanting vengeance on M and MI6. Bedecked in flowing blond hair and an eerily languid manner, Silva is chilling despite seeming passive and off-kilter. He’s both synthetic and sympathetic.

In their first faceoff, which comes with Bond at a distinctive disadvantage, Craig feels like he’s been pumped to overflowing with testosterone, while Bardem has been drained of all his precious bodily fluids. The contrast is a startle.

Director Sam Mendes, known for cerebral irony like “American Beauty” and “Away We Go,” brings a divergent methodology to the Bond franchise. He seems to have approached the material with the idea of making a hefty dramatic spy story that just happens to feature James Bond, rather than trying to replicate what other guns-for-hire have done over 007’s long cinematic lifespan.

The action scenes are crisp but not overwhelming, adding spice to the narrative throughline without trying to supplant it. Chase scenes build tension rather than merely acting as connective tissue between exchanges of dialogue. We even get to learn something of Bond’s tragic familial history.

The screenwriting trio consists of Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, two veterans of other Bond missions, and chameleon John Logan, who’s done everything from sci-fi to sports to animation and historical drama … and done it all very, very well.

The final product is something old and something new, but with a burning blood-red heart. “Skyfall” is a steely marriage between old school and brave new world. It’s one of Bond’s best outings.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: "The Sessions"

Helen Hunt stands there naked – gloriously, completely and unconcernedly nude. She does not make any attempt to cover herself up or turn away, seeking the shadows. She’s just … there. All there.

This brazen, lingering show of flesh is notable because it is so different from our experiences with major stars like Hunt, who has won an Oscar and will surely be nominated for another for “The Sessions.” It’s a movie about sex that shows a whole lot of sex, but isn’t sex-obsessed.

This film grabs you in the heart rather than the loins.

Hunt behaves like this because her character, Cheryl, is a sex therapist hired to help a severely disabled man lose his virginity. Her body is her tool in trade, and she employs it without reservation or obfuscation. And the fact that she is so matter-of-fact about being naked soon renders it as no big deal for the audience, too.

Her client, Mark O’Brien, suffered from polio as a child and has lost all movement below the neck. He spends most of his time encased in an iron lung, and even when free of it must be wheeled around on a gurney by a helper.

This setup may sound like a crazy Hollywood concoction, but Mark and Cheryl and their story are real. A poet and journalist, O’Brien wrote about his experiences seeing a sex surrogate, and was the subject of a 1997 documentary short that won an Academy Award.

John Hawkes gives the performance of his career as Mark. Hawkes spends the entire movie horizontal, his chest heaved upwards in a rictus curve and his face tilted three-quarters upside down. But it’s the rich emotional center of this personification, not the physical tics and contortions, that make it certain he will join Hunt in being honored by the Academy.

Playing a man 15 years younger than himself, Hawkes employs a high voice that’s somewhere between impish and sprightly. Though he’s in his late 30s, Mark is troubled by his virginity and the way his sexual urges have gone unmet. “I need intercourse to prove I’m an adult,” he says.

Here’s another twist: Mark’s confidante is literally his father-confessor. Father Brendan (William H. Macy) is the parish priest at Mark’s church, who befriends him and offers advice – and tacit blessing – on his sexual adventure. The film approaches Mark’s Catholic faith with respect, but takes note of how it may have contributed to his inhibitions.

Soon enough Cheryl and Mark meet, and she begins tutoring him in the ways of physical intimacy. His first experiences are … rather abrupt, shall we say. Thus Mark proves that he is, in fact, quite normal when it comes to initial experiences at sex.

Things move on from there. Cheryl, who likes to keep a professional relationship with her clients, tells Mark up front that their time together will be limited to six sessions. The idea is to give her clients the tools and instruction they need to enjoy healthy sexual lives without them transferring an emotional attachment onto her.

But this time, Cheryl finds it is her who is developing feelings for this awkward, intelligent and funny man. We see a little glimpse of her home life (Adam Arkin plays the husband) and see why she would crave emotional intimacy in the same way Mark yearns for the physical side.

Writer/director Ben Lewin, who adapted the screenplay from O’Brien’s own article, has delivered a masterwork. "The Sessions" has a quirky but deep authenticity.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Video review: "The Amazing Spider-Man"

For an absolutely unnecessary reboot of the web-slinging superhero franchise, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is terrifically well-done. It attacks the character of Pete Parker, a nerdy kid who gets bitten by a radioactive arachnid, from a darker perspective than the previous trilogy.

Andrew Garfield, taking over the lead role from Tobey Maguire, draws a portrait of a socially ostracized kid who was probably headed to a lonely life of despair if he hadn't been turned into a non-caped crusader.

Becoming Spider-Man teaches him harsh lessons about responsibility -- particularly after his believed Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is slain because of his inaction -- but it also helps him come out of his shell, especially with regard to lady love Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

The heavy here is Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a scientist who becomes Peter's mentor as they try to unlock the secret of transferring the regenerative power of reptiles to humans. It does help Connors regrow his missing arm -- but also turns him into the fearsome, toothsome Lizard.

Director Marc Webb was an unlikely choice for a big-budget action film, his only other credit being the indie romance, "(500) Days of Summer." But Webb and the trio of screenwriters have made something genuinely new out of something old.

Please note, "The Amazing Spider-Man" will be released on video Friday, Nov. 9.

The film comes with a heaping helping if extras, even with the base DVD version. It boasts a feature-length commentary track by the filmmakers, deleted scenes, product art gallery and footage from stunt rehearsals.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo, and you add more than 90 minutes of behind-the-scenes documentaries, focusing on casting, story development, costumes, locations and special effects. There's also a Second Screen App for mobile devices with storyboards, interviews and more.

Opt for the 3-D Blu-ray combo and you add some featurettes on 3D imaging processes.

Go all in for the 4-disc Limited Edition Gift Set and you also get special packaging and collectible figurines of Spider-Man and the Lizard.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, November 5, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Man Who Never Was" (1956)

"The Man Who Never Was" is a crime caper built inside a war film. It's the (mostly) true story of the one of the biggest hoaxes ever played, with the winner earning not stacks of money but sums of lives -- 30,000 Allied soldiers spared, by some reckoning.

Operation Mincemeat was one of the those things that sounds elegantly simple in abstract: British Intelligence would dump a body with secret documents detailing an Allied invasion of Greece -- not Sicily, where everyone (including their Axis enemies) was sure the blow would fall. The Germans would find the documents, route their forces elsewhere, and a victory secured with greatly reduced bloodshed.

And that's exactly what did happen.

In execution, though, the scheme was frighteningly convoluted and could have come apart at the seams in any number of ways. Ewen Montagu, the real-life intelligence officer who cooked up the idea -- adapted from one suggested by RAF Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley -- wrote a 1953 best-selling book after his team's exploits were declassified. It, and the movie adaptation three years later, lays out all the details of the operation with some engaging storytelling.

It was such a fiendishly good idea, in fact, that the Allied forces tried replicating it several more ties during the course of World War II. German intelligence forces, of course, were none too keen on repeating their mistake. This actually translated into other instances captured cinematically in which the Germans ignored crucial intelligence that fell into their lap. For instance, there's a scene in "A Bridge Too Far" where a German soldier captures a map of Allied bridge objectives, but when he turns it in his commanders dismiss it as a ruse. That really did happen.

The chief challenge facing Montagu, played by Clifton Webb, was finding a body and preserving it in such a way that the Germans would think the man had died in an airplane crash at sea and his body floated ashore several days later. After consulting with medical experts, he convinces the father of a young fellow who died of pneumonia to donate the body, no questions asked. They would store the body in a special container filled with dry ice, and a submarine launch it a mile off the shore of Spain -- where the supposedly neutral government would cooperate with a German investigation.

The steps Montagu and his team (Robert Flemyng plays his sidekick) took to convince the Germans the body belonged to a real British Royal Marine were truly astounding. Dubbing the man William Martin, they concocted all sorts of fake papers and records. His death was published in the regular newspaper rolls of war dead. They even stuffed theater tickets, a clothing store receipt, keys and other personal articles into his pockets.

The most intriguing trickery was inventing a fiance for young Willy Martin. They enclosed a love letter from a fictional sweetheart in his pocket, and a receipt for an engagement ring. In the movie the sweetheart is played by Gloria Grahame as Lucy Sherwood, a buxom American gal who is the roommate of Pam (Josephine Griffin), Montagu's assistant. Spurned in her own romantic misadventures, Lucy dictates a convincing letter of yearning and regret that the intelligence officers find positively enthralling.

The last third or so of the movie is pure flimflam. It involves a German spy posing as an Irishman (Stephen Boyd) who is sent to London to inquire after Willy's activities to see if they're legit. This eventually leads him to the doorstep of Pam and Lucy, where the latter, having actually just been told of the death of her flyboy beau, convinces the interloper that she's genuinely devastated.

The culmination is Montagu and his men rushing over to the spy's whereabouts to arrest him, and suddenly pulling up and realizing they have to let him go. Otherwise, Montagu reasons, the Germans will have been tipped off to their ruse.

None of this occurred, but its makes for a satisfying conclusion to the movie. The real Montagu spoke approvingly of the changes -- he surely could not have minded being portrayed as a brilliant gumshoe in addition to a military intelligence strategist. The movie's final coda has Montagu placing the Order of the British Empire medal he received for his exploits on the fictional Willy Martin's grave in Spain.

In movie-making if not in war, myth always trumps history.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Review: "Flight"

In his long career Denzel Washington has played a lot of good guys, and a few notable bad ones, but I'm not sure if he's ever played a guy like the one in "Flight."

The story is about a pilot who saves a jet full of passengers when his plane suffers a major malfunction. But in the days that come after the crash, questions arise that throw his heroism, and even his entire self-conception, into chaos.

William "Whip" Whitaker is a puzzle, a mystery wrapped in a cocoon of bravado and patter. He's been fooling everyone else for so long that he's even convinced himself that he fits his role to a T: that of the savvy, calm, cool and collected airline pilot. The image he projects is of a former Navy fighter pilot hot dog turned safe and seasoned commercial captain of the airwaves.

But Whip's got a secret. He drinks. A lot. Does a little coke, too, to bring himself up after the buckets of booze have worn him down. But once he's in the pilot's seat, he reasons, he's all business.

Except that one fateful day something on the plane breaks, and Whip and his green co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) are forced to undertake a risky crash-landing maneuver. The upshot: a lot of people are hurt, but only six out of 102 are killed. People are calling it a miracle. The media is buzzing. In simulated recreations, no other pilot is able to replicate Whip's daring deed.

And yet, the blood tests say he was legally drunk when he did this.

From there, the story takes on an unsteady rhythm, as the narrative meanders here and pools there. The original script by John Gatins goes in directions we don't expect; some of them pay off, and others don't.

Whip is confronted by federal investigators, as well as the friendly head of the pilot's union (Bruce Greenwood) and the slick lawyer they've retained (Don Cheadle). Their job, they say, is to protect Whip. But the odds are dire -- he could end up lauded as a hero, another Sully Sullenberger, or put in jail forever.

His first reaction is like the rest of his life up to now: bluster. No one else could have landed that plan and saved those lives like I did, he proclaims. To him it makes no difference if he was legally impaired at the time, since obviously the booze and drugs didn't affect him enough to prevent him from amazing actions.

But slowly Whip descends into a torpor, hiding out at his grandfather's abandoned farm, swilling astonishing amounts of liquor. We get the sense we're seeing the real man Whip hides from the world, one who's self-pitying, arrogant and not a little pathetic.

In the hospital he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a woman who overdosed on heroin. Her life is falling apart in much the same way as Whip's. Seeing a kindred soul in need, he gives her a place to stay when her money runs out. It's an unspoken but mutually understood arrangement that she will give herself physically to him as a reward.

Things build, slowly, to the big hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board. Will Whip straighten himself up in time to put on a convincing show? Can his lawyer get the toxicology report thrown out?
As it turns out, the movie is not really about these things. Rather, it's an exploration of a man's fragile psyche, and if he can recognize the failings underneath his brave veneer of competence.

This is the first live-action movie Robert Zemeckis has directed since 2000's "Cast Away," after an often regrettable decade exploring motion-capture animation. In many ways "Flight" is a return to familiar ground. Instead of being physically isolated, Whip is marooned emotionally. The trick to getting out of his trap is peering deep into his own self-reflection.

It's an engaging picture, and not for a moment was I ever bored. But I never quite got viscerally hooked into Whip's dilemma, or felt like we ever get to really know him. As hard as it is for him to reach out for help, we never quite get a grip on him.

3 stars out of four

Review: "Wreck-It Ralph"

A bouncy, boingy ball of candy-colored fun, "Wreck-It Ralph" is intended as pure entertainment for wee boys and girls. It's one of those animated movies that only really works on a single level, lacking the layers and cleverness of more ambitious flicks. But it's bound to keep the kids from squirming in their seats, and I bet most adults will find it a hoot to boot.

I took my 2-year-old along to the preview screening -- a first for both of us -- and he clapped and cheered, and made the sign for "more" after the end credits rolled. That's as good an endorsement as you'll get anywhere.

The script, by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnson, manages to take something that's very familiar, video games, and put an original-ish spin on it. The idea is that the characters we see inside the arcade games are actually self-aware beings who perform for the person who's put a coin in their slot, but after closing time they have their own thoughts and lives.

It's the same basic premise as "Toy Story" -- what our playthings do when we're not around.

It's often been said that there's never been a decent movie based on a video game. "Ralph" trashes that notion ... though I should note that it creates a new fictional game as the centerpiece rather than using an existing game as its jumping-off point. But, then again, via the inevitable Disney merchandising tie-ins, an actual video game based on the movie is also coming out. So I'm not sure if this movie represents a sellout or a sell-in.

Wreck-It Ralph is a 9-foot-tall ox with a shock of red hair and torso and arms thick as redwoods. He sort of resembles a steroid monster version of John C. Reilly, which is appropriate since he provides the voice. It's a subtle vocal performance, letting Ralph seem both tough and tender.

Ralph has been the villain of a video game called "Fix-It Felix Jr." for the past 30 years. It's sort of a combination of Donkey Kong and Rampage, in which Ralph smashes up an apartment high-rise and sprightly Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs the damage with his magic hammer. In the end the residents of the building pitch Ralph off the roof.

He doesn't get treated much better when they're off duty. Ralph lives in the junk pile next door, while his diminutive neighbors party it up in the penthouse. He's sick of being the bad guy -- even attending "Bad-anon," a support group for fellow video game heavies.

How do they get together? It turns out the characters can travel to and from each others' games via the Central Station -- aka the massive surge protector they're all plugged into. This way avatars from newer games can interact with older icons like Pac-Man and Qbert.

It raises some metaphysical questions, like if the characters in home game consoles are also sentient. Somehow I get the impression, though, that this state of bliss exists only in this one particular arcade.

Fed up with his squalid existence, Ralph determines to travel into another game and become a hero, hoping that winning a medal will earn him more respect. He chooses Hero's Duty, a generic militaristic first-person shooter in which armored soldiers battle alien bugs that can quickly replicate themselves.

Hot in pursuit is Felix, who hopes to set things right, and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the crusty star of Hero's Duty. The chase ends up in another game called Sugar Rush, a cutesy racing game in which everything is made out of cookies and candy -- even the go karts the little clique of snotty girl racers drive.

Here Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who's an outcast in her own game because of her "pixlexia" -- a tendency to glitch out at inopportune times. The ruler of this land, the goofy but slightly despotic King Candy (Alan Tudyk), refuses to let Vanellope race because the human player might think the game is broken. This would lead to being slapped with a dreaded "Out of Order" sign, the equivalent of a death sentence in this world.

Director Rich Moore, a first-time feature filmmaker, has a good grasp of how to stage action scenes and balance them with quieter moments about friendship and doing the right thing even when you won't get credit for it. It never gets too deep or ooey-gooey emotional, which is a smart move for this material.

"Wreck-It Ralph" may not go down as one of the all-time great animated movies, but it's worth your quarters -- you'll need about 40 at today's ticket prices.

The film is preceded by "Paperman," a 6-minute animated short that's a gorgeous black-and-white, wordless depiction of love and happenstance in the big city.

3 stars out of four