Monday, December 31, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966)

Is "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" really a sequel to "A Fistful of Dollars" and "For a Few Dollars More?" After having experienced the entire "Man with No Name" trilogy in short order, I think "The Good" is more a continuation of an ethos and a filmmaking style than a literal expansion of the same character's travels.

As I noted in last week's classic film column, "A Few Dollars" seems to be a pretty straightforward extension of the "Joe" character from "Fistful," now referring to himself as "Manco." (The Man with No Name actually has a name in every movie, it just changes from one to the other.) He still bore the wounds of his severe beating in the first film, most notably a leather brace on his shooting hand after having it crushed.

In the last film Blondie -- the moniker Clint Eastwood bears in "The Good," despite having dark brown hair -- has no issues with his right hand. It's also interesting that he favors a long duster coat instead of the Mexican blanket poncho he had worn so memorably in the first two films. (The rest of his get-up -- sheepskin vest, jeans, hat, gun belt -- remain pretty consistent throughout.) He does eventually don one for the final showdown, the three-way "Mexican standoff" that remains one of the most iconic film scenes of all time.

My other hesitation in calling the final pairing of Eastwood and Italian director Sergio Leone a literal sequel is the timeline. The first two films appeared to take place in the hallowed Old West days of the 1870s to the 1890s. But "The Good" is quite consciously set during the Civil War, which would seem to be going backward in time.

The weaponry certainly doesn't seem to fit. Blondie and his fellow gunslingers all use revolvers with fully jacketed metallic cartridges -- not the ball-and-cap varieties employed during the War, which were much more difficult to reload. I'm not sure cartridge revolvers were even available until after the war. I own a pair of .36 caliber Navy Colts handed down from a relative who was in the war, and I can tell you they're a completely different animal.

The mythology of "The Good" is a bit uncertain, though, so one could read it as Blondie & Co. picked up and dropped into the middle of the nation's bloodiest conflict. Perhaps it was Leone's way of retorting to those who criticized his Spaghetti Westerns for being too violent -- placed against the backdrop of wholesale slaughter, the few dead men who litter his films seem like a meager trickle.

"I've never seen so many men wasted so badly," Blondie comments upon witnessing a battle between North and South over a meaningless bridge.

The first two films featured effective villains, but "The Good" really ratcheted things up with the presence of Angel Eyes, a remorseless assassin played by Lee Van Cleef, and Tuco "The Rat" Ramirez, a slithery scoundrel that Eli Wallach made into one of his finest roles. Van Cleef, of course, played Eastwood's erstwhile partner in the last movie, but Leone was known to re-use favored actors again and again.

I would make a bold argument that Tuco is actually the hero, or at least the protagonist, of "The Good." He's the only one gifted with any kind of backstory or emotional motivation, and if you count up screen time and lines of dialogue, Wallach probably comes out ahead of Eastwood.

Tuco is a thief and a liar, more than happy to double-cross or sacrifice his partners in crime, but operating by an internal -- though deeply hidden -- sense of honor. He and Blondie start out the movie employing a neat scam: Blondie rides into town with Tuco as his prisoner, collects the reward money, then saves his life by shooting out the hangman's noose when the local lawmen go to execute him.

But then Blondie decides the partnership has gone its course and leaves Tuco in the desert, riding off with both halves of the loot. Tuco is incensed -- not so much that a double-cross has occurred, but that Blondie beat him to the punch. He spends much of the rest of the movie looking for his revenge, even as he pretends to be friendly again.

I found myself wondering why Blondie and Tuco know who Angel Eyes is, despite the fact that their paths never cross until midway through the movie. Purely by reputation, perhaps.

All three have gotten a line on $200,000 in stolen gold buried in a cemetery, and through a chain of happenstance Tuco knows only the name of the place and Blondie only knows the name on the grave. They've temporarily re-formed their partnership to find the loot, but are captured by Union soldiers and taken to a camp where Angel Eyes is hiding out as a sergeant. He tortures prisoners for their valuables and any information about the buried gold.

This brings us to another one of the film's most iconic scenes, where captured Confederates are made to play a song to cover up the sounds of their comrades getting beaten to a pulp. It's one of several instances where composer Ennio Morricone's score not only comments on the action but actually drives it.

Morricone's abilities had reached their height by the last of the "Man with No Name" trilogy, and few serious observers of movie music fail to count the score of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" as one of the greatest ever composed. Most remember the hyena-ish caterwaul theme repeated with both voices and instruments -- quite possibly the most effective use of two musical notes this side of John William's score for "Jaws."

But I would argue that Morricone's other themes from this film are just as terrific. There's that sad torture song, whose melody is used several more times during the more melancholy points of the story. And the martial march, punctuated by a harsh steel guitar, is the driving force of many scenes. My favorite is when Tuco and Blondie team up again to take on Angel Eyes' gang. Tuco looks over to his left, sees Blondie there to back him up, and it's game on. This same theme, slowed down and layered with a screeching trumpet solo on top, also plays during the final standoff.

At the end of my column on "Fistful," I stated that I like the idea of the "Man with No Name" more when he's a me-first mercenary, rather than a do-gooder wearing the proverbial black hat. I think that's also why I admire "The Good" the most, because despite the title affixed to Blondie he's a pretty heartless character in his final go-round.

Blondie was quite content to abandon Tuco to a suffering death in the desert and make off with all their ill-gotten gains. And it's worth pointing out that while "Manco" was a quasi-agent of the law in the second film, here Blondie is an out-and-out bandit twisting the Western code of justice for his own profit.

The reason the finale of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is so effective is because we -- and Tuco -- really believe Blondie is capable of leaving him hanging for his life, literally.

On a final note, the version I watched as part of the "Man with No Name" trilogy on Blu-ray is the restored film that's just a hair under three hours long. I have to say the new additions add nothing to the movie -- they're essentially connective scenes that show how, for example, Tuco finds his three henchmen and where Angel Eyes' gang comes into the story. One useless bit shows Tuco, having just rescued Blondie from a horrible death in the desert, stopping to get directions to his brother's monastery.

These new scenes don't advance the plot or add anything to the characterizations, and are just dead weight on a great film.

4 stars out of four

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Video review: "Looper"

Ambitious but not entirely successful, “Looper” is much more than your standard science fiction action flick.
Writer/director Rian Johnson (“Brick”) has crafted a film that’s less concerned with the mechanics of time travel than with the ramifications it has on its characters. It also has one of the boldest casting movies of the year, with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing the same man separated by 30 years in age.

Joe is an assassin, or “looper,” living in Kansas City circa 2044. The loopers kill victims sent back in time by a crime syndicate that runs everything in the future. Their careers are prosperous but brief – retirement comes when the victim who shows up to be assassinated is themselves, three decades into the future.

Unfortunately for Young Joe, Old Joe has apparently been preparing carefully for this day and manages to escape. This sets off a nasty temporal snafu, as well as pitting the two of them against each other and the entire looper operation.

Eventually, the story leads to a lonely farm where a protective young mother (Emily Blunt) guards her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) from the world at large – for good reason, as it turns out.

“Looper” is bursting with originality, but the movie seems to spin sidewise from itself and lose focus. Eventually it all gets tied up in a satisfying way, even if the journey getting there isn’t always a smooth one.

The film is getting a terrific video release piled high with cool features, and you don’t have to pay top dollar for the Blu-ray edition to get lots of goodies.

The DVD comes with a feature-length commentary track by Johnson, and also includes Gordon-Levitt and Blunt. The best commentaries usually include both filmmakers and cast. The DVD also boasts an animated trailer, five deleted scenes with commentary, and two making-of featurettes about creating the story and the musical score.

Go for the Blu-ray, and you receive 17 more deleted scenes with commentary and another featurette, “The Science of Time Travel.”

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Friday, December 28, 2012

Top 10 Films of 2012

I'd call 2012 a slightly better-than-average year for movies. There were no knockouts -- once again, I failed to give out my highest rating to any film -- but there were a great many terrific movies to choose from.

In making my Top 10, the challenge was not in finding quality films to praise, but the painful task of separating out the ones that would just miss making the list. So after the countdown, I'll list movies that didn't quite make my list, but I want to recognize as worthy additions to the cinematic year.

10. Zero Dark Thirty -- Though it's not as emotionally engaging in the first hour or so, this detailed drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden raises the stakes considerably thereafter. The last 45 minutes or so is overpowering.

9. Hitchcock -- Could've been just a lark, but this peek at the great movie director during the making of "Psycho" boasts wonderful performances from Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. Wickedly funny.

8. Lincoln -- The screenplay is occasionally a little self-indulgent, but Steven Spielberg's historical drama about the 16th President ending slavery is a marvel. Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones hit home runs.

7. Django Unchained -- I haven't been a fan lately of Quentin Tarantino's genre-splicing mashups. But this giddy Western revenge romp is his most purely entertaining film in years. Christoph Waltz as a mannered dentist/assassin is one of the most delightful characters of 2012.

6. Argo -- An early Oscar favorite, Ben Affleck's drama about the CIA attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran is both historically accurate and tautly told.

5. The Avengers -- How can a comic book movie deserve a spot on a Top 10 List? When it's one of the best super-hero movies ever made. The Loki/Hulk faceoff may be the biggest laugh line of the year.

4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower -- I, and most others, missed this one during its brief theatrical run. But writer/director Stephen Chbosky, adapting his own book, has given us the best high school drama in two decades. Emma Watson proves there's life after "Harry Potter."

3. The Sessions -- A gentle drama about a paralyzed man looking to lose his virginity, this film has feel-good charm without ever wading into sappiness. Also the rare movie that approaches religious faith without condescension. John Hawkes, Helen Hunt deserve Oscar nods.

2. Safety Not Guaranteed -- Here's another one you may have missed: a quirky black comedy about three cynical journalists investigating a man who advertises in the classifieds for a time-traveling partner. Continually surprises and touches us.

1. Les Misérables -- This adaptation of the stage musical version of Victor Hugo's novel is a grand achievement, huge in scope and production values yet very personal and intimate in relating the stories of a handful of key characters. Two scenes in particular -- Fantine's lament of "I Dreamed a Dream" and Jean Valjean's death -- will knock you over. The music soars, the heart swells.

And here is the best of the rest. They didn't make the Top 10, but they were all movies I felt enriched to have seen this year (listed alphabetically):

The Amazing Spider-Man
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Impossible
Life of Pi
Rise of the Guardians
Silver Linings Playbook
Simon and the Oaks
Somebody Up There Likes Me
Trouble with the Curve

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review: "Parental Guidance"

Warm and schmaltzy, “Parental Guidance” is the movie equivalent of comfort food. It’s funny and warm-hearted, not terribly ambitious, but it does the things it sets out to do well.

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler star as young-ish grandparents struggling to reconnect with their grandkids while watching over them for a week. They’re a winning onscreen match, trading a few snipes but with strong base of love and affection underneath. It seemed like just yesterday Crystal was a romantic leading man, and now he’s riffing as a Borsch Belt grandpa. Time goes by.

I don’t mind saying that seeing Crystal and Midler back on the screen in starring roles warms the cockles of my frigid critic’s heart. They both made nice careers out of their engaging comedic personalities, and it was mysterious why they both seemed to fall off Hollywood’s map a decade ago. Crystal’s mostly been doing voice work, and Midler has popped up in occasional bit roles in movies few people saw.

“Parental Guidance” mostly acts as a showcase for the duo’s funny-bone charms, and a splendid one at that. At times director Andy Fickman and screenwriters Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse wade too deep into sappy life-lessons moments. But the laughs are good and plentiful.

Artie Decker (Crystal) is a baseball radio announcer who always dreamed of making it to the bigs calling Giants games, but never made it higher than “De Voice” of the Fresno Triple-A Grizzlies. His wife Diane (Midler) was a TV weather girl back when they were still called that, and has loyally stuck by Artie’s side through countless career moves.

(As is S.O.P. in a Hollywood flick, they own a huge, gorgeous house that should be way beyond the means of a pair of minor-league broadcasters.)

Then they get a surprise call from their only child, Alice (Marisa Tomei), asking them to come to Atlanta to watch over their three kids. It seems Alice’s husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) has won a big award for his automated home design, and wants to use the occasion as a much-needed vacation for the harried parents.

The trouble is, Alice and Phil have a new Age-y approach to parenting that the Deckers don’t exactly embrace – no sugar, no punishment, etc. The oldsters also can’t figure out the newfangled house, controlled by a computer that sounds like a female version of HAL 9000.

On top of that, Artie is stressed about just getting canned for not being up on social media. “Apps? I have no apps!” he insists indignantly, as if he’s been accused of carrying a disease.

 The three young actors are winsome as all get out, and talented little performers to boot. The filmmakers grant them fairly typical kid problem: Harper (Bailee Madison) is a precocious violinist who needs more freedom to grow; Turner (Joshua Rush) has a stutter and is being bullied at school; Barker (Kyle Harrison Brietkopf) is a scallywag tyke with a bloom of unruly red curls and an even wilder imagination.

The interaction between grandkids and grandparents is fun and kooky. Artie gives Barker payoffs for good behavior – 6-year-olds are pretty cheap to bribe – and indulges Turner’s desire to watch the “Saw” horror movies together, resulting in the movie’s biggest laugh line. And Diane helps Harper find her inner teen.

Yes, “Parental Guidance” is pretty forgettable wholesome entertainment. But this is an amiable family-friendly comedy with an impish streak – a bear hug coupled with a few head noogies.

3 stars out of four

Monday, December 24, 2012

Review: "Django Unchained"

"Django Unchained" may just be Quentin Tarantino's most purely entertaining film since ... ever.

This revisionist Western mixes elements of Tarantino's beloved grindhouse exploitative violence, slow-fuse dramatic scenes building up to major bloodlettings and de rigueur juxtapositions of funky modern songs against classic genre backdrops.

It's a daffy, loopy jaunt that doesn't really add up to anything more than a good time. But what a good time it is. I don't think I've enjoyed a Tarantino movie this much since "Pulp Fiction."

With this revenge story/anti-slavery rant, the quirky writer/director feels like he's finally settled into a rhythm where he's not just trying to recreate the tawdry D-list flicks adored in his youth, but actually crafting something original that connects with an audience. With the dense, sprawling "Inglourious Basterds" and other recent work, it often seemed like he was making movies only for his own self-satisfaction.

The result is lighter and groovier, one that more fully embraces Tarantino's dark, puckish sense of humor. The first half of this nearly three-hour film is more or less pure comedy. One standout is a bit where a group of precursor KKK thugs argue about the efficacy of riding around in hoods with eyeholes cut in them, a scene that would have felt right at home tucked in the middle of "Blazing Saddles."

The plot is straightforward. Django (Jamie Foxx, in full cooler-than-thou mode) is a former runaway slave who's rescued by an oddball bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz, who needs his help identifying three brothers on his hit list.

In exchange, Schultz agrees take on Django as his protégé and help him rescue his wife Hildy (Kerry Washington) from servitude. She was bought up and packed off to Candieland, a seemingly idyllic Mississippi plantation lorded over by the superficially genteel Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Schultz is played by Christoph Waltz, who had an Oscar-winning turn in "Basterds" and is equally good here. Tarantino wrote a great part for him, and Waltz runs away with a subtle, refined performance. Schultz is a German who used to be a dentist, and still rides around in a coach capped with a giant tooth on a spring. He likes to think of himself as cold-hearted and mercenary, but Schultz is repulsed by the way blacks are treated in the South of 1858.

Though at least he's honest enough to admit the similarities with his own trade, killing men for rewards. "Like slavery, it's a flesh for cash business," he purrs.

It's fun watching Django quickly evolve from timid slave to trash-talking killer who loves nothing more than putting white folks in their place ... preferably, in a hole in the ground. He acquires the skills of quick-draw shootist, seemingly overnight, and soon sets to putting them to good use.

The villains are a virtual parade of slovenly caricatures, festooned with facial hair and Neanderthal attitudes toward slaves. "Django" must set some sort of dubious record for the most uses of the n-word in a film. Tarantino, though, seems neither afraid nor enamored with the word, simply putting it in his characters' mouths as it would have been employed pre-Civil War.

Things really get rolling when Django and Schultz meet Calvin, and lure him in with a bogus story about buying one of his prize Mandingo gladiators for an outlandish sum. The matched fights to the death, which hold all the glamour of cockfighting with humans, give lie to Calvin's courtly manors.

DiCaprio is both a hoot and a horror, playing a man who not only embodies these contradictions, but fails to even recognize them.

Samuel L. Jackson also has a nice turn as Steven, the head of Calvin's slaves who's been a thrall to depravity so long it's seeped into his soul.

The long Candieland sequence -- basically the last half of the film -- is an exercise in patiently setting the pot to simmer. Schultz and Calvin engage in a match of manners, while the latter is intrigued by the surly Django's barely concealed insults and bad attitude. We know it's all mounting up to the gunfight to end all gunfights -- replete with geysers of blood -- but we don't mind because Tarantino's buildup is almost more fun than the blowout.

The movie occasionally lapses into self-indulgence, as with a late unnecessary scene involving an Australian mining company, with Tarantino himself playing one of the heavies (and employing quite possibly the worst Aussie accent in the history of cinema). It's an amusing bit, but it doesn't fit with the rest.

Still, "Django Unchained" is a witty, brash mix-up of Old West trappings and modern cool.

3.5 stars out of four

Reeling Backward: "For a Few Dollars More" (1965)

Merry Christmas Eve, and welcome back to the second installment of my look-back columns on the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone "Man With No Name" trilogy.

Like with last week's column on "Fistful of Dollars," it soon became clear to me that I had never actually seen "For a Few Dollars More" in its entirety. I'd obviously viewed portions, especially Eastwood's scenes with Lee Van Cleef, but most of the middle section was completely new to me.

Regular visitors to this space may have noticed that I did not comment in last week's column on the musical score by Ennio Morricone. That might seem puzzling since he's one of my favorite film composers, and I rarely miss an opportunity to talk about how much I love his work. And there was a reason for that: "Fistful" was simply not a very memorable score.

The famously prolific Italian already had more than a dozen scores under his belt by the time he did "Fistful," but he had not quite reached his creative plateau yet. That score is rather minimalist, just a few punctuations of sound and musical accents -- most notably, a descending flute arpeggio that is evocative of dripping water.

With "For a Few Dollars More," one can hear Morricone growing bolder and more confident. Reportedly it was recorded before production on the sequel began, and Leone actually shot certain sequences in time with the music.

There's much more use of non-instrumental sounds, percussive thwacks and plonks that act like a rhythm section keeping time with the action. But you also hear more human voices and swelling full orchestras knocking you over with a wall of sound. If the music in "Fistful" felt like experimentation, then the sequel registers as an artist finding his full voice, and letting fly.

And "More" is definitely a sequel to "Fistful," in a way that "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is not. The final film is more a culmination of a movement than a continuation of an individual story. The middle firm serves as the bridge, sharing more of The Man With No Name's adventures.

I noted last week that Eastwood's character actually did have a name, "Joe," though only one person, the coffin maker, calls him that. Perhaps he called every American who wandered south of the border by that name. In "More" he again has a name, Manco, though it isn't used very often. What's notable is that this is not a name foisted upon TMWNN, but one he chooses for himself. "I never heard of him before, but he calls himself Manco," is how we first hear of him.

Manco translates to Spanish and Portuguese as roughly "one-armed" or "lame of hand," and you may recall that in "Fistful" he gets beaten to a pulp by his enemies, including having his shooting hand crushed. Joe/Manco has to heal and re-learn to shoot before the final showdown. In "More," he wears a leather brace on his right hand and performs virtually every non-critical action with only his left -- lighting matches, flipping up a deck of cars, etc.

His shooting ability, neither his speed or accuracy, doesn't seem to have diminished one bit from its unnatural level. So why favor the hand? It seems more like Manco simply prefers to preserve his right hand for killing, rather than because he has any sort of disability with it. But the continuity of the injury between the first two films serves to underscore that they were intended as literal sequels featuring the same character.

Leone reputedly wanted Charles Bronson for TMWNN, and Bronson again refused to take on the second lead role in the sequel. Bronson probably came to regtet it -- but remember, the "Dollars" films weren't released in the U.S. until 1967 when all three came out a few months apart, launching Eastwood's career as a leading man. So Leone found another character actor rambling about Hollywood, Lee Van Cleef, to take the one Bronson had refused.

He plays Douglas Mortimer, a former soldier turned "bounty killer" like Manco. The two clash, then join forces, then split up again ... sort of. Mortimer prides himself on his marksmanship and careful methods, which have allowed him to survive and thrive to "almost 50 years of age" in a business that is filled with reckless young shootists like Manco. (Point of fact: Van Cleef and Eastwood were actually only two years apart in age.)

Mortimer carries around quite an array of odd firearms, including a ridiculously long revolver to which he attaches a shoulder stock for impressive long-distance accuracy. In one of the movie's most memorable sequences, Mortimer and Manco engage in a bit of one-upsmanship upon first meeting. First they step on each other's boots, exchange blows and then take turns shooting each other's hats off. Mortimer eventually "wins" this contest when he's able to use his gun gizmo successfully at a distance Manco cannot.

It's more like an encounter of male animals in the wild feeling out each other's strength than a true fight to the death, and indeed it ends with them sharing drinks and stories, and agreeing to partner up. In fact, one of the young boys who witnesses the standoff exclaims, "It's just like our games!"

With his pinched, hawkish visage and deep-set eyes, Van Cleef was quite an arresting physical specimen. He had one of those faces that you couldn't decide if it was fascinatingly ugly or compellingly handsome. Both, somehow.

He'd been almost entirely a TV guy before this film, but after it made a splash in the States his movie career took off. Most notably, of course, he played the main villain Angel Eyes in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

It might seem strange to have the same actor playing different roles within the same trilogy of films, but Leone often reused his favorite performers over and over. Gian Maria Volonté, who played the chief villain in "Fistful," is back as a different character here as El Indio.

The burly Mario Brega, who played a henchman in the last movie, returns as lieutenant to El Indio. Brega also had a memorable turn as a sadistic soldier in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- I think he might be the only actor besides Eastwood to appear in all three films.

Also notable is Klaus Kinski, in one of his first performances to gain attention in the U.S., as an unhinged hunchback bandit.

The plot of "For a Few Dollars More" is rather thin. We establish Manco and Mortimer as formidable characters by watch them warm up on a few minor bad guys, and then they spend the rest of the movie tussling over who will get the big reward for Indio. Meanwhile, Indio and his gang are planning a clever robbery of a seemingly impenetrable bank in El Paso.

I think if this film came out first and had to stand on its own, the "Man With No Name" trilogy, and perhaps even the entire spaghetti Western movement, might not have taken off like it did. The things that stand out are the on-again-off-again rivalry between Manco and Mortimer, and also the attempt to gift Indio with a little depth and psychology.

One of his first acts in the movie is to assassinate the man who ratted him out and sent him to jail -- but not before killing the man's wife and 18-month-old son, too. Indio never shoots in cold blood, but always offers a quick-draw contest to his victims, timed to the musical chime of the beautiful pocket watch he carries with him. Morricone's score takes on a haunting note, and Indio seems to almost sleep into a stupor. Turns out he's haunted by memories of his most despicable deed, one that brought Mortimer on his trail.

If a bit shaky narratively, "For a Few Dollars More" is still a rousing sequel that kept the party going until the "Man With No Name" trilogy could reach its culmination.

3 stars out of four

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Review: "Les Misérables"

Epic yet intimate, "Les Misérables" is an astonishing cinematic feat.

Here is Victor Hugo's sprawling novel, which has been adapted to film numerous times and then turned into a smash Broadway musical, and now returns as the movie version of that stage production. It boasts the same huge cast of characters, dozens of songs and outsized production backdrop of a turbulent 19th century France, building up to the June Rebellion of 1832.

Yet, when Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) or Fantine (Anne Hathaway) or the other figures are pouring out their souls in song, the artifice of the theater melts away and it feels like they're singing not for an audience but for themselves.

Director Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar a couple of years ago for "The King's Speech," and his team have crafted a marvelous rendition of something familiar. This "Les Misérables" is fresh and vibrant, with a populist message about the people of the streets rising up against the ultra-wealthy.

But most importantly, this is the story of people about whom we come to care very deeply. It doesn't hurt that the singing stars are generally tremendous, with Hathaway the clear standout. Jackman, a veteran song-and-dance man, expertly belts his way through some big set pieces. And Russell Crowe surprises us with a resonant and heartfelt baritone.

The thing that's most amazing about the crooning is that the actors were actually recorded live on the set, and that's what we hear. Usually such things are re-dubbed in a looping studio after the fact. The result is thus imperfect in pitch, but intentionally so. Hooper's bold choice only adds to the sense that the music is happening spontaneously in front of the audience, rather than being rendered flawlessly for us.

Hathaway's scene where Fantine wallows in her misery with "I Dreamed a Dream" -- perhaps the best-known song from the musical -- is the encapsulation of this approach. Hathaway sings the entire thing in one uninterrupted take, her face filthy and her hair shorn to a horrid buzz, her voice rising from a whisper to a shout as her emotions boil over from self-pity into anger.

It's an absolutely gobsmacking moment, and one of the most arresting performances of any movie this year.

Hugo's story is so well-known as to be considered iconic: Valjean, hardened by 19 years of imprisonment for stealing bread, has his world turned around when a lonely old priest shows him a tremendous kindness. He becomes a man of supreme altruism and virtue, but ironically must break the law to do so.

Forever pursued by the relentless police inspector Javert (Crowe), who abides by the strict dictates of the law over true justice, Valjean leaves behind his name and identity to become the mayor of his town and the wealthy owner of a factory. Fantine, one of his workers, is discharged for dubious reasons and turns to ever sadder means to support her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen).

Valjean eventually learns of her plight, and pledges to care for Cosette, rescuing her from the clutches of the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) -- purported innkeepers who employ every method, legal or otherwise, to get their percentage. He raises her to womanhood (Amanda Seyfried takes over the role) where she falls for an idealistic young rebel named Marius (Eddie Redmayne).

As their student rebellion snowballs into violence, all these disparate forces clash in one dramatic upheaval of love, loyalty and strife.

The soaring songs, the bitter tragedy, the majestic sweep -- "Les Misérables" is a standing-ovation triumph.

3.5 stars out of four

Video review: "Premium Rush"

A zippy, looper thrill ride of a movie, "Premium Rush" overcomes its paper-thin premise to deliver an enjoyable and well-crafted piece of entertainment.

The plot is silly to the point of absurdity: A maverick bike messenger named Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is pursed all over New York City by a corrupt detective (Michael Shannon) who's after the documents he's transporting across town. Wilee may have a low-paying, no-respect job, but he takes it seriously and refuses to give in, even as the stakes are steadily ratcheted up into deadly territory.

"Once it goes in the bag, it stays in the bag," is his credo.

Director David Koepp, who also wrote the screenplay with John Kamps, shows a flair for action sequences as the bicycles weave perilously in and out of traffic that's constantly on the move. One of the coolest bits is Wilee's ability to analyze a situation and plot different outcomes on the fly. He's like the Rain Man of traffic patterns.

Shannon is both funny and frightening as the bad guy, a cop so underwater in gambling debts that lashes out like a man struggling for air. He's like a one-man circle of victimization, inflicting and receiving punishment in turn.
The really astonishing thing is that the cast and crew manage to engage us in this ridiculous potboiler on wheels, and actually care about the characters.

"Premium Rush" may not be a great film, but it goes to show that filmmakers can approach even the lightest material with devotion and come out ahead of the pack.

Alas, video extras are quite skimpy. They're limited to two making-of featurettes: "The Starting Line -- Meet The Cast" and "Behind The Wheels -- Featurette on the Action, Stunts and Chases."

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 stars

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: "This Is 40"

Judd Apatow knows how to create amusing scenes, but as a storyteller he’s hopeless.

The prolific and popular comedy writer/producer/director employs a familiar circle of actors who are encouraged to ad-lib their scenes prodigiously. These are then linked together in an editing process that employs all the restraint of Homer Simpson in a donut factory.

For a sketch comedy show, that’s a great M.O., but for making movies it’s the equivalent of diarrhea.
His last directorial effort, “Funny People,” had a terrific first 80 minutes and then flushed itself down the toilet with an indulgent, overlong visit with the main character’s ex-girlfriend, played by Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann.

His latest, “This Is 40,” moves Mann from the supporting role to the spotlight, with Paul Rudd playing her husband as the pair deal with twin monster-sized mid-life crises.

Its demise is not quite so systematic as “People,” since you can’t pinpoint an exact moment when the film runs off the rails. But gradually you come to realize you’re trapped watching a bunch of people you don’t like who stopped being funny a while ago.

Knowing Apatow’s estrangement from the concept of brevity, I resolved to go into “This Is 40” not fretting about its length, and just let the story come to me. Finally, when it seemed like it was reaching a point of natural denouement, I looked at my watch. Just over an hour had gone by – meaning I was still less than halfway through the film’s interminable 134 minutes.

Some of the film’s best moments come from the supporting characters, of which there are plenty, played by Apatow mainstays like Jason Segel as well as newcomers like Albert Brooks, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd. (Many of the latter have appeared in projects Apatow produced.) They get to come on stage, have a nice moment of mirth or pathos, and then dance off. Brooks in particular shines.

The problem is the main characters, Debbie and Pete. They start out as quirky and end up as contemptible. When bad things begin to happen, I found myself cheering on the forces arrayed against them.

Example: their tween daughter gets caught in a nasty Facebook fight with a boy, and then Debbie confronts the online oppressor and browbeats him into crying. Later the boy’s mother (McCarthy) gives Pete a tongue-lashing, and he responds with a violent, misogynistic screed so black-hearted that I rooted for her to bury her fist deep in his sinuses.

For a pair of folks who are both about to turn 40, Pete and Debbie are remarkably juvenile emotionally. Their relationship feels like an ironic sparring between college chums that never progressed into any real emotional depth. Love is more conceptual than operational for them.

They’re indifferent parents at best, greeting their two daughters with harried looks of exasperation, as if having kids is the ultimate downer. Apatow offspring Maude and Iris play the kids, turning this movie into a championship-level nepotism jubilee. The Apatow young’uns are not bad performers, but their dad’s screenplay only provides them with one speed/volume at which to play: the older one is constantly hollering, the younger one always teasing.

The family is faced with some pretty dire financial problems, but it’s hard to summon much sympathy for them, since Debbie and Pete each seem to work about five hours a week. Meanwhile, they spend like bandits – expensive cars, weekend getaways, personal trainers, etc.

He runs a small record label that is unsuccessfully flogging a nostalgia rock act, and she owns a fashion boutique where she occasionally drops by to check in on her two warring employees (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi), one of whom is stealing.

The humor is pretty raunchy, although as with other Apatow flicks sex is more discussed than performed. Many scenes end up feeling more icky than amusing – as when Pete goes spread-eagle and insists Debbie inspect a growth in his… um, nethers.

There are some funny moments in “This Is 40,” but what there is tends to be clustered toward the beginning. Until Apatow learns how to get a grasp on story structure, his movies will continue to wallow in self-indulgence.

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "Jack Reacher"

From what I understand, "Jack Reacher" is based on a series of books by Lee Child about a wandering ex-military badass who roams the countryside meting out justice with only the clothes on his back and a toothbrush to his name. Tom Cruise, handsome as ever after recently turning 50, looks like Reacher also has a small army of makeup artists and stylists to give him just the right zhuzh before every fight scene.

He's so smiley and smirky, he practically twinkles. It's one of those movies where whenever the hero walks into a room, every female stops what she's doing to stare at him, like a ribeye being waggled at the pack of solves from "The Grey."

It's a nice action star vehicle for Cruise, though the storytelling is often stolid to the point of stiffness. It plays out like a TV crime procedural with regular interruptions for combat, gradually ratcheting upward from hand-to-hand to assault rifles.

Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote and directed the adaptation, takes his own good time getting things rolling. But once the action gets pushed into high gear roughly midway through, it's a fast-paced thrill ride the rest of the way.

The story's a little zany and not particularly coherent. An ex-Army sniper named James Barr (Joseph Sikora) appears to suddenly snap one day and randomly shoot five strangers in front of the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium. A sharp local police detective named Emerson (David Oyelowo) manages to put the pieces together, including recovering a quarter with Barr's fingerprint out of a parking meter, and makes the arrest.

Before he's attacked by other prisoners and conveniently put into a coma, Barr scribbles "Find Jack Reacher" as his supposed confession.

Reacher, we soon learn, is a ghost. A top military policeman, he suddenly resigned after 20 years in the Army to roam the land, like Caine sans kung fu. He has no fixed address, owns no possessions other than his clothes and a few incidentals, and apparently gets by using his military pension for bus tickets and cheap hotel rooms.

There's a great scene where Emerson and his boss, District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins), are discussing the mystery of Reacher. Usually in these sorts of movies we would immediately cut to a cool intro where we meet the guy they've been talking about doing something astonishingly cool. Instead, Reacher himself walks in the door right at that moment, offering his services.

He gets the brush-off, but Rodin's daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike), who's been appointed as the shooter's attorney, lures him in. It turns out Reacher investigated Barr a few years ago when they were both in the service, but couldn't quite pin the crime on him.

Now he wants a second crack ... until events reveal that Barr may not have been the assassin after all.

It's all confusing and uneven, having something to do with a mercenary corporation that moves from town to town, sucking up government contracts via bribes and intimidation. Soon you learn to stop worrying about the story and just enjoy watching Reacher dispatch his foes with cool, collected aplomb.

Werner Herzog, the great German movie director, turns up as an enigmatic baddy with only a single eye and only slightly more fingers. Herzog is a hoot relating the story of how he lost them, managing to be both goofy and chilling at the same moment. It's like a parody of an action-movie villain, and yet totally effective.

The action scenes are crisply edited, particularly a standout car chase sequence where Reacher is pursuing the bad guys, while in turn the police are pursuing him. As is obligatory in movies of this ilk, Reacher acquires a classic muscle car and then proceeds to slowly destroy it.

The final showdown at a mine pit is similarly well-executed, where Reacher gets an assist from an old Marine sergeant played by Robert Duvall. He and Cruise have a giddy repartee, and the pairing is winning.

I wish I could say the same for Pike, who spends the entire movie wearing a slightly startled expression, as if she can't believe she's starring in a movie with Tom Cruise.

"Jack Reacher" is kind of a trashy movie with A-list stars and production values. It ain't any great shakes, but for what it is, it does it effectively.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review: "Hyde Park on Hudson"

“Hyde Park on Hudson” is about a time “when the world still allowed itself secrets,” specifically the secret that President Franklin D. Roosevelt carried on a long and intimate relationship with his distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley.

The original archivist for FDR’s presidential library, Daisy left behind a treasure trove of letters and diaries after her 1991 death that revealed the deep nature of the friendship, which many have conjectured contained a sexual element. This correspondence formed the basis for a nonfiction book by Geoffrey Ward, a play by Richard Nelson and now this film, also penned by Nelson.

Bill Murray, who bears not even a passing resemblance to Roosevelt, is nonetheless convincing in the role of a great man who was also a supremely talented politician, playing the people around him like well-tuned instruments. Murray's FDR knows his powers of persuasion, using his blueblood sense of entitlement and patrician charm as tools to quietly command those in his sphere, despite a body crippled by polio.

But this story is really Daisy's ... or at least it should be.

Daisy is an aging spinster trapped by familial obligations who's all agog to receive a surprise invitation to visit the president at his ancestral home in upstate New York. He asks about her limited travels and the places she'd like to go, and Daisy admits, "To be honest, I'd love to go just about anywhere." Any opportunity to get out of her drab life of near-poverty, caring for her sickly aunt is a boon.

Laura Linney plays Daisy in a subtle, passive performance in which her character mostly reacts to the people she encounters. She serves as the audience's eyes and ears, and for the longest time we almost forget she's there, like a hostess who shows you around but isn't really part of the party. The president's servants and guardians -- often one in the same -- soon come to regard her as part of the decor, and accept her closeness to him as a matter of course.

Was theirs a relationship of passion, or simply a deep and abiding companionship? Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Nelson are coy to the point of obduracy. After a brief fleshly encounter, Daisy comes to see FDR as her closest friend -- indeed, her only one. He shows her a small cottage he has built where he means to retire, and asks that she share it with him. "When you miss me, come here and miss me," he invites. How nice of him.

Daisy wilts in the face of the powerful presence of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) or FDR's secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), whose portfolio also appears to include controlling his drinking and keeping the elderly, opinionated First Mother (Elizabeth Wilson) in check. Daisy soon learns that Roosevelt always kept a circle of women around him, competing for access and in some cases intimacy.

All this sounds like enough for a compelling tale, but then the film goes further by relating the visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth of England. It's the first visit by a monarch to the former colony, but now the royals have come hat in hand asking for America's help in the brewing world war.

The young, newly-crowned king and queen (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) are on edge, with the queen regarding every little American provincialism as an intended slight. She becomes obsessed with FDR's intention to feed them hot dogs at a picnic.

This long sequence is in many ways the best part of the movie, especially a late-night drinking encounter between king and president, with the latter treating the former like a well-behaved schoolboy in need of complimenting. But it ultimately detracts from Daisy's journey, which ostensibly is what this is all about.

"Hyde Park on Hudson" is an odd duck of a film. I had expected it to be much more of a comedy than it is, though there are plenty of amusing moments. And it can't quite decide if it wants to focus on Daisy, Roosevelt or the British royals.

I enjoyed the movie for what it is, though I wish it had a better sense of itself.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Video review: "Trouble with the Curve"

Fair warning: I'm much higher on "Trouble with the Curve" than most film critics, and apparently hold a loftier opinion of it than audiences did.

This drama starring Clint Eastwood as an aging baseball scout losing his eyesight only garnered modest interest at the box office, and only scored 52 percent on Rotten Tomates' aggregation of critic opinions. But I found it one of the most emotionally satisfying journeys I experienced in 2012, even if the screenplay is a little shaky in the details.

It's perhaps Eastwood's most sensitive performance, in which he shows real vulnerability and weakness. Gus Lobel may be ornery, but he loves the game like gospel and has the ability to see things others can't -- at least he could, before macular degeneration set in.

His daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) agrees to follow him on a big scouting trip to act as his eyes, and they struggle to reconnect after years of estrangement. Meanwhile, a former pitching prospect named Johnny (Justin Timberlake) who blew his arm out and became a scout, tags along as a rival and a love interest.

The storytelling wavers a bit here and there. Director Robert Lorenz and screenwriter Randy Brown, both rookies, try to wedge in some elements that don't really fit -- a confusing allusion to a harrowing experience in Mickey's childhood being a prime example.

But if the windup isn't always textbook, the delivery is right down the plate. "Trouble with the Curve" was one of my favorite films of 2012.

Alas, video extras are rather skimpy. The DVD comes with a single making-of featurette, "For the Love of the Game." Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and all you add is another featurette titled "Rising Through the Ranks."

Movie:3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, December 17, 2012

IFJA announces 2012 film awards

Safety Not Guaranteed - inside

The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of journalists dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is pleased to announce its annual film awards for 2012.

"Safety Not Guaranteed" took top honors, winning Best Film as well as Best Original Screenplay (Derek Connolly).

 "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was the runner-up for Best Film and also won the Original Vision Award, which recognizes a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking. Eight other films were named Finalists for Best Film.  

Quentin Tarantino took Best Director for "Django Unchained." Stephen Chbosky won Best Adapted Screenplay for "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."  

Jessica Chastain won Best Actress for "Zero Dark Thirty." Anne Hathaway was named Best Supporting Actress for "Les Misérables."

 In the Best Actor category, Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook" and Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln" tied for winner. (This was the first time the group has experienced a deadlock that could not be broken after multiple rounds of voting; members elected to declare a tie with no runner-up.) Tommy Lee Jones was named Best Supporting Actor for "Lincoln."  

"Rise of the Guardians" was named Best Animated Film, "Searching for Sugar Man" Best Documentary and "The Raid: Redemption" Best Foreign Language Film. Thomas Newman won Best Musical Score for "Skyfall."

The Hoosier Award, which recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with Indiana roots, went to Jon Vickers, Founding Director of Indiana University Cinema.

In a few short years, Vickers has established IU Cinema as a major hub for serious consideration of film as an art form, scheduling an ambitious program of film screenings, retrospectives, festivals, traveling exhibits and topical programs. He has also attracted prominent guest lecturers, including Werner Herzog during the past year. Previously, Vickers served as managing director of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame.

 The following is a complete list of honored films:
Best Film
Winner: Safety Not Guaranteed
Runner-Up: Beasts of the Southern Wild  
Other Finalists (listed alphabetically): Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Moonrise Kingdom
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Sessions
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Best Animated Feature
Winner: Rise of the Guardians
Runner-Up: ParaNorman
Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: The Raid: Redemption
Runner-Up: Amour
Best Documentary
Winner: Searching for Sugar Man
Runner-Up: Room 237
Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Derek Connolly, "Safety Not Guaranteed"
Runner-Up: Quentin Tarantino, "Django Unchained"
Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Stephen Chbosky, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
Runner-Up: David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Best Director
Winner: Quentin Tarantino, "Django Unchained"
Runner-Up: Kathryn Bigelow, "Zero Dark Thirty"
Best Actress
Winner: Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"
Runner-Up: Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Anne Hathaway, "Les Misérables”
Runner-Up: Helen Hunt, “The Sessions”
Best Actor
Winners (Tie):
Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Tommy Lee Jones, “Lincoln”
Runner-Up: Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
Best Musical Score
Winner: Thomas Newman, "Skyfall"
Runner-Up: Mychael Danna, "Life of Pi"
Original Vision Award
Winner: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Runner-Up: Django Unchained
The Hoosier Award
Winner: Jon Vickers, Founding Director of Indiana University Cinema
(As a special award, no runner-up is declared in this category.)  

About IFJA: The Indiana Film Journalists Association was established in February 2009. Members must reside in the Hoosier State and produce consistent, quality film criticism or commentary in any medium.

Reeling Backward: "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964)

I was not sure if I'd ever actually seen "A Fistful of Dollars." Its place as a pop culture fixture is so thoroughly cemented that it's become one of those movies experienced mostly through references to it in cinema and other mediums. Certainly its plot and the iconography of Clint Eastwood's anti-hero were already etched in my brain. But having written about its Japanese predecessor not too long ago, I got to pondering if I had actually viewed "Fistful" in its entirety, other than a few snippets here and there caught on cable television or whatnot.

I also thought it was about time I cracked open the "Man with No Name Trilogy" blu-ray that had been sitting on my shelf, unwatched, for gosh knows how long. (Between my Netflix queue -- both DVD and streaming -- movies DVR'd off Turner Classic Movies and new discs arriving in the mail, it can be depressing how long it takes to get to some flicks.)

I have many times watched and relished the final film in Eastwood's collaboration with Italian director Sergio Leone, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." But it became clear to me after a few minutes' viewing that "Fistful" was still virgin (or at least virgin-ish) territory for me.

As a result, I've decided to finish out the weekly Reeling Backward column for 2012 with a look at each film of the triad. As regular readers of this column are aware, I tend to focus more on obscure movies, since that's where my ongoing cinematic sojourning takes me. But for next three weeks, we'll focus on these high-profile spaghetti Westerns.

A quick word on that name: according to Eastwood himself, the term originated with the Japanese, who referred to Italian-made Westerns as "meatballs" in order to distinguish them from the American iteration. No doubt the first Yank who adapted the linguistic labeling meant it as an insult, focusing on the low-rent production values (at least initially) of the films, complete with Italians and Spaniards playing Mexicans or American Indians, and dialogue dubbing that didn't even come close to matching the words with the flapping of the lips.

In time, though, these flaws came to be seen as simply aspects of the genre, which by and large had Italian crews and paymasters but were often shot in Spain. Eastwood and Leone didn't speak much of each other's language, but the idea of creating a new kind of cowboy protagonist translated to the big screen just fine.

"Fistful" was released internationally in 1964 but didn't make its way to the States until three years later, when it and its sequel "For a Few Dollars More" were released in quick succession, helping to make Eastwood an instant star.

The story is indeed a virtual carbon copy of "Yojimbo," with the warriors outfitted with six-shooters and Winchester rifles instead of katana swords. Even much of Akira Kurosawa's visual style was emulated by Leone, but with the addition of the Italian's signature shot: the long, lingering extreme close-ups of his actors -- which Leone loved to employ not only for the (ostensible) hero, but also the villains and even minor characters.

Leone seemed fascinated by physical ugliness, and his camera would hover leeringly over a pockmarked cheek or beetlebrowed forehead, the lighting tricked to accentuate the ravages of the flesh. The men populating his films were often glimpsed at their worst, with sweat pouring off their faces or a nasty grimace contorting their visage as they struggled against discomfort and pain.

If John Ford used landscapes as the backdrop for his character-driven stories, then Sergio Leone's primary canvas was the human face -- preferably flawed.

Leone seems to almost relish taking his beautiful leading man and having him beaten into bloody gore by the Rojo brothers -- one half of the two criminal gangs fighting over the dilapidated town of San Miguel, just south of the border. The beating itself is strung out with fetishistic delight, and the makeup to depict Eastwood's pulped face is pretty impressive for such a low-budget (reportedly $200,000) film.

Even after "Joe" -- the only name ever attached to the man who famously lacked one -- has healed up, he's noticeably scarred and scruffier. One gets the distinct sense Leone preferred him that way.

The Baxters, the clan opposing the Rojos, are depicted as being less evil in "Fistful" than the second gang was in "Yojimbo." They're mercenary and quick to use "Joe" for their own purposes, but never go out of their way to harm or kill unless it profits them.

It's an interesting choice, since in the description of innkeeper/conscious of the town Silvanito (José Calvo), the Baxters control the gun trade while the Rojos specialize in liquor. One would think those who corner firearms would have the upper hand, especially given that John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), the titular head of the enterprise really run by his wife (Margarita Lozano), is also the ostensible sheriff of San Miguel. But here booze bests guns, and it's apparent five minutes after Eastwood strolls into town that the Baxters' days are dwindling.

Like Kurosawa's myriad ronin who dedicate themselves to the discipline of the sword, "Joe" is a practitioner of the six-shooter with unparallelled skill. This was often an aspect of the American Western, the gunslinger who could outshoot all his opponents. But starting with the Leone films and continuing onward most everywhere Westerns were made, the abilities of the shootists were uplifted into mythological territory, where they became capable of feats that simply defied any sense of mortal logic or laws of science.

Note that "Joe" never uses the sights along the barrel of his .45 to take aim, simply holding his weapon at slightly above waist level. Somehow, just by the angle of the pistol in his hands, he can do things like shoot through ropes from 40 feet away. A few years later, the Sundance Kid could shoot the gunbelt off a fellow card player from across the room. By the time of "Silverado" in 1985, Scott Glenn could pepper the individual spines off  a cactus plant at 50 yards.

This aspect serves to elevate the idea of the "man with no name," who is defined not by a past or a reputation, but simply the astounding actions he undertakes. By gifting him with virtually supernatural abilities, it adds to the mystery of the lone gunman.

I should note that in "Yojimbo" the samurai appears to at least anguish over committing altruistic deeds instead of using his skills to turn the gangs against each other, profiting most as he flips sides back and forth. Eastwood's drifter seems bent toward good acts almost from the moment he stops on the outskirts of town, his heart touched by the scene of the young boy kept apart from his mother (Marianne Koch), the kept woman of Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonté), the nastiest of the bunch.

I once knew someone with a story like yours, he tells her when she later begs the reason for her family's rescue -- with the clear implication that the gunman was a party to that previous tragedy. I think these nudges toward making the character sympathetic undercut him somewhat, by giving him a motivation for his actions and thereby something of a mission.

It's better when TMWNN simply arrives with the tumbleweeds, as unpredictable as an ornery rattlesnake who strikes whichever way he will, and then skitters along to the next town. Somehow, I would've liked the concept of "A Fistful of Dollars" better knowing he's capable of evil, too.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Let me say right up front that I quite enjoyed "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," but I don't expect most other people will. At unless they're hardcore Tolkienites like myself.

Director Peter Jackson and his creative team have more or less abandoned the modest children's book by J.R.R. Tolkien that acted as a gentle precursor to the grander, grimmer "Lord of the Rings." In its place, they've given us something like "LotR 2: The Prequel."

In tone and in story structure, the first triad of the "Hobbit" adventure feels like a further extension of the trilogy from 2001-03. There's a big fight in the goblin mountain home that visually owes much to the Mines of Moria sequence in "Fellowship of the Ring." Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the wandering wizard do-gooder, again whispers into a moth's ear to summon giant eagles to save the day. Andy Serkis, the digital acting god who brought the tortured Gollum to slithery life in "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," is back to play the ultimate riddle game with wayward hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

In stuffing "The Hobbit" with all sorts of elements from Tolkien lore not contained in the book -- and inventing a whole bunch of new stuff entirely on their own -- Jackson and his cast and crew take a major risk. Splitting the 300-page book into two movies seemed like an obvious move, given the carryover of ambition from the "Lord" trilogy.

But in choosing to make it into three flicks (and not short ones, either -- "Journey" clocks in at 169 minutes), they may have crossed the proverbial bridge too far. This movie seems overstuffed and languidly paced. The iconic "Unexpected Party" that opens the tale just seems to ramble on and on, like ... well, an uninvited dinner guest who overstays his welcome.

And yet I did not mind the extravagance, because I'm such a big fan of Tolkien's various works. The real appeal to people like me is the expansive mythology that the British author spent a lifetime building. Reading his books always felt like we were exploring an entire world, but only seeing a small glimpse of it any given time.

As a result, I did not mind the inclusion of another wizard character named Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), despite the fact that he gets a mere one mention each in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," and never plays any kind of significant role. Here, he more or less takes over the movie for a small stretch.

The one thing I find most questionable was the choice by Jackson et al to raise the stakes of the story. The novel starts off as a simple adventure yarn about 13 dwarves determined to kill the dragon who drove them off their mountain kingdom long ago, and gradually snowballs into important events that affect the entire world of Middle Earth.

This movie appears to lose patience, adding to and twisting around the plot so it seems like all the great powers of the land -- wizards, elves, orcs, a mysterious Necromancer occupying a dark corner -- have their entire attention bent toward this little misfit band.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) acts as our eyes and ears, the proverbial normal person recruited to go along on the adventure at the behest of Gandalf. Purportedly a professional burglar, Bilbo is a timid soul who seems to possess no discernible skills other than writing letters and taking long walks. But he soon shows his true stuff, helping the dwarves battle three lumbering trolls and conniving his way past the murderous Gollum when he's cut off from his troupe in the bowels of the Misty Mountains.

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the leader of the dwarves, gets the Aragorn treatment by being gifted with all sorts of backstory and inner turmoil that's only hinted at in the book. Armitage is a commanding presence, and helps us see why others would follow this beggar prince on his outlandish journey.

Having other actors from the "Lord of the Rings" films thrown in haphazardly quickly grows old -- Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian Holm as older Bilbo, and Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett as elf lords Elrond and Galadriel, respectively. The latter pair show up to fret and scowl at Thorin's trouble-making ways.

"Every good story deserves embellishment," Gandalf tells Bilbo at the beginning of the film, and Peter Jackson appear to have taken this up as their motto and mantra. Personally, I mostly welcomed the copious add-ons. But my guess is that casual fans of the "Lord of the Rings" will be turned off by what they may regard as an unnecessary reboot.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Video review: "The Bourne Legacy"

Jason Bourne is back! ...well, sorta.

The superspy franchise returns for a fourth outing, but the amnesiac hero played by Matt Damon is nowhere to be found. Instead, it's about a new agent named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner). Like Bourne, he was an elite member of a CIA assassin squad that the bureaucrats have now decided is too dangerous to exist.

So all of the spook outfit's energies are devoted toward taking out their own spies, with new, even more dangerous wetboys assigned to do the dirty work. Based on the Bourne movies, apparently all the CIA does is kill its own agents, with each new batch taking out the last. It's a wonder they ever found bin Laden.

Director Tony Gilroy, who also co-wrote the screenplay, sets up a movie that is almost nonstop chases. Maybe that's a good thing, because whenever the action stops long enough for the characters to talk to each other, it's pure death.

Rachel Weisz plays a doctor whose job it was to keep Cross and his chums doped up on pills that dramatically boosted their intelligence and physical abilities. He swoops into save her, and soon both are on the run.

"The Bourne Legacy" isn't boring, but it is pretty brain dead.

The video does come nicely stocked with extras. If you choose either the solo DVD or Blu-ray edition, you get deleted scenes, feature-length commentary by Gilroy and his production team, a making-of documentary and a breakdown of the motorbike chase sequence.

Upgrade to the combo pack, and you add a number of cool featurettes, including one about Cross' battle with wolves, and a digital copy of the film.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, December 10, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Flat Top" (1952)

Back when I was young and foolish and hadn't yet been turned on to classic movies, "Flat Top" is exactly the sort of film I had in mind when I disdainfully sniffed about stiff, dull storytelling of yesteryear. Having come a long way and watched thousands of old flicks since my teenage days, I can safely say that this is a truly terrible movie, no matter what the vintage.

Sterling Hayden could be a dynamic, mesmerizing film presence when cast in the right role. The actor was rather contemptuous of his own career, dismissing movie stars as overpaid wastes. Clearly he was not challenged by his part in the 1952 action/drama set aboard a World War II aircraft carrier. Hayden delivers his lines in flat, stentorian cadences that seem to suggest he doesn't give a damn what you think.

The tale is a familiar one. A cagey war veteran is put in charge of training and leading a bunch of green neck pilots into battle against the Japanese. The group of newcomers, another bunch of the "swell guys" of disparate backgrounds so common to war pictures, are initially put off by their by-the-book commander. The #2 guy, who believes in treating the underlings like friends, continually pushes back against the iron fist of the big kahuna.

Ultimately, though, the rank-and-file learn that the head man's disposition was the right one all along, and they are turned into a solid fighting unit where everyone works as part of a team. The film ends with the #2, now a devotee of his skipper's harsh methods, being promoted to the top spot. We even are gifted with a bit where the resident hot dog of the group, who found himself grounded on his first day aboard ship for waiving off his signalman, replicates the exact same scenario with a new recruit.

I guess what I find most objectionable about this type of moviemaking is that it's so utterly predictable. Five minutes in, you know exactly how the rest of the story will go. You can almost even pick which of the swell guys will be the ones to buy it in the skies -- the budding poet, the guy with the guitar, the nice one everyone likes, etc.

Richard Carlson plays the #2 guy, and other notable cast members include William Schallert, Keith Larsen, William Phipps and John Bromfield.

The other big failing of "Flat Top" is the action scenes, which play out like a litany of grainy stock footage intermixed (badly) with studio shots of the actors in cockpits. Back in the day it was probably deemed exciting to include actual footage from aerial dogfights and naval strafing runs. But it's clear that the action was edited around the available shots -- some of which are repeated twice or more -- rather than trying to create a seamless, plot-driven sequence

Believe it or not, this film was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Editing. Times change, as do standards, I hope.

Most laughable is whenever a plane begins a deep descent or ascent -- director Lesley Selander simply rotates the camera clockwise or counterclockwise to match the corresponding action. And when a pilot dies, it always transpires in the exact same way: a bloom of bullet holes appear in the glass of his canopy, the actor closes his eyes and tilts his head backward, before slumping over, and the camera rotating us into a supposed dive of death.

Watching "Flat Top," I know how they felt.

1 star out of four

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: "Smashed"

Ever since Ray Milland first showed us the sweaty shakes of a desperate drinker in "The Lost Weekend" nearly 70 years ago, alcoholism has been a favorite, recurring subject for Hollywood. "Smashed" doesn't really add anything innovative to the picture, but this indie drama is still an unnerving portrayal, buoyed by a terrific performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Probably the biggest departure is that the drunks in "Smashed" are not suicidal or obviously self-destructive, a la "Leaving Las Vegas." Rather, they're functional alcoholics who manage to hold jobs and have relatively stable lives, while consuming astonishing quantities of booze.

To Kate (Winstead) and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), drinking is a lifestyle choice, not an addiction. They were raised with boozing parents, drank socially all through their teens and early 20s, and have just kept the party going.

"Everyone I know drinks. A lot," Kate confides.

Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Susan Burke, focuses on Kate, and it's through her eyes we glimpse her cherished sense of normalcy slowly crumbling. Charlie remains a secondary character, a good-hearted guy from a wealthy family who's never had to earn anything in his life. When Kate finally makes a vow to change her life for the better and swear off booze, Charlie isn't willing to make the same leap, forcing a heavy choice on her.

The story opens with Kate waking up hung over and running late for work. It turns out she's a first-grade schoolteacher, and a good one who brings genuine enthusiasm to the classroom. But her drinking catches up with her, and she vomits in front of her kids.

Worse yet, when one of the tykes asks if she's pregnant, she assents rather than tell the truth. Unfortunately, it gets back to her principal (Megan Mullally), and the small white lie blossoms into a parade of deceit.

Dave (Nick Offerman), a co-worker who's been sober for nine years, encourages her to go to AA meetings, and that's where things really move into a higher plane. Winstead's performance during her first talk is a mix of brutal honesty, fear and a touch of despair.

Here is a young, smart woman who's forcing herself to face up to the fact that the things she used to do for fun are increasingly becoming what is harming her. It's a revelatory scene, almost giddy in its honesty and authenticity.

Octavia Spencer has a strong, small turn as Kate's AA mentor, and Mary Kay Place shows up as her mother -- and a frightening glimpse into her own possible future.

At a crisp 81 minutes, the film leaves some areas underexplored, especially Kate's relationship with Charlie. But "Smashed" works as more of a harrowing character portrait than a full-throated narrative.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Video review: "The Dark Knight Rises"

The conclusion of the Batman collaboration between director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale is a big, ambitious film just like "The Dark Knight." And also like its predecessor, "The Dark Knight Rises" is overburdened with too many supporting characters and secondary plot lines.

As the story opens, it has been eight years since Bruce Wayne last donned the caped crusader's cowl. Peace has reigned throughout the land, but then a mysterious terrorist named Bane (Thomas Hardy) arrives. He handily defeats Batman in personal combat and takes the reins of Gotham City.

Meanwhile, super-thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) plays the lines of loyalty between the two, whispering ominously about a storm brewing to wipe the city's veil of security away.

The biggest problem with Bane, other than the fact that he pales in comparison to Heath Ledger's Joker, is that his motivations never really come into clear relief. Hardy's choice to play him with an odd speech cadence, coupled with Bane's metallic face mask, also make him difficult to understand.

Familiar faces return, including police commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), loyal Wayne family butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and weapons guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). New on the block is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young police detective whose importance becomes clearer late in the going.

It's still a worthy piece of filmmaking, especially for those who like their superhero tales in the dark-and-portentous mode. But I can't help thinking the finale would've been better stripped down and sleeker.

In terms of extras, Blu-ray is the only way to go for the serious videophile. The DVD comes only with a single featurette chronicling Bruce Wayne's journey from zero to hero.

The highlight of the Blu-ray edition is "Ending the Knight," a comprehensive making-of documentary examining virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process, from the story concept to special effects. It also includes a gallery of images and a documentary on the Batmobile, chronicling all five of the dark knight's motorized chariots.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, December 3, 2012

New "Hyde Park on Hudson" featurette

Reeling Backward: "Gentleman Jim" (1942)

"Gentleman Jim" is a Hollywood hooey version of the life of "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, one of boxing's early heavyweight champions and a key figure in turning the backroom bloodletting into a legitimate sport. It was a star vehicle for Errol Flynn at the height of his fame, and everything about the iconic fighter's life is subject to be twisted around to align with Flynn's star persona, rather than Flynn trying to capture the man.

It's another example of the classic axiom about the difference between character actors and movie stars: Stars always play themselves.

For example, the central dynamic of the story (screenplay by Horace McCoy and Vincent Lawrence) is that Jim is a scrappy underclass Irishman who continually struggles to ingratiate himself with the San Francisco bluebloods, represented by the hoity-toity Olympic Club. They admit him as a charity chase to help legitimize boxing, but are irked by his overpowering personality and presumptuous behavior. They pick well-known boxers to give him a thrashing and wager heavily against him.

In fact, Gentleman Jim was a darling of the Olympic Club and worked there as an athletic instructor. Corbett was famous for his "scientific" approach to boxing, which involved fancy footwork and wearing down his opponent with quick jabs, rather than the bullrushing haymakers that were the standard of the time.

That standard, of course, was set by the current champion, John L. Sullivan. As played by Ward Bond, Sullivan is a towering, charismatic figure who's constantly the center of attention, shaking hands and buying drinks. "I can lick any man in the world!" he boasts repeatedly, until of course ... he doesn't.

Ward Bond is one of those archetypal supporting performers who seemed to be everywhere in the 1930s through the 1950s, including 16 films co-starring with John Wayne. Most people know him from his later roles, when he usually played the cantankerous middle-aged authority figure, or occasionally a thug. It was thrilling to seem him as a strapping younger actor.

Sullivan outweighed Corbett by more than 40 pounds, and few people gave the young challenger any chance of prevailing. The physical dissimilarity between Bond and Flynn is equally staggering, with the lithe, quick Flynn dancing around Bond, who flails like an angry rhinoceros.

The antagonistic exchanges between the two men leading up to their fight are amusing stuff, but much of the rest is a wearying ride. There's some stuff about Corbett's family life, a collection of moldy cliches about Irish immigrant families. "The Corbetts are at it again!" someone invariably shouts when Jim and his brothers are brought to blows again. Pop (Alan Hale) is an amiable drunk, mother is a paragon of homespun virtue and Jim is the social climber with the swelled head.

Most of the rest of the story is involved with Jim trying to elbow his way into the company of the high-and-mighty, and their subsequent pushback. Alexis Smith plays Victoria Ware, the daughter of a wealthy former gold miner who plays the classic romantic comedy dance with Flynn, barking and sniping and grappling with each other, right up until the moment -- conveniently parked at the end of the movie -- when they realize they're deeply in love.

(Pure poppycock -- Corbett was married long before he began contending for the boxing title.)

For 1942, the boxing scenes are decently shot by director Raoul Walsh. He focuses much on the footwork of Corbett, with (over)frequent cuts to his dancing limbs, but the punches look largely real, the knockouts sufficiently gripping. They go on a bit too long -- Walsh generally shows the first couple of rounds of his big fights in their entirety, before moving to the familiar montage leading up to the climax.

Boxing was a very different sport back then. Some men were still fighting barehanded in that era, and Corbett helped pioneer the use of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Fights went on much longer than they do today -- Corbett knocked Sullivan out in the 21st round, and one of his notable preceding fights was called a draw after 61 rounds.

That was against his crosstown rival Peter Jackson, whom Sullivan refused to fight because Jackson was black. Corbett was one of the first white boxers to take on opponents of other races. Unsurprisingly for its era, "Gentleman Jim" only alludes to this fight, and Flynn is never shown contesting anyone other than another Caucasian.

As much of a trial as I felt the non-boxing scenes were to get through, the film ends on a spectacular note. At a big party celebrating Corbett's victory, a surprise guest appears: Sullivan himself. His face battered and his over-proud manner punctured, the defeated champ comes to personally present Gentleman Jim with the championship belt.

It's an extraordinarily moving scene, with both Bond and Flynn at the top of their games. It's most effective because the moment is underplayed and subtle -- a sharp contrast with the bombast and cartoonish obviousness of the rest of the proceedings.

2.5 stars out of four