Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review: "Warm Bodies"

What a strange, plucky, offbeat little movie “Warm Bodies” is. It’s a romantic-comedy/horror film that’s by parts scary, goofy and touching. It’s a delightful cinematic experience, but one where you’re often not sure if you should be laughing or not.

Its charm lies in that moment in between.

It’s about a romance between a zombie and a human girl – a description that may be enough to turn off half those reading this, and a goodly chunk of the film’s potential audience. You’re probably envisioning one of two things: a silly romp a la “Teen Wolf,” or a frightfest featuring lots of gooey gore.

Neither sums up the unexpected appeal of this movie written and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50”), based on the book by Isaac Marion.

It’s definitely in the ironic horror comedy mode -- think "Shaun of the Dead" -- poking fun at the conventions of the zombie genre while stealthily embracing them. R, the undead protagonist played by Nicholas Hoult, narrates about his existence shambling around the airport, bumping into other zombies and occasionally setting off in packs to hunt human flesh.

“God, we move slow,” he complains of their deliberate, blundering gait.

Like all his brethren, R (he can’t remember the rest of his name) is compelled to feast on living people, but he’s conflicted about it. The brain is the best part, he confides, because it grants them visions of their victim’s life – which is the closest thing to feeling alive they are allowed.

But then something unexpected happens. R captures Julie (Teresa Palmer) during a raid and sneaks her back to his hideaway aboard an abandoned jetliner. She’s terrified, but eventually intrigued by how this kindly “corpse” – the survivors' term for zombies – differs from all the others.

With pale flesh, a few handsomely-placed scars and icewater-blue eyes, Hoult makes for the dreamiest undead suitor this side of “Twilight.” At first only able to speak a word or two, R slowly regains his communicative abilities. Julie, once assured that she’s not just going to be a delayed snack, is intrigued by R’s love of music -- vinyl only, natch – and collection of baubles.

Like Romeo and Juliet, their budding romance does not go over very well with either of their communities. R’s best buddy M (Rob Corddry) and a few others are willing to look the other way, but the fearsome “bonies” are not. These are hardcore zombies who have deliberately stripped all the flesh off their bodies.

Turns out Julie’s father (John Malkovich) is the leader of the human enclave, which hides behind its massive walls, counting the days until extinction. Dear old dad is the sort who shoots first and asks questions later, especially when he finally gets introduced to R. But see it from his side – would you rather your daughter’s new boyfriend lack good manners or a pulse?

Levine isn’t afraid to tickle away at the funny bone. One scene has Julie receiving relationship advice from her best friend (Analeigh Tipton): “I know it’s hard to find a good guy since this whole apocalypse thing, but…”

And yet what really makes this movie sing is how warm and pleasing it is. Once you get past that whole dead/alive thing, it boils down to a story about two people connecting in a real way, despite their nominal hunter/prey relationship.

Funny, scary, sad and joyful, “Warm Bodies” is the most heartwarming zombie flick ever.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Video review: "Hotel Transylvania"

Even in an extraordinarily weak year for animation, “Hotel Transylvania” did not receive an Academy Award nomination for best animated feature. And it’s no surprise: this derivative monster tale featuring Adam Sandler is a Frankenstein-like assemblage of bits ‘n’ pieces from other movies.

Actually, Frankenstein himself is here (voiced by Kevin James), along with Dracula (Sandler), the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), the Mummy (CeeLo Green) and a rogues’ gallery of every other creature feature from the past 80 years. The set-up is that they’ve all come to the hotel for their once-a-year celebratory bash, centered around the birthday of Dracula’s daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez).

Mavis is in her rebellious teenage phase -- it happens around age 118 for vampires -- and wants to venture forth and see the world. But Drac and the rest of the gruesome crew say it’s too dangerous, what with all the humans out there with their torches, pitchforks and paranoia. Then the red-blooded problem arrives on their doorstep in the form of Jonathan (Andy Samberg), a dim-witted backpacker dude. Dracula dresses him up as a Frankenstein cousin, and door-slamming farce ensues.

The animation is truly wonderful, a cartoony (non-scary) take on the nightmarish creatures of legend. I loved how the Wolfman wears a short-sleeved shirt and tie like a middle manager on holiday, and Frankenstein has a tendency to lose his stitching and fall to pieces.

But the story plays out with all the predictability of a werewolf needing a haircut on a full moon. Jonathan and Mavis start making gooey eyes at each other, dear dead dad isn’t very happy about it, and the scary humans turn out to be not so scary after all.

The animators did their job creating a visually vibrant world, but the script has all the life of a vampire with a stake through its heart.

Video extras are decent without being extravagant. The DVD comes with deleted scenes, feature-length commentary, music video and a short film, “Goodnight Mr. Foot.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray version, and you get three making-of documentaries covering the voice cast and animation process.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, January 28, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988)

I'm always curious about how the reputations of a film rise and fall with the passing of years. When "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" came out in 1988, it was heralded as a spectacular artistic and technical achievement. A quarter-century on, it's become a pretty forgotten piece of cinematic history.

I remember Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert raving about the stunning combination of live-action and animated characters on their eponymous television show -- how convincing the juxtaposition of cartoon characters and real actors. Similarly, in the New York Times Janet Maslin gushed, "Although this isn't the first time that cartoon characters have shared the screen with live actors, it's the first time they've done it on their own terms and make it look real."

Though I'm sure it looked fresh and exciting back in '88, the film hasn't aged well. The craftsmanship that seemed cutting edge 25 years ago looks positively hokey now. Considering the 'Disney Renaissance' that began the next year with "A Little Mermaid," or in contrast to Pixar's computer-animated films that started coming out just a few years later, "Roger Rabbit" registers now as little more than a minor way station on the way to grander achievements.

I think what seemed groundbreaking back then was that the humans seemed to actually interact with the denizens of Tunetown, the fictional Hollywood enclave where cartoon characters live (and seemingly spawn). So when roughhouse private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) grabs Roger in a crushing grip, his meaty fist actually seems to be enclosed around the rabbit's scrawny neck ... sort of, anyway.

Coming before green screens and CGI, the live actors plied their trade on a regular sound stage, with props and puppets standing in for the cartoon characters -- who would be painstakingly drawn in during 14 months of post-production. Robert Zemeckis directed the film, but Richard Williams supervised the animated sequences.

Supposedly, Charles Fleischer -- the voice of Roger -- even read his lines off-camera wearing a ridiculous rabbit get-up, so Hoskins and the actors would have something to relate to.

Roger himself is like an amalgam of different bits 'n' pieces from the golden age of animation -- a little Bugs Bunny, Goofy's fashion sense, Droopy the Dog's patch of red hair, Porky Pig's speech impediment and the hyperactive schizoid personality of the Road Runner on acid. The overall effect is entertaining, if a bit synthesized.

It's notable that Roger Rabbit, while appearing in a few more short films to capitalize on the movie's success, pretty much died off as a mainstay in the Disney oeuvre.

The other most notable toon character from the film is Jessica Rabbit, gifted with Kathleen's husky sex appeal and the body of a Barbie doll after spending a couple of years under the care of a Brazilian plastic surgeon. I personally never saw what the big deal was with her, even after the revelation of a few supposed frames of a naked Jessica that appear subliminally.

But then, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" was always a challenging mix of kiddie and adult material. The movie contains a few swear words, but was more controversial for risque bits like the little baby with the sexual mores of an aging lothario.

The story, based on a book by Gary K. Wolf, is pretty spare -- film noir meets Daffy Duck.

The head of the biggest cartoon studio is killed, with Roger fingered for the crime. Evil Judge Doom is the heavy, working to suppress the mogul's will leaving Toontown to the toons, so he can instead destroy the city's mass transit system and substitute a freeway instead. Eddie, who has an abiding hatred of toons after one killed his brother, is roped into helping Roger out.

Despite the simplicity of the plot, the film contains a number of clever conceits. The first is the notion that cartoon characters are not imaginary creations but sentient beings, who live to act screwy and make people laugh. Thus, Bugs and Mickey Mouse and a thousand other iconic characters are really actors who star in cartoons, suffering pratfalls and hammer squishings and other hilarious hijinks since they're more or less indestructible.

Sounds like they've got a lousy union.

(Steven Spielberg was reportedly key in convincing so many of the entities that owned the rights to these characters to let them appear in cameos.)

Doom has found a way to permanently destroy toons, melting them in his horrible acidic Dip. It's unclear exactly what the Judge's judicial duties actually consist of, since he mostly just rides around with his weasel henchmen putting the squeeze on toons and any humans who help them out.

It was one of Christopher Lloyd's most enjoyable roles, during a decade when he occuppied a rarefied perch as mainstream filmdom's most versatile character actor. His off-kilter line readings and creepy/funny screen presence made Judge Doom in many ways more enduring the Roger Rabbit.

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" is still a good movie, though seen today it clearly does not belong among the animation giants that came after, nor among the best comedies of that era. Mostly, it's a confectionery treat of live-action and cartoons mashed together in a way that's fun, if not entirely convincing.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Video review: "End of Watch"

File “End of Watch” under the list of best movies of 2012 that you probably haven’t seen … or maybe even heard of.

This terrific, gritty, and surprisingly funny portrait of a pair of LAPD officers patrolling South-Central Los Angeles is one of the best cop dramas in recent memory. Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal play Mike and Brian, a pair of young cowboys who, as one boasts “get into more capers in a single deployment shift than most cops do in their entire career.”

Writer/director David Ayer fills his movie with lots of harrowing scenes of fistfights, gunplay and other brutality. Yet it’s the humanity of the relationship between these two guys that breathes life into the film. They crack jokes on each other, make fun of their ethnic heritage, and exchange advice about the women in their lives.

But when the gangbangers bring the heat, they instantly shift into soldier mode, becoming one mind with two guns. Ayer often films from a first-person perspective down the barrel of a pistol, putting the audience right in the thick of it.

America Ferrera, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, David Harbour and Frank Grillo make up an outstanding supporting cast as the fellow cops and family members who have to deal with the carnage left behind in the destructive duo’s wake.

The humor may strike some viewers as out of place, but the cast and crew show how it’s just part of their defense mechanism the cops use to keep from going crazy. Some of the scenes they encounter are just horrendous and traumatizing. Cutting up is how they get by.

But don’t mistake all the laughing for a lack of sobriety. “End of Watch” is a serious examination of life on the thin blue line in one of the toughest beats in America. Especially revealing is a scene after the pair have been given awards for pulling kids out of a fire, and Brian asks Mike, “Do you feel like a hero?” The answer may surprise you.

Don’t miss this one.

Extra features, which are identical for Blu-ray and DVD editions, are a bit underwhelming. Director Ayer provides a feature-length commentary. Plus there are several deleted scenes, and a handful of rather short making-of featurettes.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, January 21, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Von Richthofen and Brown" (1971)

There's a big difference between low-budget and cheap, and fairly or not Roger Corman's films have usually been associated with the latter.

"The Blair Witch Project" and "El Mariachi" were both made for next to nothing, but few observers would deny the craftsmanship of those pictures. Fewer still would say they saw such qualities in Corman's movies.

From a technical standpoint, he was not a great filmmaker. His eye for compositions was so-so, and his actors often seemed like they were flailing away with little guidance. But he inspired an entire generation of Boomer filmmakers, and made some memorable schlock -- and even some Edgar Allen Poe adaptations with a little ambition -- during his heyday of the 1950s and '60s. (He was given an honorary Academy Award a few years back.)

By 1971 Corman, still only in his mid-40s, was looking to wrap things up as a director. "Von Richthofen and Brown" was his last stint behind the camera for nearly 20 years, when he would direct his final picture, "Frankenstein Unbound." He continued on mainly as a producer thereafter, with a jaw-dropping 400 credits to his name ... and counting.

Regular visitors to this space will know that World War I aviation is a passion of mine, and through the Reeling Backward columns I've continually sought out films about that subject. (Including Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels" just a couple of weeks ago.)

I guess the reason I find that era so enthralling is that we're talking about these airplanes being used for warfare just a few short years after they were invented. The Wright Brothers flew a few hundred yards in 1902, and a dozen years later their offspring became a key component of the science of war.

These WWI planes were claptrap machines, mostly wood and canvas, firing crude machine guns and powered by engines spewing oil onto their pilots. Early bomb drops were accomplished by the men literally tossing grenades out of the cockpit by hand. The pilot's controls were connected to the wings and fins by cables that could easily be shorn by enemy fire or obstacles.

Every time a new plane was introduced into service, it could turn the entire balance of the war in the air for the next few months. Many experts believe that the Fokker D.VII could have altered the tide of aerial combat if it had been introduced earlier than summer 1918. In just the last few months of the war, the plane racked up an impressive 565 kills. It could even fly straight up vertically for short periods, spraying enemies with gunfire from below.

Baron Manfred von Richthofen never got to fly the D.VII, perishing just before it was introduced into service. His death has remained controversial, but today nearly all historians do not believe the "Red Baron," the greatest flying ace of all time, was killed by a bullet from Canadian pilot Roy Brown. An anti-aircraft battery on the ground almost certainly fired the fatal shot.

Still, the legend has persisted, and Corman -- a pilot and aviation enthusiast himself -- decided to make a picture about the two men. The result, "Von Richthofen and Brown," is an authentic-looking film filled with complex fight scenes involving a dozen or more aircraft. The story, however, is pretty much a total concoction.

The movie, written by Jon William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, essentially keeps the names and basic facts about notable German and Allied pilots in place, while completely fabricating their personalities and history. It's like keeping all the pieces of a chess board, but flipping around where they start and how they can move.

The main difference is that they show the war unfolding over months and years with Brown and von Richthofen on parallel journeys, culminating with their confrontation in the air. In fact, Brown was relatively new to air combat, while the German ace was a national hero. Von Richthofen commanded the most storied air team of the war, "The Flying Circus" -- so named for their brightly-painted aircraft -- while Brown was a comparative nobody.

Both pilots are dedicated to the craft of killing, though from different backgrounds. Von Richthofen (John Phillip Law) is an aristocrat who finds himself freed from earthly concerns up in the air, where he can play the role of hunter stalking a dangerous beast. He believes in a gentlemanly approach to war, where soldiers can kill their enemy without hating him, and aggressively bring the fight to him without endangering civilians or medical personnel.

Brown, played by Don Stroud, is a surly maverick who rejects his British comrades' vision of themselves as knight-errants out for some derring-do. He refuses to drink to von Richthofen, raising the ire of his fellow pilots, and espouses surprise tactics to take out their enemies before they have a chance to retaliate. He also organizes a raid on the German airfield, which prompts a brutal reprisal.

Brown is the cynical, jaded yin to von Richthofen's courageous, brash yang. Neither man quite fit in with the military hierarchy around him, but eventually bent it to his will.

The aerial fight scenes are energetic, though it's often hard to follow the action of who exactly is chasing who. In the finale fight Corman shows planes suddenly exploding into a million pieces, which is virtually impossible given the composition of the craft and the effectiveness of guns back then. Mostly the planes start smoking, and the stunt pilots turn them into sharp dives to simulate an aerial death.

Still, Corman's film amply shows off the acrobatics of these delicate pieces of machinery, tumbling and rolling and side-slipping through the sky.  It's important to remember that these planes traveled at about the same speed we now drive on the interstate.

Characterizations are kept to a pretty bare minimum. The main antagonist of the film is Hermann Göring (Barry Primus), the infamous Nazi leader who was a notable pilot in the first world war. Göring is shown opposing von Richthofen's genteel tactics and competing with him for command of the Flying Circus. In actuality, they never served together and Göring only took command well after the Red Baron's death.

As a piece of cinematic entertainment, "Von Richthofen and Brown" is a passably good war drama with some ambitious aerial sequences. As history it's pretty much useless. But it's certainly not a cheapie.

2.5 stars out of four

Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: "Rust and Bone"

"Rust and Bone" isn't about the relationship between two characters so much as their intersection.

These are people leading separate and very different lives until a random encounter at a bar. She gets into a drunken scrap, and he is the bouncer who helps her get home. Things would probably have ended there, except that she suffers a horrible tragedy and reaches out to someone, anyone who can serve as a lifeline. He's available and willing, and they form a bond that is something more than friendship, but less than soul mates.

Marion Cotillard gives a brave, understated performance as Stéphanie, a woman who trains orca whales at the French equivalent of Sea World. She loves her job, though it's clear from her expression during a performance that it's gotten a bit stale for her. Then an accident occurs, the stage supporting the trainers crashes into the water tank, and Stéphanie wakes up in the hospital to find both her legs have been amputated.

"What have you done with my legs?!?" she shrieks at the helpless nurse, in a scene that pierces us with its emotional thrust.

Director Jacques Audiard ("A Prophet"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain based on a short story by Craig Davidson, is circumspect about what exactly happened to her. Shots of the killer whale approaching with teeth thrashing would suggest that the panicked animal bit off her legs. No one else from the show was apparently injured, so this seems the best explanation.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a young roustabout with a 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), in tow. When we first meet them, they are riding on a train, hungry and desperate. Ali scrapes together leftover food from the empty seats to keep them fed. He boosts a phone from a store, fleeing the security as Sam stands a few feet away.

We're not exactly sure what has happened, but the pair is completely indigent. They are traveling to Ali's sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero) for refuge. Ali has worked itinerant as a security guard, and manages to cobble together a couple of jobs at the bar and night security at a big-box store.

At the latter he meets Martial (Bouli Lanners), who installs secret cameras throughout the store. Ostensibly these are to monitor the customers, but Martial confides they are actually to spy on the employees. Martial also runs a side business managing street fighters, and recruits Ali. It's fast money, and a lot of it, so he's eager to dive in, shrugging off the threat of injury.

Neither Ali or Stéphanie are perfect, or even necessarily good, people. Stéphanie confesses that her relationships with men involve her teasing and taunting them, getting them turned on and then dumping them when she soon grows bored. There's no hint of what happened to her current beau after her accident, but either he took off her she shut him out. She spends a few months isolating herself in a convalescence home, seeing virtually no one until she gives Ali a call out of the blue.

Ali is both easier and harder to understand. He exists as pure id, a man comfortable with physical brutality who does not seem to spend more than a few seconds pondering anything. When people ask him how he is, he tends to just say "normal" or "OP," meaning operational. To him, as long as there is food, work, a place to sleep, someone to watch over his kid (something he tends to slack off on) and occasional sex, life is grand.

To say that Ali is not in touch with his feelings is an understatement; he's not in touch with anyone else's feelings, either. Sometimes we get the sense he's unacquainted with the very concept of feelings.

The push and pull of their relationship goes back and forth. At first she is the driver, leaning on Ali (literally) to help get her out of her shut-in funk. He takes her to the beach for a swim, out to social events, and even offers to sleep with her to find out if her libido has survived her ordeal. (It has. Libidos tend to survive just about everything.)

But then Ali starts to subtly push her away. He waits until they're fairly deep into their friendship before he even reveals he has a son. He takes her with him to his illegal fights. He takes her to a club and then picks up another woman and leaves with her.

I enjoyed "Rust and Bone" for its strong performances, even as I never really felt like I got under the characters' skins. Ali exists as a Stanley Kowalski-esque primal beast, and her attraction to him is laced with an undercurrent of repulsion that's difficult to grasp.

The story is organic to the point of feeling unstructured, as events unspool without much rhyme or reason. The characters drift about, crashing into each other and then sliding away, so the impacts aren't as forceful as they might be. A little more narrative coherence would have served the filmmakers better.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: "The Last Stand"

Just a quick review/rumination on "The Last Stand" today. Nick Rogers is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so head over there to check that out for a more complete take.

I see "The Last Stand" as a marker. It's less a movie meant to be enjoyed in its own right than a question for the audience, and the Hollywood machine. And that is: Can Arnold still cut it as an action star?

Based on this old-school shoot-em-up, ably directed by Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim, I'd say the answer is definitively yes.

The movie itself is big, dumb and loud. It's one of those flicks where the audience is encouraged not to think much about whether the plot makes a lick of sense or if the characters are thicker than plywood. It's one big excuse to dive into a whole lot of gunfire and mayhem, interrupted by funny bits and Schwarzenegger's patented quips.

"The Last Stand" takes its own good time to get rolling -- the screenplay doesn't really take off until the 45-minute mark -- but once the explosions and machine gun fire starts up, it's a glibly visceral thrill ride the rest of the way.

The plot is straight and simple: a Mexican drug cartel chieftain named Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has escaped from the feds during a bold breakout in Las Vegas. He's driving a hyper-fast Corvette prototype toward the sleepy Arizona border town of Sommerton Junction. After the various federal law enforcement agencies muck up the job, it's up to the local sheriff, Ray Owens, and his three deputies to stop Cortez.

Now, Schwarzenegger does not look like a "Ray" or an "Owens," but he fits comfortably into the town's laid back culture. We later learn he was once a hotshot Los Angeles narcotics cop who gave up the fast lane 20 years ago to detox in Sommerton.

It's sort of funny to think about the fact that the Austrian Oak has lived in America for 40 years or so, but his thick wiener-schnitzel accent hasn't diminished one iota. Still, it's clear that despite his name and speech, Ray isn't a native -- at one point he tells the bad guy, "You make us immigrants look bad."

Arnie is still a badass in this movie, but a more down-to-earth and human one. He looks a mite stiff and slow during the fight scenes. Schwarzenegger also seems physically smaller, like a Norse titan cut down to size by his earthly existence. I noticed he appeared shorter than a number of his male co-stars. My memory of him is that he towers -- and glowers -- over everyone else.

Other cast members include Johnn Knoxville as Dinkum, the local screwball who operates an ersatz firearms museum -- open every third Thursday of the month, noon to 3 -- just so he can legally own all sorts of high-powered weaponry that will come in handy later. Peter Stormare has a fun role as the kingpin's henchmen, who dresses like an Old West dandy and even fights with an ancient six-shooter.

Luis Guzman is Ray's right-hand man, who suggests they look the other way when the heat comes, but walks tall in the end. Rodrigo Santoro is the town drunk, who happens to be an ex-Marine. And Jamie Alexander is convincing as the only female cop.

At age 65, how  many more movies like this does Arnold Schwarzenegger have left in him? I'd like to think a few -- especially if he comes back in other roles like this where he's not playing a superman, but just a tough old-timer with a few tricks left in him.

Personally, I would love to see him make some more Conan movies -- as I often point out to people, the original Robert E. Howard books took the character out to age 70 or so.

The most telling moment in "The Last Stand" comes at the end. Having defeated the bad guy -- what, you didn't think he would? -- the sheriff is sitting on the curb, torn up and bloody from his travails. Over walks the FBI chief (Forest Whitaker) who had been overseeing the chase from afar, offering Ray information, advice and not a little condescension.

Ray goes to stand up, struggles to do so, and the G-man holds out a hand to help him up. He glares at the outstretched hand, clearly peeved that it is seen as being necessary. Then he winces with pain, bows to the inevitable and lets the younger man help him to his feet.

Time catches us all, and even the biggest action movies stars should have the grace to acknowledge it.

2.5 stars out of four

Review: "Mama"

I'm openly skeptical of PG-13-rated horror films, but the coolly creepy "Mama" passes the fright test.
This unnerving movie crawls its way under your skin and just keeps scratching at you, like an insect that has burrowed its way in and just keeps sinking its proboscis deeper. The filmmakers effectively blend computer-generated effects, jumpy editing and haunting sound effects for terrifying scares.

But they also manage that rare trick of weaving a pervasive blanket of dark mood, an almost suffocating sense of dread that sets up the boo-gotcha moments.

The film, produced by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, boasts a largely Spanish-language crew. Director Andrés Muschietti, who co-wrote the script with sister Barbara Muschietti and Neill Cross, expanded their 2008 short film of the same name. Astonishingly, all three principles are feature film first-timers.

The story begins with a man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) killing his wife and kidnapping their two young daughters. But the escape turns to even deeper tragedy when they crash in remote Cotton Forge, and all three disappear.

Flash forward five years, and the man's brother Luke (Coster-Waldau again) has been paying hunters to search for any sign of his family. Just as his money runs out, the girls are located living in a ramshackle cabin, subsisting as feral creatures who crawl about on all fours.

Brought back for psychological counseling, the sisters are placed into Luke's custody along with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). A punk rocker bedecked in tattoos, Goth makeup and a perpetual sneer, Annabel isn't crazy about suddenly becoming an instant stepmom to two little girls who barely even talk.

Their psychiatrist (Daniel Kash) helpfully explains that the sisters survived in part by creating an imaginary protector they called Mama, the memory of whom will fade as they gradually bond with Luke and Annabel.
But then, as they say, strange things start to happen.

At first the girls -- Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) -- seem odd, but fairly harmless. They doodle on the wall with crayons, and Lilly sleeps under her bed. Annabel grows more suspicious when she overhears them humming to themselves, and then their voices are joined by a deeper, haunting one.

"Mama" isn't terribly hard to suss out, both in terms of the apparition's nature and where the story will go. But the filmmakers make up in tone and atmosphere what they lack in novelty.

Chastain, newly nominated for her second Oscar, is solid in a somewhat underwritten role. Annabel is resentful and rebellious about the situation she's forced into, but slowly takes up the mantel of maternal warrior. Her scenes with the young actresses playing the sisters (both spot-on) have a distinct emotional tug you don't expect in a frightfest.

The CG used for Mama (Javier Botet did the stop-motion capture) is really good, a smoky mix of root tendrils, inky goo and insects. Mama feels like she just crawled up out of the earth, full of wriggly energy and animalistic primal urges. I could almost smell her.

Muschietti plays it for maximum effect, only letting us see suggestions and glimpses of Mama for most of the film. This movie is a prime example of how computerized imagery can enhance a cinematic experience without overwhelming it.

As a scary movie purist, I can't help pointing out "Mama" could have been even better with some judicious gore to amp up the white-knuckle experience. Still, as PG-13 horror goes, this is about the best I've seen since "The Ring."

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Video review: "The Other Dream Team"

theotherdreamteam - interior

During a slow week for new video releases, you might want to take a timeout from mainstream fare to see “The Other Dream Team,” a scrappy little documentary about the Lithuanian national basketball team.

Playing in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the Lithuanians did not prove much of an actual challenge to the better-known Dream Team, which consisted of American NBA stars like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. (The U.S. beat them 127-76.)

But the team from Lithuania, which had for decades been absorbed as part of the Soviet Union, made history representing themselves as a sovereign nation – winning the bronze medal and defeating the Russian team in the process.

Director Marius A. Markevicius keeps the pace zippy, mixing archival footage of basketball games, news reels of Lithuanians marching for their independence as the Iron Curtain fell, plus contemporaneous interviews with the players and their opponents. Some are familiar faces – like Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, who both went on to productive NBA careers – while many others we’re meeting for the first time.

Particularly interesting is the portion about the 1988 Olympics, in which a USSR team with four Lithuanian starters beat the heavily-favored American squad. It led directly to the creation of the U.S. Dream Team. And it helped Lithuanians see that, despite being a tiny nation of 3 million, they could compete against the best teams from across the globe.

One misstep is repeatedly returning to the tale of Jonas Valanciunas, a Lithuanian player who ended up being drafted by the Toronto Raptors in 2011. Valanciunas isn’t a very compelling screen presence, and Markevicius doesn’t adequately tie in his story to that of the ’92 national team.

Still, “The Other Dream Team” is an often thrilling portrait of young men who were playing for their country at a time when it was shrugging off the shackles of totalitarianism. They were living the real hoops dream.

Video extras are fairly measly. There’s an audio commentary track by the director and his co-writer/producer, Jon Weinbach, plus a Q&A segment with the same pair.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, January 14, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Hombre" (1967)

Paul Newman, of course, looks about as much like an American Indian as I do an Aboriginal chieftain. Even as half-breed Apache John Russell, it's an entirely unconvincing portrait -- the bad wig and bandana he wears briefly during the opening scene doing nothing to help.

But Russell is a compelling anti-hero in "Hombre," notable for two reasons. First, he's a powerful advocate for a revisionist look at how Indians are portrayed in Western films, delivering a stern uppercut to white characters who look disdainfully down on his people. To the snooty upper-crust woman who talk in horrified tone about seeing some Apaches eat dog meat, he tells her she's never known real hunger. "You'd eat dog, and fight for the bones."

And that line gives a clue to the other aspect of the character: He is one of the unkindest, most unlikable men  you're apt to meet in a mainstream film. He kills without enjoyment, but he does so with a total lack of hesitation or compassion. Russell is not above shooting a man in the back after he's come to parley if he thinks the other a threat.

Lots and lots of men of this ilk are portrayed in movies, particularly Westerns, but their grimness is always a front for a fairly typical heroic outlook ... or, at the very least, their severity is eventually triumphed by altruistic feelings. Think of the Man with No Name, whose trilogy was recently profiled in this space. Clint Eastwood wears the visage of a selfish killer, but almost from the get-go he's looking to help out the downtrodden.

Not John Russell. Newman's steely performance makes quite clear that he gives not a fig for the Caucasians (and one Mexican) with whom he shares a stagecoach. when they find out he's half-Indian, Russell is forced to ride up top with the driver. When the coach is stopped and robbed by bandits -- one of them hidden among the passengers -- Russell is ready to let them all die so long as he's not harmed.

In the end, of course, Russell does sacrifice himself for the greater good. But it's damn clear he's not happy about doing it. It's an act of heroism, but executed with a sneer and resignation rather than a kind heart.

Elmore Leonard must hold some kind of record for most novels turned into films, due in part to the fact that he leapt through genres gleefully. Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch adapted the book for the screenplay, turning in a spare, economical script with surprisingly little dialogue. Russell himself rarely speaks more than a sentence or two at a time.

Director Martin Ritt was a well-regarded journeyman who had previously worked with Newman on "Hud," "The Long, Hot Summer" and and several other pictures. Visually "Hombre" isn't terribly novel, though Ritt has a flair for extreme close-ups of faces that is in some ways reminiscent of Sergio Leone.

His real strength as a filmmaker, I think, was in eliciting sharp, strong performances from his cast. All the characters in "Hombre," from the lead to the smallest supporting role, have a resonance and authenticity that's gripping. Even a Mexican bandit (Frank Silvera) -- who's only credited as "Mexican bandit" -- gets a few choice lines and a dramatic death scene.

It's no surprise that Ritt, who scored only one Oscar nomination during his long career, saw his films garner an astonishing 11 Academy Award acting nominations, with two wins.

The plot is pretty bare, though it bears some similarities to an updated version of John Ford's classic "Stagecoach."

A party of disparate souls are packed together for a journey through dangerous lands, with one of them an outcast. Russell, who had been corralling horses in the mountains with other Apaches, learns the white father who adopted him has died and left him a boarding house. He takes one look at it and the harried, soulful woman running the place and decides to sell it for a herd of horses.

Jessie (a terrific Diane Cilento), acts as the moral conscience of the group, repeatedly trying to shame Russell into helping the others instead of just looking out for himself. Jessie has her own problems. In addition to just losing her livelihood, she proposes marriage to her boyfriend, the local sheriff Braden (Cameron Mitchell), and is told, "Not a chance." By her own reckoning she's been married, widowed, used and abused, but she has a strong sense of self and is in some ways hardier than Russell himself.

Fredric March plays Favor, an elderly professor and Indian agent who's been robbing Russell's tribe blind, carrying $12,000 in cash along with his much younger refined bride, Audra (Barbara Rush). Also along for the ride are Billy Lee (Peter Lazer) and Doris (Margaret Blye), a very young and recently married couple whose lives seem headed toward misery. Mendez (Martin Balsam) runs the coach line and is the closest thing in the world Russell has to a friend.

Last and least is Cicero Grimes, the head of the robber gang who poses as a passenger (by intimidating a soldier into giving up his ticket). Richard Boone has a splendid turn as the amoral Grimes, who's relentless and folksy at the same time. He's a loathsome man -- at one point he makes a semi-serious rape attempt on Doris -- but the movie only hits its highest gear when he's around.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Year of the Snub: Oscar nominations

 Somebody really doesn't like Ben Affleck.

Make that a lot of somebodys -- at least in Hollywood, where Affleck failed to score a much-expected nomination for directing the political drama "Argo."

Kathryn Bigelow being ignored for director also seems high puzzling, and probably quite infuriating to critics of the Academy Awards' long history of ignoring female filmmakers. It's hard to see how "Zero Dark Thirty" isn't among the contenders for best-directed movies of the year.

In a better-than-average year for movies, the Oscars seem to be making 2012 the Year of the Snub. The nominations announced earlier today seem notable more for who they excluded than those who were honored.

Quentin Tarantino was also left off the list of director nominations, though that was expected after a growing backlash to "Django Unchained" and the fact that he wasn't nominated by the Director's Guild of America, one of the closest harbingers of the Academy Awards. Tom Hooper's lack of recognition for "Les Miserables" indicates a tepid regard for that film -- which has gotten decent but hardly great reviews, and the film I picked for the #1 spot on my list of the best.

I was thrilled to see Joaquin Phoenix get a Best Actor nod for "The Master." The film is ambitious and troubling, and I have many problems with it, but Phoenix gave the performance of the year, in my humble opinion. Yes, it was filled with lots of tics and "behavior," but he brought a real center to that character and made those physical manifestations a part of the gestalt, rather than defining the role.

At the same time, I am absolutely crushed about the lack of a nomination for John Hawkes for "The Sessions," and the general disregard the Academy seemed to hold for that wonderful film. No Best Picture, Director or Screenplay nominations. That's just staggering to me. Helen Hunt's nod for supporting actress was its only nomination.

Instead, Academy voters seem to have made a point of honoring smaller pictures, especially foreign ones that few people have seen. Normally I'm all for the Oscars recognizing the smaller-budget non-Hollywood stuff -- it's just that this year they bestowed their graces on the wrong  movies.

The film that got the biggest bump was the Austrian drama "Amour," about an elderly couple dealing with deteriorating health. It scored nomination for best picture, foreign language film, director, screenplay and actress. I've seen the film and found it worthy, but it's an extremely well-executed version of a story we've seen many, many times before. I half-jokingly referred to it as "Million Franc Baby" and "My Old, Paralyzed Left Foot." The movie held zero surprises for me.

I hate to say it, but the Best Actress category seems to have been stacked just so they can brag about having the oldest nominee ever (Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour") and the youngest ever (Quvenzhané Wallis) in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." I don't think either is particularly deserving.

First of all, Riva doesn't even really have the lead role in that film -- the actor playing her husband does nearly all of the heavy lifting. And yes, Wallis was very good for a 6-year-old in "Beasts." But there's little interior to that role, just outward behavior.

I know lots of people were overwhelmed by the primal beauty of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," but it struck me as a lyrical tale about terrible parents forcing their kids to live in abject poverty so they could get high all the time.

Putting those two in over Meryl Streep in "Hope Springs," Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock" or Mary Elizabeth Winstead for "Smashed" is just plain wrong.

"Perks of Being a Wallflower," one of the most sensitive portrayals of high school existence in years, came out with a great big goose egg -- no nominations. Outrageous.

The award for biggest surprise nomination probably goes to Jacki Weaver for "Silver Linings Playbook." She was solid playing the harried mother, but it's a very modest part. Her character stays in the background the entire time. Robert De Niro at least has a few scenes that belong to the dad.

What about Doona Bae in "Cloud Atlas?" What about Javier Bardem in "Skyfall," Jude Law in "Anna Karenina," William H. Macy in "The Sessions?"

"Life of Pi" also did unexpectedly well, with nominations for best picture, director, screenplay and some technical awards. It's a very good film that hardly anybody saw. It's not in the top five in any of those categories for me, but I'm not upset about seeing it in there.

Big winners:

Silver Linings Playbook
Beasts of the Southern Wild

Big losers:

The Sessions
The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Review: "Zero Dark Thirty"

"Zero Dark Thirty" plays out like a TV crime procedural with a bigger budget and loftier aspirations. It almost has the tone of a documentary film, depicting the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden with little prejudice or embellishment.

What we end up with is something boasting an almost journalistic feel, portraying American national security personnel not as we'd to think they would be, but as they actually are. Which is to say: focused, fallible, and capable of both amazing heroism and gut-churning brutality.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal started to make a movie about the early search for bin Laden after 9/11, but then the terrorist leader was assassinated by U.S. troops in 2011, acting on information painstakingly gathered by the CIA. They quickly retooled to bring a more comprehensive tale, culminating in the high-tension raid on the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden had been living for several years.

I was very impressed with the attention to detail in "Zero Dark Thirty," and its lessons about the sort of warfare our country wages in the 21st century. It's one based not on nuclear missiles or big metal hardware, but tiny slivers of data gathered from thousands of sources. The challenge is less like finding a needle in a haystack than reassembling a mirror smashed into a million shards, without knowing the shape it had before being broken.

The film is not as emotionally engaging as I'd wished. Jessica Chastain does yeoman's work in portraying Maya, the one CIA investigator who does nothing for a decade but hunt bin Laden. The character has no internal motivations or external life beyond getting her man. It's not surprising that Maya is a composite of several real figures, since she has no real identity beyond her mission.

The story skips around in time and place, the first half depicting the early clues to bin Laden's disappearance from Afghanistan, taking us up to 2004. Then the trail goes cold, and the film picks up again four years later, when Maya stumbles across evidence of a high-level bin Laden courier who most of the other intelligence forces believe is already dead. She proves he's alive, and follows him straight to that dusty Pakistani compound.

In fictional movies about spycraft, the agents shown searching for evidence are also the ones who go out into the field and nab the bad guys. Here, it's clearly revealed that the snoops stay mostly behind their desks and have an uneasy relationship with the troops on the front lines. At one point, Maya has to practically beg a field commander to set up a surveillance net on the courier.

In the film's most controversial section, which is right at the beginning, a CIA interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke, in a chilling performance) is shown employing "enhanced" methods against detainees, including waterboarding.

For a film that was accused of being controversial before it even finished production, "Zero Dark Thirty" is steadfastly neutral on the subject of torture. The interrogations are clearly depicted as brutal and dehumanizing, and it's hard to watch Americans carrying out these sorts of depraved actions. But the movie is also quite clear in showing how the information obtained in this way was critical to identifying the courier who led us to bin Laden.

Bigelow and Boal do not go in for big ethical quandaries and principled dilemmas, though. Maya, who is present but does not partake in the brutality, is repulsed by it but also does not hesitate to make use of the fruits it produces.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is an effective and expertly made film, but a more character-driven story would've added some flesh to the bones of a great, true story.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Video review: "Frankenweenie"

As a filmmaker, Tim Burton's mostly been working on reanimation projects lately -- taking old movies and making them rise from the dead as remakes crammed with computer-generated imagery. The results have been up and down, generally scoring at the box office but leaving lovers of his earlier work (I count myself) feeling disappointed.

If "Frankenweenie" has a fresher feel than most of his recent movies, that's because it's a remake of his own short film.

The original was live action, a black comedy about a boy who zombifies his pet pooch using Frankenstein-esque science. The spiffy new version is stop-motion animation, which suits the material well -- a mix of heartfelt pathos and creepy-crawly horror movie elements.

Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is crushed when his beloved dog Sparky is, er, crushed in a car accident. Indirectly inspired by his eccentric science teacher, Victor jolts the canine alive with electricity. But then the other kids in the neighborhood discover the trick, and soon the whole town is overrun with zombie pets.

The animation is truly spectacular, dark in palette but joyful in its intricacy and attention to detail. I loved how many of the individual children resemble horror-flick denizens, like the blonde girl who looks like she stepped out of "Village of the Damned."

Despite the subject matter, "Frankenweenie" is sweet-natured and should be suitable for all but the smallest children. And adults will enjoy the references to classic horror creatures, especially the classic Universal Studios menagerie.

The film comes with a decent array of video extras, though you'll have to shell out for a higher price point Blu-ray edition to get the best stuff. The DVD comes only with one featurette, a "Touring Exhibit" of the Frankenweenie world, plus a music video.

Upgrade to the two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you add Burton's original "Frankenweenie" live-action short, the making-of doc "Miniatures in Motion: Bringing 'Frankenweenie' To Life" and an original animated short, "Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers."

The four-disc combo pack also includes 3-D and digital copies of the film.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, January 7, 2013

Gym etiquette for newbies

In the spirit of both encouraging and educating all the New Year's Resolution folks now swarming the gyms, I thought I’d offer some unsolicited but appropriate tips on etiquette and behavior. This will hopefully make them better gym users and increase their enjoyment of the experience.

But I’ll confess, mostly I’m just hoping to make their presence more tolerable to the rest of us. I speak as someone who started working out 22 years ago, and in that time hasn’t missed more than a week of going to the gym (and even then nearly always due to illness or travel).

1.    If you’re going to rest more than 45 seconds between sets, don’t just sit on the station. Get up, walk around, stretch, and let someone else work in. No one should hog a station for 10+ minutes. Three or four people can easily rotate on a single piece of equipment between sets.

2.    The spaces in between the exercise equipment are for egress. Do not grab dumbbells or other mobile equipment and stand there performing your exercises. Don’t make others walk around you.

3.    In many gyms there are clipboards on the cardio machines (treadmills, elliptical, etc.) for people to sign up for certain times. About 98% of the time, nobody pays any attention to these. When a machine is free, grab it. Don’t actually expect someone to get off because it’s “your time.”

4.    The locker room is where you’re supposed to change clothes. If you’re removing more than one article of clothing (winter coat, etc.), please don’t do it in front of the rest of us. We’re not impressed.

5.    Please wear appropriate workout clothing. If you’re a gym newbie and don’t want to invest in new duds because you think they will soon be too big for you, at least make sure everything that needs to be covered, is. Hint: Try Goodwill stores for good, cheap gym clothes.

6.    If you’re not sure how a piece of equipment works, feel free to ask someone who looks like they know what they’re doing. Most gym vets are glad to help. If you do some stations wrong, you could injure yourself.

7.    Unless you’re a member of a weightlifting team, you’re not in competition with anybody but yourself. Don’t worry about how much weight someone else can lift. Focus on making yourself stronger, not “beating” another person.

8.    If you need to make a loud grunt or exclamation when you’re lifting, you’ve got too much weight on.

9.    The operative part of the phrase “working out” is “work.” Most of us are here to perform exercise and leave. It’s not social hour. Confine extended conversations to outside the gym floor.

10.    Please don’t think we’re too cynical, but those of us who are here year-round know from past experience that most of you will be gone by Valentine’s Day. We’re happy to tolerate the January crowds, and applaud your newfound motivation. Those of you who transform into regulars are especially to be applauded. Next year, you can write this guide for the newcomers.

Reeling Backward: "Hell's Angels" (1930)

"Hell's Angels" may just be the first action-movie spectacular in cinematic history. Produced and directed by Howard Hughes, it was a big-budget extravaganza featuring amazing special effects for the aerial dogfights, a star-making turn by Jean Harlow and an epic war story backdrop.

Also like a lot of action movies, it's less successful when the explosions stop and the characters have to talk to each other. Often, it's downright embarassing.

But the action scenes more than compensate. They're just amazing for their time, combining live-action shots of multiple World War I fighter planes tearing about the sky, models seamlessly blended into the fray and even some early progenitors of the modern green screen effects.

If I were grading this movie in its parts, it would be four stars for the aerial sequences and one-and-a-half stars for everything else.

 I first learned about "Hell's Angels" from the Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator," which features a long sequence about Hughes' feverish devotion to making the film. Production started in 1927 as a silent picture with another actress in the female lead role. Hughes switched it over to a sound film on the fly, and found 18-year-old Harlow to take over the role of vamp vixen Helen (reputedly because the original actress had a heavy accent).

The talkie sequences still are hampered by technological restrictions of the era, though not as bad as some other early sound films where the dialogue fades in and out. Hughes also uses some irises that turn the frame into a circle, which is an antiquated look associated with silent films. The scenes with Germans feature the actors actually speaking German, cutting away to title cards for the important dialogue, just as you might see in a silent movie.

A word on those Germans -- the truly bad ones are invariably depicted as physically ugly or disfigured in some way, with scars and mustachios they practically twirl. Nonetheless, the "enemy" gets a fairly evenhanded portrayal all around, with one of the German lads who had been friends with the two main characters shown as decent and kind. After he is conscripted by his homeland for the war, he intentionally drops the bombs from his zeppelin harmlessly into a lake. In that same sequence, when the airship must be lightened in order to escape altitude and escape, most of the crew volunteers to jump out of the bomb bay doors and sacrifice themselves -- though a few have to be pushed.

The cinematography by Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry is simply a revelation, and even contains a couple of colorized sequences. Their work garnered the movie's sole Academy Award nomination.

The story's fairly straightforward. Brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall) are young college rascals who sign up for the Royal Flying Corp when the war breaks out. Roy is upstanding and idealistic, and believes that his girl Helen (Harlow) is true and virtuous. She's anything but, seducing Monte before they ship out. Monte is a cad and a serial womanizer, but he still can't stand to see Roy misled so, and feels crushing shame for the part he played.

Before the war, Monte is caught canoodling with a German baron's wife, and he demands the satisfaction of a duel with pistols. Monte, who has a long yellow streak in him, flees for England, but the righteous Roy takes his place and is wounded in the arm. (Since the duel took place before daybreak, the baron never even knew he was firing at the wrong man.)

Once the war starts, Roy unsurprisingly distinguishes himself, while Monte gains a reputation as a malingerer and coward. This despite the fact he fought bravely during the zeppelin battle, the action centerpiece of the film. The shots of gunners stationed atop the dirigible firing at planes as they whiz by is still thrilling even today -- one wonders how Hughes got them.

Eventually Roy learns what a cheating tramp Helen is, which inspires him to volunteer for a near-suicidal mission to pilot a captured German bomber on a sneak attack right before a major offensive on the ground. Monte goes along out of loyalty to his brother. Their mission is a success, but then they're shot down by the Red Baron himself.

In the final sequence, the captured brothers encounter the same German baron they tangled with before, who offers them a cushy POW existence if they'll give up the details of the offensive. Roy refuses, but Monte's cowardly streak reasserts itself. To save the lives of thousands of their comrades, Roy shoots his brother in the back with a pistol supplied by the baron.

The weapon was given under a ruse to attempt escape, but the German is too clever and only supplies one bullet. In his dying throes, Monte thanks Roy for preventing him from giving up the battle plan, and saving the honor of both of them in the process. Roy is then marched out and executed as the artillery barrage of the Allied offensive is heard in the distance.

It's pretty hokey stuff, and the transparency of Helen is such that we start to lower our regard for Roy since he's so obtuse about it. Harlow is a terrific screen presence, though, sexy and playful with a nasty bite of steel underneath. Her career was intense but brief, dying suddenly of renal failure at age 26.

What makes "Hell's Angels" a memorable cinematic experience is those amazing dogfight scenes. I can only imagine what audiences of the time thought of them -- they might have even been too intense for folks back then.

Perhaps that's why the film was only modestly successful at the box office. Howard Hughes was soon on to other obsessions involving aircraft and other things, and the man who might have been the George Lucas of his era only dabbled in filmmaking thereafter.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: "Promised land"

“Promised Land” is the sort of movie that is so gratingly earnest, so righteous in its mission and so unwavering in its message that it undercuts the storytelling.

This drama about the issue of hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas, or “fracking,” contains some powerful moments and a few nice performances, particularly Matt Damon as a conflicted gas company rep. But the screenplay, co-written by Damon and John Krasinski (who also co-stars), sets up the conflict in such stark shades of black and white, we know exactly how the characters’ journeys will turn out.

To wit: I do not think I am giving anything away by stating that this film ends with Damon’s character, Steve Butler, undergoing a major change of heart, making a big speech in front of the townspeople in which he confesses his sins. This is because, given everything that has transpired, this movie could not have ended any other way.

Steve is the hotshot top salesman for Global Gas. His job is to go into rural communities where natural gas is lying in beds of shale rock deep below the earth and buy up the leasing rights to farms. Steve, along with his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), have a track record of signing more land at a fraction of the price compared to other teams.

Now he’s up for a big promotion, as soon as he closes the deal on the tiny town of Miller Falls. There he encounters a stubborn old farmer (Hal Holbrook) who used to be a big shot scientist. He warns people about the environmental dangers of fracking, and convinces them to hold an election in three weeks’ time to decide the issue.

This represents a nightmare scenario for Steve and Sue, who are used to descending on a small community, swooping up all the lease contracts and getting out before any opposition has time to coalesce. Even worse, a smarmy young environmentalist from some group called Superior Athena named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up with dire warnings and horrifying photographs of dead cows after his family’s dairy farm was ruined by fracking.

The contrast between Dustin and Steve could not be more puzzling. For a fellow who is supposed to be the best there is at schmoozing and selling, Steve seems absolutely flummoxed by the tall, blithely charming environmentalist. As a result, the farmers keep getting sullener, transitioning from get-off-my-land rebuffs to fisticuffs in bars.

“I’m not a bad guy,” he keeps telling people, until you suspect it’s not them he’s trying to convince.

Damon gives one of his best performances as a guy who’s plowed all of his energy into his job at the detriment of nourishing his soul. Steve came from a small town himself that was devastated by layoffs at the local Caterpillar factory, and was one of only two people in his high school who went to college.

Now he’s successful, and goes around the country writing big checks to dirt-poor farmers who he genuinely believes he’s helping. There’s a sense of altruism there, but also contempt.

Steve sees these fracking contracts as their one chance to cash in and get ahead. He can’t believe it when people turn him down. They’re just perpetuating a “delusional self-mythology” about rural America, he says.

Steve made it out, and thinks everyone else wants to, too.

This dynamic would have worked better if the movie’s internal logic wasn’t all bunched up in knots. For example, we keep getting reminders of how big Global Gas is – “We’re a $9 billion company!” is the phrase that’s repeated several times. Yet they seem to have the resources of a mom-and-pop.

As near as we can figure, Steve and Sue in their beaten-up rental truck and recently store-bought flannels – deliberately downscale accoutrements meant to help them blend in – represent Global’s entire presence. At one point, Steve gets the idea to hold a town fair to generate goodwill, and he has to set up all the tents, hay bales and fencing himself. Huh?

Director Gus Van Sant has a nice eye for the beautiful landscapes depicted – the film was shot lovingly by cinematographer Linus Sandgren outside of Pittsburgh. But his pacing is a little off at times, and characters disappear for long stretches or behave erratically.

For instance, the (inevitable) local love interest is played by Rosemarie DeWitt. Alice, a winsome schoolteacher brushing up against spinsterhood, shares immediate sparks with Steve, then starts flirting around with Dustin. As written, the character seems to have no motivations or opinions about fracking, as long as she’s got two gorgeous guys squabbling over her.

“Promised Land” may have its heart in the right place, but too often it sacrifices believability.

2.5 stars out of four

Review: "The Impossible"

“The Impossible” is an impressive and deeply troubling picture, both for intentional and unintentional reasons.

As a harrowing depiction of the 2004 tsunami that swept over much of southeast Asia, it’s a top-drawer portrait of humans struggling to survive and help one another. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are brilliant as parents whose family is sundered by the massive tidal wave hitting their Thai beach resort, each valiantly struggling to keep their sons alive while not knowing if the other is dead or not.

I do question the filmmakers’ purposes in choosing to focus on the plight of five Westerners amidst a disaster that claimed more than 230,000 lives – most of those native people, and with only a small sliver of the victims in Thailand. The tale is based on a real Spanish family, but director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez – both Spaniards – choose to make the people British.

The answers to those sorts of questions are not hard to guess. People from English-speaking countries are more likely to identify with the plight their own, rather than a bunch of brown folks yammering in another language. It's understandable, since it’s an effective storytelling device that makes the main characters more identifiable with their target audience.

In focusing on how the disaster impacted a bunch of well-to-do Europeans, though, the filmmakers simultaneously make the horror more immediate and decouple the audience from its broader impacts.

Still, these sorts of concerns to not present themselves during the film, which unfolds with a riveting portrayal of the tidal wave and immediate aftermath. Terrific computer-generated effects bring the colossal onslaught of the tsunami right into our faces.

Maria (Watts) is a doctor who’s not currently practicing, while Henry (McGregor) is an engineer for a Japanese company. Their base is Tokyo, but they’ve adopted a jet-setting lifestyle that has grown comfortable to them.

Certainly their three boys seem to be typical lads. Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), 5, and 7-year-old Thomas (Samuel Joslin) are scrappy and stubborn. The eldest, Lucas (a marvelous Tom Holland), is about 12 and in full-blown preteen rebellion mode.

But when Lucas and Maria are separated from the rest of the family and she is seriously injured, he’s forced to grow up fast. As a doctor, she knows how badly she needs medical help, which only amplifies her plight. Watching the power balance shift, as son gradually becomes caretaker to mother, is the film’s high point.

Henry is a passive type, not your prototypical alpha-male movie hero. But his determination to see his entire family reunited is a sight to behold. Even when the survivors from their hotel are being shipped to safer ground, he stays behind to continue the search. Lacking even a shirt or shoes – they were swimming in the pool when the wave hit – Henry sets off bravely like a knight on a noble, if seemingly fruitless search.

“The Impossible” exists on only a single level of emotion and peril. The characters aren’t really defined other than by their reaction to a deadly challenge. But watching them rise to it is a compelling journey, as their incredible experience stands in for many others who did not make it to tell their tale.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review: "Not Fade Away"

There's a moment of unintentional hilarity in "Not Fade Away," the semi-autobiographical account by "Sopranos" creator David Chase about his yearning to break into the music business during the 1960s.

The main character, Douglas, a stand-in for Chase himself, has been dragged to the cinema by his artistically inclined girlfriend. Astute film lovers will recognize the main feature as Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up," one of the most seminal films of the era. But Douglas is clearly not impressed -- he wonders why there isn't a musical score telling him when to feel happy or sad.

"Nothing ever happens in this movie," he complains.

Turns out, nothing much ever happened with Chase's rock 'n' roll aspirations, either. And the film he wrote and directed about those times and tribulations is desperately short on narrative momentum, too.

Granted, movies like this are more about mood and character than gobs of storytelling. But after awhile we feel like "Not Fade Away" is just as excuse to play a lot of really cool music and set a bunch of good-looking young actors in the foreground to pout and fret in time to the tunes.

This downbeat drama is unfocused and languid, almost to the point of being inert.

Douglas (John Magaro) is the drummer who's content to stay in the background, until the one night the cocky lead singer Eugene (Jack Huston) is out sick and he's forced to step behind the microphone, and finds out he's a more soulful crooner than anyone knew. Wells (Will Brill), the lead guitarist and somewhat loopy creative driving force, backs Douglas' move to headliner, which leads to predictable sparks amongst the group.

Things play out from late 1963, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, up to 1968 or '69. The boys are all New Jersey sons of immigrants who change superficially as the music scene does, graduating from bowl haircuts and Cuban-heeled boots to long hippie locks and bell-bottoms. They drink booze, smoke a lot of weed and get into moderate amounts of trouble.

The older generation frowns disapprovingly at their kids' commotions, led by James Gandolfini as Doug's dad. The character as written by Chase is more an archetype than a person, the sort of man who works hard, scrounges and worries, and continually seethes when his efforts aren't rewarded with success.

"Nobody gave the Italians anything when we had nothing," one of his buddies complains, summing up their generation's lament.

Supporting characters are wafer-thin. Doug's mother (Molly Price) is a shrieking harridan whose only method of control over her family is threatening suicide. Kid sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) is the narrator and eyes and ears of the audience.

Perhaps the character who best encapsulates this film's problems is Doug's erstwhile girlfriend Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote). It's a classic popular-girl-chooses-nobody scenario, and while we never really understand what Doug sees in her beyond her delicate beauty, the audience gains even lesser insight into what she cherishes about him.

The band plays some gigs, wanders apart and back together again, seems to get close to signing a record deal with a big-label honcho (Brad Garrett), but circumstances intervene with more obstacles and delays.

It's notable that the band this movie is ostensibly about never gains a permanent name. Maybe that's appropriate, since "Don't Fade Away" seems more like a concept for a film than a coherent story.

1.5 stars out of four