Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The experience of watching “The Gatekeepers” is simultaneously disturbing, illuminating and uplifting.
This extraordinary documentary by director Dror Moreh gathers all six surviving heads of Shin Bet, the highly secretive Israeli internal security agency. In exploring the history of their nation over the last 35 years, they speak openly about the terrorists they hunted, the politicians they served -- sometimes grudgingly -- and the frequent mistakes they made.
The effect is like lifting a veil over the turmoil between the Israelis and Palestinians to reveal how those in charge of the defense of Israel really felt about what they were doing -- the morality of it, the military effectiveness of it, and the political repercussions.
Imagine every CIA director going back to the Cold War suddenly deciding to give up all their most guarded secrets. It’s astonishing that Moreh convinced these men to speak so candidly, and that Israel allowed them to do so.
The men, who range in age from middle years to elderly, start from very different perspectives. Some are not disturbed by assassinations of terrorists or insurgents, saying that when you are dealing with unscrupulous people, morality must be taken out of the equation.
Others talk about how operations they ordered or took part in haunt them each and every day. In the age of satellite surveillance and pinpoint missiles, one says, the power to take life with a few words is a profoundly unnatural thing.
What’s interesting is that despite their different political and operational philosophies, they all arrive at the same conclusion: Israel has been so focused on maintaining its own security that it stopped thinking seriously about the Palestinian question. “No strategy, all tactics” is how one describes it.
In the lull after the utter defeat of its Arabic enemies in the Six Day War, one Shin Bet director utters these chilling words: “Luckily for us, terrorism increased.” What does he mean by this, a shocked Moreh asks. The security chief answers that it gave them a purpose and something to do.
The film goes on to explore other notable events, including the erratic peace process that began with the Oslo Accords nearly two decades ago. The Shin Bet men talk about the feeling of possibility in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s rapprochement with his PLO counterparts, and how that immediately dissipated after his assassination by an Israeli hardliner.
The film, which mixes the interviews with news footage, computer-generated recreations and other clever methods, is most edifying in its description of how Shin Bet collects and uses intelligence – on terrorists, the non-combatants who support them and even Israelis who would seek to destabilize the situation.
In its constant surveillance of those who would threaten the security of Israeli, the directors conclude, Shin Bet was so focused on the trees that it was rarely able to discern the forest. “The Gatekeepers” is a powerful cautionary tale about the concept of security, and how illusory it really is.
3.5 stars out of four
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a mesmerizing, nontraditional performance as the 16th president of the U.S. in “Lincoln,” a biopic that makes its own bold choice. In narrowing the scope of that epic life to focus on only a single month of Lincoln’s presidency, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner manage to reveal something of the man’s enormity while upending our conceptions of him.
Start with the high-pitched, quavering voice Day-Lewis uses. By all accounts it matches contemporaneous descriptions of Lincoln’s actual speech, but runs counter to most depictions of him as deep-throated and steady. In a sense, the cast and filmmakers have to rip aside the legend of Lincoln to uncover the truth of him.
The story covers the push to the pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, even as the Civil War reaches its bloodiest stage. Other key players in the tale include Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field), whose mental anguish threatens her husband’s public life; their son Todd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who yearns to prove himself in battle; and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the fiery emancipator who wants to go further than Lincoln and declare equality between the races.
The script is a little uneven at times, as Kushner offers too-clever winks to the audience as the characters reminisce about how they will be perceived in posterity. I think the reason the film didn’t fare better at the Academy Awards is that most people viewed it as a terrific performance with only a pretty-good movie around it.
That’s too harsh an assessment. Though it sometimes indulges in wonky political discussions, “Lincoln” strives to reach the essence of a great man, and largely succeeds.
Video extras are pretty good, though Spielberg maintains the unfortunate tradition of most high-profile directors in eschewing a commentary track.
The DVD comes with “The Journey to Lincoln,” a pretty standard making-of documentary. Upgrade to the two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo, and you add a featurette on the historical tapestry of Richmond, Va.
Go for the four-disc set and you add a host of goodies. There’s a feature all about Day-Lewis’ meticulous construction of his character, and three more featurettes about the production design and costumes, a shooting diary and John Williams’ Oscar-nominated music score.
Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars
Monday, March 25, 2013
"The Wraith" is what happens when a cool idea for a movie gets run over by the '80s.
Or should I say, this 1986 sci-fi/adventure is what happens when filmmakers borrow a whole bunch of ideas from other, better movies and toss them together without much rhyme or reason. This weird, awful, but strangely compelling flick seems like it checked the "all of the above" box in trying to appeal to different demographics.
On the one hand, it's a racing picture about a bunch of hooligans who seem to have taken over the roads, with inept law enforcement holding a tenuous grip on the thin white line between life and death. Then a solitary figure appears driving a super-advanced car out to dispense a little vigilante justice. It's not too hard to see the liberal borrowing from the "Mad Max" movies.
The "Wraith" car itself bears a great resemblance to other futuristic vehicles throughout cinematic history, especially the "Knight Rider" TV show that was popular during that era. This car doesn't talk, but it does seem to exist as an entity of its own that joins its life force to the mission of its driver.
Then there's the drippy romance portion, in which Charlie Sheen and Sherilyn Fenn make gooey eyes at each other, falling almost instantly in love and having sex (not necessarily in that order). Although in actuality, he's secretly her murdered lover, brought back from the dead in an even dreamier form. At times, their pairing has an almost John Hughes feel to it, teenage hormones mixed with fatalistic we-were-meant-to-be-together claptrap.
Occasionally, the Wraith appears outside of his car, and when he does so he wears a black suit of armor that resembles a cross between "Predator" (although that film did not come out until a year later), the boogums from "Alien" and Mad Max's leather outfit.
For some reason, the Wraith has twisty metal rods festooning his suit, and every time he takes revenge on one of the members of the road gang who killed him, they vaporize and disappear. My guess is they're supposed to be braces since the murdered guy was cut up by his enemies and Jake, the reincarnation of him played by Sheen, bears matching scars along his back and throat.
Since his former self didn't sustain any crippling injuries along his arms and legs, it's a puzzle as to why his new body requires support for his limbs. Furthermore, why the heck would they disappear each time he kills one of his killers, as if some sort of prophecy is being fulfilled?
Stylistically, "The Wraith" has some notable qualities, but metaphysically it's roadkill.
Writer/director Mike Marvin populates his film with a bunch of one-note weirdos and stock characters. Sheen seems almost indifferent to his time onscreen -- which, for the top-billed actor, he has surprisingly little of. He plays the classic new guy in town who stands up to the local tough, offering words of encouragement to the local pushed-around shrimp and smoldering gazes for Keri (Fenn), the hot squeeze next door.
Nick Cassavetes has a couple of neat scenes as Packard, the head of the road gang. He has a fixation on Keri, keeping her close by his side despite her constant protestations that she doesn't love him. At one point he coolly slices his hand open in front of her to demonstrate his conviction: "When you can't feel anything, you can do anything."
The gang's M.O. is simple: Find the owner of a hot car, force him to compete in a race for the title to his ride, and then sell it off to fund their own gearhead dreams. Of course, in the classic motif of films of this ilk, the worst piece of weaponry Packard can summon is a switchblade. Despite being set in Arizona, long a land of fierce gun advocates, none of the locals are packing any heat.
The car itself is kind of a write-off. It was based on a concept car, the Dodge M4S, that actually became a pace car for the Indianapolis 500 in the early 1980s. The filmmakers slapped some customized exterior pieces on it, the most noticeable effect being to make the rear end look like it's six feet longer than it should be. Jake, when he turns over the keys to the shrimp at the end of the movie, refers to it as a "Turbo Interceptor," though no one has ever called it this before.
Marvin's race scenes are shot with a keen eye, and the stunts and car crashes are generally pretty cool for a low-budget film. There's some jump-cutting and other effects that were fairly innovative for the time. The Wraith car/driver only seems to have one trick -- racing ahead of his opponent, then stopping in the road to force him to crash into him. After the fireball has subsided, the car reappears magically.
I did greatly enjoy Clint Howard as Rughead, the resident scientific genius of Packard's gang. He designs all sorts of advancements for their cars, though the Wraith shows up with a shotgun and blows them all to pieces before they ever get on the road. There's one terrific scene were Rughead demands the Wraith open his hood so he can attach some sort of jamming doohickey that's supposed to disable the car if a racer runs away -- again, it's something talked about but which never actually comes into play.
Rughead is surprised when the rear compartment of the car opens up instead of the front, and when he peers inside the strange engine actually pulses in a rhythmic, sexual way. The reaction shot of Howard, adorned with an Eraserhead hairdo and his face lit up orange by the glow of the unearthly technology, is a keeper.
For some reason, the Wraith does not identify Rughead as one of his targets, driving right past him at one point to plow into the garage where two other gang members are toiling. Sheriff Loomis, the local lawman played by Randy Quaid who talks a lot but makes few arrests, even declares all of the members of Packard's gang dead, despite the fact Rughead is still kicking.
"The Wraith" is not any kind of quality filmmaking, but I'm still glad I saw it. I was expecting something darker and scarier, and instead it's a big glop of Hollywood cheese, sliced from half a dozen other movies. Still, as a piece of '80s zeitgeist it offers something of a glimpse into the national psyche of the time -- not to mention the feather hairdos and jean jackets.
1.5 stars out of four
Friday, March 22, 2013
“Les Misérables” did not get the love it deserved.
Critics were respectful but not swooning. Audiences showed up but did not stampede the box office. It won Oscars in a couple of technical areas, but Anne Hathaway’s transcendent performance as Fantine is the only aspect of the film to win universal praise.
For me, it was the most emotionally transporting cinematic journey I took in 2012. This crusty old critic actually welled up several times watching it.
This the first time the stage musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel has made it to the screen, and it’s a pageant of songs, gorgeous costumes and sets, and actors pouring out their hearts.
You may have already heard about this aspect of production, but it’s still astonishing: all the singing you hear was recorded live on-set, as opposed to being dubbed in later from a studio (which is standard practice in Hollywood for dialogue, let alone song).
The story follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an escaped criminal who redeems himself through helping others, though it earns him no reprieve from Javert (Russell Crowe), the wolfish lawman who hunts him.
Along his travels he encounters a gallery of characters, some pure and some foul. There’s Fantine (Hathaway), who resorts to prostitution to support her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). And the slimy opportunists the Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). There is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the brave insurgent who loves Cosette and is in turn secretly loved by street urchin Éponine (Samantha Barks).
All the wondrous music from the stage version is there, along with one or two new songs composed specifically for the movie. The stars generally acquit themselves well in song, with Hathaway the clear standout.
Whether you’re a fan of musicals or not, “Les Misérables” hits a very high note.
The video is being released with an excellent spread of extras. Even the DVD version comes with a healthy serving, including feature commentary by director Tom Hooper and several featurettes focusing on the cast, production design and Hugo’s novel.
Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo and you add several other features, including the locations used during production and the battle scene. The high point is the section focusing on the challenge of delivering live singing performances on set.
Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars
Thursday, March 21, 2013
This seems like good timing for a slick, slightly jingoistic action/thriller with a geopolitical bent. America continues to writhe in its economic doldrums, madmen puff and pose overseas, and sometimes it feels as if members of our political parties regard each other as dire enemies rather than fellow citizens.
“Olympus Has Fallen” is a play on a familiar theme, but one executed with craftsmanship and skill. The plot is essentially a spawn of “Die Hard” -– terrorists take over a place, killing hostages and outwitting emergency responders, but unbeknownst to them a lone, determined lawman is trapped inside and sets about mucking of their plans.
The big twist here is that the building under siege is none other than the White House, the chief hostage is President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and the bad guys are North Korean terrorists looking to impose nuclear domination over the Far East.
Now, the movies have depicted the President’s abode being blown up a few times before, but never a plausible and frightening depiction of it being successfully stormed by hostile forces. Rookie screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedickt lay out the scenario with surgical precision, even showing how the Koreans cleverly use the Secret Service’s protective protocols against them.
Things end up with Asher and his closest advisors trapped in the underground presidential bunker, where the terrorists can take their time using brutality to extract the secret nuclear codes. The villain is Kang (Rick Yune), a smiling, hyper-intelligent type who’s eminently hiss-able.
The fly in the proverbial ointment is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a disgraced Secret Service agent who was kicked off the president’s detail when he failed to save the First Lady. He starts to take out the terrorists in ones and twos, leading to inevitable exchanges of taunts with Kang via radio.
Banning’s also in touch with the acting president, Speaker of the House Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), who dithers between the aggressive urgings of his top general (Robert Forster), who wants to send in a flood of soldiers, and the more cautious advice of the Secret Service chief (Angela Bassett).
Melissa Leon plays the combative secretary of defense, who’s trapped along with her commander-in-chief. Dylan McDermott is a retired Secret Service agent with a surprising new gig, and Finley Jacobsen portrays the president’s feisty son, who has an intimate knowledge of White House hiding places.
Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) keeps things moving at a brisk pace, sacrificing characterization for tension-building plot. His depiction of an attack on Washington, D.C. manages to be harrowing without being exploitative -– though a shot of the Washington Monument crumbling under its own weight needlessly recalls the Twin Towers.
The main protagonist, Banning, is actually the weakest piece of the puzzle. He should be more tormented about his previous failure, but he registers as a generic action-movie badass, spouting quips and killing messily.
(Butler’s accent doesn’t help; the Scot tries to speak American and ends up sounding Australian.)
“Olympus Has Fallen” is hardly groundbreaking cinema. But in reinventing an old tale in a smart and engaging way, it’s a thoroughly entertaining and often riveting way to spend two hours.
3.5 stars out of four
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
The storytelling in “The Croods” isn’t as sharp and emotionally engaging as the better recent animated flicks -- “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Rise of the Guardians.” But it’s such a visually imaginative landscape, one filled with sproingy action, that it turns out a good bet for families -- especially those with smaller children who will savor the heaping helping of cool creatures and goofy slapstick.
The set-up isn’t awfully original, the tale of a prehistoric family that must leave the safety of its cave and traditions in response to a radically shifting landscape. There’s an ape-like father, rebellious teen, cantankerous oldster, feral toddler and primordial pets as comic relief.
Basically, it’s a mashup of “The Flintstones” and “The Land Before Time.”
But despite its lack of innovative flair, it’s still a rousing good time and a never-ending feast for the eyes. I was especially impressed with all the different critters populating the film’s environment. There are walking land whales, a flock of killer dino-parrots, a giant rainbow kitty, an ancestor of Maurice Sendak’s wild things, and something that looks like a genetic splicing of a dog, a skunk and an alligator (it’s much cuter than it sounds).
It’s quite a computer-generated menagerie, and the animators’ imaginations are so dense they even put things in the corners and backgrounds that are neat to look at.
The Croods are hardcore homebodies. They spend days at a time scrunched together in their cave hiding from predators, coming out just long enough to round up some grub and skedaddle back to safety and darkness. Physically, they’re fearsomely strong and agile – they can bound and run fast enough to keep up with the beasts they hunt and those that hunt them.
Despite this, patriarch Grug (voice of Nicolas Cage) is one seriously conservative guy. He sees his role as clan leader/protector depending on never trying anything new: “Never not be afraid” is the family motto.
Mom Ugga (Catherine Keener) is a generic maternal-worrier type. Son Thunk (Clark Duke) is dad’s chubby, under-athletic protégé, Sandy (Randy Thom) is a pint-sized terror, and Gran (Cloris Leachman) is the resident complainer and Grug antagonist. Gran is literally a throwback, sporting a vaguely reptilian tail.
(One amusing running gag is that Grug is continually disappointed when Gran survives their various ordeals. “Still alive!” she crows, taunting her son-in-law.)
But Eep (Emma Stone), the oldest child, yearns to live in the sun and experience new things, leading to obvious conflict with Grug. That rift grows when they encounter Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more advanced type who can make fire and invent things. He warns the Croods that continental drift will destroy their home, urging them to seek out high land.
Various adventures and hijinks ensue, with Guy and Grug vying for leadership of the little band, and Eep’s affections. “Ideas are for weaklings,” Grug insists, but his brute strength is no match for the intellect of Guy, who teaches them how to make shoes and use animals to their advantage, instead of just for munching on.
The Croods are drawn in bold exaggerated lines, with thick limbs and thicker torsos offset by incongruously itsy-bitsy hands and feet. The creatures are even more out of whack, such as Guy’s pet/advisor/accessory Belt, a little sloth-like creature with arms twice as long as his body and a tendency to vocalize their plight with a funny triad of beeps.
Writing/directing team Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco probably needed to give the screenplay a few more rewrites to punch up the storyline. The more serious “life lessons” parts tend to feel like tacked-on accouterments. And Eep, the narrator and ostensibly the main character, keeps getting shunted aside in favor of Grug during the second half.
But whatever you want to say about the conceptual crudity of “The Croods,” Sanders and De Micco certainly elicited solid voice performances out of their cast, and led their animation team to a place of wonderment and joy.
3 stars out of four
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Too much or too little? When it comes to Tolkien screen adaptations, there seems to be little agreement in how much material to stuff into these movies.
The choice by director Peter Jackson and his team to divide “The Hobbit” into three films may be a bridge too far for many viewers. There certainly is enough story in J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim novel (273 pages in my paperback version) to justify splitting it in twain. But the filmmakers chose to go further, layering in all sorts of material from extended Tolkien lore to pad out what was a simple children’s tale into something as grand -- and grim -- as “The Lord of the Rings.”
The result is languidly paced and overstuffed. The iconic “Unexpected Party” dinner that opens the tale, with meek hobbit Bilbo Baggins being invited by dwarves to go on a great adventure, overstays its welcome by at least 10 minutes.
They also bring in all sorts of figures who weren’t in the book, including Galadriel and a flighty colleague of Gandalf named Radagast. It sometimes feels like a “Greatest Hits” retread of “LotR.”
I still enjoyed the movie, while recognizing that people less enamored with Tolkien’s dense fantasy mythology won’t like it nearly as much. And several sequences, such as Bilbo’s deadly game of riddles with the creature Gollum, are positively thrilling.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” shows it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
It’s being released with a decent amount of extras, including 10 making-of videos that cover a broad range of production topics, from initial conception to the decision to shoot in 3-D with a special frame rate of 48 fps (which reportedly turned off some viewers).
If Jackson & Co. hold to form, though, expect to see a special edition come out in the next year or so with even meatier goodies and possibly an extended version that pushes the run time past three hours. For some hardcore Tolkienites, more is never enough.
Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars
Monday, March 18, 2013
Seeing "The Man with the Golden Arm" has been on my to-do list for literally two decades. I think I first heard mention of it in one of my cinema textbooks at NYU, in the context of films that were released without a stamp of approval from the Hollywood Production Code. It went on to become a critical and box office success, garnering three Oscar nominations -- accounting for some of the first chinks to show in the impenetrable wall of the code.
Its depiction of a heroin addict was harrowing for 1955, and even more so when you think about an era when you couldn't even say the word "pregnant" on television. "Man" has explicit references to prostitution, illegal gambling, violence, police corruption and much more. Virtually every character is in some way on the take or running a scam. Its view of the modern American city is a disturbing portrait of urban decay where people prey upon each others' weaknesses.
The fact that it starred Frank Sinatra was also a pretty big deal. Here was a mainstream star, just coming off an Academy Award win for his supporting performance in "From Here to Eternity," playing a two-bit junkie who sticks needles in his arms and fools around on his wheelchair-bound wife. Of course, the script by Walter Newman, Lewis Meltzer and an uncredited, blacklisted Ben Hecht spruced things up from the novel by Nelson Algren, portraying "Frankie Machine" in a more positive light.
It's a little unclear if that name is his real one, or simply a street moniker. He's also often referred to as simply "Dealer," since his stock and trade is dealing cards for an illicit game. Frankie doesn't simply deal the cards but plays the house's hand against the other players, bringing in big bunks for his scummy boss Schwiefka (Robert Strauss). He's the best, and the high-rollers come to play against the Machine.
Six months ago the game got busted up by the cops, and Frankie was sent to a jail to do his time and dry out. He kept his mouth shut about Schwiefka, who was supposed to send 50 bucks a month to his wife Zosch (Elanor Parker) but didn't always come through. Frankie learned to play the drums while in prison, and has an introduction for an audition with a big-time swing bad. Elmer Bernstein's Oscar-nominated score is a sweet mix of cool instrumentals and hot jazz, trumpets screeching to announce whenever a moment of high dramatic tension has arrived.
Now Schwiefka wants the Dealer to deal again. And his erstwhile partner Louie (an excellent Darren McGavin), the local dandy/drug dealer, keeps whistling in Frankie's ear about a nice fix waiting for him just across the street.
"The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn," Louie purrs.
The angel on his other shoulder is Kim Novak as Molly, who is Frankie's once and future girlfriend, and whispers encouragement to keep on the straight and narrow. She's the sort of hard-bitten woman populating film noir; she's used to being used by men.
Director Otto Preminger goes right up to the line of actually showing the heroin being injected into Frankie's arm, depicting Louie cooking the stuff in a spoon with a lighter and drawing it into the syringe, panning away in the moment when he goes to stick it in.
The film's title has several meanings with regard to Frankie's golden arm. It refers to his skill as a card player, and also his natural rhythmic ability that makes him a perfect percussionist. But it's that same arm into which he injects heroin to escape from his troubles, if but for a little while. It's the only time he feels golden.
Sinatra reportedly visited hospitals to witness drug addicts detoxing as preparation for his role, and his performance during those scenes where the monkey is riding his back are utterly convincing. He would earn another Oscar nomination for "The Man with the Golden Arm," and deservedly so.
It's interesting to me that Sinatra went to his grave thought of mostly as a singer, but the middle portion of his career was dominated by his film work. Ol' Blue Eyes was a handsome physical specimen, known to send the "bobby soxers" swooning when he sang.
But before watching this film I had never noticed his physical deformities before -- cauliflower ear, a deep scar in the corner of his mouth, acne-pitted cheeks and a large patch of scar tissue on his neck, the result of a traumatic birth. Read this account to learn how Sinatra got his scars.
The marks have the effect of making Frankie seem like a fallen angel, someone who means to do well but keeps getting sucked into old bad habits and an environment that undermines the idea of reaching for something better.
No character better encapsulates the pitfalls of Frankie's old life than Zosch. A screeching, mentally unstable shrew, Zosch was disabled in a car accident in which Frankie was the driver at fault -- possibly while high or rattled with withdrawal shakes. He married her out of pity and vowed to care for her, but they have absolutely no relationship beyond that transaction of need.
It's later revealed that Zosch actually regained the ability to walk awhile ago, and is playing the ruse of being an invalid to garner pity and support. She violently opposes Frankie's idea of giving up dealing to play the drums in a band, since to her any change represents a betrayal of her entire existence. As long as things stay the way they are, she reasons, Frankie will always be trapped by his commitment to look after her.
She's a (non) walking guilt trip.
The film is wonderfully photographed by cinematographer Sam Leavitt, and the terrific art direction by Joseph C. Wright and Darrell Silvera received the film's other Academy Award nod for its gritty and bleak depiction of the city's mean streets.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Arnold Stang's comedic supporting turn as Sparrow, Frankie's friend/toady, who's always there with a helping hand -- especially a thieving one -- and an obsequious remark. His side business is stealing dogs, painting their fur to disguise them and reselling them. Chinless, big-nosed, with thick glasses and a fast patter, Stang resembles Woody Allen's low-rent cousin. He enjoyed a long and busy career in radio, film and television.
After 20 years on my must-see list, "The Man with the Golden Arm" did not disappoint. The film's reputation hasn't endured like some other mid-century depictions of crime and addiction, like say "The Lost Weekend." But it's a terrific look at descent and despair, the sort of movie that can end on a sour note but still seem hopeful.
3.5 stars out of four
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Like with Hitchcock's "Rear Window," "The Call" is challenged by having a protagonist who is more or less stuck in one place. Unlike "Rear Window," this new thriller manages to siphon off dramatic tension instead of building it, taking a strong opening and leeching away anything resembling suspense during an ill-thought-out final act.
Instead of being lamed by a broken leg like Jimmy Stewart, Halle Berry's Jordan Turner is tied to her desk. As a 9-1-1 operator for the city of Los Angeles, she spends hour after hour sitting in front of a high-tech station receiving emergency calls, some of them truly frightening, but most routine and rather dull.
For instance, there's a drunk who seems to get thrown into jail every single night and uses his one free call to dial up his "sugar" to purr come-ons and lament his fate. (Even though The Hive, the massive L.A. emergency center, has dozens of operators, his calls mysteriously always come straight to Jordan.)
At first, director Brad Anderson ("The Machinist") and screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio use the main character's immobility to great dramatic effect. Jordan's job entails hearing all the gory details of a crime, but without a police officer's resolution of finding out how things turn out.
One fateful night she gets a call from a teen girl whose house is being broken into, and it's a terrifically tense sequence as Jordan talks to the hysterical young woman, keeping her calm and using a clever ploy to make the intruder think she's escaped. But then Jordan makes an error in judgment, the killer is alerted to her presence and the girl ends up dead.
The situation gets repeated six months later when another teen named Casey (Abigail Breslin) is kidnapped by the same man.The first part of the chase is quite engaging, as Casey talks to Jordan via cell phone from the trunk of her assailant's car. Jordan comes up with all sorts of clever ways for Casey to alert other drivers that something's amiss -- though it doesn't turn out so well for one Good Samaritan (Michael Imperioli).
Meanwhile, Jordan's (boy?)friend cop Paul (Morris Chestnut) leads the chase from the ground, always one step behind. It's good dramatic intercutting of the different urgencies, with the girl's frantic pleas for help, Jordan's calm advice with an undercurrent of panic about blowing it again, the twitchy kidnapper (Michael Eklund) trying to avoid detection and the police on the hunt.
But then, well...
Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the filmmakers take the exact thing that was working for the movie and flush it down the toilet. As if this weren't bad enough, they do it in a totally artificial and unbelievable way, with a huge sequence of ridiculous events that strain the credulity of the audience.
What had been a fairly zippy crime thriller suddenly devolves into a ham-fisted horror movie, with the audience compelled to shout directions at sub-moronic avatars: "No, don't go in there! Turn around! He's right behind you!"
Watching this movie is a reminder that, if one day in real life you are being hunted by a relentless killer, and against all odds you manage to incapacitate him, your job is not finished until you have observed vampire protocol -- aka stake in the heart, head comes away form the neck, and a little holy water wouldn't hurt. (If the police ask questions, just tell them "I really wanted to be sure...")
Berry is smart and effective in her role, at least until things go screwy. Breslin is forced to spend a good chunk of the movie half-clothed, which is a bit off-putting for people who mostly remember as the precocious tyke in "Little Miss Sunshine." Eklund has a few effective notes as the seemingly bland white dude with a Buffalo Bill thing on the side. But the rest of the actors are constrained by characters who only exist to service the plot.
It's too bad "The Call" went off its wheels, because if you swapped out the final third or so you could actually have a decent thriller on your hands. Alas, this movie mis-dialed the ending.
2 stars out of four
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
The rap on “Rise of the Guardians” sure is nasty.
It didn’t get nominated for an Academy Award for animated feature, while lackluster fare like “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” did. And DreamWorks Animation recently announced layoffs after “Rise of the Guardians” underperformed at the box office. (Though it made $300 million worldwide, which is hardly bomb territory.)
Don’t buy the bunk. “Guardians” is easily the best animated movie from last year.
It might seem silly and superficial at first: Santa Claus, Jack Frost and other holiday icons band together into a super-powered group to battle evil – think “The Avengers” in rainbow-hued costumes. But they’ve got butt-kicking superpowers; for instance, the Easter Bunny is now a martial arts expert, while Santa wields a pair of swords.
Also on the team are the Tooth Fairy and Sandman. They’re up against Pitch Black, aka the bogeyman, who wants to blanket the world in darkness and bad dreams.
The animation is wonderfully detailed and crisp, and the action scenes well-staged. Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law and Ilsa Fisher make up a terrific voice cast.
But what pushes “Rise of the Guardians” over the hump from good to great is its surprising emotional resonance. There’s a great subtext about finding your place in the world as seen through Jack Frost’s struggle to learn the origin of his powers.
This one’s a family-friendly treat.
Extras are decent, bending more toward the fun than the substantial. The DVD comes with a featurette on the cast and crew, filmmakers’ commentary track and “Sandy’s Dream Guide,” which helps interpret your dreams. There’s also a DVD-ROM function with printable Eastern-themed egg holders and coloring sheets.
Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition, and you add “Behind the Magic,” a comprehensive making-of documentary, plus a feature on author William Joyce. You also get two interactive games: “Rock, Paper, Scissors with Sandy” and “Jack Frost Snowball Showdown!”.
Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars
Monday, March 11, 2013
"The Misfits" is a film about endings -- both thematically and in the real lives of the cast and crew.
It was the final film for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and many observers have deemed their respective performances the finest of their careers. I'd have to agree about Monroe, certainly with regards to her non-comedic work, though I haven't seen a large enough portion of Gable's movies to make such a dispositive statement.
He would suffer a heart attack just two days after production wrapped -- some contend because the 59-year-old insisted on doing the strenuous stunts contained in the movie himself, including wrestling a bucking mustang stallion and being dragged on the ground up to 30 miles per hour. Gable died a few days later, an icon for three decades during his life and many more after.
Monroe lingered on for another 19 months, descending further into her spiral of drugs and self-torment. Co-star Montgomery Clift, his own career derailed by substance abuse and a car wreck that required reconstructive facial surgery, would make only three more films before perishing at age 45, the denouement of what's been called "the longest suicide" in showbiz.
And the marriage between Monroe and Arthur Miller dissolved during the course of filming, as he continually rewrote the screenplay while he and director John Huston wrestled over their conceptions for the movie. One of Hollywood's oddest marital pairings ended in divorce shortly before "The Misfits" premiered. Monroe was often late to the set or a complete no-show, and at one point production ground to a halt during her two-week hospital stay.
And yet the old Hollywood proverb -- that pleasant productions result in disappointing final results, while tumultous shoots produce some of the medium's best works -- holds true with "The Misfits." It is a glorious, brave, imperfect portrait of flawed people yearning for freedom and respect, but pulled by the primal urges of love, lust and pride to trap themselves in cages of their own crafting.
The movie's story, and its method of storytelling, also stand on the doorstep of changeover from the dependable "old way" to a risky, grittier new. The tale centers on modern day (for 1961) Nevada, emblematic of a frontier life that is not disappearing, but disappeared. Aging, antediluvian cowboys stubbornly try to eke out an existence based on a fierce sense of individuality they know only from adolescent wanderings and John Wayne movies.
Huston and Miller embraced a mode of filmmaking that was less about laying down a spotlighted runway carpet of plot than creating indelible characters, throwing them into a pot together and seeing what comes out of their simmering emulsions. It's no surprise "The Misfits" is the sort of movie Method actors were drawn to, where the performances drive the story rather than the other way round. Clift, Monroe and co-star Eli Wallach all studied with the Strasbergs.
Monroe was often dismissed as a sex object, but in "The Misfits" she literally is one. Roslyn Tabor, recently divorced and emotionally fragile, is like a butterfly in a meadow full of predators. All the men she meets desire her physically, and all three of the male main characters fall in love with her. She is aware of her sexual power, has used it in the past to her benefit, but now it's become a burden she'd rather cast off.
It reminds me of what Hannibel Lecter said about another killer in the book and movie "The Silence of the Lambs." What is his first principle, i.e. what is the essence of his being? He covets. Roslyn is the flip side of that equation: her existence is defined by being coveted.
"Celebrating" her divorce with her older, jaded companion Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), Roslyn bumps into Gay Langland (Gable) and Guido, a pair of itinerant cowboys who believe God's country is their bequest, and freedom their daily manna. On a whim, she hooks up with them and moves to Guido's cabin in the plains, where Gay becomes her lover, almost by default.
Guido is 40-ish, a WWII bomber pilot who was studying to be a doctor until his wife died on him. She was loyal and "uncomplaining as a tree," he says, and he clearly thinks Roslyn should be the second iteration of her. Guido is the smartest and most sensitive of the bunch, but something in him is like biting on tinfoil. "You could blow up the whole world and end up feeling sorry for yourself," Roslyn observes, hitting the mark square on.
Gay is much older, probably about Gable's actual age, but he's still virile and hard as creased leather. (Gable reportedly lost nearly 40 pounds for the role, which could have contributed to his health issues.) Freedom is his lifeblood and his mantra. To him, women are deceitful creatures always trying to trip him up and tie him down. The most dire insult a man can commit is to offer him a paying job.
"It's better than wages," Gay and his companions are often heard to say, with the clear implication that nothing much is worse.
And yet, Gay is willing to sacrifice his freedom, or at least a piece of it, in order to make Roslyn remain with him. He helps her plant a garden and fixes up Guido's half-finished house. What's more, he stays in once place for weeks and months, shrugging off the wanderlust that is his sword and shield.
The last addition to the group, almost like a lost puppy taken in from the storm, is Perce Howland (Clift), a young rodeo tough. His father died not long ago and his mother remarried a man he can't stand, so Perce (rhymes with "purse") is essentially a grown-up runaway. The family ranch was meant to be his, and when his stepfather offered him wages (!) to work on his own land, it was more than he could bear.
Perce is a living variation of the parable of the prodigal son, but instead of squandering his inheritance he worries about being cheated out of it. The life of a rancher is all Perce has ever aspired to, and he'd rather bust himself to pieces riding broncs and bulls than accept anything less than his full birthright.
Perce is touched when he is injured in a rodeo and Roslyn weeps for him. Empathy is a novel concept in his travels. Straightforward and simple-minded -- and possibly addled from so many blows to the head -- Perce is in many ways as much a symbol of purity as Roslyn. In truth she would be better living and loving him than either Gay or Guido, but Perce is too decent to even think of horning in on another man's gal. And she, despite her new-found independence, still wants a man to chase her.
Gay convinces the others to "go mustanging" -- chase down and corral a passel of the few remaining wild horses in Nevada and sell them off to a dealer. They used to roam the range by the thousands, but all they can gather up is one stallion, four mares and a colt -- barely enough to pay for their gas and a few dollars apiece. It takes more than crumbs to make a meal out of the glory days.
Further soiling the spirit of the Old West they embrace, Gay & Co. don't do their herding from horseback, but scatter the mustangs using Guido's dilapidated biplane and roping them from the back of a flat-bed truck, using old tires as anchors to wear them out.
For Roslyn, the final blow comes upon learning the mustangs will not be sold as riding animals -- Gay repeatedly praises the speed and hardiness of the small horses -- but as meat for dog food. At this she flips out, cursing her "three sweet damned men" and swearing to have nothing to do with them ever again. "You're only happy when you can see something die!" she shrieks.
Eventually the horses are released -- after a showdown between the men where Gay nearly kills himself to prove that no one can make up his mind for him. He's been living in a cloud of self-delusion, wearing his mantle as a the carefree cowboy like armor. Gay resolves to give up the wild life and settle down with Roslyn.
With the passing of Gay and his ilk, the film suggests, America is forced to pull the shroud over the ideal of a land of limitless opportunity, where men and women can forge their own idea of what it means to be happy and free.
And in the end, that's what "The Misfits" is about: The death of the cowboy.
4 stars out of four
Thursday, March 7, 2013
"Oz the Great and Powerful" is one of those movie projects that likely began in earnestness, progressed with craftsmanship and joy, and was completely doomed from the outset.
And not because it's some sort of cinematic travesty to make a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," one of the most iconic films ever made. The writings of L. Frank Baum (and his descendents) have been translated many times before and after 1939, including two "official" sequels, one of them animated, neither of which anyone remembers.
This "Oz," alas, is destined to join them.
Director Sam Raimi, his cast and crew started from a place of puzzlement rather than wonderment, which is what this material should be all about. Their film never quite decides if it wants to be parody, comedy or fantasy. The result is a smug, overly ornamented amalgam of all three.
James Franco as the titular character, a charlatan magician turned wizard savior, feels like he belongs to another movie. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire construct him as a self-deluding dreamer, a man with an outsized conception of himself. Franco and Raimi, though, keep nudging him toward charming rapscallion.
This Oz is too full of himself to be sympathetic, and too smarmy to be endearing. Franco's omnipresent grin is somewhere between the Cheshire cat's smile and a discomfiting leer. Oz knows he's fraud, and isn't bothered about it, other than it keeps him from attaining the greatness he feels he deserves. This character is missing a key ingredient of self-loathing.
Not only is this wizard not wonderful, he's not even particularly likeable.
Like the original, "Oz the Great and Powerful" begins in Kansas in the early 20th century, rendered in murky black-and-white. Oz is a carnival huckster plying his trade before unschooled hayseeds, teasing the simple-minded women with gifts and flattery. When a crippled girl asks him to use his "magic" to make her walk, he seems affronted that she would demand any substantial feat of him.
One balloon ride through a tornado later, Oz descends into the multi-colored world that bears his name, and also carries his prophecy: a mighty wizard will defeat the evil witches who have killed the king and usurped his land.
A charming young lass named Theodora (Mila Kunis) presents herself as his guide and, she announces, his future queen once Oz has slain the witches and assumed the throne. Kunis' transparent lack of basic thespian skills, and the fact that she keeps getting cast in movies that require them, is one of Hollywood's most enduring peculiarities.
She introduces him to her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who dispatches Oz off to slay the villainous witch. But when he finally encounters her (played by Michelle Williams), things are not all as they seem.
Much like Dorothy before him, Oz collects companions along the way. A flying monkey in a bellhop costume (voiced by Zach Braff) becomes his sworn servant, while a little doll girl made literally out of delicate china (Joey King) is saved by some of his technological magic.
There are also the prerequisite Munchkins, who are basically trotted out for one aborted musical bit, plus helpful townsfolk and some industrious tinkers (led by Bill Cobbs).
The computer-generated imagery is spectacular, and it's meant to be. Rather than making the CGI subservient to the narrative, Raimi often goes in for long, lingering shots of landscapes, flora and fauna -- sheer spectacle for its own sake.
Like its supposed wizard, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is too enamored with itself to stir up any real magic.
2 stars out of four
Monday, March 4, 2013
By 1950 Errol Flynn had become dissolute, both in his personal life and Hollywood career. Barely 40 years of age, he'd been through two painful divorces, seen his good looks diminish from drink and wanton lifestyle, and watched studio honchos and producers who'd once begged for his services turn the other way.
Having read Flynn's autobiography, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways," I know that he had grown indifferent to the roles he was being offered around this time and considered giving up acting entirely. His performance in "Rocky Mountain" seems to mirror this mindset -- Flynn gives a stern, perfunctory turn as if peeved at having to be there.
(Incidentally, I recently discovered that Guy Pearce played Flynn in an eponymous 1996 movie about Errol's early rapscallion days. And Kevin Kline is set to star in a new biopic about his final years, "The Last of Robin Hood." Look forward to seeing both of them.)
Westerns were not Flynn's preferred cinematic hunting grounds, either. He never looked as comfortable in chaps and holding a six-shooter as he did in a tuxedo or wielding a rapier. But I don't lay the entirety of the blame for the lackluster "Rocky Mountain" at Flynn's feet.
Ploddingly plotted, indifferently acted and shot in confoundedly a murky palette, "Rocky Mountain" was so certainly no feather in the cap of director William Keighley. He had previously teamed up with Flynn on the phenomenally successful "The Adventures of Robin Hood." The action scenes are clumsily staged, and entire sections of the night sequences are so obscured in inky blackness it's virtually impossible to even tell what's happening.
Screenwriters Alan Le May and Winston Miller, working from Le May's novel "Ghost Mountain," begin the story curiously with a modern (for 1950) car pulling up to a historical marker dedicated to the bravery of a band of Confederate soldiers. Their unlikely mission, undertaken in the dying days of the Civil War, was to raise an army of raiders in California and wreak havoc, forcing the Union to open up a second front.
The transition to 1865 is abrupt and clumsy -- since we already know the mission was a failure, it takes some oomph out of the proceedings. The story is notable, though, for portraying Confederate soldiers in a heroic light, without making the "bluebellies" the villains. (American Indians get to play that role.)
The plot is simple to the point of spareness, and even at 83 minutes the movie feels stretched out. Captain Lafe Barstow (Flynn) is ordered to meet up with Cole Smith (Howard Petrie), who's supposed to raise an army for the South. But the band of eight soldiers saves a woman, Johanna Carter (Patrice Wymore), from an Indian attack. She's the fiancee of a stalwart Union lieutenant (Scott Forbes) who comes looking for her and gets captured by Barstow's crew. Then the Indians trap them on top of the mountain, a heroic dash is made to divert attention and save the woman, and all the Rebs are killed.
Petrie, who also had a notable career in radio, is an interesting presence as the scurrilous raider, who at first passes himself off as another man so he can assess his new allies. He decides they're much too heroic for his liking. With his icy gaze and condescending demeanor, he's easily the onscreen equal of Flynn's Barstow.
Slim Pickens also shows up as one of the Confederates, a rangy, peevish scout named Plank. As someone whose childhood association with Pickens cemented him in my mind as a clownish, pot-bellied idjit, it's nice to see him as a lean and whip-mean cuss.
Barstow doesn't come across as a particularly crafty or inspiring leader. Once it's clear the Indians have got them cornered, he essentially decides to squat on top of the mountain and hope Cole Smith returns with reinforcements. Not a very good Plan B, or Plan A for that matter. Certainly Flynn's phoning-it-in demeanor doesn't help the audience root for him.
While it isn't a terrible film, "Rocky Mountain" is a prime example of mid-century Hollywood drek, the sort of B-pictures they churned out at an astonishing rate on smaller budgets and even more modest expectations. By 1950, this was the best Errol Flynn could hope for.
2 stars out of four
Saturday, March 2, 2013
One thing I love about Netflix is the serendipity of it. When you click on a movie, and especially after you add it to you queue, it will suggest other movies of the same genre, or starring the same actor, or with a similar title. Many of the films I've stumbled across in the last few years have come about this way.
I found "The Night of the Hunted" while doing a search for "The Night of the Hunter," the classic film starring Robert Mitchum that I've somehow never seen. It's a 1980 film that demonstrates something I didn't know: the French are equally capable of making seriously dumb horror/exploitation flicks as we are.
The difference, of course, being that an American film would be goofy and self-referential in its schlocky goodness, while this French movie written and directed by Jean Rollin has pretensions toward being Serious Art. Somehow that only amps up the comedy quotient, since it's so utterly unintended.
Rollin belonged to the mix of fantasy, horror, science fiction and occasional social commentary the French call the Fantastique genre. In execution in "The Night of the Hunted," it apparently means lots and lots of scenes of people strolling around, going in and out of doors, getting in and out of cars, and other time-wasting maneuvers used by early pornographic movies to pad the running time out to a respectable number.
Not since "Elephant" have I seen so much walking in place of actual storytelling.
Speaking of pornos, star Brigette Lahaie got her start in skin flicks and successfully transitioned to more mainstream fare like this, in which she still gets naked and has long, lingering sex scenes, but just doesn't show penetration.
She's quite a striking beauty, with high, arching eyebrows and upturned eyes, platinum hair and a sharp jawline. She looks like the Tolkien elf who went bad and became the forest slattern. Lahaie is also one of those rare women whose areolas are the exact same skin tone as the rest of her breasts, which in some shots make her look like she's disturbingly nippleless.
Gosh knows I'm not opposed to brazen displays of female flesh in schlocky movies, but "Hunted" abandons any pretense of purpose why these women have to get naked. At one point a catatonic gal is going to be killed with a lethal injection and her body burnt up in an incinerator, and for some reason the technicians take off her clothes first.
Yep, wouldn't want that flimsy camisole gumming up our 1,000-degree oven!
I think every single woman with a speaking part in the film ends up becoming frontally nude -- if you include the doctor who delays the hero's rescue by insisting he waltz with her around a fountain while wearing a see-through gown, and exclude the old crazy lady, which would've just been gross. Stanley Kubrick already had the corner on nekkid crones in horror movies.
The story has something to do with people affected by nuclear radiation whose brains are slowly dying, so they forget things almost as soon as they experience them. (Take that, "Memento," you ripoff.) Elisabeth (Lahaie) escapes from the hospital where they're being imprisoned to prevent a public panic. She also had a red-headed friend Veronique (Dominique Journet) with her, who for some reason was nude, but they forgot about each other because of that short-term memory loss thing.
Anyway, Elisabeth gets picked up by Robert (Vincent Gardere), who just happened to be driving by. He takes her home and has sex with her, because that's what you're supposed to do with mentally vulnerable women wandering the countryside in their nightgown. But she's recaptured by the evil Dr. Francis (Bernard Papineau) and his sneering assistant (Rachel Mhas) and spends the rest of the movie meandering around the hospital, where everybody occasionally gets naked.
The musical score consists of a series of tones that sound like an eerie doorbell, with girly "lah-lah-lah" singing now and then. Continuity is pretty lackadaisical -- Elisabeth's shoes appear and disappear from scene to scene, and blood spatters seem to recede backward in contempt of gravity.
Dialogue is a mix of arty-sounding existentialist spoutings and veiled come-ons, the sort of thing you hear at a Friday night poetry reading where everyone's had a few Cabernets and is feeling frisky.
Elisbeth's roommate, whom of course she doesn't remember, strips and suggests they get it on: "The only thing left for us to do is to touch our own bodies. It's our only pleasure. The only one we don't forget."
But Elisabeth appears to be bigoted against brunettes and rebuffs the overture, leading the roommate to kill herself with a pair of scissors, plunging each prong into an eye.
Things really get funny at the end, when Robert arrives to rescue Elisabeth, who by now has progressed so far she doesn't even remember him. Dr. Francis shoots Robert in the head, which somehow renders him onto the same level of brain-damaged semi-consciousnesses as her -- lobotomy by Smith & Wesson.
The addled couple holds hands and shambles off into the sunset, a perfect intellectual match.
In some ways, "The Night of the Hunted" is an allegorical take on the zombie genre, with people reverting into mindless stalkers who must be destroyed by the surviving humans. Of course, most undead don't look so good with their clothes off.
1.5 stars out of four
Friday, March 1, 2013
Before the Twihards pile on too quickly for my less-than-gushing take on the final episode in the “Twilight” franchise, I just want to state for the record that I actually have read – and enjoyed! -- the first novel of the series by Stephanie Meyer. And I even gave the third movie a positive review.
But the decision to split the last book, “Breaking Dawn,” into two parts was an unwise one. It left the entire fourth movie and the first half of the fifth feeling like an endless stretch of exposition. The filmmakers even introduce a whole slew of new characters at the 11th hour, most of who recede in the mind as soon as they wander off screen.
The final culmination itself, though, is filled with the sort of vital storytelling juices that seemed to get leeched out of “The Twilight Saga” halfway through. The story opens with Bella (Kristen Stewart) having been turned by her vampire lover Edward (Robert Pattinson) into a fellow nosferatu.
Their love child grows at an astonishing rate, but is viewed by the Voluturi, the vampire ruling clan, as an abomination. Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the werewolf Other Boy vying for Bella’s hand, must lick his wounds and contend himself with “imprinting” on her daughter, becoming her hirsute protector.
Things build toward a huge battle, where vampire heads go flying and werewolf teeth get gnashing, that is genuinely thrilling. And there are some emotional exchanges that actually pluck the heartstrings.
Much like the rest of the series, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” wasn’t great. But at least it didn’t completely suck.
Video extras are generous including a seven-part making-of documentary that takes you through all the aspects of shooting the final two movies back-to-back. There’s also an audio commentary by director Bill Condon, and even competing features that allow you to jump to your favorite scenes featuring Edward or Jacob.
Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars