Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Video review: "Silver Linings Playbook"

“Silver Linings Playbook” pulled off something that hadn’t been done in more than three decades: Academy Award nominations for best picture, screenplay, director and all four acting categories. This heartwarming but sobering drama from writer/director David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) showcases his ability to pull maximum effort from his cast.

Much like professional athletes will refer to their leader as a players’ coach, Russell is an actors’ director. Consider: his last two films have garnered seven Oscar acting nominations, with three wins.

The movie itself doesn’t live up to the strength of its performances, but it’s still an ambitious and largely successful picture. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play Pat and Tiffany, two young people struggling with serious mental health issues. Pat has just been released from an institution, while Tiffany lives in the garage behind her parents’ house.

They’re also both single – he through divorce, she a widow – and set about on a tentative, combative romance. Pat is still obsessed with his ex-wife, and Tiffany comes up with the off-kilter idea of entering a dance contest to help them bond.

Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver have strong, authentic roles as Pat’s long-suffering parents, while Chris Tucker shines as his best friend and fellow ex-patient. One of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t ignore the impact of the main characters’ craziness on those around them.

Funny, touching and wry, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a cracked-mirror reflection of the classic love story.
Video extras are pretty good, though lacking a commentary track. The DVD comes with deleted scenes and a making-of documentary, plus featurettes on rehearsing the couple’s big dance scene and “Going Steadicam With Bradley Cooper.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo, and you had a Q&A with the cast and another feature, “Learn To Dance Like Pat & Tiffany.”



Monday, April 29, 2013

Reeling Backward: "A Town Like Alice" (1956)

"A Town Like Alice" is a historic romance in which the romantic relationship is the least successful thing about the movie. Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch in fact spend less than 15 minutes of screen time together. It is her character's tremendous struggle to survive as a Japanese prisoner of war that drives the narrative. Her hooking up with an Australian soldier is merely a sidebar.

Maybe it's because this 1956 movies based on Nevil Shute's novel actually truncates the story to only focus on Jean Paget's experiences during and immediately after than the war, ending with her reuniting with Joe Harman back in his hometown that gives the film its name. The book went on to chronicle her experiences starting a raft of businesses that revitalized the economy of that  area.

Indeed, it was probably a mistake to keep the title of the movie the same as the book, since thematically they're on opposite sides of the same canoe. Heck, if it was up to me I would've ditched the Peter Finch part entirely.

I say this not because I'm contemptuous of the film, but because I think the rest of it is so strong that it doesn't really need the romance part. It ends up dragging the story down more than lifting it up. McKenna received the BAFTA Award for Best Actress, and well-deserved it was. Her performance is a knockout. Finch won the Best Actor prize, which seems out of place for what is obviously a supporting role.

"Alice" is notable for being one of the very first depictions of female POWs that was unflinching in how harsh the conditions were and how uncaring the Japanese soldiers (for the most part). It must have been quite a thing for midcentury audiences to watch finely mannered English ladies being forced to sweat and scrape through the jungles of Malaya.

The story opens with Jean and the rest of her office being evacuated as  a result of the Japanese invasion. She lingers behind to help her boss' wife with their children, and ends up escaping with them in their car. But they're trapped in a local seaside town because all the transport boats have already departed, and they're captured.

The men are rounded up and sent off by truck to a POW camp. The Japanese have little use for the women and children, so they're sent marching across the countryside with an elderly sergeant (Kenji Takaki) in tow. No prison commander will take them in, and they end up trudging to and fro for months on end, slowly dropping off like flies.

Director Jack Lee is unflinching in portraying their suffering, including shots of little children taking their last breaths that must have been quite controversial at the time. He's also extraordinarily successful at creating a mood of sweltering, oppressive environs. We can practically feel the jungle closing in on the wayward little troupe of women.

At one point they stumble upon Joe and his buddy, who are Australian POWs in charge of driving supplies up and down the main roads. They arrange for several convenient breakdowns of the truck so he can spend time with Jean, sharing a cigarette and telling her about his lonely home in the middle of the outback.

Later, Joe steals chickens from the prison commander's private coop and gives them to the women for food. He's soon caught, as he must have known he would be, and literally crucified for his crimes. Jean thinks him dead, but he actually survived the ordeal, setting up their big reunion to end the film.

The depiction of the Japanese is about typical for this era. Several of the officers were those big round Coke bottle glasses that for some reason became an icon of anti-Japanese propaganda. They're generally shown as incredibly proud and egotistical, and Napoleonic in their desire to subjugate these tall, imperious British ladies.

The sergeant, though, is portrayed as sympathetic and humanized, attempting to rescue one of the small boys from a snake. At some point her morphs from being their guard and leader to something more than a chaperone, following the women around in their wayward odyssey. 

I really enjoyed everything about "A Town Like Alice," except for the part that it purported to be all about.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: "Pain & Gain"

Here is a movie that is just one painful-to-watch misfire after another. It's about a trio of lunkhead bodybuilders who stumble through a series of increasingly grisly crimes under the hot Miami sun. And it's directed by Michael Bay -- you know, "Transformers, "Armageddon," etc.? And it's a comedy.

Well, at least in theory.

In actuality, there's barely a titter in this overlong, dull and dimwitted tale. I like to brag that I've never walked out of a movie, but "Pain & Gain" tested my mettle to the max.

I am glad I hung around, because the last 15 minutes or so actually manages to find some kind of groove, where the comedy is mostly intentional and the satire of the 1990s up-with-me movement plucks a few ironical notes. It hardly makes the joyless couple of hours that came before any less tolerable.

Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, who sees physical perfection as the answer to a life of disappointment and second-tier status. He spends his days as a personal trainer to the rich and obnoxious, yearning to join them. His sidekicks are Paul and Adrian (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie), fellow iron-pumpers without a plan, until Daniel supplies a homicidal one.

At first we think this might be a send-up of the muscle craze of the last few decades, particularly the steroid-happy era when bigger was always considered better, not matter what sort of strange chemicals people shot into their bodies to achieve freakishly oversized pecs and biceps.

When we first see Lugo, he's doing upside-down stomach crunches on the roof of the Sun Gym. "I'm hot!" he shouts to himself as encouragement. "I'm big!"

But Bay and his screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, end up fetishizing the very warped culture they're trying to mock. Wahlberg, Johnson and to a lesser extent Mackie are pumped up to a ridiculous degree, and Bay's camera lovingly caresses every bulge and curve.

Between this movie and "Magic Mike," it's been a banner year for engorged, tanned and waxed male flesh.

Lugo and his crew hatch a plan to kidnap slimy local businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over his beachside mansion, big boat and bank accounts to them. Despite, rather than because of, their best efforts they eventually succeed, and find life in the fast lane isn't as advertised.

The actors spend a lot of time doing motor-mouthed deliveries of dialogue that are supposed to be funny but just occupy time and space. For Lugo, his tirades are mash-ups of get-rich motivational gimmicks and sports mumbo-jumbo. Adrian dreams of landing a big, beautiful girlfriend despite the, uh, diminutive effects juicing has wrought on his body.

Paul is the most interesting of the trio, a brutal-looking ex-con who's recently sobered up and found Jesus. He ends up bonding with Victor while purportedly guarding him, which leads to complications when their scheme reaches its only logical denouement.

The most unbelievable thing about "Pain & Gain" is that it's actually based on a true story. The fact that they managed to make a movie based on such a wacky premise so limp is almost impressive in a twisted way.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Video review: "The Impossible"

A semi-fictionalized account of the 2004 tsunami that swept across the southeast Asia coastline, claiming nearly a quarter-million lives, “The Impossible” is a spectacle of computer-generated effects and big human emotions.

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, a British couple vacationing in Thailand with their three sons when the tidal wave hits their seaside resorts. Their family separated by the enormous power of nature, the splintered factions struggle to survive and find out if the rest of their clan is still alive.

Maria is a doctor, so she immediately knows that the injuries she has suffered are life-threatening if she doesn’t get medical help soon. Her 12-year-old, Lucas (a terrific Tom Holland), must switch from antagonist preteen to brave protector, as the caretaker role gradually shifts from mother to son.

Meanwhile, Henry is trapped between caring for their youngest boys (Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Joslin) and searching for his missing wife and firstborn. Completely unarmed for this ordeal both emotionally and logistically – he doesn’t even have a shirt or shoes – Henry is the passive everyman who must rise to the occasion.

The film, made by a pair of Spanish filmmakers based on the tale of a real Spanish family, doesn’t attempt to look at the broader impact of the tsunami, focusing instead on the drama of a clan of Westerners. It may not be fair to ignore the plight of hundreds of thousands of native people killed in the disaster, but it does make for a very effective movie drama.

It didn’t get much play here in the U.S., but this international tale is universally affecting.

Extra features are decent in quality, if not quantity. There is an audio commentary track by the filmmakers and producers, a few deleted scenes, and two making-of featurettes focusing on the casting and production of “The Impossible.



Monday, April 22, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Sink the Bismarck!" (1960)

"Sink the Bismarck!" is the sort of movie you make 15 years after the war's end, not while it's still going on or freshly seared into memory. This straightforward, largely historically accurate take on one of World War II's great naval engagements has a slightly detached feel, much like its protagonist, Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More). 

He comes into his new job as the British Navy's chief of operations resolved to make decisions without any emotion or personal regard. In the end, Shepard breaks down and relinquishes his vice grip on his own humanity. It's a lot more touchy-feely take than you'd see back in the 1940s, I think.

It covers the brief war record of the Bismarck, the largest battleship Germany ever built. It was launched into the North Atlantic in 1940 to attack British convoy lines, and in its first major engagement easily destroyed the HMS Hood, the pride of the British navy. This led Prime Minister Winston Churchill to order every available ship and plane to hunt down the Bismarck, which they eventually did after much heroism and stupidity.

About that stupidity: At one point some British torpedo planes actually launched an attack against one of their own ships, because they hadn't been told it would be operating in the area and mistook it for the German juggernaut. Luckily, their new-fangled magnetic torpedoes malfunctioned and exploded as soon as they hit the water, otherwise hundreds of British seamen could've been lost.

To its credit, the screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on the book by C.S. Forester, depicts both the brilliance and incompetence of the men (and a few women) involved in the war at sea. At one point the commanders order a new ship with an ill-trained crew to take on the Bismarck, and it comes away -- barely -- after a terrible pasting.

The battle scenes are generally quite good, using a mix of models, stock footage and on-set recreations. The studio also had the cooperation of the navy, which allowed them the use of some actual WWII vessels that were about to be decommissioned. The shift between these different types of footage is nearly seamless. Although director Lewis Gilbert has a tendency to re-use certain shots over and over again, such as the one where the German officer orders the big guns to "Fire!"

Gilbert also directed several other military-themed films, including the outstanding "Damn the Defiant!". I guess he had a thing for punctuation in his titles. And he made the original "Alfie" and a couple of middling James Bond flicks.

Shepard is not the name of the real Navy C.O.O. at the time of the Bismarck engagement -- one of the movie's few "pumping up" of the narrative. They also shrink the time scope to give it more of a cinema vérité scope. There's also the addition of a supposed rivalry between Shepard and Admiral Günther Lütjens (Karel Štěpánek), the actual German fleet commander.

In the fabricated exposition, we learn that Lütjens commanded the German ships that sunk Shephard's vessel out from under him the previous year. This sets up a chessboard match between the two, with Shepard working on a large schematic map with little models representing the warships, while Lütjens stands on the Bismarck's bridge and barks orders to the Bismarck's commander, Ernst Lindemann (Carl Möhner).

"Sink the Bismarck!" is generally pretty evenhanded in its depiction of the Axis forces -- again, something you wouldn't see in a contemporaneous WWII film. Though the story is unequivocal in portraying Lütjens as a jingoistic fool, who continues the mission even after the Bismarck has sustained serious damage to its oil tanks. The impression left is that the more conservative Lindemann would've saved the Bismarck to fight another day.

The film is also notable for being the rare war picture with a substantive female character. Women's Royal Naval Service Second Officer Anne Davis acts as Shepard's right-hand woman, relaying his orders, offering advice and acting as go-between for the command staff he (at first) treats rather shabbily.

There's even a hint of a budding romance, or at least camaraderie, as Davis allows Shepard a moment of privacy when he learns that his son, who was thought lost in the hunt for the Bismarck, has been rescued. Davis is a model of upper-class British professionalism and refinement. Ironically, actress Dana Wynter was actually born in Germany (to English and Hungarian parents).

I certainly enjoyed "Sink the Bismarck!", though its quest for a documentary-like style leaves it less viscerally engaging than one might hope for. That very British stiff upper lip only takes you so far, movie-wise.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: "Oblivion"

I wish I could tell you all about “Oblivion.” Actually, I’m dying to. But I can’t.

This new science fiction film starring Tom Cruise, directed by Joseph Kosinski and based on the unpublished graphic novel he co-created, is a slippery chimera of a movie. It misdirects and deludes us, making the audience think it’s about one thing when really it’s heading another way.

Much like “The Matrix,” it starts out as a seemingly straightforward sci-fi adventure and gradually deepens into something much more substantial. I will tell you that “Oblivion” is probably the most compelling film of its genre I’ve seen since “The Matrix.”

Revealing anything more than a smidgen of its nature would ruin the experience for you. Of course, being tight-lipped also makes it hard to write an effective review that gives enough of a taste to decide if you want to see it.

Cruise plays Jack Harper, an everyday man with an extraordinary job. He is a tech who services the drones that protect the Earth from alien attackers … or, at least, what’s left of it. The war, which came in 2017, split the moon asunder and ravaged the face of the planet. Mankind responded with its final option.

“We did what we had to. We used the nukes,” Jack intones. “We won the war, but lost the planet.”
Sixty years on, Jack and his partner, Vicca (Andrea Riseborough), are the only humans left on Earth. The rest have decamped to a moon of Saturn, leaving only the huge factories converting the oceans into the energy they’ll need to survive.

Jack and Vicca get their orders from Sally (Melissa Leo), commander of the space station orbiting above. Their own memories were willingly wiped to protect the mission, which after five years is coming to a close. Once they wrap things up, they’ll get transported to their new home.

The alien scavengers, or “scavs,” have other ideas. Enough still remain to cause trouble, damaging the drones that guard the energy stations. Every day, Jack sets out from their base in the clouds to repair the drones, while Vicca is the communications officer who keeps him in touch with the eye in the sky.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that things aren’t quite … right. Vicca and Jack are a team, a couple both in duty and in bed. We sense their sexual relationship is part of a plan designed to keep things stable and satisfied. That doesn’t stop Jack from having odd dreams about a stranger (Olga Kurylenko) in which they meet at the Empire State Building.

But that couldn’t be, since that was before the war – or even before Jack was born.

Sally is chipper but steely, insisting things be done just so. Vicca is with the program, but Jack has begun to have stray thoughts. Part of him thinks Earth is worth saving and shouldn’t be abandoned. He’s also piqued by what he finds on the blasted surface of the planet -- books and random junk that hold more meaning for him than they should.

Kosinski and his co-screenwriters, Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek, keep their storytelling cards very close to the vest, never revealing more than they should or a moment sooner than absolutely necessary.

For instance, it seems that part of Vicca’s job is exerting a certain level of control over Jack. He is allowed a measure of wandering and wondering, but when it begins to impede the mission, she uses her seductive powers to quiet his troubled mind. “Are you still an effective team?” Sally asks Vicca daily, and she’ll do anything to keep it so.

I noticed that Vicca’s eyes seem to be permanently dilated, which gives disquieting the suggestion of human-like doppelganger figures we’ve encountered in other movies, like Ash in “Alien.”

“Oblivion” doesn’t reinvent the science fiction wheel, freely borrowing themes and story elements we’ve seen elsewhere. But it synthesizes them in a wholly imaginative way that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. This one falls into “don’t miss” territory.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Video review: "Django Unchained."

Quentin Tarantino has always been a filmmaker who believed in making his films as entertaining as possible, though in recent years it seemed like the person he was most trying to entertain was himself.

His latest, the quasi-Western “Django Unchained,” is his most accessible film since “Pulp Fiction,” a purely delightful frolic that’s equal parts gleeful revenge fantasy, anti-slavery jeremiad and comedy of manners.

Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a beaten-down slave who’s given a second chance at life when he’s rescued by King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a courtly little German who impersonates a traveling dentist but is actually a bounty killer.

(“Bounty hunter” is not really accurate, since Schultz only pursues men wanted dead or alive, and always opts for the former.)

Schultz enlists his help, in return for tutoring the slave as his protégé. They have lots of freewheeling adventures, mostly involving gunning down Neanderthal white villains while trading quips. One sequence has them going up against nascent KKK thugs, who debate the efficacy of riding a horse while wearing a sack with tiny eyeholes.

Eventually they get down to the real business at hand: rescuing Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from a bucolic plantation named Candieland.

The owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), is a symbol of genteel Southern rot, his elegantly coiffed exterior hiding an inner moral decay mirrored by his head house slave, Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), who views the uppity Django as upending the proper order of things.

Hysterically funny one moment and bursting with blood-soaked violence the next, “Django Unchained” is a giddy absurdist romp.

Alas, video extras are a mite on the sparse side. There are four featurettes focusing on the costumes, stunts, production design and soundtrack of the film, plus a promo for a Tarantino Blu-ray collection.



Monday, April 15, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Enchanted Cottage" (1945)

At first glance "The Enchanted Cottage" might seem like another mushy midcentury romance, with the characters shot in gauzy halos as they make their ubiquitous protestations of undying love. Except for one thing: It came out just a few months before the end of World War II, and depicts the debilitating effects of that terrible conflict on the very face and body of its male star.

Robert Young was no great beauty, at least compared to contemporaries like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant or Errol Flynn. But even in 1945 the future "Father Knows Best" star projected an image of ideal American manhood, masculine yet warm.

It must have been quite a shock for audiences to see him with one arm dangling useless, and the right side of his face criss-crossed with scars. One of the scars even extends into his eyes, causing it to droop in a way reminiscent of a stroke victim.

Remember this is a time when the President of the United States was never photographed sitting in his wheelchair, and coverage of the war wounded tended to focus on their valiant efforts rather than their disablements.

The story is based on a play written by Arthur Wing Pinero about a disabled WWI soldier; it was also turned into a silent film in 1924. In the updated version Young plays Oliver Bradford, a dashing rich socialite who is about to be married (to Hillary Brooke) when he is sent off to war as a pilot. They had rented a remote cottage for their honeymoon -- actually the only remaining wing of a much larger house fallen into ruin -- but never got to use it.

Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick) is the prickly older woman who owns and runs the cottage, which is only used by newlyweds who scratch their names in the glass of the front window panes. Young Laura Pennington (Dorothy McGuire) comes to work there as the maid, intrigued by the legends surrounding the cottage.

When Oliver returns from the war a year later disfigured, his engagement ended, he forms a friendship with the homely girl that grows into love. She marries him, more out of pity than anything else, but they find the magic of the cottage has transformed them into beautiful creatures. His scars disappear, and he even regains the use of his right arm.

The sections focusing on Laura's loneliness are particularly strong, especially the scene where she attends a large dance and none of the soldiers will invite her onto the floor. A couple even spy her pining from a distance and move in, but when they see her face they back off and pretend to look the other way.

Notably, McGuire achieved her spinster look without the aid of any special makeup or effects. They simply made up her hair in an unattractive way, dressed her in ill-fitting clothes, and she achieved the rest with her facial expressions and hunched posture.

It's a pretty convincing juxtaposition, though of course she doesn't really look that bad even during her "plain" phase. It's a Hollywood Ugly -- if she's homely, then I'm a bridge troll.

I was particularly impressed with Herbert Marshall as John Hillgrove, a veteran who lost his sight during World War I and became a celebrated pianist. He becomes Laura and Oliver's closest friend and confidante, and despite his blindness sees the true nature of their enchantment before anyone else does.

In actuality Marshall was sighted, wearing special contact lenses to turn his pupils almost colorless. The effect is to make him look like a seer or prophet. But he did only have one leg, losing the other in WWI, though the way he walks and moves you'd hardly guess it.

Marshall had a long career on stage and screen without hardly any of his audience knowing about his true disability. His rich, deep voice has an almost musical quality -- he often seems to be practically singing his dialogue.

John Cromwell directs with a steady hand, though I admit the last portion of the film where the gorgeous couple resides in bliss is the least interesting section to me. It's only a matter of time before they discover that there is no magic, only their love for each other that allows them to see each other as beautific.

It's in the darker, despondent sections that "The Enchanted Cottage" weaves its most powerful spell.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: "42"

The Jackie Robinson biopic, "42," is a worthwhile film, but it could have been a much better one.

Writer/director Brian Helgeland goes straight for starry-eyed hagiography in the story of the first black player to integrate major league baseball. Although it strives to show a complete picture of an icon, it still puts him on a pedestal so high the audience sometimes has trouble glimpsing the real man.

The movie is effective in showing the behind-the-scenes struggle endured by Robinson during his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and especially in his relationship with Branch Rickey, the gutsy general manager who broke the color barrier by drafting Robinson.

I just wish Helgeland could have been a little more restrained in his idol worship. At nearly ever turn, his film takes a double-dip into gooey sentiment ... and then it spoons up some more.

Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford are a good pairing as Robinson and Rickey. Boseman is a decent physical match for Robinson, and his steel glare and clenched jaw muscles cue us in to how the player struggled to shrug off the taunts and insults he endured from fans, opposing players and even his own teammates.

As everyone knew, if Robinson responded to the provocations with anything more than quiet resolve, he would be blamed for the incident and the cause of integration set back for years. Helgeland and Boseman show us Robinson's on-the-field heroics, then take us back behind the dugout to show him splintering his bat against the wall in frustration.

Alan Tudyk has a terrific small part as a racist opposing manager who strides out onto the field every time Robinson comes up to bat to hurl a constant stream of vile epithets. Tudyk is pitch-perfect in representing  the Jim Crow mentality, where white people thought it was their God-given right to put "coloreds" in their place.

Ford is very good in his first "old man" role. Yes, I know he played "old Indy" in the last Indiana Jones film, but that's not really the same thing -- he was still portraying a vibrant man defined by his physicality and manly confidence. Here he's playing a 66-year-old (that's actually five years younger than Ford himself) who is stooped and bent, his jowls working furiously underneath caterpillar eyebrows.

It's a patriarchal role, and Ford subsumes his superman persona completely. At first we think the performance is all exterior -- the way he worries his cigar, speaks with a distinctive accent and furrows his brow at young whippersnappers. But Ford goes deeper in later scenes, revealing a man deeply bothered about the way the sport he loves divides players unnecessarily, and determined to do something about it before his own time is up.

At first Rickey insists to anyone that asks that bringing in Robinson is simply a smart move, both in terms of baseball and business. Robinson is a terrific young player with a great future ahead of him, and more black people would be apt to buy tickets.

"Dollars ain't black and white," he teases. "They're green. Every dollar's green."

But in the end the relationship between manager and player becomes much more.

The script is filled with plenty of clunky, corny dialogue. "God designed me to last," Robinson intones during a low moment. His adoring wife Ray (Nicole Beharie) has little to do but smile fetchingly from the stands and spout her own tin-ear invocations: "Please God, let him be seen for what he can do."

The good definitely outweighs the bad in "42," and anyone who's a fan of baseball or history will likely be highly engrossed by this tale. I just wish this Cracker Jack of a movie had dialed down the sugar.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Review: "Trance"

"Trance" starts with an art auctioneer explaining all the sophisticated steps his employer takes to foil any potential thieves looking to pilfer the ultra-rare and valuable works of art he deals in. So of course, it comes as little surprise when the film proceeds to show a daring group of criminals systematically subverting all that intricate security and making off with Goya's "Witches in the Air," worth tens of millions of dollars.

Well... at least, they come close. The thieves, led by the wily Franck (Vincent Cassel), return to their hideout and find the canvas cut out of the frame. They pay a visit to the young auctioneer, Simon (James McAvoy), and start doing nasty things to him in an attempt to retrieve the painting, figuring that he somehow made off with it for himself.

This might seem cruel -- Simon was already hospitalized after tangling with Franck during the robbery -- until we learn that Simon was in league with the gang all along. Alas, Franck popped him in the head so hard that Simon has plumb forgot where he stashed the loot. They turn to a beautiful hypnotist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to extract the information from his subconscious.

This might sound like a schlocky set-up for a b-movie crime thriller, but director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") and screenwriters John Hodge and Joe Ahearne are more ambitious. They have constructed a multi-layered puzzle box of a movie, with the trio of main characters shifting loyalties and time in the spotlight.
It's a very clever bit of filmmaking; too clever for its own good, in the end.

Obviously I don't want to give too much away, since the bulk of the film's appeal lies in the different turnings of the plot. Suffice it to say that Elizabeth's ability to hypnotize is real, and it leads Simon and the rest down a rabbit hole where we come to question the validity of what has come before.

It's an intellectual engaging enterprise, as the audience tries to catch on to all the hidden cues and sidesteps. What's missing is any emotional connection to these characters. MacAvoy, Dawson and Cassel are a talented trio of actors, but their characters are simply chess pieces in service to the plot.

Simon is a difficult egg to figure out. He seems very passive and pleasant, but flashes a discomfiting smile and has a buried nasty streak. Franck is the opposite, all alpha dog bluster and arrogance, but hides his worry at Elizabeth's ability to alter people's memories and motivations.

She is the toughest nut to crack, readily going along with this criminal enterprise when no legitimate therapist would. Elizabeth often looks scared, but we sometimes wonder if she's secretly got everyone dangling on her string.

There are also sexual attractions, protestations of love, and other ooey-gooey stuff that feels like it belongs to another movie. Not to mention the first time I've seen intimate grooming habits used as a key plot point.

"Trance" is skillfully made, and is entertaining enough as a psychological potboiler. But in its constant efforts at misdirection, somewhere along the way the movie forgot to show us something rather than merely fool us.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Video review: "Hyde Park on Hudson"

“Hyde Park on Hudson” exists in that nether realm floating somewhere between history, biography and legend. Its central characters are none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, the King and Queen of England, and FDR’s contingent of relatives and retainers. But the film is not so much about the real people as our modern conception of them.

It’s now well known that Roosevelt, despite being trapped in a body crippled by polio, was a serial philanderer. Bill Murray, hardly anybody’s first thought for the actor who should embody FDR, nonetheless creates a distinct and compelling character that, if he is not reflective of the actual president, at least makes us want the real person to resemble his portrait.

The movie’s central problem is that it’s not really about FDR or the monarchs, but about Daisy, Roosevelt’s sixth cousin played by Laura Linney, who acts as the audience’s eyes and ears. A desperately lonely spinster, Daisy is thrilled by an unexpected invitation to join Roosevelt at the familial estate, where she and the president form a queer relationship that navigates somewhere beyond friendship but does not quite make landfall with romance.

After occupying the bulk of the first half of the film, the relationship between Daisy and FDR recedes into the background during the latter portion. The story’s point of view shifts from Daisy to the British royals, who fret about being insulted and demeaned by American provincialism. Dancing somewhere in between is Roosevelt, a cheery spider playing the strings of his webs.

In the end, we’re not really sure if the movie is about the president, his quasi-affair with Daisy, the king and queen or some amorphous combination of them all.

The film is enjoyable in its parts, even if they don’t quite fit together satisfactorily.

If you’re hoping for a sumptuous set of extras to go with the video release of “Hyde Park on Hudson,” I’m afraid you’re bound for disappointment. The DVD edition comes with absolutely zero features, and even the Blu-ray/DVD combo only has a digital copy of the film, and nothing else.



Monday, April 8, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Beyond the Time Barrier" (1960)

"Beyond the Time Barrier" was not lampooned on the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" show, but it came awfully close. It was originally released as the bottom half of a double-bill with "The Amazing Transparent Man," also directed by B-movie king Edgar G. Ulmer.

"Man" got the MST3K treatment while "Time Barrier" did not, but it certainly was every bit as deserving of send-up.

The movie is about time travel, but it's also (unintentionally) about the enduring nature of really bad B-movies. To even call "Time Barrier" a B-movie is an insult to the second letter of our alphabet. It was shot in 10 days in Texas on a shoestring, with all the sumptuous production values of a high school musical with a moderately generous booster club.

It is a prime example of low-budget mid-century cheese, more valuable now as an artifact of that era than for any supposed entertainment value it might have possessed in 1960. It can only be enjoyed ironically.

Star Robert Clarke was also the producer who put together the project, tapping Ulmer to direct. He gets to walk around some really awful sets meant to look futuristic, often while wearing a preposterously silly flight suit that the U.S. Air Force -- which cooperated with the making of the film -- must have found quite embarrassing. For some reason it seems to have the stitching on the outside and a bunch of non-functional dongles all over, which has the effect of making it look like an ancestor of those motion-capture suits actors wear now for CGI scenes.

The original screenplay by Arthur C. Pierce (who also had a bit part as one of the mutants) actually has an interesting premise, though virtually everything else about it is amateurish. Test pilot William Allison (Clarke) accidentally travels 64 years into the future while on a mission, returning to find his airfield a dilapidated ruin.

He looks around and spies a matte painting with some pulsing lights that is supposed to represent a futuristic city. Though it's soon revealed that radioactivity drove the human race  underground in 1971, so why their metropolis would have towering spires is a bit of a mystery.

Anyway, he gets captured by the remaining humans, who have all been rendered sterile. Everyone except the very old are deaf and mute as well. The shining exception is Trirene (Darlene Tompkins), the granddaughter of their leader, the Supreme (Vladimir Sokoloff). She not only has the ability to read minds, she also has functioning giblets, too. They hope to mate her to Allison and restock their dying population.

Tompkins, a bright blonde beauty, had one of those aborted careers you often don't hear about in Hollywood, but which happens all too often with young actresses. "Beyond the Time Barrier" was her first role, and led to a plum role in the Elvis Presley vehicle "Blue Hawaii" the next year. But after a few more roles in film and television, she got married, had kids and found that Tinseltown wasn't interested in a 30-year-old has-been.

 Allison is alternately hounded by the fearsome security captain (Boyd "Red" Morgan) and then released to wander about the underground citadel on his own. He soon learns there are other 'scapes" -- three other people who traveled through time to avoid the radiation plague and ended up as guest/prisoners.

They hatch a plan to have Allison return to his plane and fly back through time and try to prevent the plague. But each of the trio of scientists double-crosses him in turn -- does that make it a quadruple-cross or a double-cross cubed? -- in an attempt to return to their own eras.

The story does have a neat twist ending, where Allison successfully lands back in 1960 but finds he has aged into an ancient man. The makeup used to make him look much older is actually pretty decent considering the time and budget.

I wish I could say the same about the rest of the movie, which is riddled with errors and cheapie special effects. For example, even though more than six decades have passed the citadel guards still carry carbine rifles and pistol sidearms. I guess weapons technology wasn't a high priority for them.

The mutants -- end-stage victims of the plague -- are locked in a vast dungeon, kept alive for some reason instead of exterminated. They're represented as barefoot stunt actors wearing completely obvious bald rubber caps -- the skin tones often don't even match. I kept waiting for a black guy with a pink head to show up, but apparently in the future African-Americans don't exist.

I couldn't help but notice that all the women still wear uncomfortable high heels, especially Trirene's clacky little stilettos. The only time she doesn't have them on is for a brief swimming scene, during which the musical score makes several abrupt skips. Apparently they filmed a nude sequence for overseas release, and never bothered to adjust the music for the American censors' edits.

If that wasn't bad enough, every single actor with a speaking role pronounces Trirene's name differently. I heard "Try-reen," "Tie-reenie," "Ter-eenie," "Try-renny" and even a "Try-rayna."

Movies like "Beyond the Time Barrier" inspire both laughter, and sympathy for the casts and crews that probably considered themselves serious artists. They did manage to make something that lasted through time, just for the wrong reasons.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: "6 Souls"

The filmmakers behind "6 Souls" are not without skill, and it features some very talented actors -- Julianne Moore, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Frances Conroy. So why is it a complete disaster?

This psychological/paranormal thriller is totally lacking in suspense, or an engaging plot, or any kind of visceral impact. Honestly, I struggled to get through it.

The studio provided me with an online screener, so I watched it in fits and starts over a couple of days. No doubt this experience was completely different from sitting in a theater, we're you're immersed in darkness and can't leave ... well, at least not if you're there to do a job.

My guess is if I could leave, I would have.

The movie, originally titled "Shelter," was shot fully five years ago by Swedish directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, from a screenplay by Michael Cooney, a horror specialist ("Identity," "Jack Frost"). I get the sense that it didn't test well, so it was back-burnered while the studio figured out what to do with it. Rather than just dumping it on video, they went with the increasingly common two-tiered strategy of putting it out on pay-per-view with a simultaneous modest theatrical release.

The set-up is that it's a split-personality story -- the sort of thing that has existed as cinematic fodder for 40 years or so, despite being an extraordinarily rare and much-debated diagnosis in the psychiatric field. Count Cara Harding (Moore) among the skeptics -- as the story opens, she's testifying in a case where she basically asserts that the whole concept of someone with multiple personalities is bunk.

One person trying to change her mind is her father (Jeffrey DeMunn), also a head-shrinker, who has encountered what he thinks is a legitimate split-personality case. He invites Cara in to consult, and soon she's swept up in the saga.

Moore and DeMunn have some nice scenes together, part of a lifelong father/daughter chess game. He urges her to challenge her preconceived notions of how the human mind works, while she thinks he's unable to admit when he's wrong. If the movie had actually stayed focus on this dynamic, with the patient acting only as a catalyst to further their conflict, it might have made for an interesting drama.

Instead, the story heads straight into schlocky boo-gotcha territory, with increasing evidence that this thorny case of mental instability is, in fact, actually the work of ... wait for it ... The Devil!

Things end up in hillbilly country, where grim snaggletooth men throw hard stares at Cara as she investigates the case. Eventually, she's brought before The Granny, an ancient crone/mystic/leader, who fills her in on the tale of a faith healer who died in the early 20th century after betraying his people.

It becomes apparent that his horrid curse is being replicated today, with victims bothered by festering sores on their back in the shape of a cross, and a rash of (literally) dirty mouths.

Rhys Meyers flails mightily in the role of the patient, but ends up coming across as more silly than frightening. His abrupt shifts to different personalities are triggered by a phone call requesting to speak with one of his other hosts, at which point his head snaps back and he makes all sorts of odd crunching noises, as if  he's practicing self-chiropractic.

His default personality is David, a mild-mannered Southern boy who's confined to a wheelchair. The flip side of the loony coin is Adam, a brash New Yorker who leaps out of the wheelchair, antagonizing Cara with questions about her own family and past. Later we encounter Wesley and Charles, two men who ... well, I shouldn't give that away.

"6 Souls" is a wretchedly unwatchable train wreck of a film.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Review: "Evil Dead"

When it comes to the "Evil Dead" franchise, the line between remake and sequel is rather hazy. The low-budget "Evil Dead 2" of 1987 was largely a reboot of the zero-budget original from six years earlier --  unless, that is, the main character had somehow completely forgotten all his horrific experiences from the first film.

The third movie, "Army of Darkness," really did continue the story forward, though not very satisfactorily. The new film, the only not directed by Sam Raimi, is billed as a remake but more closely resembles a sequel to the original trilogy.

It appears to take place in the same cabin in the woods from the first two films, and the hero's old Oldsmobile Delta 88 even sits not far away, slowly being swallowed up by the earth. It's as if the place was discovered and fixed up again by newcomers who repeat the whole cycle all over again, reading from a demonic Book of the Dead that unleashes hellish forces.

This film was made with Raimi's blessing, and original star Bruce Campbell served as a producer. They tapped first-time filmmaker Fede Alvarez, who co-wrote the script with Rodo Sayagues and Diablo Cody. They take the same basic premise and twist it around while paying homage to the original films.

The result is as bloody as anything Raimi & Co. ever put out -- and that's saying something -- but intentionally not as funny. The original trilogy registered just this side of Three Stooges slapstick at times, so it's bracing to get back to hardcore horror roots. They even borrow Raimi's technique of a low-angle camera careening through the woods like a nefarious spirit in search of a host.

The twist here is that the gang of comely youngsters have come to this remote place to help one of them kick her drug habit. Mia (Jane Levy) is a bit hard around the edges, having been abandoned by her older brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) to care for their dying mother. Now he's back with new girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) in tow to help his sister go cold turkey.

Rounding out the group are Jessica Lucas as Olivia, a sensible leader with medical training, and Lou Taylor Pucci as Eric, an intellectual type. Of course, it's Eric who discovers the evil book and starts reading incantations from it -- despite it being bound in human flesh, with handwritten warnings inside like "Don't read this!" and "You will unleash hell!" In scary movies, the nerd is always the cause of the downfall.

Alvarez starts out on a suspenseful note, with the cast discovering a gruesome spectacle down in the root cellar, the result of a deadly ritual we witnessed in the movie's opening scene. Mia begins to see a strange girl in the woods, a downpour floods the river and cuts off any hope of escape, and the blood faucet is opened full bore.

As for the gore -- you're either a fan of this sort of thing or you aren't. I grew up on stuff like the first "Evil Dead" films, so part of the appeal is how shocking the filmmakers can be to a jaded audience of people like myself. I'd say they did pretty well; I actually flinched a few times.

The characters are written as little more than cartoon characters, though the actors manage to instill them with a few notes. David is apparently really a fan of duct tape, believing it can solve all of life's problems -- even demonic possession and the accompanying gaping wounds.

Eric seems to have the constitution of Rasputin, his body absorbing more abuse than any human could, but he keeps coming back to save somebody else's bacon.

The new "Evil Dead" lacks the puckish cleverness of the original two films, and if it stood on its own I doubt it'd spawn the same following. But it's not bad as run-of-the-mill horror goes.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: "Lore"

 Even with so many thousands of cinematic stories inspired by the events surrounding World War II, it never fails to surprise me when I encounter something new and unexpected about that dark hour of human history.

Case in point: “Lore,” the tale of a family of children separated from their parents and forced to march hundreds of miles through uncertain territory. Here’s the twist: the kids are Germans, offspring of high-status Nazis, and their encounters with American and Russian conquerors upend everything they were ever taught.

Lore, simply by virtue of being the oldest at about 15, is designated as the leader of the intrepid group. Their mission is to find their way to their grandmother’s house, more than 500 miles away, while their parents turn themselves in to the Allied authorities. Mother (Ursina Lardi) gives them money and her jewelry to barter, but with the trains shut down it soon becomes clear their journey will be arduous.

This would be hard enough for an adult, but in addition to younger sister Liesel (Nele Trebs), Lore must oversee rambunctious twin boys Günther and Jürgen (André Frid and Mika Seidel) and their infant brother, Peter. The sight of this awkward little band trudging across the countryside, dressed in their upper-class clothes and pushing a baby carriage, is at once endearing and off-putting.

The role of Lore is an extremely challenging one, but Saskia Rosendahl pulls it off remarkably well. At first the audience is encouraged to root for her as she finds ways to overcome adversity, keeping her siblings alive, fed and moving toward their goal. Later, though, we learn that the horrifying lessons of the Third Reich have been instilled in her since birth, and we are repelled by her prejudices and compartmentalization of suffering.

But slowly Lore comes to question her upbringing. She’s spurred in part by photos of concentration camps that all Germans are required to view. In one, she spots a German officer who may be her father (Hans-Jochen Wagner).

Things really shift when Thomas (Kai Malina) tags along with their group, and eventually becomes their de facto protector. An older boy with thin hair and a lined face, Thomas eventually reveals himself to be a Jewish refugee of the Holocaust. Ironically, after years of being alienated and abused under the German Reich, he finds that his status as a Jew helps cut red tape at border crossings and such.

Lore is at first repulsed by having a Jew in their midst, insisting he not touch her and sit far away while eating. But she’s also attracted by his survivor’s resolve and kindness toward the children.

“Lore” was directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, who re-wrote the screenplay by Robin Mukherjee, based on a portion of the novel “The Dark Room” by Rachel Seiffert. Shortland shoots in an abstract, almost lyrical way, using close-ups of small details and shimmering images to suggest Lore becoming uncoupled from her roots, both geographically and morally.

“Lore” may be a challenging for some viewers not used to seeing the war and those affected by it from the German perspective. But it’s a worthwhile and well-told tale that is meant to discomfort the audience, not soothe them.

3 stars out of four

Monday, April 1, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Slap Shot" (1977)

Paul Newman has commented that he did not swear much before making "Slap Shot," a 1977 sports comedy that was considered very raunchy for its time. Newman's character and most others drop the F-bomb liberally, and also spew epithets about gay men and women that would be considered very un-P.C. today. Supposedly Newman found much of that language creeping into his everyday speech.

A modest hit at the time, "Slap Shot" has gone on to cult film status, particularly among sports writers who regard it as one of the best sports comedies ever, and fans who call it one of the finest hockey movies of all time (which isn't saying that much since there aren't that many of them.)

For me what makes it stand out is that it's one of the few sports movies that is openly contemptuous of its sport, or at least the modern state of it. Professional hockey in the view of screenwriter Nancy Dowd has devolved into a shallow show of grandstanding and violence, in which the blood-dripped spectacle is more important than the skating or the scoring. It remains the one mainstream team sport in which fighting between players is tacitly encouraged.

Director George Roy Hill seems to have gone out of his way to show as little hockey action as possible, focusing instead on the mayhem and the fisticuffs. In defiance of every sports movie cliche, the big championship game at the end is decided by forfeit.

The result is both very funny and very depressing, at least if you're a hockey purist.

The film is one of those seemingly light comedies that has a strong vein of social commentary running just underneath the surface. The fans of the inept Charlestown Chiefs only get excited about their home team when they resort to goon tactics. In this sense, "Slap Shot" is thematically closer to "Network" than "Semi-Tough" or "The Longest Yard."

It's more akin to "North Dallas Forty" than anything else, and I'd speculate there was cross-pollination between the two creations. Peter Gent's book came out in 1973, before Dowd wrote her screenplay based on her brother's experiences in minor league hockey, but the film version of "Forty" came out two years after "Slap Shot." Indeed, Dowd is reported to have served as an uncredited writer on the football film.

(The Oscar-winner for "Coming Home" enjoyed a low-profile career where she often wrote uncredited or under a pseudonym.)

"Slap Shot" was the third and final pairing of Hill and Newman, after the phenomenal success of "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" and "The Sting." He also made another film, the underrated "The Great Waldo Pepper," with Newman's co-star in those other two films, Robert Redford. The easy, loose feel of Newman's performance is probably due to their well-established rapport.

Newman plays Reg Dunlop, a once-great player eking out an existence as player-coach of the Chiefs. When the local mill is scheduled to close, it becomes clear that the team's mysterious owner plans to disband it. Reg, who is cagey if not necessarily intelligent, comes up with the idea of making the team viable to be sold to a new owner by amping up the violence.

The impetus for this new tactic is the arrival of the Hanson brothers, a trio of young hockey enforcers who have become the most enduring iconography of the film. The brothers' thick black glasses and long hair became their trademark, both in the movie and real life. They were based on an actual trio of brothers who were hockey players, and in fact two of the three were played by the actual siblings. The third couldn't appear because he had been called up to the NHL. Many former and current pro hockey players also acted in the movie.

The Hansons are angelic bruisers, who play with toy cars when not in the rink and dole out punches and brutal take-downs when in it. There seems to be no malice in them, being perfectly polite and respectful of their elders. To them, that's simply the way hockey is played. It's an opportunity to hit people without the fear of arrest ... or at least less chance of it.

In a couple of famous scenes, the Hansons start a fight when the teams are doing their warm-up skate, and are the victims of a reprisal as soon as the puck is dropped. Perhaps the funniest moment in the film is during the national anthem, when a referee clued into the Hansons' tactics screams at him not to try any of that stuff on his rink. "I'm trying to listen to the fucking song!" the lead Hanson retorts, and this sideways appeal to patriotism shuts the other man up.

After some initial hesitation, the other members of the Chiefs happily join the punch-drunk party, especially when they start racking up wins as a result. The one player who won't go along is Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), the team's clean-cut leading scorer. The noble knight-errant of the story, Ned refuses to sully the purity of the game ... at least until it serves his purposes.

Things get so bad that Reg starts openly hitting on Ned's deeply depressed wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse), who dresses like a man, drinks like a fish and drives like a hellion. He's only doing it in hopes of riling Ned up, but is nonplussed when his wooing works and Lily actually shows up on his doorstep with dog and suitcase in tow.

Reg foists her off on his estranged wife (Jennifer Warren), who he thinks will serve as a model of how happy a woman can be when she gives her hockey-playing husband the boot. Part of the comedic gold of Reg's machinations is that he genuinely feels like he's doing everyone a favor. He's really a manipulative mook, but he's so gosh darn charming at it.

The roll call of supporting players is rich and deep, including Strother Martin as the Chiefs' bow-tied, conniving PR man; M. Emmet Walsh as the local newspaper hockey beat reporter, who's always "trying to capture the spirit of the thing" but usually getting conned  into carrying Reg's water; Swoosie Kurtz as an uptight hockey wife; Melinda Dillon as an enemy player's lovesick wife who has a fling with Reg; and Jerry Houser as a player who thinks Reg's goon philosophy is not incompatible with the New Age harmonies of yoga and meditation to which he's attuned.

Personally, I'm not much of a hockey fan. It's too violent, but if you took the violence out everyone would realize how profoundly boring it is. I think the greatest trick of "Slap Shot" is undermining the state of hockey while mining it for comedy gold.

3.5 stars out of four