Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Video review: "Lore"

We are used to all sorts of stories about depravity and inhumanity during World War II. There have even been a number of wonderful movies about the struggles of children to survive the Holocaust and mayhem – “Europa, Europa,” “Au Revoir Les Enfants,” “Empire of the Sun.”

But “Lore” may be the first movie to examine the plight of Nazi children displaced and abandoned by the war. This Australian-German production is about a teenage girl who must lead her younger siblings hundreds of miles to the safety after the German fatherland falls to the Allies.

Lore (a terrific Saskia Rosendahl) struggles to keep her brothers and sister in line, who range from preteen down to an infant. The sight of these well-heeled kids rambling across the countryside with suitcases and a baby carriage is evocative, and heartrending.

Things grow more complicated when they encounter an older boy on the road, another wayward refugee, who turns out to be a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps. Lives are imperiled, and tragedy visits upon the little troupe of youngsters.

At first we are mean to identify with Lore, but our feelings grow more ambiguous when we learn that her parents’ odious lessons have been absorbed, at least in part, by their oldest child.

“Lore” is not the sort of film to ask or offer easy answers. Director Cate Shortland provides a plaintive, harrowing portrait of the way war and hatred infect the soul.

The video release is being accompanied with a decent collection of extras. These include a making-of documentary, an alternate ending, deleted scenes and a panel discussion with cast and crew. There is also a featurettes, “Memories of A German Girl,” that looks back on the war from a child’s perspective.



Monday, May 27, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Watch on the Rhine" (1943)

Sometimes when a movie is totally different from our expectations, it can be a glorious thing. I remember going into "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" expecting a slapdash prequel, and came out convinced I'd just seen the best movie of the summer.

But diverging too far from what people thought they were going to get can be a fatal drawback, too, and I admit I approached "Watch on the Rhine" expecting to see a gripping spy thriller. This was, after all, a film that was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actress, and won a golden statue for Paul Lukas as Best Actor.

Alas, "Rhine" couldn't be more different than I expected, and it seriously sapped my enjoyment of the picture. I went in thinking spy thriller with lots of twists and turns in the plot. It's much more a dramatic piece of high-toned propaganda, as characters speechify about the evils of Nazism and the nobility of those who stand up against it.

As its opening screen crawl makes clear, the film is an ode to Germans who resist the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich through armed resistance. Coming out in 1943, it couldn't be seen as anything other than an overt appeal to the fighting resolve of Americans and their allies abroad.

Set in 1940 and based on a famous play by Lillian Hellman, "Rhine" concerns an American woman, Sara Muller, (Bette Davis) who returns home after 18 years abroad with her German husband Kurt (Lukas) and children in tow. It soon becomes clear that Kurt is not just the mild-mannered engineer he seems to be, but is one of the key leaders of the German resistance.

Alas, Sara's wealthy mother Fanny (Lucile Watson) has a disgraced Romanian count loitering as a house guest on an extended stay -- why, it's never made clear since she doesn't really know him very well -- and he conspires to sell the information about his identity to the Germans. He threatens to blackmail the husband, who shoots and kills him, then returns to Europe to fight on.

If that doesn't sound like a lot of plot, it's because it isn't. Dashiell Hammett was a famous novelist used to seeing his books turned into movies and television, but as near as I can research this was his only screenplay credit. He tries in vain to breathe some life into the proceedings, but it's hard to escape the story's stilted stage origins, as characters talk and talk and talk ... and talk.

Similarly, director Herman Shumlin was a stage veteran with no experience behind the camera, and it shows. His camera work is stagy and stiff, with characters tending to plant themselves in one spot and barely move around. The performances are also uniformly formal and inorganic, as the actors recite their lines by rote as if schoolkids who have proudly memorized a speech for class.

Shumlin only directed one other feature film, and promptly went back to his native soil on Broadway, where he racked up an impressive array of Tony Award nominations and wins. I'm glad he found success in the medium where he was most suited, because clearly film work was not for him.

The scene where Kurt shoots the count, Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris), was controversial in its time because the Romanian is only looking for a bribe, not threatening his life. Kurt forces him into the garage at gunpoint, and a shot rings out. It's pretty clear that Kurt kills him in cold blood.

At first this ran afoul of the censors of the time, since the Hays Code stipulated that criminals always had to be shown getting their comeuppance in the end. According to a book about Davis' career, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures actually suggested changing the ending so Kurt is captured and executed by the Nazis. In the end, the producers managed to convince the censors that Teck was the true villain, and he intended to betray Kurt even after extorting money out of him.

All the Germans except Sara speak in very stilted tones as if English were not their first language. I can understand what the filmmakers were going for, but the result is stiff and strange, with the children speaking like little academics. There's also the odd youngest child, a chubby child who informs his grandmother that he is "not beautiful," and she does him one better by telling him she adores him despite his being ugly.

There's also a distracting subplot about Sara's playboy brother David (Donald Woods) having a thing with the count's young wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald). It adds nothing to the tale, and only serves to distract from the spy story. Of course, since that is so spare, perhaps they just needed something, anything to pad out the script.

All the European names makes for a difficult time remembering who is who -- Teck, Anise, Marthe. Even "Kurt" comes out sounding more like "Koort."

Maybe it's just because I was expecting something completely different -- I was picturing back-alley assassinations and a potboiler plot -- but I just couldn't get engaged in "Watch on the Rhine." Even the title seems like a misdirection, since the action rarely leaves the Farrelly mansion, let alone shifting to Germany. But this is a whole lot of pompous pontificating with little dramatic punch.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: "The Hangover Part III"

After the raunchy brilliance of "The Hangover" in 2009 came the inevitable sequel two years later, which like most second comings was a major letdown. The cast and crew essentially aped the first movie, with our maturity-challenged "Wolf Pack" of 40-ish dudes waking up after a night of debauchery, and attempting to reconstruct the events of which they had no memory.

It had its moments, but the novel premise was no longer fresh, and the jokes just didn't hit like the first time around.

"The Hangover Part III" falls somewhere in the middle of the two, funny enough to recommend but lacking the frisson of the original. It also abandons the flashback storytelling gimmick of the first two films, opting for a straight-ahead narrative. Instead of creating new mischief while on a bender, they're soberly dealing with the consequences of their previous (mis)adventures.

That's all well and good, and it was probably the right move to make the third (and, by all accounts, final) movie stand out from the rest. But I feel compelled to point out that we're watching a movie with "Hangover" in the title during which no one experiences a hangover.

Until, that is ... well, I don't want to spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say, I highly advise you to keep your fanny parked in your seat when the credits roll.

Zach Galifianakis, who made such an oddball sidekick in the first movie, is now pretty much the center of the show. As delusionally obtuse man-boy Alan, Galifianakis has created an enduring comic character, a man who is somehow innocent and yet repulsive at the same time.

Alan is the sort of guy who can meet a woman (a nice cameo by Melissa McCarthy) seemingly as mucked up as he is, initiate the beginnings of a romance, and then pull down his pants, coyly informing her that he "saw it in a pornography" -- and yet still come across as dimly sweet.

All the other characters pretty much react to what Alan's doing, including smoother operator-turned minivan-driving schlep Phil (Bradley Cooper) and uptight dentist Stu (Ed Helms). Alan even seems to command our attention when he shares the screen with Leslie Chow -- the certifiably insane, cocaine-snorting, generic Asian accent-spouting, wild-partying criminal played by Ken Jeong.

Spoiler alert: I can confirm that Jeong's penis returns for a third outing ... if you're patient.

The set-up is the guys are driving Alan, who's depressed and off his meds after his father's death, to a detox center in Arizona when they're kidnapped by a homicidal gangster named Marshall (John Goodman). It seems Chow stole $21 million in gold bars from him with the Wolf Pack's unwitting help, so he wants them to get it back for him. As insurance, Marshall kidnaps their friend Doug, once again giving Justin Bartha a reason to disappear for most of the movie (which is probably just as well).

The rest of the flick plays out as a series of chases and double-crosses, as the guys quickly track down Chow but have difficulty keeping their hands on him. Alan, who had secretly been exchanging letters and emails with Chow while he was in a Bangkok prison, incorrectly sees it as rescuing Chow rather than capturing him.

There's a few clever bits, including a neat reversal at a Mexican villa, and of course the action ends up in Las Vegas, the beginning of all their troubles.

There are no celebrity appearances a la Mike Tyson like last time around, though the hi jinks are intermittently funny and occasionally hilarious.

"The Hangover Part III" pales in comparison to the first film, but it feels less cynical and rote than the middle one. It's a fun outing, with enough laughs to remind us why we liked the first movie so much.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: "Fast & Furious 6"

Here's the thing about the "Fast & Furious" movies: they're cartoons.

I would think this is fairly obvious to anyone who's watched even five minutes of the series -- the high-speed chase sequences that flaunt the laws of physics, the muscle-bound lunks strutting and blustering, the emaciated hoochies with incongruous combat skills.

The whole enterprise is garish and bogus, like sun-tan lotion smeared over plastic surgery scars.

There's nothing inherently wrong with cartoonish movies -- when they recognize and accept their just-for-kicks nature. But "Fast & Furious 6," like all its predecessors, takes itself way, way too seriously to allow any fun.

At least a half-hour too long at 130 minutes, it interrupts its infrequent car chases with lots of scenes where Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson growl their dialogue, usually at each other. We also have a new villain, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who's so busy telling everyone how much smarter he is than them he keeps making obvious mistakes.

Oh, and Michelle Rodriguez, who was pretty definitively offed earlier in the franchise, somehow is brought back with that ol' standby of the lazy screenwriter, amnesia. It's not a very convincing device, nor does it explain away the fact that leader Dom Toretto (Diesel) had already replaced his dead girlfriend with a new one.

Director Justin Lin, who has now helmed all the "Fast" movies except the first two, appears to have simply grown bored with car chases. There's more hand-to-hand fighting than driving, and what road action that remains is muddled and over-caffeinated, like a yippy little dog that barks so furiously it chokes itself. Screenwriter Chris Morgan, also back for his fourth go-round, hasn't improved with experience.

If you'll remember from the last movie -- and why would you? -- Dom and his team of racer-thieves had successfully heisted $100 million in cash. As the story opens they're living the quiet life of luxury as expat criminals. Then their nemesis lawman, Hobbs (Johnson), shows up with proof that Letty (Rodriguez), Dom's old squeeze, is alive and working for Shaw.

Shaw's exact motivations remain a mystery ... something about stealing computer chips from the U.S. government worth billions. He's got his own crackerjack team of tech specialists, plus some cool low-slung cars that can act like ramps for pursuing vehicles, sending them hurtling.

Brian O'Conner, the former cop-turned-criminal played by Paul Walker, is largely shunted to the side in this outing, other than a set-up about being a new daddy and therefore less wild than the old days.
Also returning are Tyrese Gibson as comic relief Roman, Ludacris as hacker Tej, and Sung Kang and Gal Gadot as crime couple Han and Gisele.

Dom & Co. have plenty of cash and little reason to help out the feds, other than finding out if Letty is really alive. It's the familiar claptrap about sticking together.

Diesel does that strange thing he does where he turns his head sideways to the camera, not looking at the person he's talking to while spouting some heavy-sounding gibberish. Like, "You don't turn your back on your family. Even when they do."

The movie occasionally finds the right gear with some particular piece of roadway mayhem -- a sequence where the good guys take on a tank comes to mind. But whenever the movie detours into characters just standing around talking, it's a complete wipeout.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Video review: "The Last Stand"

My favorite part of “The Last Stand” is the very end. After over-the-hill sheriff Ray Owens has fought off a small horde of Mexican gangsters invading his dusty border town, he rests on the sidewalk, bloodied and beat. He struggles to get to his feet, and a younger man offers a hand. Ray glares at that outstretched hand, peeved that it is seen as necessary. Then he gives up and accepts the help.

At 65, Arnold Schwarzenegger no longer resembles a superhero, just a tough old-timer with a few tricks left. After giving up superstardom for politics, Arnie attempted a comeback with this throwback action thriller. Audiences stayed away, perhaps because of recent revelations about his personal life.

Judged solely on its merits, “The Last Stand” is an effective if unoriginal action flick. It takes a while to get rolling, but after the 45-minute mark it’s an enjoyable orgy of gunfire and explosions.

The set-up is that a Mexican drug cartel kingpin (Eduardo Noriega) has escaped from federal custody and is zooming toward the border in a super-charged Corvette prototype. With the help of an elaborately planned escape, he’s gotten away clean, and only Sheriff Owens and a small passel of misfit deputies stands between him and freedom.

Johnny Knoxville is a hoot as a local gun-loving coot, while Luis Guzman is Ray’s overly cautious right-hand man. Rodrigo is the very recently deputized town drunk – and ex-Marine – while Jamie Alexander rounds out the cast as the lone, able female cop.

Korean director Jee-woon Kim knows how to stage action scenes so they’re exciting while still remaining grounded in the laws of physics.

And Schwarzenegger has a comfortable, easy grace playing a regular guy who becomes a reluctant hero. The box office receipts may disagree, but the Austrian Oak still has action-star bona fides.

Both the Blu-ray and DVD versions come with a decent amount of goodies. There’s a making-of documentary short and three other featurettes focusing on various aspects of production, plus a handful of deleted and alternate scenes.



Monday, May 20, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Verdict"

If there's a greater actor in a better role than Paul Newman in "The Verdict," I haven't met it.

This 1982 legal drama directed by Sidney Lumet is one of my cinematic touchstones, a film that grabbed me at an early age and profoundly affected the way I approached movies. It still retains a strong hold on me and I think about it often, even though I doubt I've seen it more than a total of three times.

Watching it as a precocious preteen bedazzled by Jedis and replicants, "The Verdict" opened me up to a universe of serious films where the characters didn't do much more than talk. It's an incredibly spare film, lacking big showy moments, and with barely any music to push or pull the audience into easy emotional catharsis.

Even Frank Galvin's courtroom speeches are rambling and unfocused -- he comes across less as an attorney presenting a compelling legal argument than a stumblebum hanging out on the corner lamenting the woes of the world to no one in particular. It's hardly the fiery "you're out of order!" brimstone you usually see.

To call Frank down on his luck would be to presume that he ever had any.

When we first meet him, Lumet and screenwriter David Mamet (on just his second screenplay) go out of their way to depict him as a lowlife ambulance-chaser. He plays pinball with grim concentration, taking a breakfast of a beer with a raw egg cracked into it before heading out on his daily rounds. This mostly consists of following the funeral notices in the paper for potential cases. He bribes the morticians to introduce him to the bereaved family as an old friend, so he can slip them his card and drum up a wrongful death lawsuit.

We learn he's only handled four cases over the last three years, all of them out-of-court settlements. And that Frank had a brush with the law, nearly losing his law license for jury tampering a decade ago. Since then he's been riding the downward spiral, with retired lawyer friend Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) throwing him a case from time to time, and peeling him off his office floor when Frank's been on one of his benders.

The latest is a good one, a real "money-maker," Mickey promises. But Frank can't even remember the case when Mickey brings it up, 10 days before trial. He pulls himself together enough to meet with the clients, the sister and brother-in-law (Roxanne Hart and James Handy) of a woman who fell into a coma after going to the hospital to give birth and being given the wrong anesthetic. (Interestingly, the film never mentions what happened to the baby.)

The hospital is owned by the Archdiocese of Boston, and the calculating-but-not-uncaring Bishop (Edward Binns) offers Frank a $210,000 settlement. For his standard one-third fee, that would garner him a neat $70,000 (about $170k in today's dollars) -- enough to keep Frank flush in cheap cigarettes and breath spray for years. But he refuses, and insists on taking the case to trial.

Why? Part of the film's greatness is never definitively answering this question. Clearly Frank is deeply impacted when he visits the woman in the hospital, curled up in a permanent fetal position, and takes Polaroid photos of her. Lumet cleverly doesn't allow his camera to show her from the same angles as Frank's pictures, which bring her sad plight into focus -- for us and for him.

His clients don't want to go to trial. They make clear they're looking to recover $50,000, which is the amount a local facility wants as an endowment to take over perpetual care of the woman. The sister and brother-and-law want to move out west and wash their hands of the burden. So why does Frank turn down the settlement -- nearly coming to blows with the sister's husband when he finds out?

From a legal standpoint, his case is a mess. He only has the testimony of one over-the-hill country doctor (Joe Seneca), who turns out to be black to top things off. It's funny and sad to think about how just three decades ago, having an African-American doctor as your star witness was seen as undermining the case.

Of course, Frank stumbles into luck with a last-minute witness, an admitting nurse who was bullied into changing the medical form to cover up the doctor's mistake (played by Lindsay Crouse employing a full-on Boston blarney accent). He does so in part by breaking into a post office box to get an uncooperative woman's phone records.

Frank sees this as his last shot for ... well, not greatness, but at least legitimacy. After he wins this case, the final scene of him reposing in his office, refusing to answer a phone call he knows he oughtn't to, suggests that Frank will resume practicing the law with something like resolve. He'll probably keep boozing, and probably handle lowlife cases, but he'll be an attorney again.

About that phone call. Charlotte Rampling plays Laura, a divorced woman who takes Frank up like a lost child off the street and becomes his lover/confessor, bucking him up when things look bad. Certainly it's not because a burned-out 55-year-old drunk has any business nabbing her interest. Even his initial come-on lacks embellishment: "My God, you are some beautiful woman."

Secretly she's being paid off by Frank's opposing counsel, Ed Concannon (James Mason, in pure aristocratic arrogance mode), to feed him information. When Frank finds out, he belts her ... hard.

I'd like to talk about that punch. It was the thing I most remembered from seeing the movie, when Mr. Movie Star Paul Newman punches out a willowy-looking woman. There's a long, silent pause before he does so, as they look at each other. Wordlessly, the look of betrayal on his face is reflected in her own, as she realizes the gravity of what she's done.

The look on Newman's face is just classic. It's the expression of a beat-down dog who's just had his last bone taken away from him, and he's finally riled up and mad. He's ready to fight. Frank has lost everything -- his status, his wife, his friends -- and here is this woman gnawing away the last tatters of his dignity.

Violence against women is repugnant, but in the film's context it feels totally justified.

Aside from Newman, the performances are roundly solid. Rampling has a certain reserved, damaged quality -- we later learn she used to be a lawyer herself and is looking to get back in the game. Concannon is the real twisted soul, taking a case he could easily win and putting a couple of fingers on the scales of justice. I wonder if it ever occurred to Concannon that he is engaging in the sort of activity that nearly cost Frank his law license?

Warden is his usual blowsy, hard-talking presence. Seneca has a quiet dignity as a man who earns most of his livelihood testifying against other doctors in court. He acknowledges his vocation but fervently affirms the validity of it. Wesley Addy also has a small, subtle role as the accused doctor.

Milo O'Shea, who recently passed, is just terrific as Judge Hoyle, who handles Frank like a wayward student hawking spitballs in the back of his classroom. In his heart of hearts, he'd rather just see Frank thrown out in the the wilderness, but he does his duty anyway. Not without prejudice, however -- it's quite clear that the judge favors the defendant, and works to undermine Frank's case.

Yet, when the surprise witness has just undermined Concannon's case, he and the judge have this great exchange of stares where O'Shea peers out from beneath those marvelous caterpillar eyebrows with a look that says, "You're on your own, me bucko."

That's one of the things that dazzled me when I recently watched "The Verdict" again -- how it makes every big moment bigger by going smaller. In its lean, small, often wordless and soundless way, "The Verdict" is a piece of true greatness.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: "Stark Trek Into Darkness"

A cheap, shiny whizbang toy, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is essentially a remake of an earlier, better film from the same franchise. I won't tell you which one because of spoilerfication and all, but if you've paid the least amount of attention to the hype surrounding director J.J. Abrams' sequel to his 2009 hit film, you already know. And even if you hadn't, you can guess pretty easily.

Benedict Cumberbatch -- most British name ever! -- is the new mystery figure, an arrogant and brilliant fellow who seems to have it in for Starfleet in general and Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise in particular. He also possesses superhuman strength and reflexes, a genius intellect that transcends the ages, and ... well, I've already said too much.

As regular visitors to this page know, I was a lonely voice in opposition to Abrams' first film, finding it an over-caffeinated amusement park ride lacking any pretense toward the cerebral heft that has been a hallmark of the Trek universe, even in its silliest moments.

I will say that this film, written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, takes its time from a narrative sense, and doesn't feel like it needs to have its characters in constant motion, perpetually in peril. The first hour or so is quite engaging, as the filmmakers carefully move the pieces into place.

It's still a preposterously doofy take on the Star Trek oeuvre, with a "reboot" of the universe that allows Abrams & Co. to keep the bones of the dynamic the same while changing around the outer layers liberally.

Thus if you'll recall: Captain Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) is now a shoot-from-the-hip punk with a troubled past, yet somehow placed in charge of Starfleet's newest, most advanced starship. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is still an emotionless Vulcan, but is more in touch with the potential for feelings. In this iteration, Kirk and Spock are constantly at odds, with the first officer questioning his captain at every turn.

Uhura, Bones, Scotty and Sulu ... well, they're pretty much the same (played by Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg and John Cho, respectively).

One of the biggest annoyances is the continuing, unlikely romance between Spock and Uhura, which has all the emotional weight of a feather duster. They repeatedly have couple spats, even right on the bridge of the Enterprise or in the middle of a mission, in front of other officers and crew. I find it highly illogical that people who have pledged their careers to Starfleet would behave so unprofessionally.

As for the plot, suffice it to say that Starfleet is threatened when a key facility is attacked by a rogue officer named John Harrison (Cumberbatch). Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), the commander in chief, reluctantly dispatches Kirk and the Enterprise into Klingon territory to kill him.

He also insists that they take with them a load of super-secret torpedoes that they fire indiscriminately at Harrison. The torpedoes come with their own perky weapons specialist (Alice Eve) who, like everyone else in the cast, looks like she stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad.

What, does Starfleet weed out all the fat and fugly recruits early on?

The torpedoes are shielded so the crew can't see what's inside them, which makes Scotty very nervous. With that set-up, if you can't figure out what's the secret of the weapons, then this must be the first science fiction movie you've seen, ever.

Once "John Harrison" reveals his true identity around the halfway point, the film lost me completely. From that point onward, I knew everything that was going to happen, exactly as it would go down. Granted, I like to think I'm pretty good at seeing the pitches before they're thrown, but this is Pee Wee-level foreshadowing.

A tribble even shows up in Bones' laboratory to provide a laugh and set up an obvious plot point.

This entire movie is a consequence-free zone. Nothing that happens has weight. For example, early on Kirk is demoted and loses command of the Enterprise ... and then gets it right back a few minutes later. The Enterprise also gets seriously damaged in combat. That had an impact back in "Star Trek III," but since then how many Enterprises have been destroyed or seriously effed up? Half a dozen, it seems.

The Enterprise, once a distinct character in the films, is now just another ship. Blast it with phasers, punch holes in its side -- it's just hardware to be repaired or replaced.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of someone else remaking the Trek movies I loved as a youth. But I don't like it when they're slick and intellectual lightweight like this one and its predecessor.

It's funny to me that so many people attacked the second trilogy of "Star Wars" as soulless and cynical corruptions of an original purity, but see the new "Star Trek" flicks as a bold return to form. For me, I don't need to see the best moments of "Trek" repurposed for a younger audience with a short attention span.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Video review: "Cloud Atlas"

A grand, brave, often mesmerizing but just as often puzzling cinematic experience, “Cloud Atlas” takes a book generally thought to be unfilmable and delivers something rather astonishing. The Wachowski siblings, best known for the “Matrix” movies, team up again (also joined by co-writer/director Tom Tykwer) to create a sprawling story that encompasses dozens of characters spread over several time spans, with a universal message about the sanctity of the soul.

If that sounds a little full-of-it grandiose, well, that’s because it is. But even as you struggle to understand the accents of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry or even figure out where and when you are, most observers should find the experience thrilling.

Hanks and Berry are joined by a number of other actors, each playing several roles – though it’s often a challenge to recognize them buried under layers of costume and prosthetic makeup. The action jumps from the 19th century Pacific Islands to America in the 1970s, and then to a dystopian future Korea and a post-apocalyptic time in which the Earth is nearly deserted.

Though it may not be up everyone’s alley, “Cloud Atlas” is an innovative and ambitious piece of science fiction drama that’s worth a look.

Extras are rather decent, though you have to upgrade to the Blu-ray edition to get the best stuff. The DVD version only comes with a making-of documentary.

It’s not surprising that the notoriously publicity-shy Wachowskis chose not to record a commentary track, but they make up for it with six more featurettes covering everything from casting to special effects, plus philosophical musings about reincarnation.



Monday, May 13, 2013

Reeling Backward: "From Here to Eternity" (1953)

Last year I wrote dismissively of the 1955 film "Battle Cry," with my chief complaint being that it was a war movie with very little war. The story mostly concerned itself with the various romances of the soldiers as they geared up for battle. When the fighting finally arrived, it was only a cursory bit near the end.

Only after recently reading Eli Wallach's autobiography did I realize that this narrative rather closely followed that of the revered classic "From Here to Eternity," which came out two years earlier and won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture and statues for director, screenplay, supporting actor and actress and cinematography.

As to the latter, my guess is Burnett Guffey cemented his award for black-and-white photography with the now-iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing on the beach as waves crash over them. It's a gorgeous scene, and technically difficult as hell -- shooting day for night, with a host of unpredictable elements.

The pair are nearly carried away by the waves, which were probably much more forceful than director Fred Zinnemann intended. According to legend they were supposed to kiss standing up, but Lancaster suggested they lie down. It's also notable that the camera is much more revealing of his body than hers, which is nearly hidden except for her head and shoulders.

So why is "Eternity" such a thrilling success while "Battle Cry" is an utter bore? The storytelling is much sharper, obviously, with Daniel Taradash's script based on the popular novel by James Jones. And the cast is just splendid -- in addition to Kerr and Lancaster there's Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, Oscar winners both, plus Montgomery Clift in his prime. Ernest Borgnine and Jack Warden even have small roles.

The tale of how Sinatra got the role has entered into mythology, even being portrayed in "The Godfather" building up to the infamous horse-head-in-the-bed scene. It's no secret that Sinatra coveted the role and sent the studio chief many letters and telegrams, and agreed to a massive pay cut to secure the role. It's doubtful, though, that the Mafia actually played any role. In Wallach's version, he had discussions about the role but was never officially offered it. People forget Wallach was entirely a Broadway star at the time, and wouldn't even make his film debut till "Baby Doll" three years later.

It's interesting that the Lancaster/Kerr pairing is what most people remember about the movie. Watching it again recently, it's clear to me that it's really Clift's story, and everyone else around him is a supporting player. He's the nexus of the story -- every other character's tale is derived in relation to how they interact with his character, Private Robert E. Lee "Prew" Prewitt.

It's a bold, authentic portrait by Clift, who goes sideways from conventional Hollywood acting style. He plays Prewitt as a determined man who's defined by his principles, to the point that even those who like him think he's too stubborn for his own good. As the story opens, Prew has just requested a transfer out of the bugle corps because he lost his position as first bugler through favoritism -- absorbing a bust from corporal to private in the process.

Having suffered for his convictions, Prew is immediately forced to do so again: the company commander, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), demands that he resume his promising boxing career so his outfit can win the regional Army boxing championship. Prew refuses, and refuses to say why -- though he later reveals that he blinded a friend of his while sparring, and vowed never to fight again.

This sets off a long reign of quiet terror as the NCOs team up to give Prewitt "the treatment"  until he agrees to box again. This involves extra unpleasant detail work, being singled out for undeserved punishment, and outright physical abuse. Prewitt absorbs it all stoically, earning the silent approbation of First Sergeant Milton Warden (Lancaster), the "top kick" who really runs the company.

Sinatra plays Angelo Maggio, a skinny, tough kid from the Bronx who takes no guff from anyone. He repeatedly scrapes with "Fatso" Judson (Borgnine), the belligerent sergeant who runs the stockade. Fatso icily warns Maggio that he's the type of hothead who invariably ends up in the clink, where he'll receive a lesson or two. It turns out exactly that way, and Sinatra is a vivid presence as the proud, doomed Maggio.

Prewitt's love interest is Lorene (Reed), a hostess at the local members-only club for soldiers. (It's exclusive to only those with the $4 membership fee.) Her role is to entertain the men, flirt and be pleasant, a job she admits is just a couple of steps above working the street. Her plan is to save a bundle of money and return home to settle down with the right kind of man. But she finds herself drawn to the fatalistic Prewitt. He's so smitten he's even willing to go back on his word and start boxing again, if it means earning sergeant stripes so he can better take care of her.

Warden's affair is a risky one -- with his commanding officer's lonely wife, Karen (Kerr). It's a strange, antagonistic relationship where they end up sparring more than they do wooing. She has a reputation as a loose woman, something Warden repeatedly throws back in her face as a way of testing her feelings for him.

Both Kerr and Lancaster were nominated for Academy Awards in a leading role, although both are really supporting parts. I think the fact that they were big stars put them over the top.

The film also has a few notable musical interludes I'd forgotten about, including a couple where Prewitt improvises jazzy melodies on the bugle, and later just the bugle mouthpiece. He carries that mouthpiece around in his pocket like a totem, a signal to the world that he's a man who keeps himself to himself, except for the little bits he's willing to share on his own terms.

The war finally arrives with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A lot of it is portrayed through stock footage and models of ships blowing up, but there are also some expertly-staged scenes with the company fighting off some Zeroes. But the action scenes are always subservient to the human drama.

In the end, the reason I prefer "From Here to Eternity" over "Battle Cry" is that it's simply a damn good movie.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: "The Great Gatsby"

Audacious, ostentatious and ambitious, "The Great Gatsby" is a big, raw pitching prospect of a movie. It'll throw amazing curveballs and fastballs that will leave you dazzled as they fly past -- and then hurl a few into the stands that will leave you scratching your head.

For me, the wonderment outweighed the puzzlement, though others may feel F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic book still defies cinematic adaptation after a half-dozen attempts.

The one thing that's injected in this version by director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") and his cast that was sorely missing from previous iterations is passion. Luhrmann, who co-wrote the script with Craig Pearce, seems to have taken well the lesson of the last big "Gatsby" film in 1974, which was beautiful but bloodless.

Luhrmann, known for over-the-top visual orgies and jumpy editing, mostly restrains his wilder instincts and uses his considerable craftsmanship in the service of the story, rather than just going on a bender for its own sake. Of course, he can't resist slipping in a rollicking musical number or two, but the moment doesn't linger overlong.

Fitzgerald's book, foisted by educators on an indifferent teenage audience for decades, is not so much a story of flesh-and-blood characters as a condemnation of an age. Published at the height of the Roaring '20s, it took a cynical view of the careless rich at a time when fun was flounced.

You may already know the main players. Nick Carraway, a poor young bond trader who moves to the posh Long Island enclave of the newly wealthy. Tobey Maguire does a better job than previous actors in bringing the story's narrator/voyeur to life, describing himself as "guarding other people's secrets, living both within and without" his neighbors' decadent lifestyles.

Daisy Buchanan, Nick's carefree cousin and "beautiful little fool," played by Carey Mulligan. Her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), is an old-money brute, who guards Daisy like a cherished relic while fooling around on her with the local mechanic's wife, Myrtle (Isla Fisher).

And Leonardo DiCaprio plays the titular Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire who owns the mansion next door to Nick's cottage, throwing lavish parties every weekend that he never attends. He surprises Nick with a rare invitation and a rarer introduction, followed by more personal overtures -- all in an attempt to ingratiate himself with Daisy, with whom he has a history.

Luhrmann and Pearce take liberties with Fitzgerald's text, moving characters and settings around freely, even introducing a framing device in a sanitarium. I think perhaps, though, they didn't go far enough. They should have jettisoned characters who only serve to deliver exposition and disappear, such as world-weary golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). And several extraneous sequences decelerate an already too-long 142 minutes.

It's a gorgeous picture, stocked with gleaming palaces and growling cars, magnificent costumes and makeup -- DiCaprio's face glows like a burnished sun -- plus glimmering CGI renditions of 1920s New York City.

Despite its unevenness, what made this "Gatsby" a success for me was the way the film brings Gatsby into clearer focus in a way other adaptations haven't managed. DiCaprio and Luhrmann pull the shroud back on Gatsby's elaborate disguise to reveal a man of desperate yearnings, who deludes himself in a quest for something pure. It's not just Daisy he's pursuing, but a vision of himself that is hopeful -- something that stands in stark contrast to the sclerotic myopia of the Buchanans of the world.

"He stood before us, concealing an incorruptible dream," Nick intones. "The Great Gatsby" is occasionally dissonant, but its message rings strong and true.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Video review: "Mama"

“Mama” is an environmentally creepy horror flick that features plenty of boo-gotcha scares, but also takes the time to build a pervasive feeling of dread. Rated PG-13, it’s not a particularly gory flick, though it contains a lot of disturbing CGI effects that add to the eerie atmosphere.

The set-up is two small girls who were abducted and lost in the woods following a tragedy. Five years later, their uncle tracks them down and adopts them. The sisters (Megan Charpentier Isabelle Nélisse, both very good) barely speak and go about on all fours like feral animals. But over time they start to reassimilate, even warming up to their uncle’s girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a rock musician who gradually develops maternal instincts.

Unfortunately, the girls weren’t really alone all those years out in the forest, developing an obsessive attachment with a spectral creature they call “mama.” It soon becomes clear she has followed her wards to their new home, and is very jealous of anyone else presuming to care for “her” daughters.

The depiction of the Mama character is just terrific, an inky mass of roots, goo and insects that feels like it just burrowed up out of the raw earth. It combines motion-capture acting, visual effects and unnerving sound design. The fact that we only see bits and pieces of her till nearly the end only heightens the impact.

Director Andrés Muschietti is a feature film rookie who co-wrote the screenplay with his sister, Barbara Muschietti, and Neill Cross, based on a short film they made a few years ago. It’s an auspicious debut, from filmmakers who know how to balance organic frights with special effects.

Video extras are quite good. They include a number of deleted scenes, the original short film with an introduction by executive producer Guillermo del Toro, a making-of documentary and feature-length commentary by the filmmakers.

On Blu-ray only, you also get “Matriarchal Secrets: The Visual Effects of Mama,” which shows step-by-step how they achieved the portrayal of this memorable phantom.



Monday, May 6, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Great Gatsby" (1974)

"The Great Gatsby" is a production design in search of a movie. It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous to gaze upon, from the actors whose eyes literally sparkle to their handsome clothes, ostentatious homes and gleaming automobiles.

But just like F. Scott Fitzgerald's overpraised novel -- still boring the tears out of high schoolers nearly a century after its publication -- the 1974 movie is beautifully lifeless and unengaging. It's a critique of an age, not a story about flesh-and-blood people whom we can adore or despise. Novels can just be about "a time and a place," but narrative films need to go places.

It has been commented by others that Fitzgerald simply took a timeless story, a love triangle, and set it against the backdrop of the Jazz Age of the 1920s and the nouveau riche who partied carelessly until the great, inevitable fall came.

Actually, if there's one group Fitzgerald finds more contemptuous than the oilmen and stock market dandies who got wealthy quick, it's the snooty Old Money types who wear their wealth like a mark of royalty. Mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby may be a reckless climber, but the book and movie save their sharpest barbs for Tom and Daisy, who think they deserve to dance above any disaster.

Tragedy is something that only happens to the unmoneyed. The wealthy maintain a cocoon by always sticking together. Or, as Daisy puts it to her long-lost lover, "Rich girls don't marry poor boys, Jay Gatsby."

At least Gatsby is ambitious; the Buchanans merely want to keep riding their wave of entitlement.

There have been at least a half-dozen cinematic adaptations of the novel, including a silent film version that came out the year after it was published. There was also a 1949 movie starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field, which I haven't seen.

I think "Gatsby" is a story that works for different times and people of certain ages, but not others. The '49 film must have had some added subtext, coming at a time when the country had just come out of two decades of war and economic struggle. Back then, the 1920s must have seemed like the grand, foolish ball before disaster struck.

The 1974 film has no such timely advantages, and arrived when the people who lived the Jazz Age were growing old and dying. It exists as an artifact, a critical representation of an era that was by then already forgotten.

Director Jack Clayton and his cast seem to have approached the picture with a very theatrical mindset. Most of the actors deliver their lines in stiff, diffident formal tones. Robert Redford is almost a total cipher as Gatsby, seeming to come out of his shell of mystery only when he nearly comes to blows with Tom Buchanan (Bruce Dern), the snobbish old-money playboy married to Daisy (Mia Farrow), his former love.

Farrow has a few interesting notes as the hysterical Daisy, who treats life as a party that never needs winding down. She's not a bored rich wife in need of distraction -- her entire life is a distraction. To her, motherhood consists of giving her little girl a hug and compliment from time to time when she happens by with the governess.

"That's the best thing a girl can be in this world -- a beautiful little fool," she purrs.

Sam Waterston doesn't have much to do as Nick, ostensibly the main character and narrator, but that's the way Fitzgerald constructed him: a Midwesterner who approaches the high-living life of rich Long Islanders like a zoologist studying the behavior of exotic beasts in the wild.

I don't really blame Francis Ford Coppola's screenplay, which actually follows the book rather faithfully, right down to the heavy-handed symbolism of the Buchanan's blinking green dock light beckoning Gatsby from across the lake, and the optometrist's bespectacled gaze frowning down on the proceedings from a billboard marking the fork between the old-money enclave and the upstarts.

Rounding out the cast are Scott Wilson and Karen Black as the Wilsons, poor folks who are used and abused in various ways by the Buchanans, and Lois Chiles as Jordan Baker, an amoral golfer and Nick's itinerant girlfriend.

I think what disappoints me most about the movie is that it's so completely bloodless. The characters seem to glide through a world lacking consequences or waypoints, creating their own rules as they go along. That's Fitzgerald's central criticism of the era in which he lived, and it makes for a wonderful-looking but detached movie.

Perhaps the new film arriving later this week can find the passion that eluded this one.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: "Iron Man 3"

"Iron Man" was a zippy, giddy take on the superhero genre, with Robert Downey Jr. as our over-caffeinated but charming stewardess on a cinematic zero-g flight into the stratosphere. Then there was "Iron Man 2" because, well, the laws of economics more or less demanded it, even if it offered audiences little more than an obligatory dark-n-dreary phase.

And then came "The Avengers," the harmonic convergence of several comic book movie franchises, proving that sometimes more is more. Unfortunately, it's left Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, with little reason to keep hanging around in his third solo outing.

Downey is back with that rapscallion twinkle in his eye, his nervous tics and motormouth line delivery revealing a man too smart to be comfortably constrained by the mortal limits of his fleshy cocoon. He quotes an anecdote that Albert Einstein only slept three hours a year, and it's clear from Stark's tone that he begrudges even that much time spent away from his gear-happy lair, tinkering away on never-ending improvements to his array of super-suits.

In his own imitable wobbly way, Stark/Downey is the steadying force that keeps the "Iron Man" movies together.

Unfortunately, director Shane Black, who co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce, have come up with a story that's like a buffet line -- they couldn't really decide on a recipe, so they just threw in a little of everything.

Want more snappy banter between Stark and best friend/security wingman Happy (played by Jon Favreau, former director now demoted to sidekick)? It's there, tiredly. And relationship tensions between him and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his lady love and now head cheese of Stark Industries? Ditto.

There's also some stuff about the after-effects of Stark's battles with critters from outer space in the Avengers flick, leading to one or two full-out panic attacks. It seems the uber-arrogant playboy/inventor/savior of mankind actually has confidence issues.

"Gods? Aliens? I'm a man in a can," he moans.

The world is being threatened by a mastermind terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who dresses like a pasha and speaks like a Mississippi Baptist preacher while setting off mysterious bombs that leave no trace of their mechanical origin. He being a movie villain, Mandarin has to do this live on TV, hacking every station in the country at once, simultaneously.

Worse yet, the Mandarin apparently has all these strange henchmen who sort of glow red from the inside, can make things extremely hot by touching them and heal amazingly fast.

A few new characters float around the edges. There's Maya (Rebecca Hall), a botanist and former Stark fling who's found a way to "hack the operating system of a creature's DNA," or something. And Aldrich Killian, who we see in a 1999 flashback looking homely and walking with a crutch, who later turns up as handsome as Guy Pearce.

Don Cheadle returns as Jim Rhodes, who wears an older version of Stark's suite and serves the U.S. government as War Machine ... wait, check that, they redub him Iron Patriot after the name tests better with focus groups.

There are a few exciting action sequences, but the overall effect is more discombobulating than exhilarating. Stark jumps from situation to situation, and -- thanks to some new technology -- from suit to suit so quickly, it never really feels like there are real consequences to the mayhem.

Late in the game, Stark narrates a lament about how many geniuses start out with great intentions, but then compromises and complications bring down their best efforts. It's an apt metaphor for super-hero movies, which start out with a cool premise and M.O. Then as time goes by, the mythology gets junked up with tertiary characters and subplots.

Maybe that's why in the comic book world, every so often they reboot a character by returning him or her to their roots, which are reimagined for a fresh start. With "Iron Man 3," they've taken this hardware as far as it can go.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: "The Angels' Share"

“The Angels’ Share” is really two rather different movies, either of which I would’ve enjoyed watching on their own, but don’t really fit together in any satisfying or even logical way.

The bulk of it is a rough-and-tumble drama about Robbie, a young Scottish thug trying to turn his life around, bonding with his community service coordinator and vowing to become a better man for his girlfriend and newborn son. It’s a gloomy yet affecting story, with Paul Brannigan quietly charismatic in his debut role.

But then the film turns, seemingly on a dime, into a whimsical caper/comedy about Robbie and his fellow ex-cons conspiring to pilfer some bottles from an extremely rare cask of whiskey. It’s a jolly sequence, and lightweight as a breeze wafting over the highlands.

And therein lies the problem. These two tales are completely different in tone and mood, one heavy and sobering and the other joyous and trivial.

Cinematically speaking, they occupy different corners of the periodic table. Trying to graft them onto each other feels like an ill-conceived alchemy experiment.

I still enjoyed the movie in its pieces, though the experience is like two boxes of puzzle pieces that got jumbled together.

Robbie is a lifelong criminal, the child of deadbeats and a future one himself. He’s been in jail several times, including a stint for seriously disfiguring another youngster. The scene where Robbie meets with his victim and family is unnerving, and powerful.

When we first encounter Robbie he’s just been in another scrape with a longtime rival, and the prospect of serious prison time seems real. But the judge is swayed by his stable relationship with Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) and their forthcoming baby, and sentences him to community service.

Harry (John Henshaw) is an older single chap who coordinates the offenders’ service. He immediately takes a shine to Robbie, and there’s a hint of trouble in his own past. Harry sees the challenges Robbie’s up against, including his girlfriend’s brothers beating him to a pulp in the hospital and warning him never to come near his own son.

Harry also introduces his young ward to his love of fine whiskey, and they discover Robbie has a fine nose. This leads to a trip to a countryside distillery, the revelation about an invaluable Malt Mill cask that will soon go to auction, and an introduction to Thaddeus (Roger Allam), a veteran whiskey dealer who will become important later on.

(The title refers to the 2% of the spirits lost to evaporation every year.)

Robbie forms a crew from his fellow ex-cons, including Rhino (William Ruane), an agreeable scamp, compulsive kleptomaniac Mo (Jasmin Riggins) and Albert (Gary Maitland), an affable lummox who’s so dimwitted he seems to have sprung forth from the earth, innocent of history or even basic knowledge about the world around him. (Confronted with Edinburgh Castle overlooking the city from a cliff, Albert demands, “Why’d they put it up there?!?”

Director Ken Loach, working with longtime screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty, has long made it his mission to focus on working-class citizens of the U.K., and to find compelling stories amid their everyday tribulations.

His best move was casting the unknown Brannigan, who had his own real-life scrapes with violence and the law. (The nasty scar on his cheek isn’t a makeup effect.) He reminds us of a young Ewan McGregor, who broke out nearly two decades ago with “Trainspotting.” The first part of “The Angels’ Share” favorably recalls that film; but the latter portion belongs to a different category of filmmaking altogether.