Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: "The Heat"

Is "The Heat" anything more than the familiar zany buddy cop genre we've seen dozens of times, but with the estrogen switch flipped?

Not really.

But Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are immensely likeable performers individually. And when you throw the hot-and-cold mixture of their two well-drawn characters together, the combustibility is hard to deny.

"Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig is reunited with supporting player McCarthy, who earned a rare Oscar nomination for a comedic role. She's moved into the big leagues now, and pairs nicely with fellow A-lister Bullock.

What I liked about their cinematic combination is the give and take they exchange so freely. There's nothing forced about their chemistry together. Usually with the male versions of this sort of thing, it's easy to point out the alpha dog. Here, the stars are generous in sharing the screen, and the laughs.

And there are plenty of laughs in "The Heat." In factor, several scenes are the most uproarious I've seen at any movie this year. An overnight bender in a Boston dive bar just keeps going on and on, reaching a new level of hilarity just when you think the roll must peter out.

Bullock is Sarah Ashburn, a by-the-book FBI agent who doesn't play well with others. It's not that she doesn't try -- she's easily the best agent in the New York City office. It's just that, as her boss (Demián Bichir) puts it, she displays an "aggressiveness and competitiveness" that is off-putting to her mostly male colleagues.

If Ashburn has a passive/aggressive issue, then Mullins is nothing but belligerence. A Boston police detective, she terrorizes criminals and other law enforcement officers with equal verve.  She dresses like a roadie and swears like a sailor with Tourette's.

In the real world Mullins, whose antics include pulling her gun on a nurse who asks her to turn off her cell phone in a hospital, would be drummed out of the force in a week. But here she's so angry and feral, even her captain submits meekly to her bullying.

Ashburn gets sent to Boston to track down a big lead on a drug kingpin, and her fashionable stilettos are soon stepping all over the toes of Mullins' shabby boots. Reluctantly they agree to team up, though the trail of clues plays second fiddle to the testy dynamic between them.

At first it's about Mullins trying to get the prim Ashburn to loosen up, which leads to a screamingly funny bit where they sabotage her all-business suit to come up with a hoochie outfit to lure a suspect at a nightclub.
Their dance moves are, well, epic.

Slowly the spotlight shifts over to Mullins' family, which is an unholy wreck. Her junkie brother (Michael Rapaport) is in jail -- courtesy of his cop sister -- and the rest of the clan blames her for his troubles. It's a screeching caricature of the Boston blue collar class, but still wicked awesome.

Screenwriter Katie Dippols, a TV scribe making her feature film debut, knows just how to tailor the yucks to her two leading ladies' personas. Structurally it's a bit unsound, with too many dead spots scattered throughout. You could easily make the movie 20 minutes shorter, and better.

But even if "The Heat" treads overly familiar ground, these ladies still bring the funny with both barrels blazing.

Review: "White House Down"

I think I’ve put my finger on what this summer’s spate of movies has been sorely lacking: fun.

Everything’s so gosh darn dark. Iron Man’s wrestling with his psyche. Superman’s all angsty. Vin Diesel can’t spare a smirk. Heck, the new “Star Trek” flick put “Darkness” in the title. Even the comedies have seemed more a chore than a lark.

Count on Roland Emmerich, the auteur of disaster/action spectacle, to remind us what summer movies should be all about: goofy, cheeky, action-packed and silly. The man who launched his Hollywood career blowing up the White House in “Independence Day” now merely has terrorists invade it in “White House Down.”

And it’s up to one lone lawman to rescue the likable President, perforate the bad guys, save a cute kid and give an inside-man-turned-traitor his comeuppance -- preferably messily.

If this plot sounds overly familiar, that’s because we saw almost the exact same story in this spring’s “Olympus Has Fallen.” Which, come to think of it, was also one of the year’s most enjoyable cinematic jaunts.

Whereas “Olympus” was grim and tight, “Down” is giddy and loose. Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt infuse plenty of light moments and outright humor into the proceedings. Leads Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx take these soft pitches and gleefully wallop them over the wall, at times resembling a buddy-comedy duo.

You might think all the hoots would undermine the action sequences. But in acknowledging its own preposterousness, the movie invites us to laugh along with, rather than at, all the loopy plot points.

I’m not saying this is a dumb movie. But it is the sort that asks you to lower your suspension-of-disbelief shields and just go with it. For me, this happened right around the moment Tatum and Foxx were screaming around the White House grounds in the presidential limousine, terrorists chasing them in Hummers outfitted with machine guns, with more bad guys firing RPGs at them from the roof.

Absurd? Over-the-top? Fun as all get-out? Yes to all.

The set-up is that President James M. Sawyer (Foxx) is pushing a Mideast peace plan, and a lot of people are nervous. So when a bunch of mercenaries invade the White House, it seems much more motivated by vengeance than the $400 million in cash they’re demanding.

John Cale (Tatum) is an Army veteran and D.C. police sergeant who’s got a mind to join the Secret Service – mostly to impress his precocious tween daughter, Emily. He takes her to the White House for a tour while he has a job interview – which turns out to be with an old college flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who lets him down easy.

Emily is played by Joey King, whose mix of smarts, screen presence and moxie virtually guarantee greats things ahead. In one moment of extreme duress, Emily growls at a gunman, “Get away from me” – quite possibly the gutsiest character moment in the movie.

Michael Murphy plays the vice president, who’s a little overeager to take on the POTUS mantle, while Richard Jenkins is the humbler Speaker of the House, next in line. Jason Stenz is effective as the paramilitary leader, Jimmi Simpson has fun with the over-caffeinated computer hacker role, and Kevin Rankin is memorable as a loathsome skinhead baddie.

I also liked Nicolas Wright as the comic relief, an enthusiastic White House tour guide, and Lane Reddick as the by-the-book military man. James Woods shines as the grizzled Secret Service chief closing out his last week on the job.

If “Olympus Has Fallen” had a distinctive right-wing flavor, it’s hard to ignore an obvious but unobtrusive liberal tilt in “White House Down.” Foxx’s Sawyer is a thinly-veiled Obama substitute, a young academic with a cooler-than-thou attitude, flashy wife and Nicorette gum habit.

At one point Sawyer dons his favorite sneakers during their flight, and when one of the villains grabs his leg the president forcefully delivers a kick and a quip: “Get. Your. Hands. Off. My. Jordans!!”

Say what you will about Emmerich, but the man knows how to do popcorn movies right.

All I know is we’re almost at the year’s halfway point, and if you asked me to name my Top 10 List right now, it would include two ludicrous movies about the White House getting taken over. Hey, fun’s fun.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: "In the House"

“In the House” is either not clever enough, or too clever for its own good.

This French drama is about a teacher advising a gifted student about a story he’s crafting based on his experiences worming his way into a schoolmate’s family. The teacher gives constant feedback, encouragement intermixed with criticism, and it soon becomes clear that the writing is directing the real-world interactions, rather than the other way round.

This is a nifty idea from writer/director François Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” “Potiche”), who adapted a play by Juan Mayorga. But it telegraphs its intentions and outcomes too broadly, so there’s a sense of everything unpacking itself exactly as we knew it would.

The result is a movie that thinks it’s being very coy and subtle, when viewers will see it as over-obvious and predictable.

Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, an owlish high school teacher of literature. He’s a failed novelist – something he admits freely – and burnt out on the job, complaining annually to his art gallery manager wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), that this year’s batch of students is the worst ever.

But Germain is intrigued by Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), a quiet boy who sits in the back row and shows promise. For his obligatory what-I-did-this-summer essay, he writes about sitting in a park staring at an upper-middle-class house with a seemingly perfect family, and finding a way to insinuate himself into their midst.

He ends his essay with a promise “to be continued” – installments being a rare thing in public education writing assignments. Germain gives Claude a B+ and encourages him to continue the story.

Things go along with the school year, with Claude befriending the classmate who lives in the house, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). A lonely, virtually parentless kid, Claude ingratiates himself with Rapha’s parents, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), a bored housewife who dreams of designing houses, and Rapha Senior (Denis Ménochet), a sports-obsessed middle manager who’s fixated on not getting enough respect at work.

At first Claude’s main focus is Esther, but Germain scolds him that having a teenager with a crush on a middle-aged mother is too clichéd. So the story moves into developing the Rapha characters, and their intrigues with Claude.

Germain and Claude refer to all these people as “characters,” though it’s left deliberately unclear how much of Claude’s writings are fabrications. At one point young Rapha turns up dead in his bedroom, having hanged himself, but after Germain frets about the boy’s absence at school the next day, it turns out he just had the flu.

Later on, Germain will actually invade the action in the house, offering observations and reproach for what is transpiring.

Of course, it’s not hard to guess that the real object of Claude’s machinations are his own teacher – something Jeanne, who religiously reads the episodes herself, surmises more quickly than her husband: “He’s manipulating you. He’s the one teaching you a lesson.”

“In the House” is sometimes engaging, but it’s too much an exercise in examining the creative process than establishing believable characters and putting them through some paces. The concept is novel, but the execution barely merits a passing grade.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Video review: "The Call"

I’m not sure what’s harder to watch: a movie that starts out well and then flushes itself down the toilet, or a film that never had any idea how to be good in the first place.

You’d think the truly awful flick would be torturous. But it’s the good-movie-gone bad that tends to be more disappointing, since at least for a while it was on the right path. That’s the case with “The Call,” a tightly-coiled thriller that is really suspenseful through the first two acts and then rolls off a cliff during the last half-hour.

Halle Berry plays Jordan, a veteran 9-1-1 operator working at the Hive, the massive emergency response station that handles all of Los Angeles. Night after night she receives calls from people in distress. Usually it’s just a stumblebum blathering intoxicated come-ons or routine disturbances.

But on one fateful night Jordan receives the most harrowing call of her career – and she blows it. A serial killer brutally slays a young woman, and Jordan believes it’s her fault.

Six months later she’s finally back on the job, and relives the same scenario over again. This time, Jordan will do anything to save the girl’s life. Staying in contact with an abducted teen (Abigail Breslin) throughout her ordeal, Jordan tries to thwart the killer from afar.

Things go great, until director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio take a left turn into disaster.

Instead of continuing the restriction of Jordan trying to prevent a crime from her work station – much like a laid-up James Stewart in “Rear Window” -- she ventures out into the world to take on the mastermind herself. The result is a lot of silly boo-gotcha moments and other horror-film tropes.

After an hour of terrific storytelling choices, “The Call” makes exactly the wrong one.

The DVD is decently stocked with extras, including a commentary track that includes the filmmakers, Berry and Breslin, and a making-of documentary.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo edition and you add deleted/extended scenes, an alternate ending, on-set tours, a featurettes on stunts and Michael Eklund’s audition for the role of the creepy killer.



Monday, June 24, 2013

Reeling Backward: The Metaphysics of "Toy Story," Part 2

Continuing last week's discussion...

Love and Faith

Toys certainly can fall in love. Woody has a longstanding relationship with Bo Peep in TS1 and TS2, although by the time of the third film she has been disposed of. The growing romance between Buzz and Jessie is a running theme through TS2 and TS3. And obviously Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head refer to themselves as husband and wife in the latter two films.

Beyond kissing, hugs and holding hands, there doesn't seem to be much physical expression of their love, and certainly there are no offspring. Mrs. and Mr. Potato Head "adopt" three of the Pizza Planet aliens at the end of TS2, resulting in the franchise's only nuclear family.

As for religion, there doesn't seem to very much of it in the Pixar oeuvre in general or the Toy Story universe -- though I should note in "Cars" Mack the truck at one point exclaims, "Thank the Manufacturer!" -- an appeal to some sort of higher power.

There's no corollary in the Toy Story trilogy. In TS1 when Buzz asks the other toys where they come from, they respond with the name of their manufacturing company: Mattel, Hasbro, etc. When facing certain death at the end of TS3, there's no existential crisis as the toys consider the end of existence, the possibility of reincarnation or an afterlife, and so forth.

Rather, their relationships are based much more on a humanist model, where faith in their fellow man and the bonds they have formed between them are the ultimate source of strength. When faced with death, they turn to each other rather than to God.


Toys do not have a specific system of government, but there is definitely a sense of leadership structure. This is based on a single designation: Favorite Toy.

Whoever is their child's favorite toy is automatically relegated to a position of authority over the rest of the company. Though their power is not absolute, and other toys can talk back to, defy or complain about the head toy, it's pretty much taken for granted how the politics of the playground will play out.

For example, TS1 is pretty much the tale of Woody resisting a challenge from Buzz to his status as Favorite Toy. Before the arrival of Buzz, Woody is the unquestioned leader of Andy's room, with Hamm and Mr. Potato Head the resident malcontents. (Not coincidentally, they are also the toys Andy chooses to play the villains in his various imaginings.)

Slinky Dog is Woody's number two and sergeant-at-arms (and is mocked for his unwavering loyalty) while the bucket of army guys operates as their force for military operations (mostly spying on the household humans).

The other toys only revolt against Woody when they mistakenly believe that he has killed Buzz because he posed a threat to his status as Favorite Toy. Before banishing Woody, Mr. Potato Head asks if he will be the next to be knocked off if Andy starts to play with him more.

Eventually, Woody and Buzz reach an agreement at the end of TS1 to coexist peaceably -- though this seems contingent on Buzz accepting Woody's status as Favorite Toy. Buzz becomes the unofficial vice president, smoothly stepping into the leadership role in TS2 when Woody is kidnapped by the evil toy collector. When Woody initially chooses to remain with Stinky Pete and his group, the other toys follow Buzz to rejoin Andy's room with the space ranger as the new headman.

At the beginning of TS3, we can see the hierarchy has reestablished itself with Woody in charge and Buzz assuming the supportive role Slinky use to have. Woody is again separated from the (diminished) group later in TS3, and again Buzz becomes the unquestioned leader.

It's notable that when we encounter other societies of toys in TS2 and TS3, their power structures also revolve around the Favorite Toy concept. In a flashback glimpse of Lotso's community of toys in TS3, he was the leader because he was the favorite of their child, Daisy, as Chuckles the clown explicitly states.

In Bonnie's room, we don't hang around long enough to get a clear sense of the power structure, but Dolly seems to take the leadership role in welcoming the new toy, Woody, and questioning his motives in returning to Sunnyside. It's a fair guess that Dolly is Bonnie's favorite -- even though she plays the evil witch in her games.

An interesting question to ponder if they ever made a "Toy Story 4" would be if there was a power struggle between Dolly and Woody when Andy's old gang merges with Bonnie's.

When no "owner" child is present, the most willful or wily toy is the one who dominates. In TS2, Stinky Pete is the de facto leader because of his scheming manipulation of Jessie and Bullseye. Lotso is the dictatorial leader of the Sunnyside daycare in TS3, though this is through his own force of will rather than the affection of a single child. (There are children at the daycare, but "no owners," as Lotso himself states.)

As for Sid's room, there appears to be no Favorite Toy because the twisted boy favors none of his toys as anything other than objects upon which to experiment.

In a sense, in the toy world power is derived through love -- the more a toy receives from its child, the more status it will have on the toy totem pole.

Birth and Death 

Though it's never made explicit, the Toy Story movies suggest that a toy is "born" -- aka gains consciousness for the first time -- not when it is first assembled, but when it is removed from its packaging, usually by the child who will become their owner.

The only toy we see this happening to in TS1 is Buzz, who blinks his eyes and ponders his existence when deposited on Andy's bed after being opened moments earlier at the birthday party. In TS2, other toys in Al's Toy Barn who do not yet have owners but have been removed from their packaging are also alive -- the "other" Buzz Lightyear and a gaggle of Barbies, for instance. Note that none of the hundreds of other Buzz Lightyears still in their boxes come to life -- they remain in "hypersleep," according to doppelganger Buzz.

But apparently, being jostled sufficiently can bring a toy to life while still in its package. This happens to Emperor Zurg in TS2 when Buzz knocks his box off a pile of toys. He breaks through the packaging himself, spots Buzz running away and begins his pursuit.

Stinky Pete in TS2 is something of a puzzle, in that when we first meet him he is sentient despite having "never been opened." Later it's revealed that Pete can come and go from his box as he pleases. Pete himself describes his life as waiting for years on a dime store shelf to be sold -- implying that he gained consciousness long ago, since he was aware of the passage of time.

Either Pete's box was dropped or otherwise manhandled years earlier, or something else occurred to make him gain sentience.

On to death. In last week's discussion we talked about toys being able to sustain lost limbs and other serious damage and continuing to live. They can even fix themselves and each other -- the Sunnyside group has an entire operation dedicated to repairs.

However, there appears to be a point where a toy is broken so badly that it cannot continue to function as a toy, and its life ends. In TS3, we learn they are sent to the dump and completely obliterated -- chopped up into pieces and then fired into slag.

Being sold or exchanged does not seem to bother toys, other than the emotional separation from their child owner. But their greatest fear is "being thrown out," since it implies being utterly destroyed.

Another interesting, unaddressed question: What if a toy were thrown away and put into a landfill rather than being pulverized? Would they continue to be alive, buried for eternity under tons of garbage? Horrifying thought.

The Buzz Problem 

There is one glaring conundrum in the Toy Story world that's never really answered: Why is it that Buzz is the only toy who is born not aware that he is a toy?

Of course, the central joke of TS1 is that Buzz thinks he's the "real" Buzz Lightyear, an actual Space Ranger with lasers and the ability of flight, rather than a piece of plastic. "YOU ... ARE ... A ... TOY!!!" is probably the most famous piece of dialogue from the trilogy, as Woody screams at Buzz to accept his fate.

None of the toys from Andy's room, Bonnie's room, the toy collector's office, Sunnyside daycare or Daisy's room ever appear to have this problem. They know instinctively that they are toys, and embrace their role of being both playthings and passive guardians of their child.

But not Buzz. And this delusion applies to all other toys from the Buzz universe. "New" Buzz and Emperor Zurg from TS2 also believe they are the real McCoy and not just toys.

There's no real explanation for this schism from the existing Toy Story metaphysics. Rather than just dismissing it as a plot hole, I'll offer my own theory.

I think the character of Buzz is a commentary on modern toymaking, in which a toy is not just a toy but part of a larger marketing strategy of movies, television, video games, clothing, etc. The Pixar storytellers offer the purity of older classic toys like the cowboy, piggy bank, Etch a Sketch and so forth in contrast to convoluted, newfangled toys like Buzz.

This is not to say that Buzz is inherently bad. But in aspiring to an ambitious line of products -- and resulting expanded revenues -- the Pixar movies imply toy manufacturers have lost their way from the concept of making a great, single toy that can enrapture a child for years. Instead, it's about putting out the newest thing, to be used and discarded quickly in favor of the next iteration.

It's only when Buzz is confronted with his fallibility and impermanence -- when he attempts to fly in Sid's stairwell in TS1 and crashes, losing an arm -- that he realizes he is a toy. After a period of despondence, he allies with Woody and determines that his real mission is to "be there for Andy," always.

Of course, the "Toy Story" films themselves embody this modern toy trend, with an untold line of products and commercial tie-ins. That's hundreds of millions our dollars that have been siphoned off into the Pixar coffers.

But at least they wink at themselves while doing it.

I'm with the Kid

The last, and perhaps thorniest area I'd like to discuss is the relationship between the toys and humans -- specifically, the mechanics of how they act like normal toys when they're around, but come to life when they're not.

First off: this behavior is a choice, not an inherent aspect of their existence. There are numerous examples of the toys "going limp" when they hear a human approaching. They usually try to resume their former position where the child left them, but in a pinch they'll just plop down wherever they happen to be.

But, in extreme circumstances, they can remain active while humans are around. The most obvious example is Woody and Sid's toys coming alive to frighten him at the end of TS1.

In TS2, Woody also runs down into the yard sale to rescue Wheezy, despite humans being all about. And Buzz and the gang walk across a busy street covered by traffic cones in full site of motorists and pedestrians. Although the humans can't see them, there isn't any logical explanations for walking traffic cones.

The toys do not appear to have an extrasensory perception of when humans could be observing them. They rely on their hearing and vision to know when to play dead. This results in many, many occasions throughout the three films where it seems almost inconceivable that someone wouldn't have observed the toys in their "live" state. Examples:

In TS1, Woody and Buzz' fight at the gas station is interrupted when a semi-tractor trailer pulls up. Woody immediately drops lifeless, but Buzz chooses to run away.

Also in TS1, Sid's dog Scud is lying on his porch and observes Woody and Buzz chasing after Andy's car. Later, they drive through busy traffic where motorists would surely see them.

At the end of TS3, Lotso plays dead when a garbage truck pulls up. But it appears literally a second after he had been upright, making it unlikely the driver would have failed to notice a walking toy bear just a few feet ahead of him.

And here's the biggest flub in the Toy Story franchise: If Buzz in TS1 believes he is an actual space ranger and not a toy, why does he "go dead" when Andy plays with him? Since he thinks he's crash-landed on a strange planet, why wouldn't he continue talking and interacting with the giant human?

Though in general the internal logic of the Toy Story movies is superb, this is one instance where the philosophy seems to be: "Just shut up and go with it."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: "World War Z"

The thing you have to understand about zombie movies is that we've reached the point where virtually every example is a hybrid comedy. Winks and smirks have become an indelible part of stories about the walking undead. There's gore and death, but we take it sardonically -- even cheering when a loathsome human takes the bite.

People thought "Shaun of the Dead" was such a revelation, but all it really did was take a genre that was 60/40 horror-to-funny and flip it around.

That changed with the novel "World War Z," which approached the notion of a zombie apocalypse with total earnestness. Author Max Brooks, following up on "The Zombie Survivor Guide," tackled the material with a completely different mindset from the familiar ragtag group of survivors gradually getting chomped.

Brooks had an almost journalistic approach, relating vignettes from myriad different characters and perspectives from all over the globe. Rather than a single dominating story thread, it was a patchwork of diverse tales skillfully woven into a pattern.

The long-gestating movie starring Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") takes the mindset of the book, and throws away most everything else. The focus is on Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator tasked with finding the source of the virus that is rapidly turning normal people into ferocious flesh-eaters. Gerry, and nearly everything that happens to him, is a concoction of the movie.

In effect, they kept Brooks' frame but painted a completely different picture inside it. The result is plausibly entertaining, and commendable for the sober way it approaches the concept of a plague of undead.

About those zombies. Like other recent iterations of their ilk, a person can morph into one in a matter of seconds after being bit. They're of the "fast zombie" variety, running and jumping faster than an Olympic-level human athlete, and have a tendency toward spasmodic twitching and clattering their teeth, like they can't wait to sing their fangs into you. They seem to behave with a collectively mind at times, working cooperatively to scale high walls and other feats we've never seen before.

It's a novel, unnerving approach.

After an intro in which Lane gets his wife and two daughters to safety aboard a Navy ship, he's strong-armed into leading an expedition to South Korea, where it was believed the outbreak first started. His further questing takes him to Jerusalem and then Wales, his allies rapidly getting picked off, as he frantically searches for a weakness in the virus.

Some of the story is extremely effective, such as the rapid spread of the virus amongst a jetliner full of passengers. James Badge Dale has a memorable turn as an Army officer cut off from his command, who's adopted a doggedly systematic approach to fighting zombies.

Other parts are just loopy, such as an encounter with a rogue CIA agent who's pulled out all his own teeth and has a nutty theory about the Jews having known about the danger all along. Turns out he's right (!), leading to a sequence in Israel that strains credulity. Although we do pick up another interesting supporting character there, Daniella Kertesz as no-nonsense soldier Segen.

A trio of screenwriters keeps the audience guessing, though some of the contortions of the plot sap energy from the proceedings. The tamed-down PG-13 violence doesn't help, nor does Forster's ham-handed camera work during many of the action scenes. A chase up a building stairwell is so murky and jangled, we can barely tell what's going on.

(Definitely pass on the 3-D upgrade, which hardly makes a difference other than rendering the image even dimmer.)

I like the idea of "World War Z" more than the movie they actually made. I suppose a jumble of random characters wouldn't have been possible for a mainstream movie. But the filmmakers end up jettisoning the very thing that made Brooks' book special.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: "Monsters University"

I've always thought "Monsters, Inc." was the most underrated of the Pixar films. It came out the same years as "Shrek," which grabbed the Academy Award for animated feature and most of the limelight. But it was a sweet, playful story with a smart twist on the scary monsters every child imagines is hiding in their closet.

The sequel, or rather prequel, arrives 12 years later and can't meet the high standard set by its predecessor, though it's still an enjoyable romp. Since "Inc." pretty much wrapped up all the troubles facing that universe -- with the monsters switching to making tykes laugh instead of scream to solve their energy crisis -- there wasn't anywhere to go, story-wise.

Solution: go backward!

So we tag along as green, one-eyed cue ball Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and furry blue behemoth James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) make their debut as freshmen on the campus of "Monsters University." Rather than best buds, they're rivals competing for status as the big scarer on campus (BSOC?).

There's an unavoidable disconnect here, since we know all the sweat and toil they put into horrifying kids will eventually come to naught. And Crystal and Goodman, two guys in their 60s trying to pass vocally as teenagers, sound like ... two guys in their 60s straining at the upper ends of their voice range.

Randall, the fearsome disappearing serpent voiced by Steve Buscemi, turns up in a bit part as Mike's awkward roommate, who falls in with the misguided popular crowd. It seems a poor use of a really good character.

The animation is terrific, and we get to see some more crazy variations of monster biology, including a snail student who races to get to class on time, unsuccessfully. I'd advise you to skip the 3D upgrade, since it doesn't really seem to add much to the spectacle.

The story boils down to a pretty standard college comedy, though toned down for a G rating compatible with even the smallest audience members. There are familiar jocks-versus-nerds contests, dissimilar fraternity brothers finding an unlikely bond, and even a scary dean cracking down on all the fun.

The dean, named Hardscrabble, is voiced by Helen Mirren and is the best creation in the new movie. She scritches about on chitinous legs with an insectoid torso, flies around on bat wings and always seems to be standing so her face is cast in shadow. Neat trick, that.

Hardscrabble, a legendary scarer in her own right, doesn't think either Mike or Sulley has what it takes. So they're forced to enter, and win, the annual Greek Scare Games in order to get back into her loathsome graces.

Rebuffed by the top fraternities, the boys have to join up with Oozma Kappa, a lame bunch of reject monsters ("We're O.K.!"). They include Don (Joel Murray), a tentacled middle-aged salaryman giving college another try; Squishy (Peter Sohn), a multiple-eyed pile of goop with a confidence problem; Art (Charlie Day), a dippy hippie type who looks like an inverted "U" with purple fur and four hands; and Terri/Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), a two-headed dude who doesn't always agree with himself.

There's some nice byplay as Sulley and Mike butt ... well, cranial surfaces. (Mike doesn't really have a head, unless you count his whole body as one.) The set-up is that Sullivan is the natural talent from a prodigious family of scarers who tries to skate by without trying, while Mike is a grind who knows the academia of fright in and out, but lacks that certain something.

Director Dan Scanlon and fellow screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson are Pixar backbenchers called up for a turn at bat, and they acquit themselves without swinging for the fences. "Monsters University" is a reasonably fun, not terribly original but never boring ride with a pair of old, likable chums.

Note: the film is preceded by a 7-minute short, "The Blue Umbrella," written and directed by Saschka Unseld. It's about everyday city objects secretly coming to life, and it's a charming mix of hyper-realistic animation and cartoony tropes.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Video review: "Jack the Giant Slayer"

Poor Nicholas Hoult. The young actor has the dis-privilege of starring in two of the year’s most underrated films.

First was the whimsical horror-romance “Warm Bodies,” which didn’t cause too much of a ruckus at the box office. And then came “Jack the Giant Slayer,” an action-heavy take on the classic beanstalk tale that bombed, despite lavish production values and a budget approaching $200 million.

It’s a shame, because “Jack” stands much taller as a piece of pure entertainment than similar movies like “Oz the Great and Powerful” or “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”

Hoult plays Jack, a humble farm boy whose life goes on a wild ride after the magic beanstalk carries the beautiful princess into the clouds. It seems the giants were banished there eons ago by the humans, and their two-headed king has half a mind to seek his heaven on earth.

Stanley Tucci, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McShane nicely fill out the cast as, respectively, the villain, the princess, the dashing knight and the gruff king.

But the real stars are the computer-generated giants – great, hairy burping beasts whose brutish manners and seeming lack of a feminine gender make their abode seem like the ultimate oversized frat house.

Director Bryan Singer, a veteran of the “X-Men” films, keeps the mood light and the action scenes coming at a furious pace. A great many men and animals get squished underfoot by the less-than-graceful giants, and the CGI captures the mayhem in all its glory.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” is a fun, goofy, giddy ride that never dares to take itself too seriously.

Unfortunately, the film’s lackluster performance in theaters may have contributed to a paucity of goodies for the video release. The DVD comes with a few deleted scenes and a gag reel. Upgrading to Blu-ray adds the “Become a Giant Slayer” interactive feature, and that’s it.

Too bad they didn’t go big for the video rollout.



Monday, June 17, 2013

Reeling Backward: The Metaphysics of "Toy Story," Part I

One aspect of movies that I am most demanding about is internal logic. Films often ask the audience to accept fantastical and impossible realities as valid. They accomplish this suspension of disbelief best when they create a set of rules that doesn't apply in the real world, and then adhere to them strictly within the universe they've created.

In other words, it's OK to deviate from reality, as long as you set up new and consistent standards of expectations, and then stay the course with this new "deck of cards," so to speak.

In my criticism, I am often harshest on movies that make new rules, and then continually break them for the convenience of the plot. For example, I had trouble getting fully invested in the "Harry Potter" flicks because it seemed there was always a new spell or magical item that happened to turn up right around the time the heroes needed it.

The problem with this method of storytelling (or lack of thereof) is that when there are no rules, the viewer comprehends that there is a total lack of consequences, too. It feels like the storytellers are just winging it, writing themselves into and out of corners on a whim.

To continue the deck of cards analogy, every card becomes wild and any kind of coherent game impossible.

The Pixar animated movies, on the other hand, or notable for generally being extraordinarily diligent in constructing and maintaining the internal logic of their stories. Take the "Cars" movies, for example.

They exist in a world where cars are not modes of transport but sentient beings. As such, they remove any allusion to the way humans would use a vehicle -- their doors never open, the front windshield becomes the car's eyes while all the other windows are grayed out, there are no references to cars being bought and sold as property, etc.

With this in mind, I thought I'd take a look at the metaphysics of the three "Toy Story" films. As the first feature film and cornerstone of the Pixar franchise, the 1995 film and its two sequels offer the best example of how the filmmakers (mostly) adhere to the rules they set forth for this world.

Apologies in advance if this seems overlong and indulgent. But as the father of a small boy who's had to sit through the "Toy Story" films multiple times, I've had the (ahem) opportunity to make these sort of observations and ponder them.

Since I'll be referencing multiple specific instances from all three movies, for the purposes of brevity I'll refer to the films simply as TS1, TS2 and TS3.

Altered reality

The first thing to note about the "Toy Story" world is that it is our world. Which is to say, the setting for the tale is just an animated version of the real one, with one significant fictional alteration: toys come to life when children are not playing with them.

This contrasts with other Pixar movies like "Cars" or "Wall·E" where everything is completely different (vehicles are the predominant species, Earth has been abandoned by humans). "Toy Story" takes place in present day, normal middle-class suburban America.

The notion of taking an everyday setting and putting a fantasy spin on it is hardly novel. This is especially true when it comes to giving human intelligence and qualities to creatures or objects that do not possess them, e.g. the insects in "A Bug's Life."

A common trait in these sorts of tales is that this altered reality is posited as being fact, but humans are just too dumb or misguided to have noticed. This is the set-up in all the "Toy Story" movies -- toys have always had secret lives; we just didn't know about them.

Another important aspect is that this separate existence of toys actually occurs -- it's not just the figment of the imagination of a precocious child, like in the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes."


Let's talk toy biology in the Pixar trilogy.

The toys share some human characteristics, but not others. For example, toys do sleep; there are several examples of them doing so in all three movies. They also dream while they sleep, such as Woody's nightmare about being abandoned by Andy in TS 2. Toys also get tired from overexertion, such as during the long trek to Al's Toy Barn in TS3.

It appears they they do  need to breathe -- or at least the anthropomorphic toys do. In TS1, Woody causes Buzz Lightyear to panic by retracting his helmet shield. In TS2, Buzz pulls this same trick on his duplicate to prove his identity to his friends. And in TS3, after the aging dog Buster lies down on Woody, he hurriedly pushes him away, catching his breath as if he were in danger of being smothered.

However, the toys do not need to consume food or water. At no point in the three movies are they demonstrated doing so. Their bodies do not grow or diminish -- indeed, apart from injury and decay, they do not change at all during their life cycle.

Speaking of injury: toys can feel pain, although this seems to be a reaction to the act of being injured rather than a biologically-encoded response. They are not incapacitated by the loss of limbs or other body parts. There are multiple examples of the toys experiencing pain; here is Woody's reaction to having his arms pulled by Jessie in TS2:

However, Woody continues to function after losing his arm, though he experiences no pain once it is separated from him, other than emotional stress. Indeed, toys can continue to function even after having their heads ripped off and their body parts exchanged with those from other toys, as demonstrated by the evil next-door neighbor Sid in TS1.

Some toys that are designed with interchangeable parts, notably Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, can freely remove their limbs, eyes, nose, etc. without pain. These pieces can even operate independently despite being separated from the main body. In TS3 Mr. Potato Head even removed all his body parts from the hollow plastic potato shell and attached them to a piece of pita bread, and was able to function more or less normally (until the pita was destroyed by a hungry pigeon). He later pulls the same trick with a cucumber.

This raises a question left largely unanswered by the Toy Story movies: For toys, where does the soul reside? For Mr. Potato Head, consciousness seems to exist as much in the mustache as the torso.

Although they do not eat or drink, some toys derive at least some of their functionality from batteries. Although I should note the films generally avoid the question of what happens to a battery-powered toy when its batteries are removed or lose power. Would Buzz fall over unconscious if his batteries were taken out?

This is supposition, but I think the answer is no. The toys' consciousness and life force seem to reside separately of an external power source. Cutting off their power would simply cause them to lose certain abilities as toys. For Buzz, that would mean his voice buttons and blinking lights.

The best evidence for this is the rocket scene near the end of TS1. Buzz and Woody are trying to catch up with the gang in the moving truck aboard RC, the radio-controlled car. But RC's batteries die out and they are left stranded until Woody comes up with the idea of using the rocket. Note that throughout this scene, the battery-depleted RC is still conscious:


Different toys, different rules

One thing that seems consistent in the Toy Story movies is the inconsistency of rules between different types of toys. This is based on the design and function of the toy itself, which can determine whether or not a toy is capable of speech and indeed if the toy even has consciousness or not.

A number of toys are shown in the movie as not being "alive" -- roller skates, walkie-talkie, etc. The most basic rule here is that if the toy is anthropomorphized in any way (has eyes or other recognizable human features), then it will be sentient. See for example how RC the car is alive, but Barbie's Corvette is simply a motorized car.

But this law is not hard and fast. For instance, Etch from TS1 and TS2 does not have any kind of anthropomorphic features, and yet he has consciousness and can communicate non-verbally through his screen.

In terms of talking or not, this is again determined by the design of the toy. RC and Etch cannot talk because they do not have discernible mouths. The Chatter Phone in TS3 can talk, but only through his handset receiver (despite having a painted-on mouth).

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, when I'll discuss more Toy Story metaphysics, including their approach to religion, politics, love and life and death.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: "Man of Steel"

A grand, and grandly disappointing venture, "Man of Steel" reaches for the sun in trying to reset the Superman franchise, then plummets to earth in a storm of hyperactive CGI action sequences and overstuffed plotting.

It begins with hope and even a touch of awe, a story of fathers and sons, less about a man who can lift buildings than a wayward soul seeking to find a home on an alien world. But then the bad guy arrives, even before the main character has had a chance to establish himself, and the movie is overtaken by standard villainous sneering and apocalyptic dooms.

This film, directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer, has a couple of main problems. The most obvious is that it's two movies worth of material shoehorned into one. And this leads directly to the other:
Superman never really gets to be Superman.

Oh, Henry Cavill does eventually don the familiar blue-and-red costume -- though, like everything else from the dead planet Krypton in the movie, it's reimagined with a hard-edged militaristic texture, less apparel than armor. The British actor has a quietly commanding presence onscreen; he believably personifies a demigod.

(Though his lean, almost emaciated face seems incongruously perched atop the mountain of muscles he packed onto his torso for this role.)

No, what I mean is that Clark Kent, aka Kal-El of Krypton, spends the first half of the movie trying to find out who he is, and the second half trading epic haymakers with his enemies -- laying waste to half of Metropolis in the process. There's a missing second act where Superman reveals himself to the world, earns their trust, and is embraced as humanity's champion.

Indeed, some of the film's most powerful scenes involve Clark receiving tutelage from his two fathers -- Jonathan Kent (a strong Kevin Costner), the Kansas farmer who found his crashed spaceship and raised him up, and Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the enlightened Krypton scientist who dispatched him as a babe to Earth to be mankind's savior.

(Underlining the notion of Kal-El-as-Christ, in this version of the Superman mythology he doesn't declare his extraordinary abilities until the age of 33, the same as a certain other celestial pilgrim.)

There's a push and pull between the two men's teachings: Jor-El (who communicates through a holographic representation of his consciousness) daring his natural-born son to embrace his potential for greatness, constantly testing his limits, while Kent urges caution and forbearance, forcing his adopted child to absorb the pain of being an outcast rather than inflicting society with a knowledge they're not ready to bear.

Really, this is all the film needs in terms of narrative to take flight, and for awhile at least, it soars.

Things are complicated by the infiltration of a nosy journalist, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who comes asking questions about a mystery man who turns up here and there, performing amazing acts before disappearing. Clark and Lois form the beginnings of an important friendship, and we expect her to be the vehicle through which he emerges to the public.

But then General Zod arrives, and the quiet power the movie has built up is blasted away by a cacophony of explosions and destruction -- not to mention Hans Zimmer's bombastic musical score.

A usurper imprisoned by the Krypton leadership for an attempted coup, Zod sees himself as the true redeemer of his people, with dreams of establishing a new generation on this planet. (Of course, the existing species must go.)

Zod has about a dozen followers, each of whom replicates Superman's powers in Earth's atmosphere, or nearly so. And he's got an obligatory end-of-the-world plan ... actually, two: terraform the planet into a copy of Krypton, and some screwy twaddle about extracting the entire genetic plans for their race from Kal-El's cells.

Michael Shannon is terrific as Zod, a combination of arrogance and perseverance that allows him to justify unspeakable cruelty. And their fight scenes have a certain kinetic urgency, sometimes overindulged by Snyder, as their bodies slam through buildings like flotsam spun out of a tornado.

But this doesn't change the fact that Zod belongs in a separate movie, where his malevolence can sprawl and take root. Here, he shows up and immediately sets about his destructive plans, like a Cliff's Notes version of a cinematic scoundrel.

Superman may be capable of many astounding feats. But one thing he can't do is turn two films worth of storytelling into a single good one.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: "This Is the End"

What could have been a terribly tiresome joke turns out to be an extravagantly funny one. Young(ish) Hollywood stars playing themselves convene for a wild party at James Franco's house, which gets broken up by ... the Apocalypse.

Yeah, really: brimstone, demons, the whole bit. Needless to say, they aren't among those who ascend into heaven during The Rapture, which leaves these entitled stars feeling rather miffed. Things grow progressively worse, the food and water run low and they start turning on each other, with merrily over-the-top results.

I think what makes it a giddy romp instead of a giant sandwich of self-indulgence is that the versions of themselves played by the comedy stars are thoroughly unlikable and selfish. Each seems to be doing an amalgam of their various film roles, with all the negative characteristics played up.

It goes so far that they crack on each other for bad role choices or movies that underwhelmed. Seth Rogen, who co-directed and co-wrote the film with Evan Goldberg, gets a lot of abuse for the mush-brained "The Green Hornet" ... for which, of course, Rogen and Goldberg did the screenplay.

The bare-bones setup is that Seth is hosting his old friend Jay Baruchel in L.A. for a few days. Jay is estranged from Seth's new buddies, including Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson. He gets strong-armed into attending a shindig at Franco's swank new Hollywood pad, it gets kinda awkward -- until death rains from the sky and holes open up in the earth.

Most of the guests and other celebrities get killed off rather quickly, including Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Paul Rudd and Jason Segal. Michael Cera, playing an arrogant coked-up version of himself, meets an especially messy end.

The survivors spend the next days and weeks holed up in Franco's house (which somehow manages to retain electricity even as the rest of town is fried into a smoking cinder).

The humor is really, really raunchy, with a bend toward the scatological. The running thread is that the entire bunch is ruled by narcissism, even when it seems like they're playing buddy-buddy.

Jay is the lone voice of reason, suggesting they repent their sins and hope for salvation. But it's a hard sell with this bunch. Their facility with religious faith extends only as far as Franco comparing the Holy Trinity to Neapolitan ice cream.

Emma Watson has a wicked turn playing herself, who busts into the boys' house with an axe and can't wait to bust out again.

"This Is the End" is essentially a one-joke movie, but it's one these young show biz funnymen gleefully -- and skillfully -- play on themselves.

Video review: "House of Cards"

The line between film and television -– or, at least, the one between movies and cable TV -- continues to dissipate. Cable channels like HBO are creating their own shows with budgets and production values equal to anything seen in your local cinema. Now other entities are getting into the game.

Consider “House of Cards,” an original series produced by Netflix. An ambitious political drama with a $100 million budget, it stars Kevin Spacey as a deeply amoral member of Congress deviously working the levers of power to his own end.

Rather than making the audience wait week by week to catch each new show, Netflix made the show’s entire 13-episode first season available for online streaming in one fell swoop this spring. (A second season is planned.) Those inclined could gorge themselves on the whole run in a single sitting.

“Cards” is essentially a showcase for Spacey (who is also an executive producer) at his reptilian best. As House Minority Whip Francis Underwood, Spacey is alternatingly silky smooth and slimy, charming his enemies and dominating his underlings and allies like a benevolent dictator as a climbs the ladder toward the White House.

“House of Cards” can best be seen as a sort of darkling twin to “The West Wing,” depicting a venal Washington D.C. that’s probably closer to reality than our idealized imagination. Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Michael Kelly and Corey Stoll also shine as supporting characters caught in Underwood’s web.

Now that the show is being released on video, however, it raises interesting questions about the shifting relationship between film, television and home video.

Why, exactly, would anyone shell out to buy “House of Cards” on DVD or Blu-ray (suggested retail price of $55.99 and $65.99, respectively) when the show is available to be seen with an $8 monthly streaming Netflix membership? Especially when, other than some special collectible packaging, it’s coming out without any video extras?

Those familiar with Netflix’s streaming library of movies and TV shows know that what’s available today might not be tomorrow. So it’s possible “House of Cards” might go away from streaming Netflix at some point.

And no matter how fast your Internet connection, the quality of DVD/Blu-ray will not be matched by streaming video anytime soon.



Monday, June 10, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Malta Story" (1953)

We don't think about it much now because he became so iconic for his roles in David Lean epics and "Star Wars," but Alec Guinness was quite the odd duck for a movie star. "Malta Story" features him at perhaps his duckiest.

He was nobody's idea of a classically handsome, jaw-jutting leading man. Guinness had a thin face with protruding eyes that often appeared shifty, as if he was unwilling to look at people straight on. He held his small, tight mouth in a querulous state of flux, the corners slyly upturned as if he was protecting a private joke.

Guinness could seem both peevish and bemused at the same time, so it's not surprising that for the early stretch of his career he was best known for comedy.

Nonetheless, in 1951 British movie theater exhibitors voted Guinness the top male star of the year. And he would soon begin to rack up an impressive array of dramatic roles, culminating in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which won him a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar.

"Malta Story" tells the story of the Siege of Malta, a little-known bit of World War II history (at least in America) through the eyes of a British reconnaissance pilot, Peter Ross. On his way to being stationed in Cairo to help scout out Rommel's desert forces, he's trapped on the island when his transport plane is bombed on a layover, and soon is conscripted into the local British forces, who are hungry for able pilots.

People with even a passing knowledge of geography know Sicily as the large land mass off of Italy -- the misshapen "ball" getting the "boot" from the mainland. Malta is a tiny crumb of land further along the same trajectory, known mainly on this side of the pond for its cinematic association with a certain fictional falcon.

But in the Mediterranean theater of war prior to the arrival of the Americans, Malta was a small but pivotal linchpin in the Allied plans. Sitting more or less in the middle of the sea, it provided a perfect location from which the British could stage naval and aerial attacks against the German convoys carrying troops and equipment to Rommel.

The Germans, well aware of this, made every attempt to dislodge them. The native Maltese suffered terribly in the incessant bombing campaign and naval blockade, scrabbling for food by day and digging the dead out of the rubble at night.

When Ross arrives, the Air Commodore (the redoubtable Jack Hawkins) is at wits' end. They barely have enough aircraft to carry out defensive patrols, and not enough petrol from them to linger for very long. So when he gets his hands on an experienced reconnaissance pilot, he soon puts him to good use.

Ross' daring missions, following his instincts instead of the letter of his orders, lead to a mild rebuke that soon gives way to high praise for the valuable intelligence they bring in.

The British forces suffer multiple setbacks -- at one point they finally receive a flight of new Spitfire fighter planes, nearly half of which are immediately destroyed in a German raid. But gradually, achingly, they manage to make up ground, and eventually take the fight to the Axis.

Director Brian Desmond Hurst and screenwriter Nigel Balchin throw in a romance between Ross and a local girl named Maria (Muriel Pavlow) who works in the RAF headquarters. It's a pretty standard mid-century screen affair, with the only trouble coming in the form of Maria's traditionalist mother (Flora Robson). Later her heart is broken when it's revealed her son has been spying for the Italians.

The movie's biggest problem is the focus swings back and forth between the war campaign, the romance and the family intrigue, and without much rhyme or reason. The Hawkins character more or less takes over the second half of the movie, and as a reconnaissance pilot Ross doesn't have any role to play in the actual fighting. If it weren't for the insipid love affair, there wouldn't be any reason for the Ross character to hang around at all.

Speaking of the battle scenes, they're a combination of stock footage, models and recreations using actual aircraft and ships. The mix is generally pretty good, though the model planes are easy to spot.

Director Hurst initially didn't want to cast Guinness, who he pegged as not a leading man type. But the actor was persistent. "I am tired of playing funny little men," Guinness said, according to the director's website.

Apparently, the cinematic world agreed. Although "Malta Story" wasn't the film to do it, Alec Guinness would soon be known for much more than being silly.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review: "The Purge"

"The Purge" is a pretty dumb movie, but it goes about its business in a fashion that is not without intelligence and skill. It starts out with an allegorical premise, about a dystopian America where people are legally allowed to kill each other one night a year. But then it dives into familiar action/horror movie tropes while the audience spends the last half yelling at the people onscreen not to behave like total ijits.

Personally, I think writer/director James DeMonaco should've taken a more intellectual and dramatic approach, something like "Gattaca," which also happened to star Ethan Hawke (a frequent collaborator of DeMonaco's). This movie instead opts for boo-gotcha scares and fist-pumping takedowns of bad guys -- but at least it embraces this dumbed-down role instead of trying for a wishy-washy hybrid.

It's the year 2022, and the U.S. has been taken over by a political leadership that calls itself the New Founding Fathers. Their ethos is very heavy on religiosity, but it's more of an Old Testament version with lots of smiting and wrathful vengeance.

One night a year for 12 hours, all laws and public protection are suspended, and people are free to kill, maim and otherwise inflict their pent-up savagery on each other, without consequence. The idea is that while they talk a lot about God, the populace also recognizes its inner demons. Instead of confession, they let their sins out for one wanton night of orgiastic purging.

Most people barricade themselves in their homes and watch the action on television. James Sandin (Hawke) understands this, and makes a very nice living selling high-end security systems to wealthy types like himself. Wife Mary (Lena Headey) is also onboard, though their children are uncomfortable with the reasoning behind the mayhem.

Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is a pouty teen made poutier by the fact her dad disapproves of her older boyfriend (Tony Oller). Charlie (Max Burkholder) is morose and brainy, building a roving surveillance robot out of old toys that will come in handy later.

The Sandins are settling in for a comfortable night behind the protection of their steel-shielded doors when a homeless African-American man (Edwin Hodge) comes begging for mercy from the band of purgers chasing him. Soft-hearted Charlie shuts down the security and lets him in, and a brooding standoff ensues with his pursuers.

The purge crew is not the usual movie collection of illiterate rednecks, but well-heeled prep school types who see chasing down the dregs of society as not just their right, but a civic duty. They wear sinister Guy Fawkes masks, except for their charismatic leader (an excellent Rhys Wakefield), whose patriotic/pious fervor burns luridly brighter.

There are a lot of potential intriguing jumping-off points here, from the rich-vs.-poor underbelly of the purge system to the racial overtones that remain largely unspoken -- and I mean that literally; the black guy seeking sanctuary utters a total of about a dozen words.

But DeMonaco elbows these notions aside in favor of obvious but effective scare tactics. "The Purge" has an eerie claustrophobic feel, underlined by the director's tendency to keep his camera right up in people's faces. I lost count of the number of times somebody was about to die, their would-be killer leering over them with a gun or blade, and at the last second something intervenes.

There's a better movie to be made using this concept, but the one they did make isn't awful.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review: "The Kings of Summer"

A redolent back-to-nature manifesto mixed with an ironic teen romp, “The Kings of Summer” is a quirky, enjoyable rite-of-passage indie.

The characters are smarter and more perceptive than one usually sees in this sort of movie, which comes from a pair of feature film rookies: director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta. I see a bright future for both, based on their work here.

Joe and Patrick are lifelong best buddies who are annoyed to the extreme by their home life. So they decide to spend their summer before sophomore year as runaways – they build a ramshackle house in the woods and live there, becoming one with nature and growing into men at the same time.

Joe is played by Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso plays Patrick. Both offer naturalistic, smart performances that resemble real teenagers, not the usual too-cool types who sound like every word out of their mouths has been penned for them.

Joe is the more outspoken of the two, who hatches the idea to live as wood kings. His mother died a few years ago and his sister (Alison Brie) is already past college and moving into a settled relationship. That leaves Joe to contend with his obnoxious father, Frank, played in full grouch mode by Nick Offerman.

Frank is the sort of guy whose acerbic sense of humor was probably once quite engaging, but it’s taken on a bitter, antagonistic flavor. Frank is deeply unhappy, and he’s doing a great job of making everyone around him the same.

“Look at it this way, in a few years he’s going to pay for you to leave,” Joe’s sister offers as consolation.
Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are nicer – too nice. They hover and fret like honeybees over a favored flower, which is so showered with attention it withers away. Patrick agrees to Joe’s plan not so much because he wants to live in the forest, but because anywhere else beats under their roof.

They construct a serviceable abode from spare parts – their front door is from a Port-a-Potty – and set up shop. Somewhere along the way they acquire a sidekick/mascot/hanger-on named Biaggio (Moises Arias), the strange runty kid from their class who speaks in odd declarative non-sequiturs. At first they worry about him killing them in their sleep, but before long Biaggio has become part of the troupe.

The trio of boy-men grow wispy beard-wannabes, bathe in the river and lackadaisically hunt animals with swords (for some reason, they have swords). Though when their food procuring efforts run dry, there’s a Boston Market a short hike away.

Things go alright for a while, with Frank and Patrick’s parents worked into a tizzy that would probably delight them if they were around to see it. But eventually the outside world must intrude, in the form of Kelly (a plucky Erin Moriarty), the girl who Joe is sweet on. She comes for a secret visit that spurs unforeseen complications.

The photography (by Ross Riege) is fantastic, and the by-play of dialogue is clever and biting. “The Kings of Summer” rides off the rails a little bit around two-thirds of the way through, as the story gets sidetracked into romantic turbulence that feels contrived. But like a gifted youth learning a new craft, the filmmakers right the ship and end their adventure on the right note.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Video review: "Warm Bodies"

A quirky modern take on the Romeo and Juliet tale, “Warm Bodies” is about a zombie boy who falls for a human girl. What’s surprising about the film is the way it blends a pleasing mixture of comedy, romance and horror in a way that’s quite unexpected.
Writer/director Jonathan Levine never goes for the obvious choice, preferring to let the story play out organically. So if you’re expecting a goofy laughfest or a blood-spattering action film, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Nicholas Hoult plays a (formerly) teenage zombie living the un-life after a mysterious apocalypse has left most of the planet undead. He retains most of his mental capacities, though he has trouble remembering his human existence – he refers to himself as “R,” which is all he can remember of his real name. Munching on human brains eases the pain for awhile.

After encountering some humans, he kidnaps Julie (Teresa Palmer) and takes her back to his place, which turns out to be an old airline plane. They bond over music and stuff, and slowly R regains his ability to speak. She eventually comes to realize he sees her as more than an afternoon snack.

Needless to say, their romance doesn’t go over very well with their own people. Julie’s dad (John Malkovich) is the militaristic head of the survivor colony, and isn’t too keen on her having a “corpse” boyfriend.

R’s best zombie buddy, M (Rob Corddry), is willing to shrug it off. But the “bonies,” the nasty fleshless creatures who are at the top of the zombie hierarchy, see the coupling as a threat.

“Warm Bodies” plays around with the conventions of the zombie genre, and turns a premise that could’ve been silly or gross into something droll and even poignant. It’s one of the year’s freshest cinematic surprises.

The video comes nicely stocked with extras for both the DVD and Blu-ray versions. There is a gag real, deleted scenes and an audio commentary track by Levine, Hoult and Palmer. (These commentaries are always so much better with a combination of cast and crew.)

There are also nine making-of featurettes touching on various aspects of production, including the extensive makeup transformation of Hoult, plus the aptly-titled “Zombie Acting Tips with Rob Corddry.”



Monday, June 3, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Captain Fury" (1939)

The story of "the Australian Robin Hood" is one not well known to American audiences, though the 1939 film starring Brian Aherne, "Captain Fury," in many follows the mold of the incredibly successful "The Adventures of Robin Hood" from a year earlier.

A merry band of outlaws set about rescuing the lives and livelihood of the working people from the cruel machinations of the local overlord. There's loads of derring-do, bucklers that are copiously swashed, pretty girls in need of kissing and a final showdown where the villain gets his well-earned comeuppance.

Despite all the action there's a sense of  invulnerability of the characters, though one token supporting player gets to die a heroic death. The outlaws, led by Irish insurgent Captain Michael Fury, repeatedly capture the evil henchmen and then let them go, repeating the cycle over and over again.

Personally, after I'd foiled the same bad guys a few times, I'd be looking for a more permanent solution.

The film was directed by Hollywood legend Hal Roach. whose IMDb profile lists 156 films directed and 1,202 producing credits. He was one of the few directors to establish himself in the silent era and then successfully transition to sound pictures. Grover Jones, Jack Jevne and William C. de Mille (Cecil's older brother) provided the somewhat clunky original script.

It's a generally great-looking film, with lots of loving shots of the Australian countryside ... well, the California countryside standing in for Down Under, anyway. The costumes, weapons and sets all have an authentic feel to them, and the film got an Oscar nomination for Art Direction.

It's such a rousing good time, though, that "Captain Fury" ends up seeming weightless. Since the only good guy who dies is Coughy, a tuberculosis-condemned sidekick played by John Carradine whose first spoken lines are that he only has a few months to live, it feels as if the story takes place in a consequence-free zone.

It is notable that Coughy -- who, I should point out, never actually coughs -- is the one who ends up killing corrupt landlord Arnold Trist, malevolently played by George Zucco. In 1800s Australia when it was still just a lawless British colony, Trist wants to keep all the land for himself and push out the peaceful settlers who have taken up in the valley.

With only an ineffectual governor to rule the entire land, it's up to Fury and other convicted criminals to rally the cause. Fury was a famous rebel sent to Australia to serve out his time in indentured servitude, a fate he seems perfectly willing to accept until Trist wants to whip him for insubordination.

He escapes, meets up with the leader of the settlers, François Dupré (Paul Lukas), a stern Mennonite with a a lovely, spirited daughter named Jeanette (June Lang). The handsome Fury and the winsome Jeanette are soon an item, much to the consternation of papa, who later even goes so far as to betray Fury to Trist.

The meatiest part by far goes to Victor McLaglen as Blackie. As head man among the convicts, the gregarious strongman tussles with Fury and gives him a thrashing. But it's enough to endear one red-blooded Irishman to another, and after Fury breaks him out Blackie agrees to become his right-hand man.

A running joke is that Blackie is a born thief who thinks they should be keeping all the loot they liberate from Trist's men for themselves, while Fury insists they return it to the settlers. McLaglen is a fun presence, part taskmaster and part comic relief, and he provides "Captain Fury" with its juiciest scenes.

I'm glad I saw "Captain Fury," though I can't say as I thought that much of it. It's not a seminal film, but rather a fairly obvious knockoff of another successful picture -- something Hollywood was quite adept at during the Golden era.