Monday, September 30, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Conan the Destroyer" (1984)

A war was fought long ago between "high" and "low" fantasy, and it's an easy guess which one was laid low. Much of early fantasy writing and movies was of the "pulp" or low variety, while most everything we've seen over the last half-century -- from "The Lord of the Rings" to "Game of Thrones" -- is high fantasy.

Simply put, high fantasy involves macro events, while low fantasy is about micro events. High fantasy is kings and queens, nobility and great heroes, undertaking tasks of world-changing import. Low fantasy is more akin to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, where everyday adventurers seek glory and power for their own sake.

Robert E. Howard's Conan books were the definition of pulp fiction, published mostly in low-rent magazines or cheap paperbacks. His protagonist was a brawling barbarian who used his sword and brawn to seek treasure and fame. Eventually he would claim his own kingdom and trod somewhat into high fantasy territory -- something each of the three movie versions of Conan have noted as a bookend.

"Conan the Destroyer" was the ill-conceived follow-up to the highly successful "Conan the Barbarian," Arnold Schwarzenegger's breakout role. (The horrible 2011 remake starring Jason Momoa does not fit into the same continuum.) Both of the first movies depict Conan as essentially a self-serving mercenary, who only gets sucked into cataclysmic events through happenstance.

I like the idea of "Destroyer" more than the movie they actually made. It plays out like a deliberately more family-friendly version of the author's mythos -- Conan Lite. Howard's barbarian was unrepentantly bloodthirsty and lustful, something the first film did a decent job of depicting.

For some reason, the De Laurentiis family of producers decided the first movie was too violent, and wanted a milder version in hopes they could sell more tickets to teenagers. The script contained more comedy and less sex and fighting than "Barbarian," but when even that received an R rating from the MPAA, the movie was recut to get a PG -- barely sneaking in just a few days before the new PG-13 rating went into effect.

The stunt casting of non-actors Wilt Chamberlain (ex-NBA player) and Grace Jones (singer/model) pays some dividends, though it's easy to see why Jones' Hollywood career would continue a little further while Wilt's did not. The Stilt was as wooden as his nickname.

The physical contrast between the bodies of athletes Chamberlain and Schwarzenegger is pretty startling onscreen. Chamberlain, at 7-foot-1 and 275 pounds, was considered an overpowering behemoth during his playing days. But in a couple of shirtless scenes the NBA legend, who was then nearly 50, looks positively spindly next to the bodybuilder (who has admitted to being augmented by steroids).

Director Richard Fleischer does yeoman's work, and most of the fight scenes have a kinetic propulsion to them -- though he clearly does not have a taste for the testosterone-steeped material like John Milius did.

The setup is that Conan gets recruited by evil queen Tamaris (Sarah Douglas) to retrieve a magic horn so they can revive the stony form of their sleeping god, Dagoth. Her niece Jehnna (Olivia d'Abo), a pure virgin, is sent along as the only one who can touch the horn. Captain of the Guard Bombaata (Chamberlain) is dispatched to protect Jehnna from attackers, and from being deflowered by Conan.

(Given this and the skimpy outfits the princess wears, it's a little disconcerting when you consider that d'Abo was only 14 when the film was made.)

Along the way Conan recruits some companions, both old and new. Malak, a wise-cracking cowardly thief played by Tracey Walter, was his partner in various robberies and becomes his reluctant tag-along. I remember him clearly for his spiky hairdo, sheepish speech and favorite attack method of plunging two daggers into the kidneys of his victims from behind -- perhaps the only cinematic depiction of the classic RPG trope, the backstab.

Mako returns from the first movie as Conan's pet wizard/chronicler Akiro, whom Conan rescues from some cannibals who want to make a feast of him. Notably, sorcery in this world consists mostly of a bunch of deep-throated mutterings and telekinetic tricks -- opening doors and lighting torches, etc. Fireballs and lightning bolts? Fuhgeddaboudit.

And there's Zula, the frantic she-barbarian played by Jones -- wearing one of those ass-baring leather outfits with a cheeky cleft-concealing tail, which seemed to be popular in cinematic depictions of crazed marauders during this period (see Wez from "The Road Warrior"). She gets rescued by Conan and becomes his acolyte, wielding her wooden staff to great effect. Apparently, Jones was so enthusiastic in depicting Zula's raging fighting style that she seriously injured some stuntmen during production.

The story plays out as essentially one long chase scene -- first to retrieve a jewel from a wizard in an ice castle in the middle of a lake, then to another catacomb so they can use the jewel to open a dragon statue's mouth to find the horn. The horn is guarded by yet another wizard, who in a bit of casting sloppiness bears a great deal of resemblance to the queen's grand vizier, which leads you to believe they're one in the same.

One quibble -- other than the fact that the only thing wizards seem to do in this movie is hang around places guarding magical items -- is that the lake sorcerer is named Thoth-Amon. Although most of Stanley Mann's screenplay was his own concoction based on Howard's myriad writings, that moniker explicitly belongs to Conan's greatest nemesis, with whom he has an ongoing conflict through several of the later books.

Having him used as a quickie one-off opponent whom Conan quickly kills feels cheap and hasty. Imagine Professor Moriarty being just one of a number of thugs Sherlock Holmes dispatches in the course of a single case.

Schwarzenegger is once again terrific in the role of Conan, physically embodying the brute while giving him a stoic sort of grace. After a brief foray with "Red Sonja," he would leave behind the sword-and-sorcery genre in favor of guns and androids. Hollywood tried for years to put together another Conan movie for him, but his entry into politics effectively ended that, leading to the Momoa debacle.

I've said to anyone who will listen that I would love to see Schwarzenegger in another Conan flick. You might think his age (66) is an impediment, but Howard's books actually took the character out to age 70 -- and left his ultimate demise a mystery. With his term in the California governor's mansion ended, word has circulated that a new production is in the works, to be titled "Conan the Conqueror."

Hopefully if this does get made, they'll go back to the blood-soaked low fantasy roots of the original film and avoid the toned-down limpness of "Conan the Destroyer."

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: "Rush"

Really good racing movies are quite rare. They tend to slalom between being too obsessed with the on-track action ("Le Mans") or serving as vehicles for the star persona of the actors appearing in them ("Days of Thunder").

Ron Howard's "Rush" hits the sweet groove down the middle of the lane, coming up with a compelling story based on the real-life rivalry between 1970s Formula 1 superstars James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). It's less a straight racing flick than a character portrait of two very different men who clashed violently in their contrasting approaches to pursuing the same goal. Brühl gives an Oscar-caliber performance as the driven, distant purist who relates better to machines than people.

But Howard and his crew hardly give the racing sequences short shrift. Mixing recreations of existing footage with special effects and camera work in and around the cars, they've created a high-velocity thrill ride that gives the audience a sense of the, well, rush of driving a 500-horsepower metal beast. The sound work is especially good, the engines sounding like the biggest, angriest buzzing bee in the world zooming in and around your head.

Hunt and Lauda were as different as two men can be. Hunt was a British playboy, a natural talent and thrill-seeker whose aggressive moves on the track make him a dangerous but formidable opponent. He beds women prodigiously, boozes and smokes, and is quick as lightning behind the wheel.

Lauda was an Austrian (but dismissed as a "Kraut" by Hunt and his fellows) from a family of businessmen, who approached world-class racing with methodical precision. He knows every piece of his car better than the mechanics who built it, and can tell what's wrong with how it drives just through the vibrations it sends through his body. (My mind is pretty good, he says, but I was born with a great ass -- which is as close to a joke as Lauda gets.)

There's one telling scene where Lauda, stranded with his would-be girlfriend on a lonely road, is picked up by some racing fans who beg him to drive their car for him. This he does, but the women scolds him for driving "like a grandfather." Lauda is genuinely perplexed: Why would he risk an accident when he's not being paid for it? He can handle risk at his job, but if he found something less risky that paid better, he says he'd do that instead -- and we believe him.

The movie quickly -- and wisely -- skips over their rise from the lower tiers of racing to their campaign in the big leagues. Their 1976 contest for the Formula 1 championship is still the stuff of legends, with Lauda driving for the Ferrari team and Hunt his match in a McLaren car. They traded victories and taunts with equal relish.

I'm not giving anything away by revealing that toward the end of the season Lauda had a horrific crash (which has always been suspected to be caused by a failure in his suspension, something Howard explicitly points to as the reason). This was at a time when Formula 1 had a handful of drivers die every year. Lauda spent more than a minute trapped in his car roasting in 800 degree flames, suffering severe burns to his face after his helmet slipped off.

Howard depicts the crash and its aftermath with a stark,  unblinking eye. Perhaps the most teeth-grating thing to watch is Lauda having to repeatedly have his lungs "vacuumed" of debris from the fire. Of course, he watches Hunt racing and winning on an omnipresent television, closing the gap on his points lead while he endures the pain.

The apex of the story would be dismissed as the fantasies of a Hollywood screenwriter if it hadn't actually happened. Just six weeks after his crash, the skin grafts on his face still raw and bloody, Lauda climbed back into a racing car to continue his struggle against Hunt. The eventual winner would take the championship by a single point.

The once-bitter enemies find themselves growing a strange sort of respect for each other, which surprises even them. The dashing Hunt had often mocked the uncomely Lauda for his rat-like appearance, and even jokes that he was the only man who could have his face burnt off and it be an improvement. Yet when a journalist pesters Lauda with invasive questions about how his appearance will affect his marriage, it's Hunt who rallies to his defense.

The film starts with Hunt the clear center of attention, but in the end it becomes Lauda's tale to tell. Here is a man so closed off from others that he complains to his new bride on their honeymoon that having something to lose will weaken him as a driver. Yet in his competition with Hunt he found his own best self, leading him to unexpected but fully satisfying choices.

"Hunt was one of the few I liked, and fewer still that I respected," Lauda narrates. "He remains the only person I ever envied."

I have a feeling anyone with dreams of making a film about racing will say something similar about "Rush."

Review: "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2"

I didn't much care for the first "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," and the sequel is no improvement. The characters are flat, the story is unimaginative, and the humor is aimed straight at the pre-kindergarten crowd. If it weren't for the terrific animation and amazing creature designs, it would have nothing to recommend.

For those who don't remember the last flick: never-do-well inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) invented a machine that could spontaneously produce food out of water. Of course, it went berserk and began raining down house-sized cheeseburgers and pizza on his island home town. Flint and a crew of unlikely pals eventually shut it down.

The sequel picks up right where we left off, with the folks celebrating even as their dwellings are uninhabitable. Cue the arrival of Chester V (Will Forte), Flint's childhood hero, a scientist who creates all sorts of neat stuff while exuding a sense of superior cool. He's the best thing about the movie, with his weird body that has the rubbery quality of a yoga master and the studied mannerisms of Steve Jobs.

Chester's company, LIVE Corp., is a not-at-all disguised spoof of Apple. They offer to relocate the people of the town while things are tidied up. Meanwhile, Flint is enticed with a job offer, including the potential to join the ranks of the Thinkonauts -- Chester's geek elite.

But, wouldn't you know, it turns out Flint's food machine is still cranking out exotic eats, so he's recruited to go back and set things right.

Joining him out a sense of camaraderie are meteorologist/girlfriend Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), grumpy beetle-browed dad (James Caan), bully-turned-doofus-sidekick Brent (Andy Samberg), doctor/videographer Manny (Benjamin Bratt), police officer/acrobat Earl (Terry Crews) and Steve (Neil Patrick Harris), Flint's monkey assistant. New to the crew is Barb (Kristen Schaal), Chester's pushy orangutan assistant.

Things get interesting when they arrive on the island, where it turns out the food is not only still getting cranked out, it's actually taken on sentient animal form. So Flint and friends are chased by a cheeseburger spider (much scarier than it sounds) and buddy up with a walking, talking strawberry.

I just loved the huge menagerie of critters the filmmakers came up with -- it's a real feast for the eyes. There are hippos that resemble potatoes, leek brontosaurus, a taco tyrannosaur, "shrimpanzees," and a whole lot more.

I just wish co-directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn, and screenwriters John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein and Erica Rivinoja, could've come up with a story and characters to match the excellent visuals. The people struggle to qualify as one-dimensional, since they each have exactly one defining characteristic.

As for the 3-D, I would advise you to skip the upcharge -- the special effects really aren't special enough that you need to see them splayed out across your field of vision.

My almost-3-year-old seemed reasonably engaged throughout the movie, but rarely laughed out loud or started chattering or clapping excitedly. "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" is competent, nice-looking entertainment for little ones that will soon be forgotten, and deserves to be.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: "Enough Said"

Love is rarely like it is in the movies, except for “Enough Said,” an observant new comedy-drama from writer/director Nicole Holofcener. It stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini as middle-aged divorced parents who enter into a tentative little romantic dance. Their relationship is both awkward and magical, and very authentically adult in its ups-and-downs, and side-to-sides.

No incongruous meet-cute, no breathless protestations of affection or other tropes of cinematic romance. Just a funny, faithful look at the real ways in which older, damaged people struggle with being single.

Holofcener has made a career exploring the inner lives of women, while navigating between hefty topics like the way women are afflicted by insecurity (“Lovely & Amazing”) and economic envy/superiority (“Friends with Money,” “Please Give”). I’ve always enjoyed the fact that her female characters are full-blooded and complicated, and her films deal with all their relationships – friends, parents, co-workers – rather than being obsessed with just the romantic ones.

Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a massage therapist with a precocious daughter who’s about to go off to college, which is freaking out the parent way more than the child. While at a dinner party she’s introduced to Albert (Gandolfini), an acerbic-but-warm guy. They hardly hit it off, each joking there’s no one at the party they’re attracted to, but nonetheless they go out on a first date that goes well enough.

Albert isn’t really Eva’s idea of a hottie – bald, a step past paunchy, grizzled and gray. The fact that Eva gives him a chance says something about Eva, and the fact Holofcener would cast the late Gandolfini as a romantic lead says something about her. Eva is willing to embrace a man who is a far throw from her ideal, which is a tacit recognition of her own imperfections.

Their courtship is a portrait of defensiveness that gradually gives way to a deepening bond. Too old to be coy, more wary than hopeful, they slowly let their guards done enough to fall in love.

Then Holofcener throws us a clever twist. The same night she met Albert, she also picked up a new client: Marianne (Catherine Keener), a successful poet. After a few massages they start to bond as friends, talking about their children, dating and divorces. Marianne repeatedly dumps on her ex-husband as an unambitious loser who’s too fat, and lousy in bed to boot.

Then Eva realizes that Albert is Marianne’s ex-husband. So this awful guy she’s been hearing about is actually her new boyfriend.

This sets off a strange love/hate triangle. Eva adores Marianne and Albert, but the fact they despise each other ends up poisoning the way she treats her new boyfriend. She starts making little quips about his undisciplined eating habits and inability to whisper. “Why do I feel like I just spent the evening with my ex-wife?” Albert asks after one acrimonious night out.

Gandolfini, Keener and Louis-Dreyfus both give layered, terrific performances. Ditto for Toni Collette as Eva’s friend, a married woman vexed by her husband and her maid. I also adored the three young actresses playing the daughters and a best friend -- Tracey Fairaway, Eve Hewson and Tavi Gevinson.

Eventually things come to a head, but they don’t go down in a predictable, sitcom-y sort of way. Albert’s reaction in particular is notable for its understated, genuine feel.

“Enough Said” is a funny, sad and heart-warming experience – much like actual, messy family lives. It’s a great catch.

Review: "Don Jon"

“Don Jon” is the loutish inheritor to other cinematic lotharios who only have one thing on their mind -- Tony Manero from “Saturday Night Fever,” George Rondy in “Shampoo,” etc. Like them, writer/director/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is interested in seeing if his character has a redemptive side, which this charming comedy/drama sets about exploring.

I just backspaced to remove the word “romantic” from that last sentence, because if there’s anything Jon is not, it’s a starry-eyed wooer of women. Muscled up and hair greased back in an unmovable wave, his friends call him Don Jon because of his unwavering ability to pick up “dimes” -- their word for gorgeous women. (Ten out of 10, get it?) The exchange rate on these dimes is depressing, though, as Jon beds and drops them in short order.

His real ardor, though, is for porn. Jon’s encounters with online smut dwarf even his fleshly hook-ups. As we learn from his regular glib confessions to his priest, it’s not unusual for him to hit two dozen -- or more -- sins per week.

(Whatever else you want to say, the boy certainly has stamina.)

The movie really pushes the envelope in terms of sexual content and presenting a character who is, at least initially, so compellingly unlikeable. Jon even describes why he considers self-pleasuring to porn to be superior to sex with an actual woman. And he screams around town in his vintage Chevrolet Chevelle SS, hollering at other drivers like a madman -- often while on his way to church.

All that changes when Jon meets the ultimate dime: Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson. She and Gordon-Levitt have terrific fire as an onscreen couple. Decked out in slightly trashy clothes and makeup, slinging around a grating Jersey boy accent that matches Jon’s, Barbara is the perfect yin to his superficial yang. The fact that she puts him off sexually only drives him crazier for her.

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Jon tells her, and he really means it. At first it’s an overpoweringly romantic moment. But each time he repeats the phrase, which is often, it sounds less dreamy and more like a pickup line. It becomes even cheaper when we realize her looks are the only thing drawing him to her.

Jon’s regular Sunday meal with his family is an exercise in hilarity, and tragedy. Mom (Glenne Headly) is a shrieking harridan, sister Monica (Brie Larson) rarely takes her nose out of her smartphone, and dad (Tony Danza) dispenses hostility in between downs of the football game roaring away on the big screen in the next room. It’s telling that the only time Jon Sr. ever shows any respect for his son is when he’s introduced to his hot new girlfriend.

Needless to say, it’s only a matter of time before Jon’s porn addiction comes between him and Barbara. He defensively claims that every guy does it -- which is like an alcoholic claiming that everybody drinks, failing to distinguish between occasional indulgences and nightly blackout binges.

He does have a point, though, when he sneers at the mushy romance movies favored by Barbara and her friends, filled with pretty people who always come to happy endings. (These are acted out in short vignettes by the likes of Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway, both veterans of actual such flicks.) In some ways, the female insistence upon an orderly, unattainable romantic ideal is just as unhealthy as Jon’s obsession with impossibly beautiful girls who just want sex.

Things get more ambitious with the introduction of Esther (Julianne Moore), an older classmate of Jon’s who stumbles across his porn obsession and repeatedly engages him in odd conversations. It’s an interesting sequence, but it seems to build up to a third act that the story never gets around to telling.

“Don Jon” ends on an abrupt, truncated note -- much like the man’s thoroughly selfish love life. Still, this is a bracingly original and daring first feature film for a young actor who’s already spent 20 years in front of a camera, and clearly has something to say behind one.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Video review: "Iron Man 3"

After three outings plus an Avengers tie-in movie, Iron Man is showing his rust.

What once was a fun, zippy roller-coaster ride of a super-hero franchise has quickly devolved into a predictably dark-and-dreary phase. Much like with the last Batman movie, the man behind the mask has grown tired of wearing it, and spends much more time stewing in his personal pit of despair than battling bad guys.

Here Tony Stark is facing confidence problems in the wake of battling aliens, and suffers panic attacks. Robert Downey Jr. still has that rapscallion twinkle in his eye, but he has fewer opportunities to show off his motor-mouth charm.

 Lady love Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is demanding that he give up the whole super-hero shtick. But with a mysterious terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) blowing up stuff all over the world, that isn’t about to happen.

New director Shane Black and screenwriter Drew Pearce opt for the buffet approach to storytelling: throw in a little bit of everything, and hope people find something they like. The result is a hot mess of action scenes, male posturing and political plots.

It’s capped off by a ridiculous finale where Stark summons all forty-odd versions of the Iron Man suit to come fight for him, remotely controlled by computer. If he could do that, why didn’t he roll with an entire platoon of automaton Iron Men wherever he went?

“Iron Man 3” isn’t a bad movie, but clearly the red-and-gold avenger has lost much of his luster.
Video features are quite good, though you’ll have to go for the Blu-ray/DVD edition to get the best stuff. The DVD version has only a making-of documentary and a featurette about shooting the Air Force One scene.

Get the combo upgrade and you add a gag reel, deleted and extended scenes, and a feature-length commentary by writer/director Black and co-screenwriter Pearce. You also get a behind-the scenes sneak peek at “Thor: The Dark World” and an all-new short film featuring S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Along with a new TV show, another Captain America flick and the inevitable Avengers sequel, Marvel is building a whole super-universe.



Monday, September 23, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Island in the Sky" (1953)

"Island in the Sky" is something of a progenitor of the modern disaster flick. It's more limited in scope, with just five men trapped in the Canadian tundra when their plane is blown off course and runs out of fuel. But it has all the hallmarks of the disaster genre -- an existential threat, mounting tension leading to antagonism amongst the survivors, a brief early hope for rescue that is soon dashed, and eventual salvation for most, due largely to their own ingenuity and grit.

Director William A. Wellman was a World War I pilot and aviation nut who often returned to aerial spectacles whenever he could. The footage of mid-century transport planes cruising around frozen mountaintops and forests is indeed breathtaking, though it gets a bit old after a while.

Written by Ernest K. Gaan, "Island" was based on Gann's own novel, a fictionalized version of a real-life rescue in which he took part as a search pilot in 1943. I found the entire film rather flat and emotionless, filled with a bunch of stock characters -- with one or two notable exceptions.

The movie is best at depicting the quiet camaraderie of the civilian airline pilots recruited at the start of World War II, who as the narration (provided by Wellman himself) describes, are "of the Army but not in the Army." They fly long, grueling supply runs in dangerous weather and even uncharted territories, but are afforded a great deal of autonomy from the military command.

The title refers to the psychological sense of calm that pilots construct for themselves. They endeavor in a dangerous vocation that could lead to the death of their entire crew based on a single mistake. So they compensate by projecting a demeanor of unflappability that can be soothing to those around them, but takes a toll on their own psyche.

John Wayne plays Dooley, the steely captain who manages to land his plane in an ice storm, and then becomes the father/protector for his young charges. He must carefully ration the food, try to contact help using the plane's failing batteries to power the transmitter, and keep his men from losing their heads.

One of them does lose his head, co-pilot Frank Lovatt (Sean McClory), who wanders off into a storm and becomes snow blind. In perhaps the film's only moment of true power, Wellman pulls back the camera on Lovatt's body being quickly covered with falling snow to reveal that the man is actually only a few feet from the tail section of his plane.

Wayne was much praised for his performance, since he largely abandons the familiar cocky persona and embodies the role of a man up to his neck in panicky fear, laboring hard not to show it.

The other three crew members are pretty standard archetypes -- a no-nonsense galoot, a hyperactive radioman and a fresh-faced kid with a new baby at home. They never make any sort of real impact as distinctive characters.

Similarly, the fellow pilots who take up the search for Dooley and his crew are standard issue, and include James Arness as a big bruiser.

The one actor I couldn't keep my eyes off of is Andy Devine as Willie Moon, the unofficial leader of the search effort. The size of a buffalo and as cool as a cat, Moon likes to seem unperturbed by everything. At one point his crewman accuses him of appearing to actually care about something, and Willie furiously denies it.

Devine gives him all sorts of little signatory tics, like using a clothespin in the cockpit to hold his cigarette, or using a little grabber tool to work the comm switches rather than trying to shift his tremendous bulk.

As was frequent with Wellman's films, women are shunted to a far back burner. We only glimpse two or three female characters in flashback or telephone cutaway scenes. I get the sense Wellman included even those only begrudgingly.

A couple of nits I'd like to pick: when the other planes are searching for the lost crew, they fly in a close formation together rather than spreading out -- not a very effective way to cover lots of ground. Also, despite the frigid temperature of minus-70 degrees being repeated ad nauseum to pump up audience's sense of peril, none of the actors' breath is ever visible.

For a flick based on a true story, "Island in the Sky" feels like bunch of studio hooey.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: "Prisoners"

The most persistent criticism I have of movies today is length. Even most films I admire could be shortened a bit, and be the better for it. "Prisoners" is the rare exception of a long movie that earns its time; I didn't begrudge it any one of its 153 minutes.

This intricately-plotted psychological thriller is like a puzzle box that seems mystifying at first, but the deeper you go the clearer things come into focus. In the end all the little pieces mesh together perfectly.

The story of two kidnapped little girls and the two men trying desperately to find them -- one an angry, grieving father, the other an obsessive police detective -- "Prisoners" defies easy categorization. On the surface it wears the clothes of a crime procedural. But also it's about the conflict between these two characters.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the dad, is all gut instincts and faith. His emotions frequently get the better of him as time goes on and the chances of finding the girls alive plummet. Loki, the detective played by Jake Gyllenhaal, operates on logic and dogged determination. Early on we learn that he has never failed to solve a case, mainly because his life consists of little else but the hunt.

On an even deeper level, the film is a morality play, questioning whether extreme actions in the service of good can ever justify themselves. Keller becomes convinced that a simple-minded, nearly mute man named Alex (Paul Dano) has something to do with the disappearance of his daughter and another family's girl on Thanksgiving Day.

Alex's busted-up RV was spotted near where the girls went missing, and he initially ran from police. But they find no evidence to hold him, and Keller takes matters into his own hands. He enlists the aid of the other aggrieved father (Terrence Howard) in holding Alex hostage, which sets off a conflict between the two. There's a subtle rivalry between them: the well-off yuppie versus the blue-collar survivalist, the voice of civil reason against the "man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" individualist credo.

"He's not a person anymore," Keller insists. "He stopped being a person when he took our daughters."

Their wives react in equally different ways. Keller's spouse Grace (Maria Bello) essentially checks herself out, wallowing in pity and prescription sedatives. Nancy (Viola Davis) is front and center in the search, and then gets even more involved in a way that surprises.

Director Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies") and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski explore their characters in subtle, probing ways. For instance, Loki's tattoos on his fingers and neck hint at a hard past, and a throwaway line of dialogue suggests he's an orphan. He's an idealist grown suspicious of traditional bastions of solidity, like the church or even the scales of justice for which he labors.

Keller's collection of religious crosses, weapons and emergency rations depict a man of outward confidence who inwardly lives in fear, leading us to believe at one point he may have had something to do with the kidnapping himself.

Other characters and story threads float around the fringes. There's the priest Loki investigates with a terrible secret that may or may not have something to do with this case. And Alex's protective aunt (Melissa Leo), who wants to protect her nephew but seems to intuitively understand Keller's rage at his impotence. Or the strange, sallow-faced man who shows up at a candlelight vigil.

Slowly, methodically, the cast and crew build this crime story into something much more, a dark and disturbing tale about the choices we make in duress. We're all prisoners of those decisions, for good or ill.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"

Lyrical and bare bones, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is the sort of movie Terrence Malick made early in his career, where mood and imagery trump narrative and dialogue. Writer/director David Lowery is already more than a dozen years deep into his feature film career, but this movie has the aspect of a debut -- of a voice that is not new but now comes to the fore with a confident, compelling tone.

“Saints” is the sort of story we’ve heard before: a desperate man driven to extreme acts in the pursuit of something good and pure. In this case, a convict breaks out of prison so he can be reunited with his wife and the daughter he’s never met. But the way Lowery invests the tale with emotional weight and a lingering sense of portent, it takes on the feel of a small Homeric epic.

Even at a sleek 96 minutes, the movie has a sense of sprawl and languidness. While some might find the film indulgent, I hardly ever felt like the cast and crew were treading water.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara bring a genuine, sad quality to their performances as Bob and Ruth, two lovers separated for nearly five years while Bob is imprisoned. It’s endemic to Lowery’s style of storytelling that we never learn precisely what crime was committed, other than it involved a suitcase full of cash and the involvement of some shady characters, who will later return.

What we do know is that during a shootout with police, Bob’s partner was killed and Ruth shot and wounded a sheriff’s deputy. Bob takes the rap so she and their unborn daughter can remain free.

Their relationship continues as something heartfelt and almost mystical, in that it survives only through their imagination. Bob pens daily, emphatic letters declaring his everlasting love – both for her sake and his own. His sense of himself as more than just another outlaw is what sustains him.

In many ways Ruth’s sentence is harsher than his, since she must continue living in the same small dusty Texas town they came from, raising a little girl in the midst of a community that looks askance upon them.

Brooding right next door is Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a local shopkeeper and father figure to both Bob and Ruth. It was his own son who was killed during the botched getaway that sent Bob to prison, so he isn’t thrilled at the prospect of his return.

Complicating things further is that wounded deputy, Patrick Wheeler (the always-excellent Ben Foster), who looks in on Ruth out of a sense of duty and finds himself drawn in by her tragic gravity. As word of Bob’s escape makes the rounds, it appears as if their trio of fates are hurtling toward each other like runaway steam engines.

“Saints” is simply a gorgeous picture of sights and sounds, and full credit goes to cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Daniel Hart for their craftsmanship. There are long, nearly wordless stretches in the film where the photography and music carry us, and there’s a rhythmic cadence to these sequences that is infectious.

Set in the late 1960s to early ‘70s, the movie seems both defined by its era and timeless. This tale could just as easily be transplanted to the 1920s with a quick change of cars and clothes.

Some movies are pushed along by their plot, while a few are content to lay back and explore characters and settings. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is noteworthy less for what it says than the evocative way it goes about saying it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Video review: "World War Z"

The best movie review I saw of “World War Z” was actually a Venn diagram by The Oatmeal, one of the sharpest webcomics around. In the area between the overlapping circles that showed everything the book and the film had in common, it simply read: “It’s titled World War Z.”

Hilarious, and true. Because if you go into this big-budget horror/disaster thinking it bears anything more than a passing resemblance to the novel by Max Brooks, you’re bound to come away disappointed.
Which isn’t to say the movie they did make is terrible. It’s merely OK, with a few highly engaging action sequences interspersed with stuff that is loopy and/or dull.

Good, bad or indifferent, it’s just not the book.

While Brooks opted for a journalistic approach following an ensemble cast of characters, director Marc Forster and his trio of screenwriters went with a standard leading man story. Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator picked to lead the team tracking down the source of the plague rapidly turning the world’s population into a swarm of zombies.

He travels the globe, including a stop in Jerusalem for an epic battle against a horde of undead attempting to scale the ancient city’s walls. He picks up new allies along the way, but also loses many good people.

Forster is ham-handed at the non-special effects action scenes, to the point we sometimes have trouble discerning exactly what’s happening. One fight-and-flight up a skyscraper stairwell looks like it was shot with a camera draped in dark cloth.

Things build up to a decent but rather predictable showdown in a remote laboratory where the ultimate zombie cure can be found. Again, this veers wildly from the book, where the only panacea for the outbreak was: “Kill all the zombies.”

Personally, I would love to see a faithful adaption of “World War Z” – as soon as Hollywood gets around to making it.

Video goodies are so-so. The DVD version gets you exactly nothing, so you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray upgrade to get any extras.

The highlight is an unrated version of the film featuring more gruesome action that in the watered-down PG-13 theatrical edition. You also get six featurettes on the making of the film, bringing the book to the screen (sort of), and the scientific realities behind zombie mythology.



Monday, September 16, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Convoy" (1978)

Whatever you want to say about Sam Peckinpah, the quintessentially American director was not a cuddly guy. His films were about the intersection between the structure of society and the violent impulses buried not so deep in our individual souls. Peckinpah peered into the carefully constructed order humanity wears like a tidy suit and saw the raw, writhing heart of chaos hammering away beneath.

After the blood-soaked glory of "The Wild Bunch," his filmography become more and more uneven as time went on, reportedly due in part to substance abuse. By 1978 he was a wreck in a need of a job, so a movie based on a country-and-western gag song was the best he could hope for. According to author David Weddle, Peckinpah was so far gone that his friend James Coburn was brought in to help out, and ended up directing much of "Convoy" himself.

The final product is an odd mix of comedy and outrage, hijinks and bloodshed. It's more interesting as a historical document of its time than as a compelling piece of narrative fiction.

"Convoy" arrived at the height of the trucker boom, in which the pilots of massive semi-tractor trailer trucks or muscle cars were idolized as lovable outlaws of the road, fighting onerous cops and the outrage of the 55 m.p.h. national speed limit.

"Smokey and the Bandid" had come out a year earlier and been a big hit, and was followed by a spate of open road projects, from "Cannonball Run" to television's "B.J. and the Bear," which, God help me, I watched religiously as a kid. At the age of 10 I even horrified my teachers and parents by putting down "truck driver" as my career goal. Considering the state of the whole journalism thing, trucking is practically as safe as government bonds by comparison.

I think in the wake of Watergate, the oil crisis driving people into chintzy little cars and a general feeling of malaise, Americans loved the idea of sticking their collective middle finger at symbols of authority. It was an age in which the political unrest of the 1960s had trickled down into the mainstream of the '70s, as the Baby Boomers settled into careers and marriage, and still wanted a little rebellion in their lives.

Police officers in these sorts of highway adventures are invariably depicted as old, fat, corrupt and possibly brutal representatives of the old order. Jackie Gleason found a second lease on his career as the  Smokey of "Smokey and the Bandit," and a man of similar acting experience and girth, Ernest Borgnine, was brought in to play the heavy in "Convoy."

Story-wise, the screenplay (by Bill L. Norton) is pretty spare. Martin "Rubber Duck" Penwald is an independent-minded trucker who runs afoul of some lawmen abusing their positions, stands up to them, and then spends the rest of the movie running away. Other truckers soon join in, forming a convoy of a hundred or more vehicles riding roughshod through roadblocks, whose destination and shining noble purpose are never really made clear.

Whatever narrative thread is pretty much supplied by the C.W. McCall song, right down to the name of the protagonist. The film also is notable for incorporating the C.B. radio lingo prevalent of the day, starting with the colorful names (or "handles") the users give themselves.

For instance, Burt Young's character dubs himself "Love Machine," despite looks that are more worthy of the moniker his fellow truckers gift him, "Pig Pen" (also due to his cargo of live, smelly hogs). Sheriff Lyle Wallace (Borgnine) uses his CB affinity to impersonate a trucker, luring them into his speed traps, where he then extorts bribes in lieu of black marks on their driving record.

After several years away from movies, Ali MacGraw unwisely chose "Convoy" to be her comeback vehicle. It's an odd choice, especially since her character doesn't have any kind of backstory, or motivation, or really a reason for being there. (I didn't even think she had a name, though various sources credit her as "Melissa"). She's driving an expensive sports car when we first meet her, which she then sells so she can ride along with the Duck.

She does have a high-end camera that she uses to document the convoy when it starts to become a folk sensation, attracting the attention of the media and the ambitious governor (Seymour Cassel), who wants to use the truckers' plight to springboard himself into the U.S. Senate. For a moment it seems like the story will spin into a tale about disillusionment, as even Melissa appears ready to sell out her access to Rubber Duck for a few bucks. But then Sheriff Lyle kidnaps/arrests Duck's friend Spider Mike (Franky Ajave), prompting a rescue attempt that leads to a predictable showdown.

Kris Kristofferson has a natural ease in front of the camera that serves him well in the role of the Rubber Duck. He's depicted as a natural peacemaker, willing to accept police malfeasance as long as it doesn't edge into brutality -- at that point, he's ready to fight back and accept he consequences. When he's held up as the leader of a great movement, the Duck demurs: "I'm not the leader. I'm just up front."

Kristofferson, who got his start as a musician, was a throwback type of movie star. Unlike the sensitive, talkative types who tended to dominate the box office during that period, Kristofferon was taciturn and laconic. Some even dubbed his acting style wooden, though I would call it more minimalist than anything else. He liked to let his pauses between lines speak more than the words he uttered piecemeal.

I'd like to make note of the tans the stars wear in this film. Kristofferson spends a good portion of the movie shirtless, revealing the lean, muscular torso that helped propel him to stardom. He's also burnt to a nice medium brown, a popular look at the time (which I, with my nearly translucent northern European flesh, have never been able to achieve). MacGraw, on the other hand, looks practically deep-fried to a unhealthy crispiness. Gosh knows how many Boomers would end up with carcinoma as a result of the fad.

The film went on to be the biggest box office hit of Peckinpah's career, though it was the beginning of the end for him. Word about his (non) work on the film soon spread around Hollywood, and job offers dried up. He would only direct one other feature, the lackluster spy thriller "The Osterman Weekend" five years later.

"Convoy" was a low point on the long, lonely road to even lower.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review: "The Family"

"The Family" is a goof, a recycle of a rehash, a sort-of sequel to "Goodfellas" in which we find out what happens to the gangster after he snitches on his pals and goes into witness protection. It features Robert De Niro, who has largely spent the last 20 years of his career spoofing on the first 20 years of his career as a cinematic tough guy.

He still plays tough, but now it's for laughs. Or at least it's supposed to be. This inert comedy just lies there, intermixing horrific violence with jokes about more violence. It tries to skate by on the charms of De Niro and co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones. But it's essentially a one-joke movie, and that joke gets old pretty quick.

De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, a one-time mob boss who's now living in France with his family: wife Maggie (Pfeiffer, doing a screechy retread of her "Married to the Mob" role), daughter Belle (Diana Agron, pushing 30 and playing 17) and son Warren (John De'Leo). They're a collection of Italian-American stereotypes in search of a set-up to deliver the obvious punchline.

They move from place to place whenever they cause any trouble, which is frequently. When they roll up to their new place in a tiny village in Normandy, Gio -- who goes under the name Fred Blake -- already has a body hidden in the back of the car. Gio seems cool as a cucumber on the outside, but the minute he feels disrespected, someone's going in a hole.

Unfortunately, being an American in France, the clan gets disrespected a lot. Director and co-writer Luc Besson wades into a whole lot of "ugly American" territory, with the added irony that "Fred" and company really are homicidal thugs. Maggie blows up a grocery store on her first day in town when the locals snicker at her request for peanut butter, and both kids lay severe beat-downs on classmates.

The strangest thing about the movie is there really isn't any reason for the story to be set in France. None of the family speak the lingo very well, even after living there for years. Would the FBI handler (Jones) really take the trouble and expense of setting them up in a foreign country when the good ol' U.S. of A is begger than 10 Frances?

The answer is "The Family" is based on a novel by a French author, Tonino Benacquista, and Besson is another Frenchie. It's basically their homage to "Goodfellas" -- there's even a scene where "Fred" gets invited to a film club meeting and that's the movie playing. So it's De Niro poking fun at one of his own iconic roles.

This sort of self-indulgence might be more tolerable if the movie were funnier. But between the geysers of blood, repetitive jokes about boorish Americans and snooty French, "The Family" was better left dead and buried.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review: "Short Term 12"

Grace gives good advice but doesn't take it. As the senior staffer at a foster care facility for troubled teens, she tells a new counselor on his first day that the job isn't to be their therapist or their friend, but simply keep them safe. Nonetheless, she finds herself getting increasingly engrossed in their problems, to the point the strife reverberates against her own past filled with pain.

It's a brave, unadorned and gutsy performance by Brie Larson, best known for roles in teen and/or comedy films. This dark, brooding but enthralling drama should be a game-changer for her.

Writer/director Destin Cretton settles us easily into the daily workings of Short Term 12, housed in a drab facility hidden away in a corner of suburbia. The rules are simple: while the teens are inside the property, their lives are more or less controlled by the staff. Once they get past the gate, though, all bets are off. Runners happen often enough the counselors trade funny stories about them.

Grace rules this environment through sheer force of will, getting boys a foot taller than her to knuckle under at the threat of a "level drop." Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) is her wingman, goofy and sensitive and, we soon learn, her surreptitious sweetie. They're both lost kids who were found, and want other youngsters to have the same chance.

Cretton's story is cyclical and sporadic, much like life at the center. The movie's attention wanders from this kid to that, and eventually onto Grace's own inner turmoil.

The film's strong point is the bond that exists between these teens, even when they're occasionally at each others' throats. They're linked by the idea that nobody's problems are insurmountable, since every person is screwed up in their own way.

Two of the foster kids stand out. Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is the newest arrival, a referral from a friend of the facility director. She's jaded, cut off and too smart to fall for the normal tricks. She's unusual among the group in that she lives part-time with her father, who put her there after being unable to handle her destructive behavior.

Slowly, methodically, Grace worms her way into Jayden's good graces. They bond over their love of sketching ... and their horrible expression of self-hatred.

Most affecting is Marcus, the oldest of the group. Foster kids are only supposed to be there less than a year, but he's been around over three and is about to receive a mandatory boot upon turning 18. He's sullen and borderline aggressive, but also harbors a contemplative, poetic side.

Marcus keeps talking about wanting to shave his head for his birthday; Grace and company nod quizzically, not understanding the meaningful insistence behind this odd request. When they finally honor it, it opens up an emotional catharsis that just sweeps you away. It's Keith Stanfield's first feature film role, and he packs a punch.

The movie's not perfect. Cretton's sense of timing is occasionally off, as some events bring a sense of urgency that just melts away. Nate (Rami Malek), the new counselor who at first acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, sort of gets misplaced about halfway through. I also wanted more time alone with Grace and Mason; their romance feels more like a marker than something that breathes.

Still, "Short Term 12" is a powerful and genuine look at young, shattered lives and the painstaking process of piecing them back together again.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Video review: "Star Trek Into Darkness"

It is endlessly vexing to me that the fanboy universe collectively dismissed the second trio of “Star Wars” movies as soulless sellouts, but have embraced the new “Star Trek” flicks from director J.J. Abrams enthusiastically.

For my money, Abram’s take on the original Starfleet gang has lacked intellectual heft, and is too reliant on special effects and whiz-bang action scenes. The first movie left me positively spinning, as if James T. Kirk, Spock, Bones and company were incapable of just sitting still and talking for two minutes.

The sequel, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” does better at pacing. The first half is rather agreeable, setting up the characters and conflicts.

But things go off a cliff about halfway through, when the villain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is revealed to be none other than … well, I won’t spoil it for you. But even if you haven’t already heard the worst-kept secret of the movie recycling one of the great bad guys of the Trek universe, it’s pretty easy to figure out.

Kirk (Chris Pine) and the Enterprise get sent into Klingon territory to kill some terrorists who sprung a devastating surprise attack on Starfleet headquarters. Assassinations are not really in the rule book, setting up more conflict between captain, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and crew. The plot thickens further when it’s revealed other forces are at play.

The end devolves into a rather predictable exchange of phaser fire and fisticuffs, with the secondary characters relegated to hanging around in the fringes and reacting to barked orders. Remember when Sulu and Chekov actually, like, did stuff?

Personally, I’d rather watch a Jar-Jar Binks Christmas special than either of the new Star Trek movies again.

Video extras are decent, but only if you spring for the Blu-ray edition – the DVD comes with exactly zero goodies.

Several featurettes accompany the Blu-ray version, mostly going behind the scenes of various big-tent sequences such as the attack on Starfleet or creating the Klingon home world of Kronos.



Monday, September 9, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Pretty in Pink" (1986)

John Hughes' teen movies were bubble gum wrapped in shiny paper, containing a lot of sweet, juicy stuff with a bitter center. He told stories about teenagers not as how society saw them, but as how they saw themselves. He identified with the school misfits, but he understood the cool kids enough that he didn't dismiss their challenges as inconsequential.

The pop music cues, the likeable teen stars, the old-fashioned love triangle plot devices -- he used it all to draw in an audience of young people, ostensibly to entertain them, but really to show them a self-portrait that is flawed and glorious.

"Pretty in Pink" is an imperfect film with a pure heart. After the success of "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club," Hughes cast his personal ginger-haired muse, Molly Ringwald, in perhaps his most bleak and ambitious film to date.

I know some people might spit up at seeing "bleak" and "John Hughes" in the same sentence. But strip away the pop songs, the winsome actors and the puppy-dog love story, and the universe in which "PiP" is set is a pretty dreary one.

The school is divided along sharp lines into "richies," over-privileged offspring of wealthy families, and everybody else. The rich kids eat lunch inside in the cafeteria, while the students who are poor or rough around the edges are relegated to the outdoor rec area. It's self-imposed segregation, and there are people on both sides eager to enforce the invisible lines of division.

Heroine Andie (Ringwald) is the single child of Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), who works itinerantly but whose main vocation is staying in bed and feeling sorry for himself. His wife left him three years ago, and though he puts up a brave face for the daughter he adores, he's drowning. Andie pushes him to find full-time work and a purpose in life.

Andie is smart and, unlike Ringwald's previous roles in Hughes films, not a shrinking violent. When she's picked on my obnoxious richie girls (Kate Vernon and Gina Gershon), she fights back. Lacking funds, Andie makes her own clothes -- the source of the teasing -- with pink included in virtually every outfit.

She has a job working at a hip music store run by Iona, who's about twice Andie's age but acts as her big sister and coach. Iona has a different hairstyle every time we see her, starting with a spiked mohawk and growing more conservative as the movie goes on. She's played by Annie Potts, a charismatic and outgoing presence, virtually unrecognizable from her nerdy role in "Ghostbusters."

Andie's perpetual wingman is Duckie (Jon Cryer), the misfit of misfits, who's been her friend/hanger-on since childhood. Duckie is ravishingly in love with Andie, but to her face he makes a joke of it, talking about his undying love for her and unconditional devotion as a punchline. He dresses like a clown, with mismatched patterns and accessories, but deep down Duckie wants Andie to take him seriously.

Worlds collide when richie Blane (Andrew McCarthy) is smitten with Andie, eventually building up to a date for the prom. When Duckie realizes she's really going to go out with the enemy, he unloads on Andie, resulting in the movie's most famous line: "His name is Blane? That's a major appliance, that's not a name!"

The biggest problem with the film is that the Andie/Blane romance never really takes off. We only get to see them spend any substantive time together in two scenes: their disastrous first date, where they each visit the others' home turf and are in turn rejected by their friends, and a brief second fling where they sneak onto his horse riding club.

McCarthy's performance is ... discomforting. He smiles and stutters, trying to play a character who is inherently descent but pals around with loathsome toads like his best friend Steff, played with delicious malevolence by James Spader.  The idea is supposed to be that although Blane comes from a world where everything is taken for granted, he hasn't let it rub off on himself.

Honestly, Blane's creepy as all get out. In the film he has a serial-killer vibe, reminding me of Christian Bale in "American Psycho." His good manners and charm seem like a skillfully-constructed veil that I kept waiting to drop.

The plot wheezes and cranks to its conclusion: Blane gives into peer pressure to dump his girlfriend from "the wrong side," but they have a revelation at the prom, where Duckie, acting as her date and protector, urges her to go after Blane. As many people already know, the original ending has her choosing Duckie over Blane. But knowing that Duckie is the perpetual loser adds poignancy to his depiction.

I find the film more engaging for its little moments and its well-drawn characters than the story paces it puts them through. Spader, despite having fairly limited screen time, breathes life and subtlety into Steff that isn't immediately apparent. Steff had made numerous lecherous advances to Andie over the years and been rebuffed, and can't stand the idea of someone he sees beneath him as standing up to him.

Cryer has one outstanding scene as Duckie, where he lets down his guard of self-mockery, and steels himself to tell Andie how he really feels. But he loses his nerve and lets the other guy get his girl.

Indeed, the entire theme of the movie is about people reconciling themselves to the gap between their dreams and reality. "Pretty in Pink" may not be John Hughes' best film, but in some ways it is his most enduring. He loved to disguise his lessons as confections.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Fall film preview for 2013

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to see this summer movie season in the rearview mirror.

Partly that’s due to a particularly weak crop of films this year. The super-hero flicks were rather dull, the comedies largely mirthless and even the animated flicks seemed to be going through the motions. (Next up for Disney: “Hovercraft”?)

In contrast, the cinematic lineup for fall looks meaty. You’ve got the usual Oscar-bait dramas (Streep! Scorsese!), the next epic installments of “The Hobbit” and “The Hunger Games,” and even a sequel to “Thor” – just in case anyone was experiencing comic book-movie withdrawal.

So here's our look ahead to the next few months of movies. Those marked with a red heart (♥) are films I’m particularly passionate about. Please note, release dates are subject to change:

Prisoners (Sept. 20) – Hugh Jackman plays the father of an abducted girl who takes matters into his own hands when the police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes up short in this suspense drama.

Rush (Sept. 27) -- Ron Howard's drama about the spectacular rivalry between real-life 1970s Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda could garner Academy Award attention. Starring Chris Hemsworth.

Don Jon (Sept. 27) – Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars, wrote and directed this comedy about a shallow Jersey boy obsessed with pornography, which causes bumps when he finally meets the perfect girl (Scarlett Johansson).

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Sept. 27) – Meat and other foods are still raining from the sky, so it’s up to hapless scientist Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) to come to the rescue again in this zany animated sequel.

Gravity (Oct. 4) – Sandra Bullock is already getting talk of another Oscar nomination for her role as a stranded astronaut in Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama. Co-starring George Clooney.

Captain Phillips (Oct. 11) -- Tom Hanks hooks up with powerhouse director Paul Greengrass ("United 93") in this true story of an American cargo ship captain whose vessel is captured by Somali Pirates. Another Oscar nod for Tom seems like a good bet.

The Fifth Estate (Oct. 11) – Brit actor Benedict Cumberbatch plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in this controversial drama from director Bill Condon.

Romeo and Juliet (Oct. 11) – Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth tackle the immortal bard for this adaptation penned by "Downton Abbey" scribe Julian Fellowes.

Carrie (Oct. 18) -- A head-scratching remake of the supernatural horror classic stars Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore. Directed by Kimberly Pierce ("Boys Don't Cry"), it prompts one question: Why?

All Is Lost (Oct. 18) – Robert Redford has stayed largely behind the camera lately, but the 76-year-old steps up in this largely wordless drama about an old sailor caught on a sinking sailboat in the Indian Ocean.

Escape Plan (Oct. 18) – Essentially “Sneakers” in a prison, this action/drama stars Sylvester Stallone as a guy who breaks out of jail professionally, until he’s thrown into a high-tech dungeon where Arnold Schwarzenegger is the kingpin. Co-starring Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Jim Caviezel.

12 Years a Slave (Oct. 18) – Another early Oscar contender from rising director Steve McQueen, this drama stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in the true story of a free black man who was sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War era. With Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender.

The Counselor (Oct. 25) –Michael Fassbender plays a lawyer who gets in over his head when he dips his toe into the drug trafficking business. Directed by Ridley Scott from the first original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, co-starring Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem.

Ender’s Game (Nov. 1) – Orson Scott Card’s iconic science fiction novel gets turned into an epic film. Asa Butterfield stars as a boy whose tactical genius is humanity’s only hope to successfully fight off an alien invasion. With Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley in grizzled “old man” roles.

About Time (Nov. 1) -- Richard Curtis ("Love Actually") wrote and directed this quirky British romantic comedy about an insecure boy who discovers all the men in his family can travel through time, a skill he uses in romantic endeavors with Rachel McAdams.

Free Birds (Nov. 1) – In this animated flick, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson voice a pair of turkeys who join forces to travel back in town to take themselves off the Thanksgiving menu.

Last Vegas (Nov. 1) – Dismissed as “The Hangover for Seniors,” this comedy puts together a foursome of long-in-the-tooth heavyweights for a night of debauchery in Sin City: Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Kevin Kline.

Thor: The Dark World
(Nov. 8) -- Chris Hemsworth is back as the Norse thunder god who must team up with back-stabbing brother Loki to take on the ultimate enemy of the Asgardian realm: Dark Elves!

The Wolf of Wall Street (Nov. 15) – The collaborations of Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have been fruitful, and they’re back for a satirical (but true!) look at the excesses of 1990s high finance. With Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey.

The Best Man Holiday (Nov. 15) -- College friends reunite 15 years later and find their sexy secrets are set to boil over. With Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard and Taye Diggs.

The Book Thief (Nov. 15) – "Downton Abbey" director Brian Percival tackles the story of a WWII German girl who pilfers books while her family hides Jewish refugees. A lot of Oscar buzz for this one.

Great Expectations (Nov. 15) – The Charles Dickens’ classic gets a new cinematic adaptation starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Mike Newell.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Nov. 22) -- The "Hunger Games" sequel sees death competition champion Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) forced to sign on for another round of fatal combat as the seeds of rebellion grow.

Delivery Man (Nov. 22) -- This remake of a French Canadian comedy stars Vince Vaughn as a loser delivery truck driver who discovers that his youthful "donations" to a fertility clinic has resulted in him fathering 533 children.

Nebraska (Nov. 22) -- Alexander Payne ("Sideways") directs this black-and-white drama about an estranged father and son who come together to claim a winning lottery prize. Starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte, a funnyman stretching his wings.

Frozen (Nov. 29) -- The latest Disney animated fantasy spectacle sees a young girl traveling through a snowbound land to confront her magical sister. In the "Tangled" mode of hijinks leavened by somber notes.

Oldboy (Nov. 29) -- For some reason, Spike Lee decided we needed a remake of the Korean action/drama cult favorite, about an everyman (Josh Brolin) who is locked in solitary confinement for 20 years for no apparent reason, then released for a revenge spree.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Nov. 29) – Idris Elba headlines this biopic of the South African icon, covering his life from revolutionary leader to political prisoner to president. Academy Award nominations appear likely.

Grace of Monaco (Nov. 29) -- Nicole Kidman headlines this biopic of Grace Kelly, who gave up Hollywood stardom for the throne of a tiny European country, which faced the possibility of a French invasion in the early 1960s.

Out of the Furnace (Dec. 6) -- "Crazy Heart" director Scott Cooper looks to make a strong sophomore effort: Christian Bale plays a reformed criminal who heads up against a hill country crime boss (Woody Harrelson) when his brother disappears.

Dallas Buyers Club (Dec. 6) -- Matthew McConaughey continues his quest to reclaim his leading man cred in this true story of a Texas cowboy who discovers he is HIV-positive in 1985, and becomes a black market dealer in experimental treatment drugs.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Dec. 13) – J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim novel moves into its second of a trio of three-hour films, as wayward hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) continues his quest with a baker’s dozen of dwarves to overthrow an evil dragon. Expect more plot and character add-ons from Peter Jackson & Co.

American Hustle (Dec. 13) -- Writer/director David O. Russell has been on a roll lately, and looks to keep it going with this 1970s story of a con man who becomes a federal snitch. Starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Dec. 20) – Joel and Ethan Coen are back with this look at a young folk singer (Oscar Isaac) trying to make it in Greenwich Village circa 1961. Look for their patented ironic/funny/sad tone. With Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake.

Anchorman: The Legend Continues (Dec. 20) -- I'll admit I never graasped the appeal of the original comedy featuring Will Ferrell's pompous windbag newscaster. By the early 1980s, he's fallen to the level of announcer at a Sea World knockoff, and gets recruited to start up a 24-hour news service.

The Monuments Men (Dec. 20) -- George Clooney co-wrote, directed and stars in this quasi-true caper about a group of art experts who team up during World War II to save antiquities from destruction at Nazi hands. With Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray.

Saving Mr. Banks (Dec. 20) -- Could Tom Hanks score two Best Actor nominations in one year? He portrays magic man Walt Disney during his courting of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to get the rights to her "Mary Poppins." Could be a great Hollywood-on-Hollywood story.

Walking with Dinosaurs (Dec. 20) – This ambitious 3-D animated film attempts to capture the world of humongous reptiles as it really was -- with a cute baby dino, of course.

Her (Dec. 20) – Trippy filmmaker Spike Jonze (“Adaptation”) teams up with unconventional actor Joaquin Phoenix in this drama about a lonely man who falls in love with his cutting-edge computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Let the Siri jokes commence!

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Dec. 25) -- Ben Stiller directed and stars in this adaptation of the James Thurber story about a boring man with a vivid interior life, who decides to finally take some chances. Co-starring Kristen Wiig.

Labor Day (Dec. 25) – One of Hollywood’s hottest young directors, Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) adapts Joyce Maynard’s novel about a wounded escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who takes a reclusive mother (Kate Winslet) and her teen son hostage.

The Invisible Woman (Dec. 25) – Ralph Fiennes directed and stars in this historical drama about the largely forgotten affair between Charles Dickens and an 18-year-old actress (Felicity Jones).

47 Ronin (Dec. 25) -- This troubled production stars Keanu Reeves as a half-breed samurai who gets recruited by a group of ronin to avenge the death of their master. Twice delayed with a rookie director = not good.

Jack Ryan (Dec. 25) -- Chris Pine becomes the fourth actor to take on the role of the CIA analyst sprung from the mind of author Tom Clancy. Here he discovers a Russian terrorist plot against the U.S.

Grudge Match (Dec. 25) – The Raging Bull and the Italian Stallion (Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone) climb into the ring together for one final stab at boxing gold. They play formal rivals who go toe-to-toe again 30 years after retiring. Needless to say, it’s a comedy.

August: Osage County (Dec. 25) – A powerhouse cast headlines this adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play about an Oklahoma family that comes together for a strife-filled family reunion. Big emotions will be flung. Starring Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard and Margo Martindale.

Lone Survivor (Dec. 25) -- In 2005, a team of Navy SEALs were sent to kill a Taliban leader. The mission failed and only one man (Mark Wahlberg) survived in this gritty action/drama.

Black Nativity (Dec. 25) – A contemporary update on the classic Langston Hughs play, this musical drama follows a tough street teen from Baltimore who spends Christmas with his estranged family in New York. With Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson and Jennifer Hudson.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: "Riddick"

I was expecting "Riddick" to be just awful, so anything north of terrible would probably have registered as pretty good. The third in the line of sci-fi/action movies that made Vin Diesel a star is a murky, disjointed mess. But it also boasts some cool action scenes, gruesome beasties and Riddick in full-on badassery mode.

Riddick, who was an able but fallible combatant in "Pitch Black" and "The Chronicles of Riddick," seemingly has taken on supernatural powers in this new movie, laying waste to an army of creatures and a gaggle of mercenaries come for the price on his head. Notably, he does this all bare-handed or with crude weapons he's fashioned himself -- including some kind of wicked bone sword that looks like something Conan would have hefted.

The allusion to the Cimerian barbarian is apt, since director David Twohy has opted for a downscale, pulp-fiction return to roots after the epic sprawl of "Chronicles." Instead of empires and entire planets being at stake, this is the simple tale of Riddick being stranded on a harsh desert planet and having to fight through a mountain of obstacles to escape.

It's a throwback to old-fashioned science fiction of the 1950s and earlier, more concerned with individual stories than macro events.

When last we saw him, Riddick had defeated the Lord Marshall of the Necromongers and, following their militant traditions, seen himself installed as their leader. But by his own reckoning Riddick had gotten lazy and lost a step, so he didn't see it when a plot to overthrow them developed. Teased by the prospect of locating his long-lost home planet of Furya, he gets bushwacked and left for dead.

Armed with nothing more than his infrared vision and a few tricks, Riddick has to find a way to survive the cruel environs, which include little to eat or drink and slavering hyena-like dogs. Worse yet is the things hiding in the bubbling cesspools, which resemble a cross between a scorpion, spider and amphibian.

I quite enjoyed this early sequence, wordless except for a little of Riddick's narration, which had a man-against-nature vibe that favorably recalled "Castaway."

Eventually he makes it to a lonely outpost, a way station for mercenaries. Riddick triggers a beacon to let everyone know where he is, and soon two groups of bounty hunters have descended to catch him. This sets up the chase-chase sequence, in which the mercenaries square off while fighting over who will get to claim Riddick's head. -- literally, just his head, since the county is doubled if he's dead.

Leading one crew is Santana (Jordi Mollà), a loathsome, greasy type who favors a machete and a whole lot of sexually suggestive dialogue. His team includes Diaz (Dave Bautista), who looks big enough to give Riddick a run for his money, and Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk), a green kid with religious overtones.

More professional and disciplined is the crew led by Johns (Matt Nable), a name that may be familiar to fans of the series. Johns has other objectives in mind beyond mere bloodletting. His right-hand woman is Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), who likes to mix it up: "I don't f*ck guys, but I f*ck them up when I have to."

There's an ugly, hyper-masculine undercurrent to the proceedings, as every male character attempts to out-strut the other ones, with Riddick at the top of the cock-heap. At one point he makes some icky comments about Dahl's toenails and nipples, and I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat.

The gore quotient is pretty high for this type of movie, and one nasty character gets his comeuppance in a particularly memorable slice-and-dice way. During one scene Riddick slides under one of those scorpion things, slicing its belly and causing its entrails to drop out. Distracted, the critter proceeds to eat its own guts. Nasty.

No one will confuse "Riddick" for quality filmmaking. But it's got a grungy, sweaty vibe that wasn't entirely unpleasing. I didn't like it, but I didn't hate it, and that's way more than I ever would have guessed.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Video review: "The Office: Season Nine"

What happens when a very good television comedy loses its star and iconic main character?

Usually it spells the end, but “The Office,” which at one point was the highest-rated series on NBC, managed to trudge on for another two seasons without Steve Carell. Though the show clearly dipped in quality after losing the manic energy of Carell’s Michael Scott, it still boasted plenty of laughs -- and more somber moments than previously seen.

Despite the naysayers determined to shut down fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin early, “The Office” made for pretty good television during its ninth and final season.

As might be expected, company lovebirds Pam and Jim (Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski) took up some of the vacated limelight. But the show also found time to focus more on previously tertiary characters. Most notable was Ed Helms as self-deluded fussbudget Andy, who assumed Michael’s role as boss and resident empty suit.

By Season Nine, Helms’ movie career was taking off, so his character was largely shunted aside, leaving “fascist nerd” Dwight to finally step into his long-sought role of regional manager for the Scranton office of the fictional paper company. Rainn Wilson, who has created one of the most unique characters ever seen on TV, got to spread his wings a little further.

It was also nice to see Erin (Ellie Kemper), Oscar (Oscar Nunez) and Darryl (Craig Robinson) soak up some more screen time, and complete character development journeys that knocked them out of the grooved slots they had settled into.

There are plenty of television shows that overstay their welcome, diminishing their legacy by ending their runs with superfluous seasons – “Friends” and “Frasier” come to mind. “The Office” was not one of them.

Extra features are quite handsome, and you don’t have to splurge for the most expensive package to get the good stuff.

The DVD version comes with more than two hours of deleted scenes, original audition tapes from 2003 (including then-unknown Seth Rogen!), a cast retrospective, blooper reel and footage of the final table read.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add an extensive panel discussion looking back on the entire TV series.