Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review: "Nebraska"

"Nebraska" is a movie of pauses and unspoken words. If you were to spell out everything that happens in the film and everything that's said, it wouldn't amount to much. A lot of people might find it rather slow, but they aren't the sort who go to a black-and-white dark comedy/drama from the guy who directed "Sideways" and "The Descendants," anyway.

Their loss.

Although "Nebraska" is a movie of slowness and deliberateness, director Alexander Payne doesn't revel in being so. His takes are long, but don't tarry a second longer than needed. The people speak in few words, the main character in so few he's practically mute. Yet any more dialogue would seem too much.

The plot is ... a non-story. A crotchety old man with some degree of undiagnosed dementia wants to travel from his home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his $1 million prize he received a letter about in the mail.

The "prize" is simply one of those scams where you sign up for some magazine subscriptions and you're entered into a contest. Of course, the letter has dollar signs and says "You are a winner!", so old folks like Woodrow Grant (Bruce Dern) are fooled into handing over their money.

Woody's insistence borders on obsession, to the point he starts walking cross-country to get his money. The police dutifully pick him up and return him safely home every time, but his family's so fed up that younger son Dave (Will Forte) finally agrees to drive him to Lincoln just to put the matter to rest.

Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson slowly peel back the layers of Woody, a guy who at first seems like a walking joke but gradually is revealed as nothing less than an American icon. Woody came from a small farm, went to war and didn't talk about what he did there, got himself a wife and a business, drank too much and lived a life of quotidian repetition.

Now he's old, his mind is going, his wife and sons are exasperated by his erratic behavior, and basically everyone is just waiting for him to die, including Woody himself.

Dern is just terrific as Woody, a total transformation that we don't even question. With his nimbus of scattered white hair, unshaven face and neck, he looks half a step up from homeless. He walks in a hunched, stiff-legged shamble, as if he were a mummified duck.

While Woody wears the mien of a stubborn loner, Dern subtly reveals the yearning inside him. Woody doesn't really have any use for the money, only able to specify "a truck and a compressor" when asked what he'll buy. What he really wants is to be a somebody, instead of the nobody he's become.

Things really ratchet up when Woody and Dave stop in his tiny hometown of Hawthorne, where the social calendar seems to consist of drinking beer and watching TV, then going to the local bar to do the same in the company of others. Woody casually mentions the prize when asked why he's back, and the locals accept the sham as willingly as did he, turning the town joke into the big celebrity.

Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is the local big man and bully, a former business partner of Woody's, who figures he's owed a slice of the pie because ... well, just because. Worse yet, some of Woody's relatives get the same idea in their noggins.

June Squibb shines as Woody's put-upon wife, who obviously decided long ago to give out as much grief as she's gotten out of life. It's a brassy, showy part, and Squibb milks it for every ounce while still remaining believable as a person. I also enjoyed Bob Odenkirk as their older, more settled offspring.

The best scenes are between Forte and Dern, as the dutiful son tries to puzzle out the inscrutability of his father before he falls into the same trap of passivity and obstinacy himself. Recently split up from his girlfriend, Dave quizzes Woody about getting married and having kids. "You must have been in love at first?" "Never came up," is the laconic reply.

"Nebraska" is not a film for everyone, its rhythms too languorous for people who just want to munch their popcorn and "have a good time." But for those who can appreciate the unhurried unraveling of a mystery, the riddle of the extraordinary ordinary man, it's a delicious dark treat.

Review: "Black Nativity"

The Christmas pageant is a familiar holiday tradition for most everyone who grew up in America, and “Black Nativity” is the closest cinematic replication one could think of. There’s singing, dancing, some mild religiosity, and family tensions giving way to warm togetherness.

Writer/director Kasi Lemmons loosely adapts the stage musical version of the Nativity story told with an all-black cast written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. It’s almost an homage to Hughes himself, with the main character, Langston Cobbs (Jacob Latimore), bearing his name and legacy.

The film is colorful, joyous and heartfelt. The characters exist more as archetypes than flesh-and-blood beings, but that’s part and parcel of adapting mythology into modern times. The Cobbs family also takes center stage, while the tale of Mary and Joseph (Grace Gibson and Luke James) gets turned into the backdrop.

Think of it this way: various people wander on and off the stage, declaring themselves to us in song and prose, and then they all get together at the end to usher us on our way back into our own regular lives. We relate to them not as actual people who we might stumble into on the street, but as representations of ourselves, both our ideals and our failings. Their role is not to convince us they could be real, but to embody our innermost desires for ourselves, and how we often fail to live up to them.

And, it should be said, the music is very, very good. Much of it is gospel influenced, which shouldn’t surprise as the main character is a preacher and the last act takes place in his church on Christmas Eve. I particularly liked the songs “Fix Me” and “Be Grateful.”

Latimore is a well-known R&B artist, and other famous performers surface as cast members such as Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Nas. But mainstream actors Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Tyrese Gibson also croon in, showing off pipes we didn’t know they had. (Whitaker in particular shines with a gorgeous, smooth baritone.)

Langston Cobbs is a youth from Baltimore, where he lives with his single mother, Naimi (Hudson). She lost her job and is struggling to make ends meet, and their brownstone is about to be foreclosed. She sends her son to stay with her estranged grandparents in Harlem, with the tacit implication that he may be there for a while.

Langston has never met his grandparents, or even knew they existed. It’s a big culture shock. While not a bad kid, he’s used to a certain amount of independence and sass, and neither are much brooked in the home of Cornell and Angela Cobbs (Whitaker and Bassett). Rev. Cobbs is a man who wears his dignity like a fine suit that he cares for well, much like the pocket watch he was personally given by Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s a mysterious big hurt between the elders Cobbses and their daughter, and Langston spends the rest of the story trying to ferret out what it is. Gibson plays Tyson, a street tough who offers some advice and help, though not necessarily in pursuits that will have a positive outcome.

While some might be annoyed that the story of Jesus takes a backseat to the Cobbs clan, I found their company more like an embrace that feels awkward at first, but becomes warmer as the audience and movie clutch harder. Bring on the show.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: "The Book Thief"

We can never run out of World War II films because it was the most transformative event in recent history, and possibly the entirety of human existence. They could release a movie about the war every day for the rest of my life, and we still would never have adequately captured the extent of human misery compressed into those six years.

Certainly, I would never tire of them.

“The Book Thief” comes at the war from the perspective of an intelligent, sensitive German girl who comes to live with her foster parents in a small village. The war, seemingly distant and only distasteful, comes to relentlessly dominate the lives of the townspeople. While many knuckle under the Nazi regime, children like Liesel and a few brave adults find ways to stand up without getting knocked down.

Director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni, adapting the award-winning book by Markus Zusak, go for a straightforward approach – focusing on the children with the grown-ups occupying the background. The result is simple, plaintive, a bit on the sappy side but also burning brightly with heartfelt emotions.

The performances really push the experience, especially young French-Canadian Sophie Nélisse as Liesel and Geoffrey Rush as her foster father, Hans. Emily Watson also shines as her churlish foster mother, Rosa, though it’s a less showy part.

Roger Allam provides the seductive, slithery voice of Death, who narrates the proceedings and claims many victims throughout the course of the story. The first is Liesel’s brother, who dies along their journey to their new foster parents. At the hasty funeral she steals her first book, a guide to grave digging, something that eventually becomes her signature habit.

Her greeting upon being presented to her foster parents is huffy indignation from Rosa, who was expecting two children – and the commensurate stipend from the state that came with them. She’s a harsh disciplinarian and treats Hans with the smallest measure of kindness possible.

Hans is quite a character, a shy, passive man who accepts his wife’s many abuses without complaint, but secretly harbors the soul of an artist. His only real talent is with the accordion, and his working life is spotty at best.

He becomes Liesel’s guardian angel and supporter, quietly encouraging her rebellious ways. She begins sneaking into the library of the town’s burgermeister to read his books – later, with the tacit approval of his wife. When the Third Reich begins holding rallies in town, she scavenges a charred book from the pile that has been burned as too dangerous for people to read.

Liesel’s journey from girl to woman takes a big step when a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), shows up on their doorstep looking for refuge. The son of a man who saved Hans’ life during the First World War, he is ensconced in the basement as their hideaway and Liesel’s secret tutor.

She also finds a strange allure to Rudy (Nico Liersch), the boy who lives next door, and they form a relationship that’s part friendship, part rivalry and the chaste beginnings of an adolescent romance. The very picture of Aryan youth, Rudy is a star athlete who draws the eye of Nazi recruiters, but he secretly idolizes Jesse Owens.

I enjoyed “The Book Thief” and its performances, though the film carries a sort of restrained reverence for its subject matter that is a little maudlin. Still, here’s another wonderful tale from amidst the horror.

Review: "Frozen"

It’s been a rough year for animation fans, but “Frozen” splendidly warms the cockles of our cold, cold hearts.

Easily the best animated film of 2013, it’s a sprightly adventure from Disney featuring stunning eye candy, colorful characters and some of the best musical set-pieces since “Beauty and the Beast.”

It’s not quite up there with the very best of the Disney-Pixar universe: B&B, “Finding Nemo,” etc. This is owing to the main characters not having quite as much depth as other protagonists we’ve cherished. But much like the surprisingly good “Tangled,” in whose vein it very much follows, “Frozen” wears the flouncy clothes of a fun romp while harboring darker and deeper ambitions underneath.

A very loose retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Snow Queen,” the film puts two sisters in conflict. Anna (voice by Kristen Bell) is the gleeful younger princess of the kingdom of Arendelle. Since childhood she’s been purposefully shut away from her older sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), because of a tragic accident. The Troll King (Ciarán Hinds) banished the memory from her mind, and their parents took the secret with them when they disappeared beneath the ocean waves.

In her turn, Elsa is trapped by the knowledge of her uncontrollable magic powers to freeze things with a touch. It’s set off by negative emotions, so she learns to yoke in her feelings -- cutting off everyone else in the process. “Conceal, don’t feel” is her motto.

With Elsa’s coronation as queen about to take place, Anna is thrilled at finally getting to interact with the world outside the castle’s closed doors. In short order she meets a handsome prince named Hans (Santino Fontana) who’s just as goofy and giddy as she. But things take a tragic turn when Elsa unwittingly causes the entire kingdom to freeze over, then flees into hiding in the mountains.

Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, who wrote the story along with Shane Morris, with Lee penning the screenplay, occasionally wander too far astray from the central opposition between the siblings. This is best encapsulated in the character of Kristoff, a gruff woodsman Anna encounters while trying to save Elsa.

Though ably voiced by Jonathan Groff, Kristoff mostly is just around to provide any needed derring-do, and a secondary romantic interest for Anna. (I also wasn’t too pleased with this lyric about the towheaded character: “Are you holding back your fondness due to his unmanly blondness?" Blond guy bias lives.)

One character I couldn’t get enough of is Olaf, the resident supplier of comic relief. A pint-sized snowman lovingly voiced by Josh Gad, Olaf is one of Elsa’s creations who wandered off the ice-bound plantation. Innocent, somewhat dim -- he yearns for summer, unaware that it will spell his demise -- and with a tendency to fall into pieces, he’s a classic Disney sidekick who’s so joyous to have around, he deserves his own flick.

Broadway fans may recognize Gad and Menzel as names associated with stage musical hits, and both get to show off their impressive pipes in the lineup of terrific songs composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Gad’s “In Summer” is a comedic ditty, while Menzel’s “Let It Go” is a full-on power ballad about being true to yourself. Bell, not hitherto known for her singing, proves quite adept in a solo tune and “For the First Time in Forever,” a duet with Menzel.

Though not an absolute necessity, I would recommend seeing this movie in 3-D so you can get the full effect of Elsa’s enormous icicle creations, the abominable snow giant and other visual treats.

While some cold-hearted critics might dismiss this film as the ‘Disney-fication’ of a very dark classic fairy tale, taken on its own “Frozen” is a ravishingly good movie that’s richer than its frolicking first impression might suggest.

Note: “Frozen” is preceded by a 7-minute short film, “Get a Horse!”, that is a wondrous mash-up of old and new Disney animation traditions. At first it seems we’re watching a venerable 1920s black-and-white cartoon with Mickey Mouse and his cartoon pals enjoying a hayride. But then they get into a road-rage scuffle with Peg-Leg Pete, the whole gang crashes through the screen and into our laps, bursting with color and originality. What a delight from director Lauren MacMullan and her crew.

Video review: "Breaking Bad: The Complete Series"

Television is in a really good place right now, with many people thinking the “small screen” offers more serious, ambitious content than do movie theaters. That’s true only if everything on TV were as good as “Breaking Bad.”

The reality is you don’t see a whole lot of truly awful movies these days, the harsh studio system weeding out anything not guaranteed to carry at least some audience appeal. Whereas television is best seen as an island of coal with a few diamonds peeking out here and there.

(Consider: for many years, “Two and a Half Men” was the top-rated comedy.)

The brainchild of Vince Gilligan is the ultimate gone-bad story. Over the course of five seasons (with the last actually split into two eight-episode runs), average milquetoast high chemistry teacher Walter White turns into the biggest methamphetamine dealer in the U.S.

Splendidly acted by Bryan Cranston -- who will eventually need a wheelbarrow for all his Emmy Awards -- the show was a prime example of a convoluted but intricately plotted story that could only be done in the “long form” of a TV series.

As one of the many people who caught up with the show by streaming it on Netflix, I will commit an act of heresy by saying that “Breaking Bad” probably is better experienced in languid regular stops than a massive binge. When you undertake the latter, certain defects in the plotting become apparent, such as an overreliance on happenstance and character behavior that varies with the needs of the storyline.

(Such as: Walter’s D.E.A. officer brother-in-law, Hank, failing to notice any of the 250-plus clues of erratic behavior by his wife’s sister’s husband.)

Still, a few weaknesses aside this was a truly audacious show, wildly ambitious and nearly always worthy of the high praise heaped upon it. With its heavy doses of symbolism, trademark innovative camera work and host of plot twists, “Breaking Bad” was television doing what TV does best.

Now you can own the entire 62-episode journey for yourself. “Breaking Bad: The Complete Series” features the entire show in a 16-disc set that includes nearly 50 hours of commercial-free episodes, plus 55 hours of bonus material. Or, if you prefer, just “Breaking Bad: The Final Season.”

Among the many video goodies is “No Half Measures,” a two-hour documentary on the making of the final eight episodes. There are also personal reflections by the cast and crew, profiles of fan favorites like slimy attorney Saul Goodman, storyboard comparisons, season retrospectives and much more.



Monday, November 25, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Morituri" (1965)

"Morituri" wasn't very commercially or critically successful. If it wasn't done in by its title -- Latin for "those who are about to die" -- then the clunky plotting in the film's second half did the trick. It starts out as an interesting and cerebral WWII espionage thriller, with Marlon Brando playing a charming scoundrel, and devolves into a confusing tale of mutiny and sexual intrigue aboard a German cargo ship carrying 7,000 tons of rubber.

Why rubber? According to the haughty British colonel played by Trevor Howard -- aren't all cinematic English military men puffed-up prigs? -- that much rubber will keep German army vehicles rolling across Europe for several more months. Without it, their control over Europe slips, so the fate of the entire war rests upon the decks of the aged ship Ingo.

(Have you ever noticed that in most war flicks, "the fate of the entire war" often rests on the people and events depicted in the movie?)

The Allies don't just want to sink the ship as it makes its way from Tokyo to occupied France, but capture it for themselves. To this end they recruit Robert Crain (Brando), a wealthy German military deserter living in luxury in Australia. He's blackmailed into posing as a Gestapo officer ("standard leader") and placed aboard the ship as a passenger. His mission is to disable the explosive charges used to scuttle the ship, so when the Ingo enters into an Allied trap in the middle of the Pacific, the precious cargo won't be lost.

The best and most interesting sequence of the movie is when Crain, now redubbed as Mr. Kyle, first boards the ship and must navigate the various personalities and power intrigues going on. Brando is a treat, playing a sly man of refined manners who must pretend there is a great, evil resolve underneath. Of course, he really is highly motivated, but not to the end anyone thinks.

The captain, Mueller, is played by Yul Brynner, who isn't too keen about having an SS man spying on his operations. Mueller's last cruise ended with his ship getting torpedoed while he was inebriated (medical treatment for an infected jaw, according to the official report). The Ingo represents his last chance to get back in the Third Reich's good graces -- something he desires mostly for the benefit of his family, especially his son, the commander of a destroyer operating in the Atlantic.

Mueller and "Kyle" clash immediately, with the captain restricting the Gestapo man's movements around the ship -- sure to put a crimp in his sabotaging style. So he enlists the aid of the first mate, Kruse (Martin Benrath), a fervid ideologist who believes he should've been given command of the ship anyway.

Things get shakier the further we go. Turns out there are plenty of political prisoners and criminals amongst the crew, who are being shipped back to the Fatherland to face their fate in one of those "all the rotten apples in a single barrel" strategies that only exist in the movies, and always seem to backfire. Soon Kyle is recruiting support from them for a mutiny, including Monkeyman (Hans Christian Blech), a blond tough who has a pet bird.

And then it just gets weird. Just as Kyle has managed to alert a British destroyer to the fact that the Ingo has been disguised to look like one of their own, a German submarine blows it out of the water. The U-boat is commanded by an admiral for some reason -- fleet officers don't generally limit themselves to a single vessel -- who is immediately suspicious of the purported SS agent aboard.

Meanwhile, they drop off the survivors of a passenger ship they previously torpedoed -- which is pretty unlikely; as we know from "Das Boot," there's barely enough room on a WWII submarine for the crew, let alone prisoners -- aboard the Ingo. Among them is a Esther (Janet Margolin), a Jewess and self-described "anti-German" who is none too pleased about her fate.

Captain Mueller offers to help the girl and advises her to hide her Jewish heritage, but instead she throws it in the face of Kyle (thinking him a loyal Gestapo man), Kruse and everyone else. She also offers to sleep with Mueller, tells her loutish fellow Americans she's open to a gang rape, and relates a tale to Kyle about being forced to have sex with her brother while others watch. I have no idea what this material is doing in the movie, but it brings the proceedings to a cold stop.

Director  Bernhard Wicki and screenwriter Daniel Taradash were somewhat limited in adapting the novel by Werner Jörg Lüddecke, which contains this and many other ludicrous elements. (For starters -- why disguise Crain as a high-profile SS agent, instead of just a meathead member of the regular crew?) After the film performed poorly, the studio tried to re-title it as "The Saboteur," but it didn't help things.

When the ship gets to sinking, Wicki -- perhaps limited by his production budget? -- doesn't bother with special effects. He simply tilts his camera so it looks as if the Ingo is listing. But you can clearly see that the waterline of the ship hasn't changed. 

Aside from the chintzy camera tricks, "Morituri" is a nice-looking film -- evidenced by its Oscar nominations for black-and-white cinematography and costume design. And Brando is charismatic and compelling as a man stuck in circumstances he doesn't really want trying to do the best he can. But the cranky plot sinks this cinematic ship.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" isn't any worse than the smash hit from last year, but that isn't really saying very much. This overly faithful adaption of the super-popular young adult novels by Suzanne Collins returns brave heroine Katniss Everdeen for another go-around that plays in large part like a broken record.

The tearful selection to the Games, in which champions from a dystopian America's 12 districts must fight gladiator-style for all the world to watch? It's here. The blunt tutoring by burnt-out former victor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson)? Ditto. Costumed pageantry and a gleeful skewering of our celebrity-obsessed media? Loved ones in peril? Sneering resentment by other, pampered, champions? Here, here, here.

And of course, the actual games themselves, which take up the latter half of the film. Once the action starts things pick up well, but it's a long, long slog until the arrows start flying.

The only real difference here is that the stirrings of rebellion against evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) have blossomed after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her district partner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), managed to defy all expectations and win the last Games together. Snow believes she's the face of the rebellion, and would snuff her out if he didn't fear that would stoke unrest even more.

He recruits a new Games Master, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to come up with a devilishly sadistic scenario for the 75th annual games centered around bringing back past victors. It's all just an excuse to put Katniss in peril.

We get the familiar scenes of the champions at practice, making threats and showing off their killer muscle definition. There's a pair of Aryan siblings, some older scientist types, a gal who files her teeth to jagged points, a mentally unhinged chick with an axe, an anonymous big bald dude, and a scattering of others who are quickly forgotten or killed off.

Chief among the new arrivals is Finnick (Sam Claflin), a golden boy who seems to absolutely smack his lips at the prospect of going up against Katniss and Peeta.

The love triangle from the last film continues, again without much resolution. Katniss loves Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a stolid miner from back home, while Peeta is hopelessly smitten by her. They continue their supposed romance for the benefit of the cameras, even concocting up a planned wedding. It's taken its toll on Peeta, though, who wants to sacrifice himself to save his unrequited lady love.

New director Francis Lawrence has a good eye for the action scenes, but anytime the characters have to just stand there and talk to each other, it's pure death. It's a turgid, curiously emotionless affair -- something you'd think would be difficult, given all the death and ardor being flung around.

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" will likely please its molten core of fans, mostly teen girls. But I found it to be a fantasy-adventure soap opera, where clothes and media gossip get just as much play as the battles to the death.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Video review: "Planes"

It’s not just that “Planes” isn’t a very good movie -- because it isn’t.

The very existence of this movie ends up devaluing the brand of Pixar Animation and Disney. This quasi-sequel to the “Cars” movies, animated largely in India, looks and feels like a straight-to-video quickie that somebody decided to shovel into theaters at the last minute. Unsuspecting parents would dutifully take their kids to see it, expecting the same high level of storytelling they’ve come to expect from the gang behind “Finding Nemo” and such.

Instead they got the tepid tale of Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), a humble crop-dusting plane who dreams of competing in the Wings Around the Globe race. It’s a familiar litany of just-be-yourself pabulum, goofy sidekicks and whiz-bang action scenes.

Dusty must face off with Ripslinger, the snarly champion, and bond with new friends from Mexico and India. He’s also got a grizzly older military plane (Stacy Keach) offering reluctant advice, and a dim-witted fuel truck (Brad Garrett) to supply comic relief.

The outcome is never really in doubt, and for that matter the beginning and middle are as predictable as a take-off checklist.

“Planes” is a by-the-numbers movie from a studio that once took pride in being the very best.

Video extras are rather slim, perhaps reflecting the down-market ambitions of this picture.

There are deleted scenes, a “Meet the Racers” feature, a brief look at the greatest real-life aviators, a 15-minute documentary following director Klay Hall’s aviation dreams and how they led him to making this movie, and a new music video featuring a minor character.



Monday, November 18, 2013

Reeling Backward: "King Rat" (1965)

"King Rat" is very different from your typical prisoner of war movie. It's not about grand escape attempts or antagonism with their captors -- indeed, the Japanese do not even show up until more than 30 minutes in, and only appear briefly a few more times.

Although its main character is a flimflam man who unofficially rules the camp through his scheming and black market deals -- much like William Holden in "Stalag 17" 12 years earlier -- it's not really about that, either. Rather, it's a deep and probing look at the relationship between two very different men, and how the travails of imprisonment push them to form inseparable bonds ... or not.

Corporal King (George Segal) is the ruler of the roost, despite having one of the lowest ranks in the POW camp. He has a senior sergeant (Patrick O'Neal) as his personal lackey, and gives impertinent answers to any query by an officer into his doings. Peter Marlowe (James Fox) is a terminally stiff-upper-lip British lieutenant who speaks the local dialect, and is recruited by King as his interpreter and right-hand man.

At first Marlowe is mortally insulted at King's offers to pay him for his services, insisting that's not how an English gentleman conducts himself. He helps King, but only out of a sense of friendship -- though he does accept food, favors and later a little cash for his efforts. It's a delicious exploration of the differences between American and British culture, with the latter considering it humiliating to be seen striving too much.

King, meanwhile, is an enterprising soul. Indeed, capitalism seems to be the only thing residing in his nature. Everything to him is a contest, a game of one-upmanship, a quest for profit.

The sale of a Rolex watch from an older British officer to one of the prison guards is instructive. The officer wants at least $1,200, knowing the watch is worth 3,500. King, acting as the middleman with Marlowe translating, talks the guard up from 400 to 2,200. But he tells the officer he only got 900, leaving him with 810 after King's 10% commission.

He then gives Marlowe his cut of $108, who doesn't want to take it, seeing it as a form of theft. But King fills him in. The guard will quickly resell the watch at a handsome profit, so he's happy. The watch was actually a fake, so the officer thought he was fooling both King and the guard, so he's happy. King duped them both and, being the smartest, took the lion's share of the stake. Reluctantly, Marlowe claims his share.

In this sense, "King Rat" is less about a con man than how that man relates to others in horrible circumstances.

The thing that really stood out for me about "King Rat" was how well writer/director Bryan Forbes, adapting the book by James Clavell, depicted the plight of the prisoners of the Changi prison camp near Singapore -- mostly Brits and Aussies but a few Yanks, too. Either they exclusively hired actors and extras who were extraordinarily skinny, or the cast members were deprived of food to get just the right look.

Remember when Christian Bale famous starved himself for "The Machinist?" That's what most of the men we see are like -- hollowed-out chests, sunken cheeks, toothpick arms and legs, stark rib cages. They're filthy, wear scraps of rags that used to be their uniforms, and have open sores or wounds.

Food is the number one concern of their daily existence. Each man exists on a quarter-pound of rice per day, and dysentery and other disease are rampant.

Forbes makes the audience really feel their hunger. The only other movie I can think of that even comes close to projecting the same level of desperation is "Empire of the Sun."  I think of the way all the animation goes out of the men's faces when a tasty morsel is shown in their presence. They practically turn into slavering dogs.

Speaking of dog: perhaps the most pivotal scene in the movie is when King cooks a stew of dog meat for his closest chums, i.e., the people who work for him as various henchmen in his nefarious activities. The dog was the pet of one of their fellow prisoners, who was ordered to put it down when it killed one of the camp's valuable egg-laying hens. King "acquired" the carcass, but makes a point of not telling his guests it's dog until he's dishing out plates and they're literally slobbering at the smell.

This sets off a brief but not terribly enthusiastic debate about the ethics of eating a friend's beloved pet. The men are just looking for King to give them an excuse to indulge. They want him to convince them it's silly to waste the flesh when people (but not them) are starving: "Meat's meat," he says, with characteristic bluntness. They happily give in to his urging, and we get the sense the entire endeavor was about King testing their loyalty.

King's other significant protein enterprise is with rat, giving the book and film its name. They get their hands on a male and female rat and begin breeding them -- with the unwitting help of a British officer and zoologist, whom they bribe to tell them all about the gestational periods and eating habits of vermin. Once their rat operation is big enough, they start selling off the meat, passing it off as mouse deer, a local delicacy enjoyed by the natives.

Two notable things about the rat meat business: they only sell to high-ranking officers, "majors and above." Even King has his principles, and feeding rat to his fellow enlisted men and junior officers just seems wrong (and risky). Also, they only cut off the hind legs at first, so the animals can continue living ... and making more little rats.

King differs from the other prisoners in keeping an appearance virtually unchanged from what you'd see of soldiers on their home base: crisp clean uniform, neatly trimmed and combed hair, fresh shave and manicure. Though Segal is slim as an adolescent boy, he seems well-fed by the standards of the prison.

He struts around the camp like a peacock, drawing the stares and resentment of the half-dead, bedraggled creatures around him. He also provokes the ire of Grey (Tom Courtenay), the provost-marshal, aka chief law enforcement officer in the camp. A snide protector of the old world order, Grey is incensed at seeing an upstart American running roughshod over the rules -- and enlisting British officers into his criminal web.

Justice is harsh and quick at Changi prison, and stealing food is seen as the worst possible crime. Early on, when one of the bags of rice comes up a couple of pounds short, the suspected (though never proven) culprit winds up face-first in a borehole. The prisoners use these to collect cockroaches and other bugs for protein -- and also as a way to execute offenders in a dark and cruel manner.

The film concludes on a note that is simultaneously joyous and depressing. Marlowe's arm is injured and turns gangrenous, precipitating the need for an amputation. King sticks his neck way out to obtain the medicine necessary to save his life and the arm. Marlowe returns the gift with his unwavering loyalty.

But one day out of the blue, the Japanese commander announces that his country has surrendered, and the war is over. Soon after a lone British soldier (Richard Dawson!) walks up and disarms the guards, officially ending the prisoners' captivity.

After a period of shock, the POWs go into a wild jubilation at the end of the war, but King retreats away from his criminal activities and his friendship with Marlowe. He knows the real world is about to reassert itself, and he'll go back to being a lowly corporal on the make. He abruptly snubs his British mate, calling him "sir" like it's a vile insult.

As he rides away from the camp with the other American soldiers, I think King really did feel a sense of affection for Marlowe. But he's also a hardcore pragmatist, and he knows that clinging to a false sense of equivalency will only lead to disappointment.

This is a strange and beautiful film -- it earned Oscar nominations for black-and-white cinematography and art direction/set decoration -- and a coldly compelling one. Its harsh and authentic depiction of POW life, and its total lack of sentimentality in its main character, are unique among other World War II movies.

"King Rat" hasn't maintained much of a reputation as the years have raced on. But I deem it a forgotten minor masterpiece.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: "The Best Man Holiday"

I must confess I watched the entirety of "The Best Man Holiday," started writing this review, and only just discovered that it was a sequel. I barely remember the 1999 romantic dramedy, "The Best Man," about a bunch of friends muddling through post-college struggles with careers and relationships.

In retrospect, it seemed an odd title, considering the only wedding is seen in flashback at the beginning, along with a bunch of other snippets from the first movie -- plus new clips to fill in the gaps of what's happened since. If you haven't seen the original (or forgotten it), these don't go a long way in bringing you up to speed.

(Short version: there are four men and five women, all gorgeous African-Americans, some of them have slept with others, some are now married to each other, and there's crossover between those two lists.)

Now it's 15 years later, the friends are approaching 40 and inevitably grown apart. Harper, the author played by Taye Diggs, is no longer the alpha dog of the guys. After a big initial success with a book loosely based on his friends, his follow-up efforts haven't hit it big, and he can't even get his latest work published.

Lance (Morris Chestnut) is now winding up a stellar career as a running back for the New York Giants. He's the most popular player in the NFL, going for the all-time rushing record in his final season. Harper's agent pushes him to write a biography of his friend and cash in.

Of course, rather than just coming right out and asking him, Harper has to dance around Lance for the entire movie, until the unavoidable discovery of his true intentions and the subsequent confrontation.

The whole gang is getting back together at the urging of Lance's wife Mia (Monica Calhoun), who wants them all to stay at their massive mansion for the week of Christmas. She has ulterior motives that aren't too hard to figure out, and which set up the entire second, sappier half of the film.

Harper's wife Robyn (Sanaa Lathan) is about to have their first baby, so he's having all sorts of money/daddy/responsibility issues. Complicating things further is that Mia and Harper had a thing back in the day, and Lance still holds a grudge the size of a linebacker.

Rounding out the cast are Harold Perrineau as Julian, now running an inner-city private school with his ex-stripper wife, Candace (Regina Hall), who finds his funding drying up when her notorious past gets YouTubed; Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), the outrageous girl now a reality TV star, famous for her divorces and obnoxious behavior; Jordan (Nia Long), the committed career girl who's testing the waters of monogamy with a white guy; and Terrence Howard as Quentin, the resident comedic relief and slacker, who's somehow managed to become filthy rich.

Writer/director Malcolm D. Lee puts his cast through some ostentatiously predictable paces, with an emphasis on cheap clashes and souped-up conflict. For instance, at one point Robyn observes Harper consoling Jordan in an obviously chaste embrace after the group receives some bad news, yet she still goes into a jealous huff.

A bunch of the characters have children, who wear amazing clothes and have even better manners. All the kids mysteriously disappear whenever there's a meal or important conversation. Lance, despite having a big game on Christmas Day, only attends one brief practice with his team.

This movie is a bunch of aspirational hooey, jam-packed with false Very Important Moments. In the course of the story there is a wedding (the flashback), a funeral, a birth, a death, a retirement, some breakups and some hook-ups. What's lacking is any surprises.

I still enjoyed spending time with these people; I just wish the warm-and-funny vibe of "The Best Man Holiday" didn't feel like freeze-dried leftovers.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: "Dallas Buyers Club"

Ron Woodruff doesn’t look like a hero. He doesn’t sound like one, either, and in fact does a whole lot of irresponsible and even hateful stuff. When we first meet him it’s apparent he’s particularly not fond of gay people, using the f-word freely -- though this wasn’t really unusual in Texas in 1985, when the AIDs epidemic had finally rolled out into mainstream consciousness.

Yet Ron, for all his many, many faults, did something that was downright heroic. He smuggled in drugs for HIV-positive patients that had not yet been approved by the FDA, saving countless lives. He did it to save his own skin and make money, so it’s not unfair to call him a drug smuggler -- of non-legalized (as opposed to illegal) pharmaceuticals.

The movie about his story, “Dallas Buyers Club,” is easily one of the best of the year, a touching story that never slides into self-indulgence and pap.

But let’s get back to how Ron looks, because it’s a sight. And that means talking about the appearance of Matthew McConaughey, who portrays Ron. The actor, whom it would be fair to say glided for years based on his good looks, has lost so much weight, he’s beyond thin. He’s downright frightening to look at.

All of McConaughey’s movie-star vanity is gone here. His face has caved in, those prominent cheekbones standing out like a pair of lonely buttes on the wide Texas plains. The rippling arms and legs have become withered twigs, the sculpted abs fallen in on themselves. He makes the scrawny guy in those old Charles Atlas muscle ads seem well-fed.

“As wiry as an ocotillo,” a reporter once described Ron, referring to the scraggly desert plant. That’s about right. He walks around with a foot of extra belt hanging off his jeans from being cinched ever further.

Ron, though, thinks he’s indestructible. The first image director Jean-Marc Vallée shows us is Ron, an itinerant bullrider, having sex with two women in the cages next to the rodeo while another rider is horribly mangled. He also drinks, does a lot of drugs, and is basically a disaster waiting to happen.

When he’s injured on the job as an electrician, Ron can’t believe it when the doctors tell him he’s tested HIV-positive. Not even when they tell him his T-cell count, normally between 500 and 1,500, is seven. “Frankly, we’re surprised you’re even alive,” the doc says.

Given 30 days to live, Ron goes through the stages of grief at lightspeed. Rejected by his roughneck buddies, who cannot gather how anyone but a homosexual could contract the disease, he tries to get into a drug trial for AZT. A compassionate doctor (Jennifer Garner) tries unsuccessfully to help him, but he scores some through the black market, though the drug only seems to make him weaker.

Arriving on the doorstep of a quack former doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne), Ron learns that there are other drugs available to effectively treat symptoms of HIV/AIDS -- they just haven’t been approved by the FDA. After recovering with the help of this medicine, he makes it his mission to smuggle these into America and make a killing off keeping others alive.

Since his market is (at this stage of the disease) almost entirely gay men, Ron finds that a homophobic, foul-mouthed cowboy like himself has troubles making inroads to this clientele. So he enlists the aid of Rayon, a transvestite prostitute played by Jared Leto.

Leto and McConaughey both deserve Oscar nominations for their performances, especially after witnessing the slow dance toward trust and understanding their two characters undertake. Leto, starved almost to the same proportions as McConaughey, is like a warped latter-day version of Norma Desmond, the fallen star from “Sunset Boulevard.” Rayon desperately clings to the belief she deserves better than what she’s gotten out of life, both her body and her circumstance, and it gives her a sort of vainglorious grace.

Eventually the feds arrive to shut down the party, as they did with dozens of other “buyers clubs” that sprung up around the country in the mid-1980s to sell non-approved HIV medicine. (The scam to get around FDA rules was that the drugs were free, as long as you buy a “membership” in the club.) The movie bogs down a little here, as screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack focus too much on the legal shenanigans.

Mostly, “Dallas Buyers Club” is a showcase for the long-dormant talents of Matthew McConaughey, who broke onto the Hollywood scene as “the next Paul Newman,” then lost his way with conceited roles in movies dreamed up by accountants rather than artists. Based on this extraordinary film and “Mud,” he’s ready to shoulder that heavy mantle again.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Video review: "Man of Steel"

Rebooting a superhero franchise is a trickier business than it sounds. People remember the glory of “The Dark Knight” and forget how clunky “Batman Begins” was. Spider-Man fizzled out with one group and came back stronger with another cast and crew. They tried twice to get the Hulk off the ground and only succeeded by making him a supporting player in the Avengers.

Hollywood attempted to bring back Superman a few years ago, and the the movie was just OK, so now they’ve tried again, and the results are similarly so-so.

Don’t flog “Man of Steel” for a lack of effort: there are big, grasping ambitions contained in this version starring Brit actor Henry Cavill. Too many, in fact.

Director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer’s unwisely chose to shoehorn two movies worth of storytelling into one sprawling narrative and ended up with a film showing all the symptoms of a split personality.

Here Clark Kent spends the first half of the movie as a demi-god alienated (literally) from the rest of his world, and the second half trading epic haymakers with evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), a militaristic bully from his home world of Krypton.

Both halves work decently well on their own, but don’t mesh together in any way that satisfies. We’re missing the bridge between the two, where Clark adopts the persona of Superman and takes on the mantle of humanity’s noble protector.

(The original “Superman” from 1978 faced similar issues, and chose to shoot the two movies back-to-back, giving Zod and his henchman their own sequel to fill out.)

Personally, I preferred the first portion where Superman must find his own way between the paths laid out by his two father figures, his Kryptonian dad (Russell Crowe) and his adoptive family on Earth, with Kevin Costner making a strong turn as Pa Kent.

“Man of Steel” isn’t a bad movie, but it certainly doesn’t soar like it should have.

Video extras are quite good, though as is often the case, the best stuff costs more. The DVD version comes only with three featurettes on the mythology of Superman, training regimen for the action scenes and a rundown of Krypton technology.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray level and  you add “Journey of Discovery: Creating ‘Man of Steel,’” a feature-length making-of documentary film. You also get “Planet Krypton,” which goes into the history and sociology of Superman’s doomed home planet.



Monday, November 11, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Harder They Fall" (1956)

The career of Humphrey Bogart has become so iconic that we forget his tenure as a leading man was actually rather brief. After kicking around Hollywood for a decade in supporting roles as dandy boys and gangsters, he hit it big in 1941 with "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon." The end would come just 15 years later, with his star power and health both fading rapidly.

"The Harder They Fall," Bogie's last movie, was a typically hard-bitten role in a sports drama that was distinctively more pessimistic than most films of the time. It essentially postulates that boxing is rife with corruption from top to bottom, with greedy managers, gamblers and promoters vacuuming up all the cash and the fighters bought off cheaply, their latter years filled with pain and woe.

Bogart himself was already suffering from what would later be diagnosed as esophageal cancer. His raspy voice had lost some of its power -- reportedly a portion of his lines had to be dubbed by another actor in post-production. His face looks lean and droopy, but not all that much changed from his "Casablanca" days.

Bogart's lack of physical beauty is part of what defined him as a star; his hangdog looks were in stark contrast to the Errols and Carys of the day. I think it also helped him invest his roles with a brooding sort of charisma, since he knew he couldn't skate by on a twinkle in his eye and a cleft in his chin.

The film is directed by Mark Robson from a screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on a novel by Budd Schulberg. Both the book and movie were seen as thinly-disguised takes on the scandal of Primo Carnera, a great Italian lummox of a fighter who nonetheless managed to capture the heavyweight crown from 1933 to 1934. It was widely believed the Mob greased his rise, and that many of his fights were fixed.

Here the exotic import is Toro Moreno, a young Argentine strongman who lacks even a lick of actual boxing skill. In his first sparring match with a brokedown old trainer (Jersey Joe Walcott), Toro is revealed to have weak punch and a jaw of glass. 

Nonetheless, crooked promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) wants to build him up big so he can cash in when the South American giant finally falls, betting against his own fighter. To accomplish this he recruits Eddie Willis, a washed-up former sports columnist played by Bogart. He becomes the press agent and Svengali to Toro, using his media connections to get favorable coverage and tamp down any complaints about opponents taking a dive.

The scenes between Steiger and Bogie are a study in stark contrast, with Steiger going way over the top and Bogart underplaying coolly.  Some have supposed the actors, who did not get along, did this to show their distaste for each other. But it actually helps the movie, with the volatile Nick seemingly ready to erupt any minute while Eddie stares him down.

At first Eddie rationalizes getting caught up in such a dirty racket, reasoning that since all the fighters facing Toro have been paid to take a dive, no one will get hurt. He even strong-arms the other players in this rotten game to get a better payout for the boxers. 

Still, his heart goes out to the simple-minded Toro, who only wants to go home and is prevented from doing so by Nick's hoodlums. They soon dispatch Toro's Argentine manager back home, played by Carlos Montalbán, older brother to Ricardo.

The travel and dark arts put a strain on Eddie's relationship with his wife, Beth (Jan Sterling). There's even a brief scene where they're talking on the phone and a woman's hand comes in from off-screen to cut off the connection, implying he's philandering. Overall, though, the inclusion of her character just mucks up the works, a brazen effort to introduce some feminine appeal into a very Y-chromosome undertaking.

Eventually Toro must face the champ, who isn't about to take any dives and indeed vows to give Toro the beating of his life. He's played by real-life boxer Max Bauer, who in a bit of Hollywood inbreeding, actually starred with Primo Carnera in a movie 23 years earlier.

Eddie must reluctantly clue Toro into the fact that he's a paper tiger who stands no chance. He tries to convince the big dolt to fight defensively and go down at the first solid punch, but the Argentine's pride prevails and he tries to make a go of it -- actually landing a few good knocks on the champ before getting cut to pieces.

Eddie is disgusted but still willing to take his cut of the scam, until he learns that through Nick's criminal accounting Toro will only keep $49.07 of all his winnings. Worse, Nick sells the rights to Toro to an even seedier promoter for $75,000, planning to take him around the country as a laughingstock act. He reasons that people paid to watch him on the way up, so they'll pay to watch him on the way down.

Fed up, Eddie sticks Toro on a plane back to Buenos Aires with his own cut of the pie, $26,000, stuffed into the lug's coat pocket. He then defies Nick's threats of violence and sits down at his typewriter to begin writing an expose on the sins of the boxing world.

One of the film's big problems is the interaction between Bogart and Mike Lane, the 6-foot-8 wrestler hired to play Toro. Lane simply can't act his way out of a paper bag, and juxtaposed with a master of subtlety like Bogart, it makes for a bunch of clunky scenes.

The boxing scenes are staged quite well -- though it's somewhat easier since Toro is supposed to be an incapable puncher. Burnett Guffey scored an Oscar nomination for the film's moody black-and-white photography.

"The Harder They Fall" ends up being a serviceable final star vehicle for Bogart, showcasing his unique power as a movie star. Like John Wayne, Bette Davis and a few others, they broke the mold when they made Bogart.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review: "Thor: The Dark World"

So much darkness in our popcorn movies lately. Everybody wants their comic book and sci-fi heroes to be brooding fellows trapped in grim, dim circumstances. We know it to be so because -- apparently not confident in their own ability to express it onscreen -- Hollywood keeps putting the word "dark" into the titles.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" is a fit example, both for the curious lack of a colon as well as being colossally inaccurate. (Might I suggest: "Star Trek Into Regurgitation.")

So now Thor, the mighty, grinning blond Norse god of thunder, has gotten himself mired in a patch of inky intrigue. Things are looking bad for his home world of Asgard, which has been invaded by an ancient evil: dark elves! And they've got some nasty red goo called the Aether, which floats around and gets absorbed into bodies, making people all-powerful.

"Thor: The Dark World" is a muddle of a movie, and not entirely because it's trying to be dour. Mainly the problem is that director Alan Taylor and his trio of screenwriters can't decide between a sober action/drama and a doofy superhero flick, and end up with ingredients for both. It's not that either way is better or worse, but that they simply don't taste good together.

For instance, it might not be apparent to Taylor & Co. that the death of a major character tends to have less of an impact when someone makes a joke about it not five minutes later.

That's the thing about dark movies -- you've got to keep at it. Trying to brighten things up with little rays of sunshine and humor just fouls it all up.

The movie also lacks the one thing necessary to a really good super-hero movie: a terrific villain for him or her to match wits against. That's entirely a loss here, with the main bad guy sporting a mouthful of a name, Malekith, and actor Christopher Eccleston buried under mounds of pasty white makeup and costume.

Seems he's been sleeping the eons away, waiting for his chance to reclaim the Aether and avenge himself upon Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the rest of Asgard and the nine realms. Those universes are about to sync up in a once-in-5,000-years Convergence, which could result in a return of eternal darkness, something dark elves tend to like.

Returning for another go is Natalie Portman, Thor's totally unnecessary girlfriend, who's also an astrophysicist studying the links between her world and Asgard because she's sweet on the big guy wielding the big hammer. Meanwhile, Thor's been too busy saving worlds to check in on her, despite a lengthy stop in New York for that Avengers thing.

As he was in the first Thor movie, Tom Hiddleston is the best thing going as Loki, Thor's adoptive brother and chief rival for the throne of Asgard. He's now languishing in Odin's dungeon for his past crimes, but you know it's just a matter of time before he gets sprung for one reason or another.

Smirking and charismatic, Loki is the lovingly loathsome bad guy this movie desperately needed. Instead, he's given one last chance to prove he's not the turncoat everyone thinks by teaming up with Thor against the elves.

"Thor: The Dark World" features lots of screwy action scenes, including one where Thor and Malekith fight while being transported multiple times between worlds. Up is down, left is right, and nothing really makes a lick of sense. That's pretty much how it goes for the rest of the movie.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Video review: "White House Down"

Big, dumb and fun – that’s the definition of what a good summer popcorn movie should be, and “White House Down” delivers on all counts. This big-budget thriller bombed hard at the box office, but now that it’s hitting video you’ve got the perfect chance to indulge in its schlocky charm.

Jamie Foxx plays President of the United States James Sawyer, in a thinly-veiled riff on our real-life POTUS. And Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a D.C. cop looking to break into the Secret Service. While on a job interview at the White House, it gets invaded by a pack of right-wing paramilitary types.

Cale gets to pose as Bruce Willis in the “Die Hard” movies, the lone do-gooder trapped in a confined space with nihilistic terrorists and a bunch of helpless captives – including his own young daughter (Joey King). Bloody mayhem ensues, and before long the wannabe guardian and the cat-cool president have teamed up to take out the bad guys.

Watching these two trade quips like a buddy-cop duo is both silly and sublime. Because the movie is in on the joke of how goofy it is, we’re invited to laugh along rather than at it.

To call the plot improbable is a compliment. It’s a totally absurd hodgepodge of gunfights and one-liners, culminating in a car chase around the White House grounds with RPGs flying hither and thither.

It may have all the plausibility of a teenager’s video game, but this movie is a total gas.

Video goodies are ample and lightweight, just like the movie. The DVD comes with four making-of featurettes, focusing on the two stars, supporting cast, stunts and director Roland Emmerich – a seasoned hand at flicks like this (“Independence Day”).

Opt for the Blu-ray version and you add a gag reel and nine more featurettes focusing on various aspects of production, including what it’s like to recreate the White House down to the smallest detail – and then blow it all up.



Monday, November 4, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Naked City" (1948)

"The Naked City" isn't a particularly well-made movie, other than the cinematography and editing, both of which won Academy Awards. The acting is hammy, even amateurish at times, and the pacing is so uneven there are occasions you could wander out of the room, prepare and eat a nice snack, and come back without having missed anything critical.

But as an early example of what would come to be known as film noir, this 1948 crime drama did things that were way ahead of its time. Its gritty take on the squalor and urban decay of post-war New York City was remarkably pessimistic for that era..

And the hard-bitten cynicism of the narrator -- actually producer Mark Hellinger, who died after recording his lines -- bleeds through the audio like a pickax against metal. My favorite line is near the end when, the mystery of a beautiful model's murder having been solved, he comments upon the media spotlight thrown on the case by the newspapers: "Her name, her face, her history, were worth five cents a day for six days."

The plot, while frequently pedantic, essentially created the model of the police procedural that would become a staple of movies and television for decades to come. It shows a case being worked step-by-step from the inside out, rather than the usual "flash of genius" stuff audiences were used to.

One thing I really liked was director Jules Dassin's decision to cast genuine-looking people in most of the key roles, and to use real New York locations as his backdrop -- most notably in the culminating chase as the murderer climbs to (and falls from) the top of the Williamsburg Bridge.

Aside from Don Taylor as clean-cut young detective Jimmy Halloran and socialite/witness Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart), none of the other actors have classic Hollywood looks. Even Howard Duff as key suspect Frank Niles, a conniving playboy on the make, has the droopy look of a heel about him.

The other supporting parts are a litany of bulbous noses, balding pates, paunchy midsections and seamed faces. The film goes out of its way to be as egalitarian as possible in reflecting the entire untidy spectrum of the Big Apple, as summed up in the closing line: "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them."

At the beating heart and soul of the picture is Barry Fitzgerald as Lieutenant Dan Muldoon, a crusty old Irish-American homicide detective who knows all the tricks in the book. Barely over five feet and wizened, Fitzgerald nevertheless seems to command every room he's in, pulling quietly on his pipe and staring down whoever he's talking to like the Lord of All Hobbits.

(Fitzgerald holds a special place in film history as the only actor ever to be nominated for an Academy Award twice for the same performance. He won the Supporting Actor award for "Going My Way" but lost out in the Lead Actor category. Subsequently the Oscar rules were changed to prevent this from reoccurring.)

The story begins with the murder of Jean Dexter, who we eventually learn to be a small-town girl who went to the big city and ended up chasing the bright lights straight toward her murder. Interestingly, I couldn't find any credit for who played her, even though we see a blonde woman being chloroformed at the beginning and her body again at the morgue.

After much circuitous investigating -- delayed mostly by Niles, who seemingly cannot speak without telling a lie -- the trail finally leads to the doorstep of Willie Garza (Ted de Corsia), a former wrestler who loves to play the harmonica. Curiously, we never actually see or hear him blowing on one.

The final sequence is the film's highpoint, as Garza flees from the cops through the streets of Manhattan. What was really crazy about this sequence is that the narrator, who often addressed the characters the camera was following as if they could hear him, actually starts giving the villain advice on how to get away! He tells him to be calm, not to overreact or run, etc.

Of course, if he actually heard that voice in his head, he didn't follow the sage counsel offered. Otherwise "The Naked City" might have had a very different ending. This is one of the those flicks that managed to stake out a notable place in film history without actually being particularly good.