Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: "Labor Day"

"Labor Day" is a movie about the in-between spaces. It's less about the things that we do than how we do them, and why. It's about the parts of ourselves we hide from each other -- the loneliness, the fear, the crippling sense that things are not turning out as they ought to have. And it's about breaking down these walls we construct around us.

Writer/director Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air"), adapting the novel by Joyce Maynard, tackles a difficult subject matter that, at first blush, sounds ridiculous or even exploitative. And yet the film continually surprises us, believably bending an odd setup into a deeply affecting story.

A wounded divorced mom, Adele (Kate Winslet) is so shut inside her own world that she can barely manage to leave her New England house once a month to buy groceries with her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). While shopping they are accosted by a strange man (Josh Brolin) who has blood on his clothes and is looking for a place to hide.

He turns out to be Frank, an escaped murderer from the local prison who jumped out of a hospital window after having his appendix removed. He more or less forces his way into Adele and Henry's home, and yet he does not seem belligerent. Frank ties up Adele, gathers together food and supplies, and promises to jump aboard the next train through town.

Since it's Labor Day weekend, though, trains are in scarce supply. Meanwhile, police turn the entire town upside down looking for Frank.

And then a weird thing happens. Adele and Henry earn Frank's trust and cease to be his prisoners. He starts fixing things around the dilapidated house, teaches Henry (he calls him "Hank") how to throw a curveball and demonstrates the recipe for the world's best pie crust. Adele, so crushed by her divorce that she has fallen out of love with the very idea of romance, finds herself drawn to this strange, charismatic man.

Through flashbacks and asides, Reitman and his cast delve deeper into each character's past and their potential future. We learn how Frank came to be in prison, why Adele seemed to have given up on life, and more about Henry's burgeoning interest in girls, including a morose, sharp-witted newcomer to town (Brighid Fleming).

The performances are uniformly splendid, with young Griffith bringing assurance to the role of a young man who's not at all sure of himself. Winslet, though stumbling a bit with an American accent, projects an aura of fractured goodness.

On paper Brolin's part is rather thin, but he gives Frank such a deep-centered calmness and sense of purpose, it's easy to see why his erstwhile prisoners soon latch onto him. He seems both a hard man and a sensitive one.

"Nothing misleads people like the truth," Frank tells Henry, and much the same could be said about this film. It takes a cheap potboiler scenario and turns it into something completely unexpected and revelatory.

January, normally a cinematic desolation, has delivered a gem.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Carve Her Name With Pride" (1958)

One often encounters oddities in movies that would appear to have fallen out of the head of an addled screenwriter. But then they turn out to be true, or at least a lightly fictionalized version of the truth.

Such was the case of "Carve Her Name With Pride," a dramatization of real-life British World War II spy Violette Szabo, who was dropped into German-controlled France for several important missions. She was eventually captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, where was executed. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, which roughly parallels our Congressional Medal of Honor. Szabo became only the second woman to earn that honor.

There's a scene after Szabo has been selected and trained by the Special Operations Executive and is about to be sent on her first mission when she is asked to select "her poem." This was a method of exchanging coded messages based on memorizing a poem, with certain keywords used for cryptography. She selects a poem written for her by her late husband, a French soldier who was killed in the war, "The Life That I Have," which is a bit of gooey romantic mush.

It sounds like a bunch of movie-making hooey -- except British agents really did use code poems, and "The Life That I Have" was one of the more famous choices. The only thing false about it was that it was written by Leo Marks, a famous cryptographer, and not Szabo's husband.

The film stars Virginia McKenna, a major Brit star during the 1950s and '60s, who won a BAFTA award for another WWWII movie previously featured in this space, "A Town Like Alice." She earned another British acting award nomination for "Pride," providing another strong, resolute performance.

McKenna's physicality contributes greatly to her success in these roles as a woman in dire circumstances who finds her courage through harsh experience. She is a willowy beauty, thin almost to the point of emaciation, with fine porcelain features and blonde hair. She doesn't look very tough, so when she excels in hand-to-hand combat training or wields a machine gun with great aptitude while mowing down Germans, it naturally makes the audience want to root for her.

About the machine gun scene: this apparently was a bit of Jessica Lynch-style propaganda trumped up by the military and passed along into the movie. In most likelihood, Szabo was captured when she ran out of ammunition. According to her Wikipedia page, German reports about the incident record no casualties.

My chief complaint about "A Town Like Alice" was that it included a love story with little relevance to the rest of the movie, and the same thing happens here. Szabo falls for Tony Fraser, a fellow agent played by Paul Scofield, and they end up working together. There is one touching scene after they've been captured where the men and women are separated on opposite sides of a barn, and they reach through the slats of wood to hold hands.

In general, though, the romance feels like something tacked on to give the film more feminine appeal.

Her treatment at the hands of the Nazis is rather cruel, and the movie is rather bold in depicting the fact that she was tortured -- though the camera is a little circumspect when the actual brutality begins, panning away while we hear her moans of pain. The filmmakers also aren't shy about showing how bedraggled Szabo looked after her interrogation, with McKenna looking positively wretched and, if possible, even thinner.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert, who helmed several James Bond films along with a number of very good movies, shows a steady hand for the material, keeping the focus on McKenna and how she reacts to everyone around her. He co-wrote the screenplay with Vernon Harris based on the book by R.J. Minney.

"Carve Her Name With Pride" is a serviceable piece of mid-century romantic drama with an espionage angle, featuring another memorable turn by Virginia McKenna. Perhaps as I traipse through her filmography, I'll come across a movie where wasn't made to mack on some chap needlessly.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Video review: "Rush"

Put “Rush” in the bin of most criminally ignored films of 2013. This terrific drama/action from director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan may just be the best car racing movie ever made.

American audiences largely ignored it, probably because it’s about European Formula 1 racing. The two main figures, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, are giants in their sport but virtually unknown here in the States. In the 1970s they fought an epic battle of wills for the racing crown, resulting in tragic events but also a strange, powerful bond that forms between rivals.

Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is the prototypical bigger-than-life playboy, who raced for the fame and the thrills. Lauda (Daniel Brühl, who should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination) is the precise technician who approached racing like a business and a science, but had trouble getting along with the people.

The racing scenes are amazing both visually and aurally, as the filmmakers wrap the audience inside the buzzing tornado of a Formula 1 car.

Even better, though, are the exchanges between the rivals, which are sniping and ugly at first, but later take on a comradely, warm aspect that surprises both of them. The secret to this movie is that it’s a character study hiding inside the clothes of a racing flick.

It didn’t win at the box office, but hopefully “Rush” will take the checkered flag in its video release.

Video goodies are quite good indeed, including an expansive making-of documentary, “Race for the Checkered Flag: The Making of Rush,” and “The Real Story of Rush,” which explores the real-world events that inspired the movie. Howard also provides a behind-the-scenes look at his filmmaking process, and there are deleted scenes.



Monday, January 20, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Silent Running" (1972)

Hollywood briefly flirted with counter-culture ideas and stories during the late 1960s and early '70s, making films that would later be described as "trippy." Not very many of these movies were especially good, but they often had an outsize effect on influencing future movies and filmmakers.

It's hard not to look at 1972's "Silent Running" and see similarities with the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" feature films. The use of "drones," or little robot servants, by the space-faring humans would seem to have inspired George Lucas in his robot designs, which he referred to as droids. The drones in "Silent Running" -- at first called simply 1, 2 and 3 but later redubbed Huey, Louie and Dewey -- were portrayed by actors without legs, who used their hands to move around.

The drones aren't particularly convincing as characters, since they lack a definable "face" for the audience to relate to, and don't even appear to have a discernible camera eye. There's something that looks like a large camera flash bulb in the upper right, and they can't even properly talk other than hissing by venting some of their gizmos.

By the time you are reading this, the Oscar nominations will be out and it seems a certainty that Bruce Dern will receive a Best Actor nod for his subtle, powerful work in "Nebraska." The studio system never quite knew what to do with the odd duck thespian, who had leading-man looks and acting chops but naturally seemed to migrate to dark supporting roles. His last Oscar nomination was for 1978's "Coming Home."

Here Dern plays Lowell, the resident botanist on a space mission to preserve the last of Earth's plant life, housed in massive bio-domes aboard several ships. It's sort of the reverse scenario of "Wall-E," where instead of the humans leaving the planet until it's inhabitable again, here the people wait planetside for the flora to be reconstituted enough to be viable on a large scale again.

Sharing an enormous ship with three other men, Lowell is the self-imposed outcast, preferring to spend his time inside the bio-dome forests rather than playing cards and other games with the rest of the crew. He wears long flowing robes instead of the efficient space jumpsuits the others favor, and keeps his hair long and his feet bare. Lowell can't stand the synthesized food the other guys live on, opting for fresh fruits and vegetables he's grown himself.

Though it's never explicitly stated, it seems clear Lowell is a vegetarian. Though there are some animals in the bio-domes, they're there mostly for ecological reasons rather than to be hunted for game.

When the commanders order the domes to be ejected into space and blown up with nuclear weapons, Lowell rebels, killing his crew-mates and faking the destruction of his ship, the Valley Forge. It works for awhile, but eventually the other ships discover him, forcing Lowell to commit suicide -- but not before ejecting the last dome with one of his drones set as its permanent caretaker.

It's notable that as soon as Lowell commits his treason, he begins to behave more and more like the men he loathed. He starts eating the synthesized food, lets his living areas grow unclean, and even takes to zipping around in the little transport vehicles the other crew used to terrorize him in.

Director Douglas Trumball was known as the special effects creator for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Andromeda Strain," contributing much to the look and success of those films. "Silent Running" was an original screenplay by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino ("The Deer Hunter") and Steven Bochco, best known for TV cop dramas "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue."

It's a really kooky script, more an idea for a movie than a fully fleshed-out one. I've never quote figured out what the title refers to -- the fact that the ships operate silently in space? Or that the lonely Lowell traverses the corridors of his doomed craft with no one to talk to?

"Silent Running" has gained cult status as an offbeat, innovative progenitor to late, better sci-fi flicks. The hippy-dippy aspects are badly dated, including some Joan Baez I-love-nature songs that exist as their own parody. (Really? Did anyone ever think that shrill warbling sounded pleasing to the ear?)

I found the film strange and off-putting, but Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was our cinematic obsession with space stories.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Video review: "Captain Phillips"

Director Paul Greengrass is not a man who deals in moral absolutes. In “Captain Phillips” he, along with screenwriter Billy Ray and star Tom Hanks, relate the true story of an American cargo ship captain who was kidnapped at sea by Somali pirates. Rather than making the bad guys faceless, soulless villains, he portrays them as real, thinking individuals who feel pressured to commit acts of piracy.

This is not to say that the film attempts to paint a flattering portrait of the pirates in favor of the American. But by making the guys behind the guns seem full-blooded and human themselves, it only serves to underscore the peril of the title character.

Barkhad Abdi is just terrific as Muse, the head of the pirates. Desperate, but also clever and empathetic, he engages in a war of wills with Phillips, who spends the second half of the movie as his prisoner, crammed into a dingy lifeboat.

The fact that Abdi, an acting novice, manages to hold his own with a powerhouse like Hanks speaks well not only of his own screen presence, but Greengrass’ expert direction.

The scene where Phillips is finally rescued from his ordeal and brought aboard a Navy ship for medical treatment is some of the best acting you will ever see, with Hanks shining as a man who's been through hell and is trying to keep it all together, and failing.

A live-wire act coupled with a deep character study, “Captain Phillips” is the rare drama that doesn’t settle for simple black-and-white answers.

Video extras are the same for Blu-ray and DVD versions, and have a certain amount of heft without being particularly ambitious. There are three behind-the-scenes featurettes about various aspects of production, and a feature-length commentary track supplied by Greengrass.


Extras: B-minus

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Snubs, surprises in 2013 Oscar nominations

Emma Thompson is probably not feeling like kicking off her high heels right now. Despite a very strong run in the preliminary awards, she did not receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination as widely expected, with Amy Adams taking her spot for the dizzy, lackluster "American Hustle." It still got 10 nominations to tie for most with "Gravity," while "12 Years a Slave" followed with nine.

Thompson's has to be the biggest snub in a list of nominees that produced a few noteworthy surprises. Click here for the full list.

Robert Redford and Tom Hanks also were left off the list, with (relative) youngsters Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio taking their spots. I think perhaps while the people who saw "All Is Lost" loved Redford's noble, nearly wordless performance, not a lot of people saw the movie. Hanks' lack of nomination is much more puzzling, and infuriating.

Other than Thompson, Best Actress went according to expectations.

Best Picture nominees went pretty much down the line with my predictions, with "Saving Mr. Banks" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" being nudged out by "Philomena." "Banks" in fact received only a single nomination for musical score, while "Davis" got only cinematography and sound mixing. I'm perfectly fine with that; "Philomena" is a vastly superior film to both.

Jonah Hill and Bradley Cooper were surprise nominees in the Best Supporting Actor category; while both were good in their roles, neither approached the magnificence of Daniel Brühl in "Rush," which criminally did not receive a single nomination. Matthew McConaughey's chance for a double nomination disappeared with the chances for "Mud."

I was rather close on Supporting Actress, with Octavia Spencer from "Fruitvale Station" supplanted by Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine." Loose talk about Oprah Winfrey getting snubbed for "The Butler" are just that; I don't think she ever really was in the running, and certainly didn't deserve to be.

For Director, my prediction that Paul Greengrass was the only one on my list who could be pushed out proved accurate;  Alexander Payne took his spot for "Nebraska." 

In Adapted Screenplay, I was again close with "Philomena" nudging out "August: Osage County," and deserving to. I got them all right in Original Screenplay.

A few other notables: They managed to get to five nominees for Animated Feature by padding it out with "The Croods" and "Despicable Me 2." There's been a habit lately of sliding in a little scene, foreign (usually French) animated film in this category, and they did it again with "Ernest & Celestine," which I don't think was on anyone's radar.

It was a high-profile year for documentaries, and several recognizable titles showed up there, including "The Act of Killing."

Once again, the Academy managed to nominate five foreign language films that hardly anyone in the U.S. has seen.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the list. Generally speaking, the pictures that were widely expected to get a bunch of nominations and didn't were ones I didn't care for, and the films that did better than expectations were deserving.

Sam Rockwell didn't get a nod for "The Way, Way Back," but I didn't really think he stood a chance. "Her," the best film of the year, came away with five nominations, including Best Picture and Original Screenplay, and has a real shot at being a dark horse winner in the latter. "Philomena" also came out with four nominations, including actress, picture and screenplay.

"Pacific Rim" didn't pick up a single nomination in the technical categories, which seems breathtaking for the best piece of big-budget entertainment in 2013. "Prisoners," my #2 film of the year, received only a cinematography nod.

My prediction tally: 35 out of 45 correct. Not bad, if I may say so myself.

Review: "Ride Along"

"Ride Along" is one of those aggressively dumb movies that almost make you feel bad for it, if it weren't vacuuming 10 bucks out of your pocket and an hour-forty of your life.

The set-up makes not a lick of sense, the characters do nonsensical things unburdened by the laws of man or science, and it tries to skate by on the personalities of its stars, Kevin Hart and Ice Cube.

Hart is a young, short, dizzyingly energetic comedian whose onscreen presence resembles early Eddie Murphy on speed. Ice Cube is not so young anymore, known for his surly sneer, and rather shrimpy himself, though sufficiently taller than Hart for his character to crack all sorts of wee-man jokes on him.

Cube plays James, a tough Atlanta street cop, while Hart's Ben is a high school security guard and police wannabe who happens to be dating James' sister (Tika Sumpter). Ben convinces James to take him on a ride along so he can prove he's worthy of his sister's hand in marriage, while James is out to embarrass Ben enough to wash him out of law enforcement before he's even enrolled in the police academy, and hopefully out of his sister's life, too.

Director Tim Story and his quartet of screenwriters cue up every sticky situation imaginable, with James throwing Ben under the bus in various scenarios where he's expected to resolve the situation without even the benefit of a badge or a gun. This includes wrestling a honey-smeared man acting crazy at the farmer's market and confronting a gang of bikers, with one of dubious gender.

Never mind that in an actual ride along you'll be lucky if the police even let you get out of the car, let alone face down psychotics and stick-up men.

There's some vague plot machinations about dirty cops and a mysterious crime boss named Omar whom nobody as supposedly ever seen. Of course, he soon shows himself in the form of Laurence Fishburne, affording the audience a rare opportunity to witness an Oscar-caliber actor slumming in some really poor writing, and somehow making it seem even worse than it is.

I'm not sure what's harder to watch; the fact that Fishburne is called upon to deliver incredibly overwrought gangsta speech, or that he's very, very bad at it.

There are a couple of laughs in "Ride Along," mostly tied to Hart's manic, sporadically funny shtick. But this is one trip worth skipping.

Review: "The Nut Job"

If at first glance “The Nut Job” looks like cut-rate animation aimed squarely at little kiddies, that’s because it is. This Canadian/Korean production with voices provided by recognizable B-list stars would be called an exercise in intentional mediocrity -- except it’s not good enough to be deemed run-of-the-mill.

It aims low, and hits even lower.

The set-up is decently clever: Surly Squirrel is the roguish outcast of Liberty Park, a green space in an unnamed town center in 1950s America. With winter coming on and food supplies low, he gets himself banished for his antics. He sets about on a mission to pilfer a horde of nuts from a local shop, unaware that the ersatz proprietors are planning their own heist job on the bank next door.

It’s based on a short film made by Peter Lepeniotis, who directed and co-wrote this feature film effort with Lorne Cameron.

The movie is a collection of boingy action, a few teary moments and moral-of-the-story patronizing, plus some fart jokes, a smidge of romance and a heaping helping of cute critters.

The animation looks really cutting-edge … if this were 1997. Everything has a slightly digitized look, like a photo blown up past its pixel limit, and the action isn’t very smooth, tending to seem jumpy. The character designs aren’t very detailed, though the fur on the animals isn’t bad.

The voice acting is generally far richer than the look of the film, led by Will Arnett as Surly. With his smooth-yet-raspy baritone, he gives the squirrel a scoundrel’s twinkle.

Katherine Heigl does Andie, a stalwart fellow squirrel who represents the do-gooder animals of the park, led by the benevolent-ish Raccoon (Liam Neeson). Brendan Fraser provides the voice of Grayson, who is adored as the park’s official hero figure, a title he does little to earn.

For some reason never explained, some of the creatures have names while others are just called what they are, like Raccoon and Mole (Jeff Dunham), his comically near-sighted henchman.

The humans’ chief is King (Stephen Lang), a gang leader who just got out of the slammer and wants to land one more big job before retirement. He and his crew are tunneling into the bank while Surly and Andie form a temporary alliance to tunnel their way into the nut shop.

Rounding out the cast is Maya Rudolph as Precious, the robbers’ alleged guard dog, despite being a tiny pug. After a bit of convincing, she soon throws in with Surly  Co.

The storytelling is pitched straight at the kindergarten-and-down crowd, with a few quick asides thrown in to keep their parents awake.

Tune your television to the Disney Junior or Nickelodeon channels on any given evening, and you’re apt to find animated fare that’s more polished and entertaining than what you’ll see in “The Nut Job.” But it’s January, folks, so this is the sort of cheap, disposable stuff that gets tossed into theaters.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Video review: "Enough Said"

James Gandolfini may have not been most people's notion for a romantic lead, with looks like an ex-jock gone to pot and wallowing in anger. But the late actor showed just how much charisma he harbored in his balding, paunchy body in "Enough Said," an affecting romantic-drama from writer/director Nicole Holofcener.

The film stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva, a 50-ish masseuse who's divorced, single and has a teen daughter about to leave for college. At a party she meets Albert (Gandolfini), who's in a very similar life situation. They have a date that turns into a tenuous relationship, which seems to be going fine until a strange coincidence throws them off.

Eva learns that her new friend (Catherine Keener), who constantly bad-mouths her ex-husband, used to be married to Albert. So the horrible guy she's been hearing about is actually her new beau.

Logic says that shouldn't really make a difference, but in Holofcener's carefully observant story, it most certainly does. The film understands how lonely, damaged people react when letting their guard down for a new relationship.

The actors acquit themselves wonderfully, including the textured supporting performances by Toni Collette, Tracey Fairaway, Eve Hewson and Tavi Gevinson. One of the nice things about Holofcener's movies is that she populates them with fleshy, believable characters.

Easily of the year's best indie films, "Enough Said" falls into the "don't-miss" category.

Alas, video extras are sorely lacking. The DVD comes with only the theatrical trailer and a few promotional featurettes. Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you get a "Second Takes" feature.



Monday, January 13, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Hot Rock" (1972)

"Not me. I’ve got no choice. I’m not superstitious, and I don’t believe in jinxes, but that stone’s jinxed me and it won’t let go. I’ve been damn near bitten, shot at, peed on, and robbed. And worse is gonna happen before it’s done so I’m taking my stand. I’m going all the way. Either I get it, or it gets me!"

That's a line of dialogue from "The Hot Rock" that I'm not sure if it came out of the typewriter of screenwriter William Goldman or author Donald E. Westlake, who wrote the book. I highly suspect the former, because Goldman -- one of the most celebrated script men of all time -- has a penchant for giving main characters long-ish speeches where they more or less tell you everything you need to know about them.

That line is from Dortmunder, a career thief played by Robert Redford, talking about a massive diamond he and his team are after at the behest of an African diplomat named Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn). Dortmunder has had a run of bad luck during his life in crime; indeed, as the story opens he's just getting out of a long prison stint.

He takes the job, even though he has every intention of taking up the plumbing trade he learned behind bars, because his brother-in-law Kelp (George Segal) convinces him to. It's fun to see Redford play a character who is inherently pessimistic and downbeat -- he even chews a special medicinal gum to soothe his pre-ulcerous stomach.

They case the museum where the diamond is held, leading to another great exchange of dialogue as he explains their likelihood of success:

Dortmunder: "It's good, and it's bad. There's a guaranteed return, and that's good. But the guarantor is Amusa, and Amusa's a rookie, and that's bad. But it's an easily transportable object, and that's good. Only it's in a rotten position in the museum, 30 steps to the quickest exit, and that's bad. And the glass over the stone, that's bad too, because that's glass with metal mixed in it, bulletproof, shatterproof. But the locks don't look impossible, three, maybe five tumblers. But there's no alarm system, and that's the worst, because that means no one's going to get lazy watching, knowing the alarm will pick up their mistakes. Which means the whole thing has got to be a diversion job, and that's good and that's bad, because if the diversion's too big, it'll draw pedestrians, and if the diversion's not big enough, it won't draw that watchman."
Kelp: "Dortmunder, I don't know where the hell you are, or what the hell you're saying. Just tell me, will you plan the job?!?"
Dortmunder: "It's what I do."

The basic joke of this comedy-caper is that the crack team of criminals are very good at what they do, but something always seems to go wrong and they keep having to steal the same diamond over and over again.

They successfully distract the guards by having their wheel man, Murch (Ron Leibman), crash a car in front of the museum and pretend to be injured, while their explosives guy, Greenberg (Paul Sand), portrays a doctor helping out. But things go awry and Greenberg is arrested after swallowing the diamond.

Then it becomes a prison break movie, with Dortmunder and the team forced to get Greenberg out. Then they learn he stashed the diamond in the holding cell at the 9th Street police station, so they have to break in there with the help of a helicopter and more diversions.

Finally, after learning Greenberg's father, a slimy attorney played by Zero Mostel, has double-crossed them all and hidden the diamond in his bank safe deposit box, they have to break into there, strong-arming the bank clerk with the help of a hypnotist.

The movie's not terribly funny, but the caper bits are really inspired and nerve-wracking. Director Peter Yates, know for "Breaking Away" and "Bullitt," has a tight feel for action scenes, while simultaneously knowing how to make each character vivid and distinct.

The film contains several notable aspects. While they're flying the helicopter to the police station, Murch -- a novice at piloting a chopper, but insisting "I can drive anything!" -- nearly crashes into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, which was then still under construction. Christopher Guest makes his film debut with a bit part as a cop at the police station.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Robert Redford in a non-golden boy role, playing a man who's a ball of nervous energy and low expectations for himself. The part at the end where Dortmunder, having successfully retrieved the diamond from inside the bank, walks away is just a treat.

He finally has a bounce in his step, and Redford practically floats above the sidewalks of New York City, almost seeming to dance his way into the arms of long-elusive success.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Review: "Lone Survivor"

Imagine you find yourself stuck in a situation where you must take innocent lives, or risk your own. Not only that, but an evil man lives while your comrades perish.

That was the plight facing four Navy SEALs in 2005 while hunting a Taliban leader in remote Afghanistan. Ultimately they made the moral choice, but it sealed the fate of all but one of them.

That’s the based-on-a-true-story premise of “Lone Survivor,” a powerful new action-drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster as the soldiers. Expertly crafted and harrowing, it’s not an especially deep film, falling back on firefights and familiar “band of brothers” tropes.

But in capturing the horror and confusion of modern combat, it’s as good as anything that has come along since “Black Hawk Down.”

Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, the survivor who wrote the book upon which the movie is based. He’s an older, more seasoned SEAL, the voice of moderation and the guy the rest of the company turns to advice, whether it’s about mission equipment or what type of horse he should buy his fiancée as a wedding present.

Kitsch is Michael Murphy, the lieutenant and squad leader. He’s something of a legend among the SEALs, and lives up to his rep. Ben Foster, the excellent character actor, is terrific as Matt “Axe” Axelson, the hardcase sniper. And Emile Hirsch plays Danny Dietz, the youngest team member and communications man.

The mission was to drop into a hostile zone in Afghanistan where Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) is known to be staying, and take him out. But while waiting for nightfall, three goat herders stumble across the soldiers, one an old man and another a young boy.

An argument breaks out over their options: kill the shepherds? Tie them up and face certain death from wolves or freezing temperatures? Or let them go, risking they’ll run right to Shah and bring down a small army of Taliban fighters on their head?

Ultimately, they made the third choice. Tellingly, writer/director Peter Berg makes these soldiers self-aware men who are cognizant of their place in a media-saturated world. Killing the shepherds, who are in possession of a satellite phone and almost certainly are pawns of the enemy, is undoubtedly the smartest movie from a Machiavellian standpoint. But, as Marcus points out, word will get out: “‘SEALs kill kids.’ That’ll be what they say on CNN,” he predicts.

From there, the film moves straight into action mode, with the ranging battle between the Americans and Taliban taking on a frightening verisimilitude. The SEALs have the superior experience and training, but they’re still four men up against dozens.

All the soldiers are grievously wounded, both by bullets and the necessity of throwing themselves off not one, but two cliffs to escape. It’s a testament to how much punishment the human body can take in extreme circumstances.

Eventually the only one left alive, Marcus makes his way to a nearby village, where he encounters a tribal leader (Ali Suliman) and more peril, but also a sort of bravery that rivals that of the SEALs.

Ultimately, “Lone Survivor” is an action-drama that lays more emphasis on the action part than the drama. But the firefight scenes are realistic and unnerving, and all four actors draw distinct portraits of young men at war.

Review: "August: Osage County"

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, who also penned the screenplay, “August: Osage County” is the sort of movie that shows its stage roots.

The action -- and by “action,” I mean people talking -- takes place in more or less a single location. There’s a certain showiness to the dialogue and performances, as if broadcasting to the back of the room. And it relies on two or three big, booming plot twists to carry the narrative, which by itself is rather meager.

This is the sort of movie that has close on to a dozen important characters, and every single one of them has at least one look-at-me moment where they get to have a big speech to deliver or an emotional crisis in which to wallow. For the minor characters, it practically feels like a checklist: “OK, here’s the timid son’s time in the spotlight.” The major players enjoy several of these.

All this isn’t to say “August” isn’t a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience. It is. It just doesn’t hold a grand sense of newness about itself. It feels like latter-day William Faulkner with a wink.

The film skates by on some pretty tremendous performances by some pretty amazing actors, starting with Meryl Streep. As family matriarch Violet Weston, Streep is like an Oklahoma tornado sweeping through her own house, hurling things this way and that. Suffering from mouth cancer and constantly addled by the many drugs she takes to address it, Violet feels no compunction about saying perfectly horrible things to anyone and everyone around here.

She saves her most venomous bile for her own clan. As the story opens her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), a noted poet, has died under mysterious circumstances, probably a suicide. As the family gathers to lay him to rest, it’s also an occasion to hash any number of squabbles, secrets and recriminations.

Oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) loathes the vindictive creature her mother has become, and fears she’s treading down the same path. Separated from her husband (Ewan McGregor) and estranged from their teen daughter (Abigail Breslin), she’s not spoiling for a fight with Violet, but she’s not about to back down from one, either.

The other two daughters are Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), both sporting man problems. Karen, brittle and self-deluded, has shown up with her latest beau, a glib sports car-driving business type (Dermot Mulroney). Ivy, the lonely child who stuck around to care for their parents, is resentful and reticent to share news about a new love.

I really enjoyed Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, who has fewer sharp edges but hides a steely, mean streak underneath, and Chris Cooper as her husband Charles, a man with a tendency to smile through the pain. Their son Little Charles is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a grown man with a childlike disposition and challenges.

Director John Wells is a TV guy whose only previous stint helming a feature film, “The Company Men,” was seen and appreciated by myself, and few others. He more or less hangs back and lets the actors rip, shrewing and harping and haranguing.

“August: Osage County” is a perfectly serviceable drama that’s worth a ticket, if only to see Meryl Streep’s latest masterwork. Even if she’s not always in the best movies, it’s hard to debate her status as the best film actor working today. She racks up Oscar nominations with astonishing regularity, and there’s a reason why.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: "Her"

So, yes, “Her” is about a guy who falls in love with his computer.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but that will be the shorthand you hear about the new drama starring Joaquin Phoenix from writer/director Spike Jonze.

Those two, of course, are noted in their respective vocations for breathtakingly original work that often borders on the loopy – such as Phoenix’s brilliant, vexing turn in last year’s “The Master,” or Jonze’s audacious live-action adaptation of the iconic children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.”

If you’re tempted to tune out based on that dismissive description: don’t. “Her” is the best film of the year, and possibly the kookiest.

But despite the silly premise, the movie is anything but. There is not a drop of cynicism or irony in this lovely, sad contemplation on love and loneliness.

Phoenix is simply a marvel as Theodore Twombly, a smart, crushingly depressed man going through a bitter divorce who finds a new lease on life by installing an operating system (OS) designed to perfectly simulate a human personality. Dubbing herself Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the OS coaxes Theodore out of his pit, helps build him back up, and then becomes his soul mate.

Both are as surprised by this development as anyone, but Phoenix never wavers in the portrait of a lonesome man reaching out for a human connection, even if it’s a fake one. It’s yet another Oscar-worthy turn from an actor who defies categorization.

Theodore works at, which is exactly what it sounds like – writers are hired by people to compose lyrical, deeply personal letters to each other. Theodore is the best there is, having acted as the surrogate for some couples for nearly a decade.

The irony, of course, is that he is performing much the same function for his clients as Samantha does for him. Perhaps that’s why a relationship with her is not so alien to him, since Theodore already existed as the ghost in the machine.

Set in the near future, “Her” arrives at precisely the right moment to comment on our technological evolution, where we’ve created amazing ways to stay connected that leave us more isolated than ever before. With our Siris and our Google Glasses, computers have become our crutches, the prism through which we experience an altered version of our real lives.

Jonze doesn’t get too mired in the specifics and semantics of the science fiction aspect of his tale. Samantha is represented as an ear bud Theodore wears perpetually, through which she speaks to him, and vice-versa. She can “see” through a little tri-fold compact device he carries that includes a camera and screen. Essentially she lives inside his head, though later she can interact with others via phone or speakers.

At first, it seems like Theodore is the only one carrying on an interpersonal dialogue with his OS. One early, funny scene has him walking around a carnival with his eyes closed, Samantha acting as his guide to tell him where to go and what to do. But as time goes on, it seems that more and more people are in the same state, ambling around Los Angeles in individual bubbles of self-imposed solitude, talking to their computers and ignoring the flesh-and-blood creatures around them.

One of them is Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s neighbor and old college chum. She seems contented and happily married at first, with Theodore taking the role of the hopeless, romantically inept friend. Later, though, their roles get somewhat switched around.

“I think anybody who falls in love is a freak,” Amy says. “It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

Johansson is wondrous as Samantha, existing as a complete character despite having only a verbal component. We believe her as a real person, because she believes it and Theodore believes it. She may live in the ether of hard drives, communication nets and data clouds, but Samantha is solid and relatable.

Bracingly imaginative and splendidly crafted, “Her” is one of the year’s unlikeliest successes.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fearless Oscar nominations predictions

Oscar nominations close their voting tomorrow, Jan. 8, and will be announced Jan. 16. It's looking like a particularly tough year for prognostication. "12 Years a Slave" seems to be the frontrunner for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. It has all the high-toned hallmarks of a traditional Best Pic -- historical setting, serious gravitas, terrific performances and a subject matter that is second only to the Holocaust in Things Everyone Can Get Behind.

But "Slave" hasn't done particularly well at the box office, and lacks the feel-good credentials of previous favorites like "The King's Speech." After all, it is tough to watch, especially during the latter sections.

Similarly, I think the older Academy voters will be put off by the raunchy aspects of "The Wolf of Wall Street," diminishing its tally. "Nebraska," "Her," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Dallas Buyers Club" will suffer for not breaking through into mainstream audiences -- though that may change for some of them, which could enjoy a late-season wider release if they score Oscar nominations.

It was a very strong year for actors and a rather weak year for actresses, leaving the latter categories wide open. When the competition is heady, big names tend to trump unknown ones. Though I'm still predicting Oprah's gravitational pull in showbiz won't convince Oscar voters to give the nod to her one-note performance in "The Butler."

So here are my feckless predictions for the Oscar nominations tomorrow in the "major" categories. Remember, these are not who I think should get nominated, but who will.

Best Picture

They were will be between 5 and 10 nominees, and I think they'll go for a full boat. Lots of terrific pictures to choose from this year. "Prisoners," my #2 pick for the year, is likely to come out with a big goose egg.

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Inside Llewyn Davis
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actor

I think Ejiofor has this award locked up, and Joaquin Phoenix will get shut out for his past behavior.

Bruce Dern
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Tom Hanks
Matthew McConaughey
Robert Redford

Best Actress

Tough call this year; a lot of people think Blanchett is the front runner, but not a lot of people saw "Blue Jasmine."

Cate Blanchett
Sandra Bullock
Judi Dench
Meryl Streep
Emma Thompson

Best Director

This is actually an easy category to predict, since the Academy nearly always follows the DGA nominees, which were announced earlier today. Though I think the Brothers Coen could sneak in here, possibly pushing out Greengrass.

Alfonso Cuarón
Paul Greengrass
Steve McQueen
David O. Russell
Martin Scorsese

Best Supporting Actor

Brühl is actually a leading performance, but this is where he's being pushed because he's not Thor. Leto would seem to be the top dog here, with Fassbender's scenery-chewing liked by many (but not me).

Barkhad Abdi
Daniel Brühl
Michael Fassbender
Jared Leto
Matthew McConaughey

Best Supporting Actress

Wide, wide open, with Lawrence and Nyong'o the only true locks. Julia Roberts will get nominated because she's Julia Roberts, but I think past winner Spencer will squeak past Oprah Winfrey.

Jennifer Lawrence
Lupita Nyong’o
Julia Roberts
Octavia Spencer
June Squibb

Best Original Screenplay

The Academy loves to give screenplay statues out as consolation prizes, so I think this category is the best shot "Her" has for winning something. The screenplay for "Hustle" is just a mess.

American  Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club

Best Adapted Screenplay

Astonishingly, "Slave" did not get a nomination from the Writer's Guild*, which would seem to indicate the support for the film is wide but not deep. I think the Oscar voters will not agree.

12 Years a Slave
August: Osage County
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street

*I've since learned "Slave" was disqualified, along with a lot of other very good scripts like "Rush," for not being produced under union supervision. Because THAT'S a good reason not to recognize the best work in your profession.

Video review: "The Act of Killing"

“The Act of Killing” is one of the best documentary films I’ve seen in a while, even though it diverges quite a bit from the standard format of journalistic exploration.

Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn, who co-directed the film with a third unnamed person, wanted to take a look at the brutal death squads that purged Indonesia of communists in 1965 after a failed military coup. But rather than simply interviewing the gangsters and paramilitary types of who led the bloodletting, the filmmakers conscript them in the process of telling their stories.

The chief subject is Anwar Congo, now an elderly man revered as a father figure by the same brutal regime that still holds the reins of power. Anwar and his ilk have never been held to account for the torture and murder of untold thousands, so they see nothing wrong with reenacting their deeds for the camera.

The men seem strangely oblivious at first, smiling while they talk in great detail about how they beat, shot or strangled people to death. Later, the gangsters will even step behind the camera to recreate these horrid scenes in the style of their favorite American movies.

It’s at this point that Anwar and his cohorts seem to discover a measure of regret, or at least cognizance about what they did. In an amazing moment, one of the gangsters reveals that his stepfather, an ethnic Chinese, was among those who disappeared. This man then goes on to give an Oscar-quality performance as one of those being tortured.

Watching “The Act of Killing” is a disturbing but enlightening experience. By eschewing the modus operandi of the documentary film, this important film provides a unique and unforgettable lesson in the loss of humanity.

The video is being released with a host of extra features, including a director’s cut that is 43 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The latter includes a commentary track by Werner Herzog, who served as executive producer along with fellow documentary veteran Errol Morris. Herzog and Morris also hold a conversation in a featurette.

There’s also a “Master Class” feature with Oppenheimer on the Blu-ray edition.


Extras: B-plus


Monday, January 6, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Blood Simple" (1984)

I really thought I'd like "Blood Simple" more than I did. Pre-Lebowski, when the films of Joel and Ethan Coen finally broke into the pop-culture mainstream, I was the lonely nut going around telling everyone how great they were. "Miller's Crossing" remains one of my all-time favorite films.

We parted ways at "No Country for Old Men" -- ironically, the moment when they achieved the pinnacle of their career with multiple Oscar wins. I found "A Serious Man" and "Burn After Reading" to be unworthy trifles, though they redeemed themselves with the mighty remake of "True Grit." But somehow I had never gotten around to seeing their first feature, a neo-film noir set in Texas.

I found "Blood Simple" to be really pretentious and forced. It registers as exactly what it is: the jittery fumblings of promising first-time filmmakers. The Coens' over-reliance on cock-eyed camera angles and moves seems like a transparent attempt to wow the audience by making the director(s) the star of the show.

The film's heightened mood is often strung out too long, resulting in scenes that are languid rather than suspenseful. (The Coens would seem to agree, later issuing a director's cut that was actually shorter than the original -- possibly a first in modern cinema.)

The lead actor can't act. The lead actress isn't given anything to do. And much of the various twists of the plot depend on the characters not saying the most obvious thing a person would say in a given situation.

The ill-fated lovers, Ray and Abby (John Getz and Frances McDormand), each come to suspect the other of murder, but fill their interactions with pregnant pauses instead of useful exchanges of information.

How it would have gone in a logical world: "Why did you kill Marty?!?" "I didn't kill Marty!" "...Oh." And the film ends at the 47-minute mark.

And I'm still trying to wrap my head around the part where a gun fires simply by being stepped on. Does dynamite also explode if you stare at it balefully?

All this isn't to say it's a bad film -- just not the great one I'd been led to believe.

There are many things to admire about "Blood Simple," starting with its economy of scale. The movie has only four important characters, with one other (Meurice the bartender) existing simply to help connect the dots between the other people. I believe there are only two other speaking parts beyond that, plus a voice on an answering machine that I swear is Holly Hunter.

I also liked how it seems as if every object we see is important in some way -- a lighter, a stack of catfish, a shovel, a shoe. Early on we see Abby fumbling in her purse for a box of bullets, finding exactly three. Each one of them will have a momentous future in the story.

Marty (Dan Hedaya) seems out of place, an obvious Northeastern ethnic type stuck in Texas running a latter-day saloon/strip club called the Neon Boot. He wears cowboy boots to fit in with the locals, but he seems to regard them as vile hayseeds, and mostly stays inside his office in the back, emerging only to dispense threats to his employees.

Abby is his young, pretty kept wife who, as the story opens, is running away from Marty. Ray (Getz) is the good-looking bartender who works at the bar, giving her a car ride and letting Abby now that "I've always liked you." This leads to a quick bedding, which is photographed by a seedy private eye.

McDormand is so young and smooth-faced here that she actually comes across looking rather generic, like just another Hollywood starlet getting her big break, instead of starring in a movie directed by her husband, Joel. Her face has definitely gotten more interesting as she's grown older. She's a completely reactive character, seeming rather dim and sad, and indeed she disappears from the story for long stretches, finally getting her moment in the clever final showdown with the private eye.

And Getz ... well, he seems to be trying to do an impersonation of a "speak softly and carry a big stick" type of guy, except he misplaced his stick. His line deliveries are drawled and grating, practically a parody of a big Texas lunk. He sounds like John Wayne coming off a really groovy high with The Dude.

Most of the cast, in fact, speaks in a very deliberate way. The late, great Pauline Kael said it best: "The actors talk so slowly it’s as if the script were written in cement on Hollywood Boulevard."

Anyway, it turns into a convoluted dance of betrayal, with the private eye shooting Marty, who's paid him $10,000 to kill his wife and lover. Ray comes to the bar to collect his back pay and finds Marty seemingly dead. Assuming Abby shot him -- the private dick has conveniently left the .38 revolver Marty bought for her at the crime scene -- Ray takes the body to dispose of, and discovers Marty's still alive.

Ray buries the still-breathing Marty and tells Abby "I took care of it," without ever coming right out and saying what happened. Each ends up believing the other murdered Marty. Meanwhile, the private eye returns to clean up any loose threads, putting them both in his sights.

About that P.I.: M. Emmet Walsh is the film's saving grace as Loren Visser -- which is a terrific movie character name, though I'm not sure we ever actually get to hear anyone call him that. The Coens wrote the part specifically for Walsh, and he invests it with every ounce of creepy, nervous energy at his command. Visser has a tendency to break out into a high jackal's laugh at the most inopportune moments.

Sporting around in an ugly polyester suit, bit Texas hat and dilapidated VW Bug, Visser seems like he wandered in from another, better movie.

Fans of "Blood Simple" have pointed to the intricacy of the plot, the way every move each person makes just sinks them all in deeper. As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review, "Every individual detail seems to make sense, and every individual choice seems logical, but the choices and details form a bewildering labyrinth."

That's accurate only if you buy the notion that these characters would only talk to each other in circuitous arcs utterly devoid of key facts, relying on intimation and intimidation instead. It's understandable when Ray calls Abby on a payphone after burying Marty to be circumspect, since someone could be listening in. But their in-person confrontation a little later is an unbelievable waltz of screenwriter misdirection.

And that's the big problem with this movie: the magician hadn't yet mastered his skills, so we know when he palms a card, or where the ball is under which cup. Everything is so deliberate and paced; the stitch marks are too garish to ignore.

Obviously, the Coens went on to much greater things. They're known as masters of genre-hopping, taking a specific set of expectations and standing them up on their head while also offering their own homage. I prefer to look upon "Blood Simple" as their training ground, and leave it at that.