Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscar picks & predictions

There's no clear front-runner in the Oscar race this year, and that's a very good thing.

In recent times the Academy Awards have become less about coronating a single movie as "the champ" and, justly, more about recognizing individuals for their outstanding work in particular endeavors. Sometimes the awards cluster up around a pair or trio of films, but lately there hasn't been a runaway favorite that sweeps the awards, as was more common in the 1980s and '90s ("Titanic," "American Beauty," "The English Patient").

It's been more than a decade since we had a film garner double-digit Academy Awards, and "Slumdog Millionaire" was on the recent high end with eight. Lately the typical Best Picture winner has only won a handful of other Oscars, with a total tally of just three or four not at all unusual.

I like this because the best film of the year is not necessarily the best directed one, and the finest screenplay did not invariably have commensurate performances, and so forth. Indeed, recently the pattern has been for the film receiving the Best Actress or Best Actor award to have that as its sole recognition.

The hallmark of this trend is last year's Best Director win by Ang Lee for "Life of Pi." It was not really a contender in the Best Picture race, but most people who saw it recognized it as best representing a director's singular vision.

If you like the concept of meritocracy, it's comforting knowing that the person who wins in the "minor" categories -- costumes, sound editing, makeup -- does so because they truly did the best work of the year, rather than because most people adored a particular film and voted a "straight ticket" on their ballot.

But alas ... this does also make the job a lot harder for those of us in the prognosticating business. My ability to correctly forecast the winners has waned as the process has grown more stubbornly, blessedly, chaotic.

So here are my predictions of who will win in all 24 categories, and my picks for who should win. As always, I will add a snarky feature by telling you who should've been nominated and wasn't, and which of the actual nominees' spot they should cross out. (Which I'm calling "Chris Cross," since I'm doing the crossing.)

Best Picture

Will Win: "12 Years a Slave"
Should Win: "Her"
Chris Cross: "Prisoners" and "Rush" replace "American Hustle" and "Philomena"

This year would appear to be a two-way race between "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle," with the former waning and the later waxing as time has gone on. But "Dallas Buyers Club" has a puncher's chance, as does "Nebraska" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."

"Gravity" was much loved when it came out in early fall, but its prospects quickly dimmed as  people decided it was merely very well-made entertainment lacking the gravitas of a typical Best Picture winner. (And yes, that pun was totally intended.)

But the space drama/thriller is on the upswing again, and indeed many smart people are now predicting that "Gravity" will sneak in with an upset Best Pic win as "Slave" and "Hustle" cancel each other out. Some of this has to do with a relatively new balloting system that gives weight to highly ranked votes, so a movie that gets lots of 2nd place ballots will beat out another that gets more 1st place ones but fewer lower-ranked votes.

Since "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" have both been polarizing to a certain degree, they might get left entirely off some Academy voters' ballots. I certainly would do that with "Hustle," easily the most over-praised film of the year. (The best summation I've heard of it is fellow Yapper Nick Roger's dismissal of it as "a '70s aesthetic in search of a movie.")

Still, I've going to swing against the unconventional-conventional thinking and predict that the early favorite will nose out the competition, with "Slave" taking the gold. It simply has that classic Best Picture pedigree: an important historical subject, terrific performances, lush costumes and production values, etc.

I do expect "Gravity" to be the overall winner in terms of total statuettes, dominating the technical categories simply because its cinematography, musical score and so forth simply are head-and-shoulders above the competition. From a sheer craftsmanship standpoint, few other films from 2013 were even close.

"Her" and "Prisoners" were my two favorite films of the year, neither of which garnered the attention they deserved. "Rush" was possibly the most criminally ignored movie of 2013, with not even an Oscar nod in the sound categories. My feelings about "American Hustle" are well-known and don't bear repeating here. "Philomena" is a fine film but not in the same league as the rest of the nominees.

Best Actress

Will Win: Cate Blanchett
Should Win: Meryl Streep
Chris Cross: Brie Larson for Amy Adams

This is an exceedingly weak category reflecting a bad year for meaty parts for women. Blanchett appears to be the runaway favorite, and while she was good in "Blue Jasmine" it's hardly one of Woody Allen's better efforts. I found the character too derivative of other classic film anti-heroines -- Blanche DuBois from "A Streetcar Named Desire," Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard" -- to give it much credence.

Sandra Bullock is the stalking horse here, a great performance without a whole lot of dialogue. But I found Meryl Streep's character in "August: Osage County" to be one of the more resonant in her long and glorious career. Observers have complained that she was too unlikeable -- well duh, that was the entire point, portraying a woman reflecting back at the world all the pain and anger she's absorbed throughout her life.

Not many saw the lovely gem "Short Term 12," but Brie Larson was terrific in it. I'm frankly flummoxed by Amy Adams' nomination, in a role as cheesy and inauthentic as the movie around it.

Many were angry about Emma Thompson not getting nominated for "Saving Mr. Banks" even though she won the Golden Globe, but I'm not one of them. A spectacularly over-hyped film.

Best Actor

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Chris Cross: Robert Redford and Tom Hanks for Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio

The men's acting category was every bit as good as the women's was awful. A lot of people were shocked when Redford and Hanks, each giving possibly the best performance of their illustrious careers, went un-nominated while relative whippersnappers Bale and DiCaprio got in. Count me among them.

I thought DiCaprio was good in "Wolf of Wall Street," but it wasn't even his best role of the year -- "The Great Gatsby" was. Bale is usually as reliable as Big Ben, but he failed to connect while playing a character who largely operated inside his own head in "American Hustle." The outward appearance alterations, with the big belly and pretend comb-over, struck me as cheap and showy.

On the flip side, there was nothing showy about McConaughey's deathly transformation for "Dallas Buyers Club." His weight loss was so dramatic he looked virtually unrecognizable, the cowboy handsomeness he's coasted on so long completely leached away. Similarly, his acting represented a stripping away of his star persona and actor's charisma. 

Because McConaughey's been around for almost two decades and has essentially resurrected his career with serious roles in smaller films, Hollywood is itching to reward that with a Best Actor win. But I thought Ejiofor gave the performance of the year. "12 Years a Slave" was an emotional journey in which the audience had to always been in sync with the main character, and that's a hard thing to do. He was touching, graceful and utterly human.

Bruce Dern was terrific in a career-capping performance in "Nebraska," but I think most Oscar voters will see the nomination as his reward, it having been so long since he was recognized by the Academy (or enjoying a role deserving of their attention).

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Jared Leto
Should Win: Barkhad Abdi
Chris Cross: Daniel Brühl, Harrison Ford, Matthew McConaughey and Sam Rockwell for Jonah Hill, Bradley Cooper, Jared Leto and Michael Fassbender

Yes, you read that right: If it were up to me, I'd swap out fully 80% of the nominees in this category. 

Someone wisely commented that getting an Oscar nomination in the acting categories is much like being named an NBA All-Star: once you get over the hump of being voted in the first time, it's much more likely you'll show up on the roster even when your play is not truly deserving.

Look, I like Jonah Hill -- he's an agreeable young comedian segueing into more serious roles. Good for him. But if you think his one-note performance as the manic wingman in "The Wolf of Wall Street" was better than Daniel Brühl's mesmerizing work in "Rush," then we just don't have much to talk about.

Harrison Ford did something in "42" that seemed cartoonish at first, but had many layers underneath. Matthew McConaughey was wounded and watchable in "Mud." And Sam Rockwell was simply splendid as the wastrel-king-turned-mentor in "The Way, Way Back."

Michael Fassbender's character, as it was written and how he interpreted it, was for me the fatal flaw in the otherwise amazing "12 Years a Slave." It was like the filmmakers and the actor were trying to cram everything vile and venal about slavery into one outsized persona. He was a cartoon villain.

Of those left, Barkhad Abdi is my choice. Remember, this is a guy who had never so much as acted in a school play going toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks, and coming out looking good. He gave a depth and complexity to his film's bad guy that Fassbender did not.

Leto appears destined to win. Bravo; it's a brave, elegant performance, underlined by his own skin-and-bones transformation. I just felt that as written there wasn't enough meat in the part. (Yes, another intentional bad pun.)

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Chris Cross: Scarlett Johansson for Sally Hawkins

This one comes down to last year's winner Jennifer Lawrence versus newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, with them trading places in the preliminary awards. I think Lawrence was the best thing about the insipid "American Hustle," to the point the movie went into a torpor whenever she wasn't onscreen. 

It may sound silly, but I think Nyong'o's campaign has been bustressed by her fashionable presence at all the various Hollywood parties and awards events -- "Look at that dress! She's so beautiful!" A lot of people would love to see her up on that stage just for the sheer pageantry of it, not to mention adding a little much-needed diversity to the ranks of Oscar winners.

My problem with her performance is that, like Jared Leto, her role just isn't all that hefty. She doesn't have a lot of dialogue in "12 Years a Slave," mostly acting as a visual presence, a subservient counterpoint to Solomon Northup's uppity educated slave. She only gets one scene where she really "acts," and for me that's not enough to justify a golden statuette.

June Squibb was just delicious in "Nebraska," taking a showy, funny part and milking it while keeping a sense of humanity; if  Lawrence and Nyong'o cancel each other out, she has a shot at sneaking in here.

I liked Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine," but ScarJo gave one of the most amazing voice-only performances in cinematic history in "Her."

Best Director

Will Win/Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón
Chris Cross: Spike Jonze for David O. Russell

As I stated above, I believe this will be another year in which Academy members go for the best-directed movie as opposed to voting for the director of the best movie. With "Gravity" Cuarón executed a real labor of love, becoming an expert in visual effects and green screen cinematography that he'd never really tackled before.

The result was a sumptuous, exhilarating cinematic ride -- an example of old school "you are there" filmmaking using all the flashy new tools.

His main competition is Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave," and I wouldn't really have a problem with him winning. Other than my stated problems with the Fassbender character, it's a lovely film.

Russell has been nominated for director twice before without winning, and he's become known as a favorite of actors, who represent the largest voting bloc of the Academy. So you can't count him out. Same goes for Scorsese because, well, he's Martin Fucking Scorsese, in his sixth decade of making movies and hasn't lost a tick off his fastball.

I just adore "Her," and its success depends entirely on the director being able to maintain the right tone and balancing the audience's suspension of disbelief. It was a masterful turn, so Spike Jonze should've gotten nominated. I'll boot Russell because he took the bones of a great story and turned it into a freak show.

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win/Should Win: "Her"
Chris Cross: "Rush" for "American Hustle"

Original Screenplay is one category that the Oscars have historically used as a "make up" award for smaller pictures that aren't really a contender for the big prize. So I'm hoping, and predicting, that Spike Jonze will win for the odd, strange and wonderful "Her." It's too bad audiences dismissed it as being about "a guy who falls in love with his computer," because I haven't seen another film in a long time that comes this close to capturing the real human condition -- who we are right now, and where we're going.

For my money, the second-best screenplay of the year was Peter Morgan's yeoman's work on "Rush," another movie audiences didn't respond to. It was a sports movie that cared more about the Formula One drivers than the cars and the action (though the movie was very good at that, too). Morgan's script for "The Damned United" also didn't get an Oscar nom, pushing him to the fore in the race for Best Screenwriter The Academy Keeps Screwing.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: "12 Years a Slave"
Should Win: "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Chris Cross: "Great Expectations" for "Philomena"

Not many people saw Mike Newell's lovely adaptation of Dickens' "Great Expectations," but I thought
David Nicholls' script remained faithful to the book while making it a more emotionally compelling journey than we usually get out of his novels. I'd knock out "Philomena," because it's a little rote and obvious, telegraphing its punches.

Wherever it ends up in the Best Picture race, "12 Years a Slave" seems to have this award wrapped up. I thought Terence Winter's intentionally chaotic, over-the-top screenplay for "The Wolf of Wall Street" captured the essence of its live-for-the-moment main character.

Best Cinematography

Will Win/Should Win: "Gravity"
Chris Cross: "The Wolf of Wall Street" for "The Grandmaster"

I haven't actually seen "The Grandmaster," so I probably shouldn't really cross it out. But the frenetic visual splendor of "The Wolf of Wall Street" contributed greatly to the film's appeal, and it deserved a nod.

If there's a "minor" category of the Oscars that deserves to be counted among the majors, it's cinematography. Quite often the director of photography can have as much impact on a movie's success as the director. Much has been written about Gregg Toland's work with Orson Welles making him the real genius behind "Citizen Kane."

More than any other film, "Gravity" leaned on its visual poetry to carry the plot. Emmanuel Lubezki's groundbreaking work meshed well with the special effects and actors.

Best Animated Film

Will Win/Should Win: "Frozen"
Chris Cross: "Monsters University" for "Despicable Me 2"

This one's not even close. It was a terrible year for animated feature films, with only "Frozen" and the little-seen "The Wind Rises" truly even deserving of a nomination. "Wind" is reputed to be Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's last film, and while it's very good it won't be remembered among his very best, paving the way for an easy "Frozen" win. I'll take the cheerful "Monsters University" over the paint-by-numbers "Despicable Me 2."

Best Foreign Film

Will Win: "The Great Beauty"

It was a strange year for foreign language movies, with none of the expected strong contenders, like "Blue Is the Warmest Color," making the list of nominees. As a result, I haven't seen any of them, but I foresee "The Great Beauty" as the frontrunner.

Best Documentary

Will Win/Should Win: "The Act of Killing"

A strong year for documentary features, with "The Act of Killing" leading the pack with its very non-traditional style, essentially letting the subjects of the film take over the production. Brave, disturbing, illuminating.

Best Documentary (Short)

Will Win: "The Lady in Number 6"

This one is a total stab in the dark, as documentary shorts really get screened for critics (or anyone).

Best Costume Design

Will Win: "American Hustle"
Should Win: "The Great Gatsby"

"The Great Gatsby" suffers from having come out early in the year, so voters are less likely to remember its visual splendor, greatly enhanced by the terrific 1920s outfits. So "American Hustle" will likely take the win for its excess of '70s cheese.

Best Production Design

Will Win: "12 Years a Slave"
Should Win: "The Great Gatsby"

Again, "Gatsby" had the best period look of any film in 2013, but it came out so long ago its chances have dimmed. While "American Hustle" could also come out on top here, I think the antebellum sets and designs of "12 Years a Slave" will prevail.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Will Win/Should Win: "Dallas Buyers Club"

I think "Dallas Buyers Club" will win, simply because few people want to see either of the execrable two other nominees, "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" or "The Lone Ranger," to be remembered as Oscar-winning films.

Best Visual Effects

Best Sound Editing

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win/Should Win: "Gravity"
Chris Cross: "Pacific Rim" for "The Lone Ranger," "All Is Lost" and "Lone Survivor," respectively

These next three categories are all easy picks, with the visual and aural polish of "Gravity" blowing away everything else in the running. I'm still shocked that "Pacific Rim" didn't pick up some nominations in the "technical" categories. "Rush" also deserved recognition in the sound categories.

By the way, if you're confused about the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, here's a quick primer: sound editing involves the creation and recording of sounds, and sound mixing is how those sounds are blended together in the film's final audio track. So if you hear a really cool sound effect, but it's almost drowned out by background noise, that would be an example of good sound editing and bad sound mixing.

Best Original Score

Will Win/Should Win: "Gravity"

Kind of a weak year for movie music, leaving the path open for "Gravity," which by necessity was carried along during long stretches by Steven Price's music.

Best Original Song

Will Win/Should Win: "Let It Go" from "Frozen"
Chris Cross: "In Summer" for "Ordinary Love"

Super-easy pick. "Let It Go" has become a national phenomenon, though "Happy" also gotten a lot of play on children's radio. I liked it the first 1,072 times I had to listen to it. I was truly surprised some of the other terrific songs from "Frozen" didn't make the list.

Best Short Film (Animated)

Will Win: "Get a Horse!"
Should Win: "Mr. Hublot"

Disney/Pixar generally owns this category, and "Get a Horse!" was indeed a giddy, visually inventive romp. But "Mr. Hublot" was a mesmerizing animated adventure with a distinctive look and a heart full of pathos. The Japanese "Possessions" was also very good.

Best Short Film (Live Action)

Will Win: "Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)"
Should Win: "Helium"

If the French "Just Before Losing Everything," about an abused wife seeking to escape her husband along with her two kids, doesn't win then the equally somber Spanish "That Wasn't Me," about an African child soldier, will. Of the two, I prefer the latter. But I'll take the sweet sentiment of "Helium," about a dying boy and a janitor's fanciful final gift.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review: "Non-Stop"

"Non-Stop" takes two recent staples of the action/thriller genre and mashes them agreeably, if preposterously, together.

You've got the high-stakes terrorist event in a confined space with an imposed deadline, a la "Die Hard," "Speed" and many rip-offs, in which a group of innocents are trapped in a place with a diabolical enemy willing to sacrifice them all. And you've got the taunting killer communicating with the cop trying to stop him, dropping hints and continually outflanking the do-gooder until the very end.

The movie also boasts an older guy showing he's still got the right stuff. Harrison Ford did this in "Air Force One" and Clint Eastwood with "In the Line of Fire." But even they've aged out of that sort of thing, so a new crop of geezers have come to the fore, with Liam Neeson leading the way. He established his action cred with "Taken," and since then has mostly done badass roles.

"Non-Stop" is a bit of a twist, since Bill Marks doesn't seem much like a hero at first. A federal air marshal, he's a drinker with a bit of a temper who, among other challenges, goes white-knuckled at the prospect of flying. But it's the job, and he does it well, if not with much enthusiasm.

Bill receives the ultimate challenge during a six-hour flight from New York to London. He starts receiving text messages on his (supposedly) secure device that a passenger on the plane is going to die if $150 million isn't wired to a bank in the next 20 minutes. Sure enough, someone ends up dead at the end of that time, though not in the way we, or Bill, expects it.

The rest of the movie becomes one long cat-and-mouse game as various potential suspects present themselves and are weeded out.

There's a taciturn Muslim guy (Omar Metwally), a loudmouth Bronx type (Corey Stoll), a nervous bespectacled guy (Scoot McNairy), a brash young black dude (Travis Mitchell), an uptight businessman, a distracted computer programmer (Nate Parker) and more. Even the captain (Linus Roache) and flight attendants (Michelle Dockery, Lupita Nyong'o) are not above suspicion.

Gliding in and out of Bill's baleful eye is Jen (Julianne), the gregarious woman who sat next to him on the plane before all hell broke loose. She's an X-factor, likeable but not entirely trustworthy, and Bill seems to weigh his doubts and hopes for her.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and his quartet of screenwriters keep things coming fast at the audience, including an audacious effort by the terrorist to convince everyone that Bill himself is actually the one pulling all the strings. Now he has to fend off an unruly mob of passengers and hostility from the pilots and crew.

The whole thing is utterly ridiculous, including ham-handed attempts to insert some maudlin sentiment into the proceedings, represented by a timid young girl and some disturbing news about Bill's past.

But "Non-Stop" is just that, a giddy and reckless thrill ride from start to finish. It's only after you climb off that you realize how silly it all was, but by then you've had your fun.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Hobson's Choice" (1954)

A Hobson's Choice refers to a false choice, in which the chooser appears to exercise free will but in actuality is trapped in a situation beyond their control. It originates from a 16th-century stable owner who required his customers to choose the horse in the stall nearest to the door, or none at all, in order to prevent his best mounts from overuse.

A shorter, punchier description of a Hobson's Choice would be: "Take it or leave it."

Henry Horatio Hobson faces just such a choice in the 1954 movie bearing that name, though not until the very end of the story. Ostensibly the main character since he's played by cinematic giant Charles Laughton, Hobson is really just the sun around which the other, more interesting characters orbit.

As played by Laughton, Hobson is a drunk, a bully, an abusive boss and a poor father. Since this is a comedy, Laughton has a great many opportunities to play the stumblebum, tremulously pretending the results of the copious amount of alcohol he has consumed do not exist. Drunks are the most common form of actors in the world, since every inebriated thespian strives to appear not to be that which they are.

The director makes great use of Laughton's physicality, his rotund carriage and face so enveloped in multiple chins and cheeks that he appears to be always peering out from some hole, like a satisfied critter that has dug a burrow and backed itself into a haven of indulgence. Laughton's sharp, intelligent gimlet eyes, though, inform the audience that there is a brain at work behind the fat and fog.

If you'd be surprised to learn that this director is David Lean, then like me you will discover that the Brit known for his extravagant epics actually made average-sized movies at earlier times in his career. This movie is an adaptation of the play by Harold Brighouse, with a screenplay by Norman Spencer, Wynyard Browne and Lean himself.

"Hobson's Choice" ended up winning the BAFTA award for best British film. I wouldn't quite put it on that pedestal, but it is a wickedly funny and smart picture that boasts somewhat progressive views on the balance of power between women and men.

The real central character is Hobson'd eldest daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), who runs his bootmaking shop and lords it over the two younger sisters (Daphne Anderson and Prunella Scales). She's much the carbon copy of her father, minus the drink and the mean-spiritedness. When she learns that her father has no intention of seeing her married because she's too valuable to his business, Maggie browbeats the simple-minded bootmaker who works in the basement, Will Mossop (John Mills), to become her groom.

Will is completely befuddled at first, acting the part of the humble employee following orders, even if they lead to the altar. Eventually, they start their own business and within a year have stolen away most of Hobson's trade, forcing him to accept a partnership with Mossop -- now tutored into a confident, savvy businessman by Maggie -- running the show.

De Banzie and Mills are terrific in their respective roles -- each received BAFTA nominations, while Laughton did not -- though they're quite long in the tooth to play youngsters. Maggie is explicitly stated as being 30 years old, and meek Will is probably even younger, while the actors portraying them were both in their mid-40s.

Mills wears an unattractive haircut with shaved sides and a prominent cowlick, which (intentionally?) resembles Adolf Hitler's odd 'do. This helps give him a boyish look, later replaced with a more grown-up one.

Lean & Co. have a great deal of fun with Hobson's drunken revelries, imbibing with the same handful of similarly-situated businessmen at the same bar every night. They trade barbs like fresh-mouthed schoolboys, but in the end Hobson seems to have the upper hand over the crew.

In one musical number, he leaves the pub so drunk he becomes fascinated with the lunar reflection in the puddles of the cobblestone street. Literally moony, he falls down a basement loading shaft and, while unhurt, facing legal and financial obligations to the proprietor. His younger daughters' suitors use this occasion to blackmail Hobson, with Maggie's assistance, into allowing them to marry, too.

I enjoyed "Hobson's Choice" and its sly take on the gender wars. It's not likely to be enshrined as a feminist totem anytime soon, since Maggie uses her new freedom in order to enter a new form of servitude with a different man. Still, her man and her station are both completely of her own choosing, and that's saying something.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Video review: "Gravity"

Despite being only 91 minutes long, “Gravity” is a bona fide cinematic epic, a film with a big story and jaw-dropping special effects. Seen in IMAX or on a big screen, it was an engrossing adventure, part thrill ride and part sobering drama.

But how will “Gravity” fare on video, where even the largest flat screen TV can’t match the big canvas of a movie theater? We’re about to find out.

My take is it’s still a thoroughly engaging experience, but a more intimate one. No, the heart-churning sequence where the Hubble Telescope is taken out by space debris doesn’t carry quite the same weight when you’re not enveloped by those images and sounds. But the scenes where it’s just Sandra Bullock trapped in her spacesuit, frantically huffing away her last few breaths of oxygen, become even more gripping.

Story-wise, it’s essentially just a tale of survival. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a medical engineer and novice astronaut, while George Clooney plays Kowalski, a glib veteran. They’re the only two left alive when their shuttle and the telescope are destroyed, and must make a desperate attempt to reach a nearby station before it, too, is turned to fragments.

Big screen or TV, “Gravity” boasts a whole lot of heft.

Extra features, which are the same for Blu-ray and DVD versions, are somewhat disappointing. There are three making-of featurettes, titled “Gravity Mission Control,” “Shot Breakdowns” and “Sandra’s Surprise!”.

You also get a short film by screenwriter Jonás Cuarón, “Aningaaq,” and a public service documentary, “Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space,” narrated by Ed Harris.



Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: "3 Days to Kill"

"Is Dad a badass?"
"He's done some things, yes."

"3 Days to Kill" is an odd flick, but not an un-entertaining one. On its face it looks like another one of these action-thrillers where an older assassin/spy proves he's still got it by mowing through an entire crowd of younger hit men -- by association also showing that the aging movie star portraying him still has some juice, too.

Liam Neeson relaunched his career this way, and now there are so many knockoffs it's practically become its own genre: Geezer Badassery.

But one thing joining all these films is their relentless seriousness and bravado, usually culminating in some scene where the protagonist makes a stern declaration about how he's such a force to be reckoned with, and you better not mess with him. (Predictably, the baddies never heed this advice, otherwise these movies would all end at the 20-minute mark.)

Kevin Costner doesn't do any of that in "3 Days to Kill." Like many of the other characters he's played, Ethan Renner is loose, easygoing and doesn't take himself too seriously. He's grim when his work requires him to be, but his default mode is a joshing sort of self-deprecating charm.

For instance, other characters in the movie repeatedly pester him about his casual dress, since everyone knows CIA assassins and their ilk are supposed to wear skinny black suits, instead of the slouchy chinos-and-bomber-jacket ensemble Ethan prefers. Heck, he doesn't even shave much, and mostly appears to be just going through the motions until retirement.

Of course, Ethan is dying from brain cancer, which has gotten into his lungs and caused a nasty cough, not to mention debilitating woozy spells that are kind of a hindrance when your trade involves people shooting at you. After his latest job goes bad, he's cut loose from the CIA with a tiny pension and barely a fare-thee-well.

That's a pretty dour setup for a movie. But director McG and screenwriters Luc Besson and Adi Hasak defy expectations by making the rest of the movie funny, jazzy and even kind of goofy. "3 Days to Kill" is essentially the comedy version of "Taken."

Ethan's goal with his few remaining months is to reconnect with the wife and daughter he abandoned so many years ago. But his daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) is lippy and combative, and has mastered that teen skill of humiliating their parents through sheer exasperatedness at their uncoolness. Her mother, Christine (Connie Nielsen), wants nothing to do with Ethan, and soon departs their Paris home for a business trip.

Then Vivi shows up. A young boss at the CIA played by Amber Heard, Vivi is a femme fatale who always appears in a different stunning outfit and new hairdo. She claims to have an experimental cure that could save Ethan or at least extend his life, which she's willing to share if he'll hunt down a mysterious arms dealer named The Wolf (Richard Sammel) for her -- which was the same job that blew up in Ethan's face.

Costner and Heard have a fun, antagonistic byplay, with her the brainy manipulator and him the old-school operator whose usefulness is fleeting. It's clear he halfway suspects the miracle juice she pumps into his arm his bogus, but he figures he doesn't have much to lose. She keeps coming on to him, though more as a power move than real seduction.

The running joke of the story is that Ethan's assassination mission keeps getting interrupted by the necessities of his return to a semblance of normal life. Zooey calls him on the phone, interrupting his interrogation of various lowlifes. It's hard to make a guy think you'll torture him to death if you're also asking him for pasta sauce recipes.

One of these is Marc Andréoni as a Middle Eastern wheel man for The Wolf. Ethan keeps kidnapping him and sticking him in the trunk of his car, but in between punches solicits his advice as a fellow father of teenage girls. It almost becomes a Laurel and Hardy routine.

Ethan also returns to find his apartment occupied by a large family of African squatters, who welcome him with open arms because they know archaic French laws won't allow them to be evicted. The deadly master assassin finds himself powerless at the hands of their warm invitations and smiles, and ends up enlisting the youngest son as his errand boy.

Rounding out the cast is Tómas Lemarquis as The Albino, the chief henchman of The Wolf. You know the villains are nefarious when they go by declarative titles instead of names. Do their close friends call them "The"?

Speaking of idiot nicknames, McG -- who insists on going by his frat-boy moniker instead of his given name, Joseph McGinty Nichol -- delivers crisp action scenes with a lot of spatial integrity, so that we understand where everyone is and what they're doing. Even the hand-to-hand combat doesn't devolve into a flurry if hyper-fast edits the eye can't track, which seems to be the norm these days.

I especially liked the sound design for the film. Gunfire is accompanied by deep staccato bursts, like a pile driver thudding into concrete. You can feel the vibration in your bones. Though, in grand action movie tradition, Ethan's gun clip appears to contain dozens of bullets.

The juxtaposition of these heart-gripping shootouts with the light, funny parts of the movie works better than you'd think. Ethan is a guy whom death surrounds like a magnetic field, yet this movie isn't about him riding a roller coaster into the grave. He regards killing as neither repellent or intoxicating, but simply part and parcel of the profession he's chosen.

The irony is now that he wants to leave that life behind, he must wallow in its excesses to obtain a shot at something more. The filmmakers opt to emphasize the ridiculousness of his situation rather than milk it for cheap thrills and quips after the bad guys have bought it.

Just shy of 60, Kevin Costner is still much the same performer as he was when he broke out a quarter-century past. His face is seamed and jowly now, but he retains that ornery twinkle and understated comedic timing. Even though "3 Days to Kill" chooses a very different route from similar films, it still accomplishes its task of proving its star has what it takes.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Gregory's Girl" (1980)

Characters are at the center of writer/director Bill Forsyth's movies. They don't announce themselves, but just are. They don't do things to impress an audience, but simply exist and are observed.

"Gregory's Girl" was Forsyth's breakout film, going on to win the screenplay award at the BAFTAs, the Brit equivalent of the Oscars.  It's a largely story-less affair about the titular character, a gawky Scottish teen who becomes infatuated with the girl who took his spot on the football team. It's not so much that he loves her, but he falls in love with the idea of her, and that singularity of purpose gives momentum to a life that had been rather rudderless.

We all knew, or were, the kid like Gregory in high school. Tall and gangly, he skates by on an insouciant grin and a puckish sense of humor. Not exactly popular and not really shunned, he is generally well-liked by the peers who bother to give him any thought at all. His closest relationship is with his 10-year-old sister Madeline (Allison Forster), who offers him advice on clothes and girls.

John Gordon Sinclair shows loads of personality as Gregory, giving him all sorts of twinkles and goofy tics you'll not find on the pages of any screenplay.

Dorothy is the object of his affections, who is drawn to a notice for tryouts for the football team after the coach (Jake D'Arcy) demotes Gregory from scoring forward to goalie. Gregory is not particularly bothered about losing his position, rightly viewing the game as being just that in terms of importance in life. He shows absolutely no ego about being replaced by a girl, because (again rightly) he proclaims her to be a much better player than him.

Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) gains a great deal of celebrity around the school, becoming the object of a slick student reporter who manages to weasel out a disguised date proposal less than two minutes into the interview. Her photograph also becomes a hot item in the black market being run in the boys' lavatory, along with doughnuts made by Gregory's best friend, Steve (William Greenlees), whose mind is as occupied by cooking as Gregory's is by Dorothy. (Alas, candied almonds are not looked upon with similar fervor.)

Steve has a side deal with the school headmaster, who receives a steady supply of confections, apparently for his looking the other way about the market. This is just one of the many quirky little elements that Forsyth introduces into the film, such as a student wandering around the halls dressed in a giant penguin costume, for no reason I can grasp. It adds an element of fantasy into the proceedings, but also somehow grounds them with authenticity. You feel like you could spend time in any Glasgow suburban school and find these sorts of unique characteristics.

The story finishes its wandering little journey with Gregory ending up with another girl, Susan (Clare Grogan), after an elaborate fake-out where Gregory thinks he's going on a date with Dorothy, but keeps getting passed around from girl to girl, until the one who really wants him gets her wish.

Though it's undepicted in the movie, it seems clear that the girls had a confab to discuss Gregory and his ardor for Dorothy, and Susan's attraction to Gregory, and decided this would be the best way to steer things in the intended direction without any feelings getting hurt. It's yet another piece of evidence that females are much more sensible and proactive in their approach to romance, even at a young age.

Acting as a sort of Greek chorus are a pair of younger lads who observe Gregory's various intrepid exploits and look upon him as a sort of love god. Their own attempts at flirtation are rather disastrous, talking to girls about things like how fast the snot comes out of your nose when you sneeze and how they slay calves for veal.

Dorothy herself remains something of a mystery. She doesn't really appear to care about anything other than playing football, and seems to regard the attention from the awkward boy flattering without really holding any appeal for her. She spent her summer in Italy, and has clearly moved past these hyperactive Scot boys.

Normally I grow bored with movies that just sort of make lazy figure-eights of storytelling, and I did feel a little of that watching "Gregory's Girl." But eventually I realized that this film is not about moving things from Point A to Point B, but painting a picture that audiences will recognize as a mirror.

Forsyth would go on to use the same technique with the seminal "Local Hero" a few years later, where his filmmaking ethos found its pinnacle.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Video review: "Game of Thrones: The Complete Third Season"

The Red Wedding will crush you – if it hasn’t already.

Say what you will about author George R.R. Martin and the HBO adaptation of his epic fantasy series, "Game of thrones," but they’re willing to take big storytelling chances. This may not come as a surprise to viewers who watched the show build up northern lord Eddard Stark into the main protagonist of the first season, only to see him bowed before an executioner’s ax.

That narrative brashness continues in season three, which sees the entire continent of Westeros split into various warring factions. It’s full of surprises and unexpected character development, with fan favorites brought low and the hiss-able Lannister clan seemingly triumphant.

The 10-episode season is actually only the first half of the third book of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Like many other fantasy franchises, from Harry Potter to “The Lord of the Rings,” their cinematic counterparts have seen fit to divide the novels up.

While often an act seemingly based on monetary rather than artistic impulses -- *cough* “The Hobbit,” “Twilight” *cough* – here the splitting feels appropriate, given the sheer volume of characters and plot in “A Storm of Swords,” which clocks in at a thousand pages.

Among the primary figures are the dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), the lone Lannister with any semblance of virtue; Robb Stark (Richard Madden), son of Eddard and now leader of the northern rebellion; Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the scheming queen mother; her brother and lover, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a knight captured by the Starks; Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the poisonous boy-king; Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Eddard’s bastard son and member of the Night’s Watch; and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), scion of a deposed royal family who is raising an army across the sea, plus three young dragons.

The denseness of Martin’s storytelling comes through clearly in the HBO series, which captures both the grandness and venality of this rich world. Kingdoms rise and fall, armies are raised and dashed, yet all rides on the intimate dealings of the various noble families and their hangers-on.

This “Game” is for keeps.

As with previous video releases of the series, it is accompanied with a lavish set of goodies, including no less than 12 audio commentary tracks by cast and crew, deleted/extended scenes and more. The DVD also comes with profiles of all the important new characters for season three, featurettes on political marriage in Westeros and the northern wildlings, and a recap of season two.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add several neat interactive features, including an in-episode guide, history and lore of Westeros, the rivalries and loyalties between the various families, and an in-depth look at the filming of the episode that includes the Red Wedding.



Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review: "About Last Night"

 There's a moment in "About Last Night" in which the characters are actually watching a video of the 1986 film with Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, and argue about whether it's a chick flick or a guy's movie. It's a tacit but still brave acknowledgement that yes, this is a remake of a seminal '80s movie, which in turn was based on a play by David Mamet.

The new movie is funnier than the original, while still engaging in plenty of heavy moments as we explore two sets of best friends who hook up with one another on a one-night stand, and then spend the next year negotiating the treacherous territory that comes with being in a relationship -- and even debating whether they're in one.

The leading cast is gorgeous and engaging, and they're also all black, whereas the '86 cast was Caucasians. The movie uses this to its advantage without ever really getting hung up on the change in skin tone. Just as the characters quarrel fruitlessly about whether the original was primarily intended for men or women, it's wrongheaded to think of this as a "black movie," even if African-Americans are the primary targeted audience.

It's much the same way the film has switched scenery from Chicago to Los Angeles. Even though the original conception was very much about the Midwest metropolis -- Mamet's play was called "Sexuality Perversity in Chicago," after all -- the 2014 iteration gets its mood and groove from L.A.

The four main characters are all at that stage of life where they believe in working hard and playing harder, when going out to bars every night is seen as a duty, and the thought of being tied down by entanglement is anathema. It is, in other words, the life of many people in their early- to mid-20s, which Lowe and Moore were back in 1986. Here the actors are closer to 40, so their antics have a whiff of desperation about them.

Kevin Hart is seemingly everywhere these days, including riding the box office wave of "Ride Along" from just a few weeks ago. Here he's relegated to the wingman role of Bernie, an uber-confident chattermouth. His best bud is Danny (Michael Ealy), a quiet type who Bernie jokes is too good-looking to appreciate the women a guy like him has to work hard to turn into conquests.

Bernie has just landed another, Joan (Regina Hall), a bigger-than-life woman with an outsized personality and mood swings. Her roommate is Debbie (Joy Bryant), a smart businesswoman who's seemingly opted out of the romantic game. Pushed by Bernie and Joan, Danny and Debbie soon become a couple, much to the consternation of their friends, who chide them for rushing into anything serious.

The story plays out in a series of vignettes spread over the seasons -- who says "I love you" first, moving in together, holiday events blown up by jealousy, temptations from old lovers, etc. A subplot follows Danny in quitting the sales job he hates, only to end up bartending at the place owned by his deceased dad's best friend (Christopher McDonald).

This movie is sweet and cute, buoyed by Hart's frantic comedic persona. The screenplay by Leslye Headland is reminiscent of "(500) Days of Summer," and director Steve Pink keeps things loose and easy. The more dramatic sections slide in and out readily, not carrying a whole lot of emotional freight but never weighing down the proceedings too much.

Maybe in another 28 years, another remake of "About Last Night" will come, perhaps centering on Latinos in Miami, and they'll watch a snippet of this movie, and the memory will not be an unpleasant one.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review: Oscar-nominated short films: Live Action

"Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?"

A ferociously funny Finnish short written by Kirsikka Saari and Selma Vilhunen, this 7-minute comedy takes its title from the lament that has escaped the lips of every mother, ever. A young family arises to realize they are late for an important wedding, and the matron must drive everyone like a slave master. The daughters end up in Halloween-y costumes and the husband dawdles with his coffee and beard-grooming. Short, sharp and with extra zest because it will be so familiar to most families.

"That Wasn't Me"

This searing Spanish drama set in war-torn Africa is the story of Kaney, a corporal and child-soldier who gets caught between his own adopted "family" of fellow killers and a pair of Spanish doctors who are in-country on a life-saving mission. Kaney is forced to make horrible choices at the point of a gun, and at first he seems like an irredeemable soul. But despite a tragic turn of events, a framing story lets us know that not all children are lost in war. Terrific performances by the cast and spot-on direction and writing by Esteban Crespo.


Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbæk) is a Danish boy dying of an unnamed disease, and Enzo (Casper Crump) is the introverted, clumsy new janitor who meets him on his hospital rounds. The moment where he says to the man that everyone is telling him he will go to heaven will freeze your blood, and set the tone for this four-hanky weepie. Centering on the boy’s love of airships, Enzo spins an ongoing tale of Helium, an afterlife made up of floating islands where Alfred can play football all day and visit his loved ones – a world represented in lovely CG. Elegiac, beautiful and brimming with soulfulness.

"The Voorman Problem"

"I equipped humans with free will mainly so they could dream up new ways to entertain me."
So says the title character (Tom Hollander), a scruffy lunatic inside a British prison who insists that he is God. Martin Freeman plays the psychiatrist sent to evaluate him, and the two soon engage in a cat-and-mouse game in which the man of science is steadily convinced by the would-be deity of his authenticity. Directed by Mark Gill, who co-wrote the film with Baldwin Li, this clever pitch-black comedy will unnerve you, then make you laugh, then feel bad about your mirth.

"Just Before Losing Everything"

A taut drama from France, this film by writer/director Xavier Legrand explores a regular family in crisis. At first we don't quite know what's going on, as Legrand misdirects the audience and draws out long moments of tension. A young boy appears to be ditching school, and then climbs into a car with a woman, later picking up a teenage girl. Eventually we learn this is a mother and her two children, who drive to her work in a mega-market, where urgent demands are made and troubled looks exchanged between co-workers. I kept waiting for the film to take a turn into the unexpected, but it follows exactly the path we think it will go. Still, it's skillfully made and leaves us hungry for more of this story.

Review: "Robocop"

In 1987 I was a pimply teen slinging/sweeping popcorn in a movie theater when the boss asked me to help set up a stand-up promo for an upcoming film in the lobby. As we fit together the various cardboard pieces, the name and chrome-domed image of "Robocop" came into focus.

We couldn't stop laughing. It looked like the goofiest, dumbest thing we'd ever seen. The display continued to provoke titters and jokes the next few weeks. We'd walk past it in a herky-jerky manner, dubbing ourselves "Robo-usher."

Then we saw the movie.

The laughing stopped, and although we'd continue to imitate Robocop, it was now performed with reverence instead of mockery.

Director Paul Verhoeven's "Robocop" instantly became an iconic film for a number of reasons. There was the kitschy premise of a man-turned-android, plus of course some very hard-edged violence -- initially earning an X rating from the MPAA -- that ping-ponged between cartoonish and nauseating. There was the incredibly cynical, sardonic view of a near-future Detroit ruled by Machiavellian corporations and dimwitted media info-tainment.

But at the center was the surprisingly soulful journey of the main character, an everyman cop who gains superhero-esque powers but has to give up a huge chunk of his humanity in the process. We cheered Robocop, and we pitied him.

The new remake is thoroughly unnecessary, but that doesn't mean the effort can't yield a good movie, as we saw with the recent reboot of the Spider-man franchise. Director José Padilha, a veteran from Brazil, and rookie screenwriter Joshua Zetumer come up with a promising premise, in which Robocop isn't a cutting-edge breakthrough, but simply a backward-engineered commodity designed to make robot law enforcement palatable to a malleable American public.

In the rest of the world, robots manufactured by Omnicorp run a martial state where even Iran is kept in line by scary machines, including the gargantuan ED-209s from the last film, as well as man-sized EM-208s. But politicians in the U.S. have barred them from policing domestically, resulting in $600 billion annually in lost revenues for CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).

The first hour or so is heady stuff, as Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) sees his life turned upside down after an explosion leaves his body in tatters, and comes to grips with the idea of living inside a metal suit. He's certainly got a cool new look, with black armor and a red slit for eyes. (Plus a pair of guns he never has to reload, ever.)

But the movie goes sideways in the second half, with neither the sarcastic humor or the PG-13 action scenes landing with a lot of punch.

Joel Kinnaman is believable as Murphy/Robocop, though he's a mite too pretty to be taken seriously as an anti-hero; the filmmakers repeatedly succumb to temptation to leave his face exposed. (Why exactly do they leave the lower half of his face unprotected?) Gary Oldman is a welcome presence as Dennett Norton, the conflicted scientist put in charge of the Robocop program.

Another thing lacking in the new movie is a hiss-able villain on the order of Clarence Bodicker, the sadistic killer from the original film. Keaton's Sellars is more slimy than hateful, a disreputable Steve Jobs type who likes to control the media. Jackie Earle Haley shows up as Robocop's taunting instructor, but he's a little too mercenary to really get our dander up.

Michael K. Williams and Abbie Cornish are pretty much wasted as, respectively, Murphy's partner and wife, mostly standing on the sidelines and wondering where the man disappeared inside the machine.

Samuel L. Jackson fires surprising blanks as Pat Novack, a demagogic broadcaster who acts as Omnicorp's jingoistic cheerleader. I think the problem is the character is so close to the unhinged talking heads we see on cable news every night, he's too familiar to serve as a cautionary tale.

I don't hate the idea of Hollywood remaking one of the seminal movies from my formative years, but the result is too tame to justify its own existence. There is one jaw-dropping moment in the film that hints of darker, grander themes to come. But it's soon forgotten in a wave of video-game shootouts and one-liners recycled from 1987.

Review: Oscar-nominated short films: Animation

"Get a Horse!"

Those who saw "Frozen" in theaters may remember this delightful 7-minute short film preceding the main feature. It's 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. A pure delight from director Lauren MacMullan and her crew.


Daniel Sousa's hand-drawn short is a beautiful, elegant and minimalist animated exploration of a wild boy forced into mankind's rigid society, with predictable results. The animation seems to blend into itself, more shapes and colors than vivid lines and depiction. I loved how none of the humans or creatures have eyes, being perpetually cast in shadow. In the human world, objects tend to arrive in bits and pieces, so the boy's new clothes slide onto him, one button or sleeve at a time.


This terrific bit of Japanese CGI is like a mix of manga, water color painting and superhero comic book aesthetics. A man wandering through the medieval forest during a storm takes refuge in a strange shrine, where objects seem to come to life and challenge him. A handyman whose box of tools and hat proclaim he can "Fix Anything 'n' Again" -- even though he resembles a Kurosawa samurai -- he sets about plying his trade on the worn possessions, or tsukumogami, which legend says gain sentience after a century of service. Crisp animation and imaginative scenarios make for a delightful, giddy romp.

"Mr. Hublot"

A gorgeously detailed CGI animated film from Luxembourg, "Mr. Hublot" imagines an incredibly distinctive world and then spins a short, sweet and memorable story out of it. The title character is a scientist type shut inside his home/laboratory in a strange steampunk world where most of the denizens are mechanical. Even Mr. Hublot has an odometer on his forehead that records the activity of his thoughts. A creature of habit, his world is upturned when he spies a forlorn little robot puppy living in the street across the way. Bold, beautiful and iconic, inspired by the sculptures of S. Halleaux, written and directed by Laurent Witz.


"Room on the Broom"

This simple, straightforward bit of computer-generated animation is based on the book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler about a witch and her cat who are being chased by a dragon. They keep bumping into other critters who need a ride -- a dog, a frog, a bird -- and soon their magic broom is overloaded to the breaking point. The hitch is that each new occupant is resistant to letting more onboard, which is eventually resolved in a message of inclusiveness. It's a nice-looking film with voices by Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins, with Simon Pegg narrating. But it goes on rather too long with too little narrative momentum.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Raiders of the Seven Seas" (1953)

John Payne's beard was not very red, despite carrying the Spanish name for "Redbeard" in "Raiders of the Seven Seas," a film that at one time was to share the moniker if its main character, Barbarossa. But he's a stolid, charismatic presence in this mid-century example of B-movie high adventure, co-starring Donna Reed as the ubiquitous love interest.

The sea battles are just terrible, a mix of stock footage, chintzy-looking model ships and snippets from other movies. Director Sidney Salkow re-uses shots over and over again, including an exceedingly strange one of Barbarossa's merchantman seemingly plowing through the waves -- except it never moves forward.

Granted, this was low-budget spectacle. But compared to the magnificent sea battles in "Damn the Defiant!" from just nine years later, the ones in "Raiders" look positively amateurish.

Forget about historical accuracy -- the real Barbarossa was a 16th-century Ottoman who never made it west to the "Caribbes," where his film doppelganger plunders Spanish ships and townships with glee. He's got a writ from the opposing French government granting him authority to make war on their enemy, a common tactic during the golden age of piracy, when the line between outlaw and hero often grew faint.

Payne, best known for film noir roles and the lead in "Miracle on 34th Street" -- and also as screenwriting legend Robert Towne's father-in-law -- plays Barbarossa as a full-blooded man of passion. He loved gold, women, food and humiliating his enemies, and not necessarily in that order. Of course, his appetites are brought to heel by the attentions of a beautiful woman, Alida (Reed).

A noblewoman who acts as governor of Tortuga in her father's absence, the strong-willed Alida becomes Barbarossa's prize trophy, to be sold back to the Spanish for 50,000 pieces of goal. Her arranged-marriage fiance, Captain Jose Salcedo (Gerald Mohr), plays the heavy of the piece. He'd rather risk his would-be wife's life than pay the gold and give up a chance at Barbarossa's head.

Lon Chaney Jr. shows up as Peg Leg, a slave whom Barbarossa frees along with a whole galley of subjugated men. True to his name, Peg Leg is missing a limb, which of course the real Chaney did not. They use the old tie-the-leg-behind-him trick, complemented by an entire menagerie of objects and pieces of the set that conveniently get in the way of his profile. Still, you can see the ruse of you care to look closely enough.

Everyone in the movie speaks in an arch, oddly formal way as if they were addressing each other for posterity rather than mere communication. Salkow co-write the script with John O'Dea, filling it with familiar tropes of the buccaneer genre. A peppy little boy even shows up named Datu to act as the pirates' cheerleader and mascot; normally this sort of role is played by an ethnic minority to give the movie a little zing of exoticism, but here young Norwegian Skip Torgerson keeps things lilly-white.

The tiny scale of the film is easy to see in relation to what it is supposed to represent. Salcedo at one point has 1,500 Spaniard soldiers under his command, but somehow we never actually see more than 20 of them at once, and seemingly the same 20 over and over again. Similarly, Barbarossa eventually captures a whole fleet of ships, but they're seemingly manned by the same handful of henchmen.

"Raiders of the Seven Seas" isn't a bad movie, just a cheap one. It's the sort of thing you saw on the bottom of a double-feature back in the day, munched your popcorn and enjoyed, and quickly forgot about.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Video review: "All Is Lost"

In many ways, “All Is Lost” is 2013’s companion film to “Gravity,” though far fewer people saw it.

Written and directed by rising young talent J.C. Chandor, “All Is Lost” stars Robert Redford as “Our Man,” an unnamed lone seafarer aboard a high-class sailboat. Like Sandra Bullock in space, he is faced with an existential crisis when his vessel is fatally damaged, and he spends the rest of the movie trying valiantly – though without much hope – to survive.

Apart from a brief narration right at the beginning and a handful of epithets sprinkled throughout, the film is wordless. It’s just Redford’s presence, Chandor’s beautiful yet haunting photography, and music by Alex Ebert.

Trouble begins when a lost cargo container smashes into his hull, flooding the living compartments and shorting out his radio. He labors at repairs, but a sea storm soon rises and damages the ship even more severely, dashing his hopes at an easy fix.

As his situation grows ever more dire, Our Man must rely on his ingenuity to contact ways to navigate and procure drinking water – even as his will to live ebbs.

The comparison to “Gravity” is obvious, though another film with similarities is “Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks. Made prisoners by circumstance, these three protagonists become our champions as they endeavor to use the meager tools at hand to fashion a chance at life.

A transfixing experience, “All Is Lost” should prove to be a true find on video.

Extra features, which are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions, are reasonably generous, and include a feature-length commentary track by /Chandor and his producers – though not Redford, alas.

There are also a number of short featurettes and vignettes focusing on storyboards, special effects, sound design and editing, the script, director and star.



Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: "The Monuments Men"

"The Monuments Men" was expected to be a major contender in the Oscar race, but got pulled at the last minute from its December release and moved into February. That rarely speaks well for a movie's quality, so it's no surprise that the latest from director/co-writer/star George Clooney is a disappointment.

It's not a bad movie, certainly, and isolated sections are quite enjoyable in a breezy, been-there-done-that sort of way. It's a World War II story that owes a lot of plot points to other war pictures, and also copies their look and tone. Since it stars all middle-aged actors, with the average somewhere in the early 50s, once could dismiss it as "Saving Private Ryan with Geezers."

(Indeed, Matt Damon, a whippersnapper when he played the title role in "Ryan," is now the youngest guy on the team.)

The concept is certainly a departure from the norm. Instead of the usual dogfaces-in-their-trenches action or generals agonizing over war plans and lost lives, this is the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, an Alllied effort to preserve antiquities being stolen or destroyed by the Nazi machine.

They saved millions of pieces of art, and it's an engaging, relatively unknown subject that received notoriety in a book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, adapted for the screen by Clooney and longtime collaborator Grant Heslov.

Of course, liberties have to be taken to translate such a grand undertaking for a movie, and the film does so liberally. The primary conceit is presenting the Monuments Men as a tiny group of art experts who trade in their magnifying glasses for rifles, when in reality more than 400 soldiers and civilians were involved.

This automatically brings up similarities with other WWII movies like "The Dirty Dozen," where a ragtag team of cast-offs are thrown together and given a big, seemingly impossible mission. The film also has similarities to crime caper flicks, since our guys are essentially trying to steal the art before Hitler does (though with the intention of giving it back to the original owners).

As a result of this and some of the casting choices, "The Monuments Men" has a curiously comedic vibe. Bill Murray plays Campbell, the resident architect and droll quip-man. Bob Balaban is Savitz, the chief target of his jokes, an intemperate little man who resents being looked down upon. John Goodman is Garfield, much too old and large for Army gear, and Jean Dujardin is Clermont, the obligatory French guy.

Damon plays Granger, an art expert who gets sent ahead to be the advance man as the Germans retreat, and Hugh Bonneville is Jeffries, a stiff-upper-lip British type who is looking to redeem himself after past failures. Clooney is Stokes, who came up with the idea for the Monuments Men and acts as leader.

Dimitri Leonidas is the add-on as Epstein, a Jewish German emigre who gets conscripted because he speaks the lingo. Cate Blanchett turns up as a bookish French art expert who worked for the Nazis, and has to be convinced by Granger to give up her secrets.

The biggest problem with the movie is inconsistency. Some sections sing, while others feel flat and by-the-numbers. For instance, the conflict between the Damon and Blanchett characters that eventually turns to feelings of ardor seems preordained.

Clooney & Co. go for a certain amount of gravitas in certain sections, but that's  undercut by all the humor. For instance, after operating as the comic relief for the entire movie, Murray suddenly gets a dramatic scene with a message from home; the whole thing feels forced and false. There's another scene where Garfield and Savitz share a tense moment with a young German soldier that seems to come out of nowhere, and recede just as quickly.

They're not helped by a bombastic score by the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat ("The King's Speech"), who appears to have come up with the music by copying passages from other WWII movies. Good film music should add to the atmosphere rather than try to substitute for it; Desplat's score pushes the audience around.

The lack of a compelling villain also hurts. We get a succession of German officers who appear and then disappear as the chief baddie; Clooney gets a big face-off scene with a smirky SS officer, but because we've only seen him once before the moment carries little real weight. Late in the game they also add in a competing Soviet "trophy brigade" who are snatching up all the art for Mother Russia, but all they seem to do is ride around in vehicles, more existential threat than antagonists.

"The Monuments Men" is something of a puzzle. It has all the pedigree of a good or even great film, but falls flat. I'm reminded of "American Gangster," another movie loaded with talent that just couldn't seem to come together.

As a filmmaker, George Clooney has usually been ol' reliable, lighting up everything he touches. Despite being a movie about the preciousness of artistry, the magic is missing here.

Review: "The Lego Movie"

"The Lego Movie" is utterly forgettable but also undeniably fun. It's aimed straight at the single-digit age group, and is so fast-paced that older, slower minds may have trouble following all the action. But as disposable entertainment for kids, its hits its mark square-on.

If you're not aware of the franchise of Lego entertainment based on the iconic snap-together toys, then you must have had your head buried or not be a parent to young children. Often used to recreate populist favorites like Star Wars, they are near-ubiquitous in videos and gaming. Those little Lego-people with blocky bodies torsos and hook hands are the stars.

This is the first feature film featuring the yellow gang, and they've brought in a team of animation veterans with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs"), who co-wrote and -directed. They keep the movie bright, light and zany.

The set-up is rather cute: all the people live in a multi-faceted universe divided up into realms that match various Lego theme sets -- medieval, pirates, wild West, etc. All are ruled by Lord Business (voice by Will Ferrell), who likes for everything to be put together exactly according to the instructions to match the pictures on the front of the box. Any "weird stuff" is perpetually torn down and rebuilt.

Emmet (a terrific Chris Pratt) is an ordinary construction work -- so ordinary, in fact, that he's virtually indistinguishable from the crowd and doesn't have any friends. But like all the others he's been brainwashed into a life of superficial happiness, where everyone watches the same TV show ("Where Are My Pants?"), eats only at chain restaurants and sing and dance to the same omnipresent song ("Everything Is Awesome!", which actually is catchy in a supremely annoying way.)

But there is a rebellion afoot led by the Master Builders -- figures who can instantly piece together complex objects and vehicles from the various Lego pieces lying about. Emmet stumbles right into their plot and finds himself stuck to the Piece of Resistance, a nondescript block, that marks him as the Chosen One who will lead the overthrow of the tyrannical Business.

Trouble is, Emmet is such an unimaginative, vanilla type of guy that he seems to lack the basic skill set of a savior. A better choice would be Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a super-smart and talented rainbow-haired rebel who hitches on as Emmet's resentful sidekick.

Emmet is soon smitten by her, though she's in a committed relationship with her boyfriend, Batman ... yes, the Batman, deliciously voiced by Will Arnett. In this universe, anybody can appear in Lego form, so Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern also make cameos.

Rounding out the cast are Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius, an old sage and prophet; Nick Offerman as pirate/robot Metalbeard; Liam Neeson as Bad Cop/Good Cop, whose mood is determined by which way his head is turned; Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), a cat/unicorn hybrid; and Benny, a "1980s space guy" voiced by Charlie Day.

The animation looks deceptively simplistic at first, since everything and everyone is made up of Lego parts. But the CG is actually quite detailed, and the pieces fly together so quickly it must have been a chore to animate.

"The Lego Movie" surprises with its carefree attitude and zippy antics. This won't make anyone's best-of list, but as throwaway entertainment during cinema's frigid season, it's a superb fit.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969)

I warmed to "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," but very slowly.

This was one of those situations where I went into a movie expecting something, and the film I saw delivered something very different. Shortly after Peter O'Toole's death I realized I had several notable omissions in my viewing of his filmography and decided to rectify that, starting with his Oscar-nominated performances. Only "The Ruling Class" remains unseen by me, and hopefully I'll get to it before long.

Anyway, James Hilton's novella has previously been adapted to film in 1939. The story of a meek, shy British schoolmaster who gradually comes out of his shell to become a beloved institution unto himself, it had notes similar to other teacher tales, like the underrated "Mr. Holland's Opus." To wit: the focus is on the relationship between the instructor and his pupils.

Alas, "Chips" is not overly concerned with life in the classroom, containing only two sections set there toward the beginning and the end, mostly to serve in juxtaposition as to how Arthur Chipping (O'Toole) is regarded by his young charges. Which is to say: unspeakably reviled in the former, and warmly embraced in the latter.

In truth, the 1969 film version is a romantic drama, and a musical one, at that. I confess I was not aware of the movie's tendency to break out into song until I started watching it and encountered O'Toole's low-key, amateurish warbling. It registers somewhere between Rex Harrison's talk-singing in "My Fair Lady" and Lee Marvin's deep-throated gurgling in "Paint Your Wagon" in terms of cadence.

Apparently, the 1960s was a time when filmmakers thought it was a great idea to cast actors who couldn't sing in musicals.

The songs in "Chips" are mostly forgettable, and mostly sung by Katherine Bridges (Petula Clark), the London stage soubrette -- in Broadway terms, the singing ingenue -- who becomes his unlikely wife. Clark was a famous recording artist at the time but not much of an actress; Richard Burton, who was originally to have played the role of Chipping, declined to appear with a "pop star," leaving the way open to O'Toole.

O'Toole's performance is a thing of wonderment. At first, his character is so off-putting and annoying, we can't stand watching him but for a short while. O'Toole affects an air of absolute mortification whenever he encounters behavior that is off-putting, which is essentially all the time. His first meeting with and courtship of Katherine is nearly grating, as we cannot possibly comprehend what she sees in this older, sad chap.

But she soon smooths out his rough edges, making him more passionate and agreeable. He stands up to his insular school's board of governors when he is passed over for promotion, something we cannot imagine the mouse-like Chipping doing beforehand. Katherine transforms him into a better man, and their relationship deepens with the passage of time, despite their lack of children.

(My understanding is she had a miscarriage in the film's original editing, but that was taken out. "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" exists in several iterations, from barely over two hours to nearly three hours running time. Many of the songs were removed during the various culling processes.)

Katherine dies during a WWII bombing while she's performing one of her old stage numbers for the troops, which leaves Chipping devastated, but in some ways still complete. He is able to engage with his boys in a manner that is instructive and clipped, yet nurturing rather than ostracizing.

One of the final scenes shows Chipping, now headmaster of the school, giving his farewell address to the boys in their massive meeting hall. He tries to be modest and downplay his tenure, but is swarmed with their support and adoration. It's practically a one-man masters class in acting, as O'Toole underplays beautifully.

I started out rather disliking this film, but near the end it almost had me in tears. This was director Herbert Ross' first effort in the chair, going on to make wonderful and/or famous pictures like "Steel Magnolias," "The Goodbye Girl," "Footloose" and  "Pennies From Heaven."