Sunday, March 30, 2014

Video review: "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues"

The first “Anchorman” movie was spectacularly overrated, and the sequel is a heaping helping of seconds.

Oh, you’ll laugh during “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.” Probably chortle quite uproariously on a half-dozen or so occasions. The rest of the time, though, is waiting around for that next big ROFL moment to arrive. During these portions, which make up the bulk of the overlong 119-minute runtime, the movie barely edges into tolerable.

Will Farrell returns as Ron Burgundy, the worst newscaster in history (circa 1980). As the story opens he loses his job and his marriage simultaneously, but gets a second chance at the then-new enterprise of television news broadcast 24/7.

Relegated to the wee hours of the morning, he and his crew of nitwits (Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner) soon make a splash by giving the audience exactly what they want – car chases, cute critters and jingoistic patriotism.

As a critique of TV news, “Anchorman 2” is pretty weak tea, hitting all the obvious notes without much originality or flair. So the movie has to rely on its characters and humor, which are the very definition of scattershot.

Director Adam McKay, who co-write the script with Ferrell, favor an ad-lib approach in which actors do take after take, and (supposedly) the best stuff is used for the movie. Ferrell & Co. stand there, barking out absurd dialogue until something sticks.

Their comedy mantra seems to be “Try, try again.” But is one hit to every 20 misses worth your time?
This zany M.O. does, however, allow them to try something truly audacious for the video release. They are giving us three different versions of the film, including a “Super-Sized R-Rated Version” that reportedly includes 763 new jokes.

It’s essentially an alternative edit of the theatrical version (also included), with different lines swapped out. It also includes an unrated version with even filthier gags and language.

Is the “new” version of the movie better than the one we saw in theaters? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack also includes a making-of doc, gag reel, table read by the cast, deleted and extended scenes, audition tapes and more.

You have to spring for the Blu-ray pack to get all these goodies, though; the solo DVD contains only the theatrical version of the movie, and that’s it.

Movie: C
Extras: B-plus

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: "Bad Words"

"So did your soul burst into flames?"

So asks Guy Trilby, the protagonist of "Bad Words," a pitch-black comedy in which there are no heroes. Jason Bateman, making his directorial debut, stars as a man seemingly without a good bone in his body. He is a racquetball wall of a man, returning contempt and abuse with equal or even greater force. To say he is unlikeable is to suggest that has ever contemplated the notion of seeking approval from others.

Guy is a cipher, a mystery man who appears seemingly from nowhere, 40 years old and untethered, taking a sabbatical from a dull job proofreading warranties to enter the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Of course, the $50,000 contest is for students eighth grade and below, but he exploits a loophole to force his way in, a middle-aged man among preadolescents.

And he does not just compete against cute kids, but dominates them, both emotionally and physically. He plays head games and cheats, taunting the heavyset contestants and convincing another that he has slept with his mother. Guy is, in other words, a colossal dick.

The fact that Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge make Guy simply palatable as a main character is quite an achievement, and to say that we actually enjoy following along on his strange, dark journey is quite another.

Guy's exact reasons for taking on this challenge, absorbing untold abuse from parents and bee officials in the process, largely remain a mystery until near the end. Even then, his justification seems not to measure up to the ruckus he's caused, and I think he knows it, but he just wants to make a statement about who he is and how he got to be where he has arrived.

Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney play the unctuous senior Golden Quill executives who are flummoxed to no end by the prospect of Guy hijacking their prestigious event on national television, and take steps to block his way to the championship.

Guy arrives at the national contest with a reporter in tow named Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a flustered wreck who has plenty of issues of her own, starting with the fact that she keeps sleeping with the subject of her big story. Guy plays her just like he does the spelling bee, letting out only dribs and drabs of information.

The movie's most surprising turn is Guy's antagonism with an 11-year-old Indian-American boy named Chaitanya Chopra, played brilliantly by Rohan Chand. Chaitanya is chirpy and friendly, a geeky kid but a self-possessed one, who seems to take it as his own personal mission to befriend the middle-aged interloper, despite heaping helpings of politically incorrect insults directed his way. ("Point your curry hole back the other way," is one of the few riffs quotable in friendly company.)

There's more going on with Chaitanya than meets the eye, of course, foreshadowed by his volunteering that his favorite word is "subjugate." But things occur that are unexpected by both man and boy, a dizzy mix of hedonism and male bonding, that somehow feel just right.

Just so we're clear: this is a dark, dark film. It's often very funny, but in the sort of way where you feel bad right after you quit laughing. It's reminiscent in many ways of "Bad Santa" from a few years back, but it actually makes that film seem like a lighthearted romp by comparison.

(That query quoted at the beginning of this review is Guy's tutelage in the proper usage of expletives. Yes, not only do the adults in this movie curse in front of children, they elicit nasty words from the mouths of babes.)

As contests go, spelling bees rank somewhere just below the Westminster Dog Show in terms of the amount of attention given to something so profoundly useless and preposterous. Young students beat themselves to a pulp to learn to spell obscure words they will never employ in their entire lifetimes, at least not if they want to be understood by others.

(If inscrutability is indeed their goal, we save a few places in academia for them.)

In addition to his own poisonous personal reasons, Guy also seems to be pointing out to the world how ridiculous bees are, yet another way in which we push our children to be how we would like them to be rather than affording them the freedom to discover themselves.

That's a pretty sinister bit of subtext for a movie so deliciously good at making us feel bad, laughing all the way to the therapist.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Video review: "The Wolf of Wall Street"

“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough,” wrote Roger Ebert. I don’t entirely agree – I’ve seen plenty of worthy films that could’ve been improved with a nip and a tuck. Case in point: “The Wolf of Wall Street,” at 180 minutes, is occasionally self-indulgent and sprawling.

But it’s still a terrific film, one of the best of 2013. My guess is that people who were put off from seeing it in theaters due to its three-hour run time will cozy up to the latest handsome collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, their fifth together, now that it’s out on video.

DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a slick young stock broker who founds an investment firm dedicated to partying hard and snorting up commission fees from clients on questionable deals. Along with a handful of sycophantic collaborators, including a giddy Jonah Hill as his wingman, they set about to take Wall Street by storm.

This they do – but attracting the attentions of certain lawmen in the process. Jordan & Co. spend as much time hiding their antics from the public eye as they do chasing the almighty dollar.

“Wolf” careens all over the place between comedy and drama, cautionary tale and generous helpings of sex ‘n’ drugs. Much as Scorsese has often been accused of idolizing the gangsters so often featured in his movies, there’s no denying this film gleefully dives into a pool of debauchery.

It may be kind of a mess, and would probably be better if it were 15 or 20 minutes shorter, but it’s still one terrific cinematic ride.

Video features are a big disappointment. If you buy the DVD version, you get absolutely nothing – not even a theatrical trailer.

Spring for the Blu-ray combo pack and you add only “The Wolf Pack” – a series of interviews with Scorsese, cast and crew about making the film.



Monday, March 24, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Professionals" (1966)

Regular readers of this column will know that I am endless fascinated by the life cycle of movies -- how some films see their reputations wax with the passage of time, while other worthier pictures end up largely forgotten. Ensconced firmly in the latter category is 1966's "The Professionals."

The movie, written and directed by Richard Brooks, was a big commercial hit at the time, revived Burt Lancaster's career and helped propel Lee Marvin into mainstream stardom. It was also a critical success, and earned three Oscar nominations, including two nods for Brooks' screenplay and direction.

And yet, it's not a film that your average movie-lover would know by name. Thematically, it's very similar to the iconic Western "The Magnificent Seven," about a bunch of disparate group of experts rounded up for a near-impossible mission -- a trick Marvin would repeat next year, this time in a World War II setting in "The Dirty Dozen." So it's possible it got lost in a crowd of similar flicks.

There's that title, which is rather generic and unmemorable. And Brooks is one of those filmmakers who doesn't get the respect he deserves, leaving behind an oeuvre -- "Blackboard Jungle," "In Cold Blood," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Elmer Gantry" -- as impressive as any other mid-century writer/director.

Still, why has this Western "oater" fallen so low that even I had never heard of it until recently?

It's certainly a strong picture, with a mildly to moderately revisionist take on the genre. Four over-the-hill mercenaries take a cold-blooded job, going after one of their old compadres, no less. They include an African-American among their number, which causes no discernible ruckus. And they see the job through to the end, only to double-cross the employer who had misled them about the true nature of the mission.

It's not quite "The Wild Bunch" in terms of turning the Western on its head, but Brooks certainly took a little-known novel by Frank O'Rourke and made it into something grim and ironic.

There's also an unsettling subtext of sexual barter at play. Sometime in the 19-teens, the boys are hired by a rich oilman named Gates (Ralph Bellamy) to rescue his young Mexican wife, who was kidnapped by a revolutionary/bandid named Jesus Raza (Jack Palance, equipped with makeup and accent to make for a sufficient representation of a Latino). One of his henchmen (-women?) is Chiquita (Maria Gomez), who reputedly never turns down an offer for sex, and is seen topless from a three-quarter vantage point.

The crew used to fight with Raza in the Mexican Revolution, and are dismayed that he would have turned to kidnapping (and, presumably, raping) innocent women as a means of earning a living. As Dolworth (Lancaster), the explosives expert and most amoral of the adventurers puts it, I'll happily steal, lie and kill for money, but not that.

They eventually realize Maria Grant (Claudia Cardinale) is not a hostage, but an active participant in blackmailing her husband to support the revolutionary zeal of Raza, whom she has loved since childhood. Nevertheless, Fardan (Marvin), the taciturn leader and weapons master, insists they honor the contract and bring her back across the border. The busty, haphazardly clothed Maria even offers herself to Dolworth in exchange for her freedom, though both are too cagey to consummate the exchange.

The other, lesser members of the gang are Woody Strode as Sharp, the tracker/scout, and Robert Ryan as horse wrangler Ehrengard, who in a modern setting would be the wheel man.

I don't think Strode utters more than a few sentences throughout the entire picture, and is mostly around as a reliable presence, buttressed by Strode's famous physique. He was a decathlon competitor in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, player in the nascent NFL and still cut an imposing figure in 1966 when he was in his early 50s. Sheriff Woody from the "Toy Story" movies was named after him.

Ryan is the resident team member laden with distemper, who always seems to be at odds with the others, especially over the treatment of the horses. When they kill a group of Raza's scouts and bury the bodies, Dolworth advocates shooting the horses since, let free, they might run back home and give warning. Ehrengard convinces the group against that course of action, and in the end the horses do lead them right into trouble. After he is shot in the ensuing standoff, Ehrengard is more or less sidelined the rest of the movie.

Although, I should point out, the seriousness of wounds in "The Professionals" is somewhat tenuous, depending on the necessities of the plot. Ehrengard is shot through the shoulder, at one point appears to be dying, and Fardan talks of him slowing them up from Raza's pursuit. By the next day, though, he's lifting Maria into her saddle with little ill effect.

In perhaps the film's most memorable sequence, Dolworth lags behind to hold off Raza's group in a mountain pass to give the others time to make good their escape. Single-handedly, he out-guns Raza and six others, getting shot himself in the process -- "in the ass," he brassily informs an also-shot-up Raza, as the men exchange pleasantries from behind cover. Dolworth also survives a shoot-out with Chicquita, with whom he has exchanged amorous attentions in the past, granting her a dying kiss. Hours later, though, Dolworth and his punctured hindquarters will jump on and off horses with no problems.

I quite enjoyed "The Professionals," though I don't think it's quite the masterpiece it's made out to be. It's an action-heavy picture, with the planning and assault of Raza's fortress taking up most of the first hour, and actually being rather on the dull side.

Still, it's superior to "The Dirty Dozen" and probably "The Magnificent Seven," too, which enjoy far richer reputations. Cinematic posterity, earned or otherwise, is a twitchy little sumbitch.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review: "Divergent"

Stop me if this sounds familiar:

A spunky teen girl has grown up uncertain in a post-apocalyptic future America of meager resources and carefully controlled factions that do not intermix freely. While things seem orderly, it's only a mask for the totalitarianism that pervades their segmented society. She is drafted into a gladiator-like contest of physical and mental combat, where despite her apparent weakness she quickly demonstrates a killer instinct she didn't even know was there.

Also, hunky boys abound, both helpful and not.

Yes, "Divergent" is close enough to "The Hunger Games" in basic plot and tone to make you wonder if the novelists on whose books these respective movies were based, Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins, did not share some kind of harmonic psychic tap while composing their YA tomes. It also begs the question of how this new dystopian thriller/drama can possibly still seem fresh.

Short answer: it doesn't.

But "Divergent," despite frequent bouts of tremendous silliness, manages to engage and entertain in a way that those turgid "Games" have not.

Shailene Woodley, who impressed so well in "The Descendants" awhile back, plays Beatrice, a member of the Abnegation tribe, which professes selflessness. Dubbed "Stiffs" by the others for their Amish-like reserve, they act as ruling party.

While close to her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) and brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Beatrice has never felt like she belonged, more attracted to the Dauntless, the fearless warrior class who act as military for the remnants of Chicago, which they've protected from untold horrors out in the wasteland by a massive wall.

Other factions are the Amity, peaceful farmers; Candor, the forthright speakers of law; and Erudite, the scientists and intellectuals. (Though for some reason everyone pronounces it "air-ee-uh-dite," including the Erudites themselves, which makes one ponder how smart they really are.)

Every youngster is given a test to determine which faction best suits them, in the public Sorting Hat-like ceremony that brings in shades of Harry Potter. While they're still free to choose, most children stay in the faction to which they were born.

Beatrice tests as being equally strong in three factions (Erudite, Abnegation and Dauntless), which brands her as Divergent, who are generally killed upon discovery. She is warned never to reveal this to anyone, and follows her heart to the Dauntless clan, leaving disappointed parents behind.

The bulk of the story (screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor) is consumed by the indoctrination of Tris -- as she renames herself -- into the martial world of the Dauntless. She's spurred on by Four (Theo James), her instructor-slash-love-interest. Friends are made, foes are too, and it's one (over)long Lord of the Flies tale.

After a series of dream-like simulations designed to make Tris face her deepest fears, things finally build up to the brink of war, with the maddeningly serene leader of the Erudites (Kate Winslet) at the center of the conflict.

Directed by Neil Burger ("Limitless"), "Divergent" is a bit bloated at 139 minutes, with several extraneous characters in need of trimming.

But there's a giddy mix of fun and danger here missing from "The Hunger Games." Several sequences exist simply for the sheer thrill of it, such as a zipline ride down from the top of a skyscraper.

"Divergent" might better be titled "Derivative," but by besting is predecessors in sheer entertainment quotient, it stands atop the heap of young adult fiction-turned-movies.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Lady Vanishes" (1938)

Honestly, I struggled to get through "The Lady Vanishes," which is something I never thought I'd say about an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Even toward the end of his days when his fastball had lost its snap -- "Marnie," "Torn Curtain" -- Hitch's movies always had a sense of bravura momentum, of characters and events drawn inextricably forward. The proceedings might grow self-indulgent or even silly, but the Master of Suspense always managed to keep things moving.

Not in "Lady," his second-to-last film made in the British production system before dipping oars toward Hollywood. The first hour is an absolute chore, more His Girl Friday-type of snappy romantic banter than thriller, essentially a comedy of manners lacking narrative oomph.

Things don't really get moving till the last 30 minutes when the guns come out.

I was amused by this description from Hitchcock's Wikipedia page: "a fast-paced film about the search for a kindly old Englishwoman Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears while on board a train in the fictional country of Bandrika." If this is fast-paced, I don't care to see Hitch's version of cinematic lollygagging.

Margaret Lockwood plays Iris Henderson, an English dilettante enjoying a snow skiing vacation with her girlfriends before heading home to be wed, an event she approaches more with resolution than eagerness. After getting knocked on the head by a dropped piece of luggage, she befriends a British governess returning home aboard the same train.

Miss Froy is described as "middle-aged," though Whitty was 73 years old when she played her, and looks every inch of prim elderly Englander. She disappears after Iris falls asleep, and to her consternation no one else onboard claims to remember seeing her. Enlisting the aid of Gilbert (Michael Redgrave, in his star-making role), a puckish musicologist with whom she had sparred at their hotel, Iris sets off on a quest to prove she's not crazy, and that Miss Froy has been abducted, or worse.

Helpfully arriving to provide illumination is a physician of dubious European origin named Dr. Hartz, played by Paul Lukas, who usually plays the good guy and appears to be wearing quite obvious makeup to accent/lengthen his eyebrows. He tells Iris her memory of Miss Froy is an injury-induced psychosis. Later, when evidence mounts to prove her existence, a doppelganger wearing the exact same clothing Iris described Miss Froy as wearing is produced.

Needless to say, this being a Hitchcock movie, the revelation of foul play is inevitable. This builds to such moments as a fistfight with a buffoonish Italian magician using his props as a backdrop, Gilbert climbing along the outside of the train from one window to the next, and a faux nun given away by her stylish high-heeled shoes.

Ostensibly, the story is about the search for Miss Froy, and to find out why seemingly everyone on the train is in on the conspiracy to discredit her existence. Really, though, it's a setup for Iris and Gilbert to fall in love, in that classic I-hate-you-until-the-moment-I-realize-you-are-the-one formula.

Sexually the film is rather frisky for its era. We see Iris and her pals in a considerably disrobed state, and Gilbert is wont to make teasing statements about their relationship, at one point marching into her room and asking which side of the bed she prefers. He even gives her a cheeky slap on the rump, though the actual moment of contact between palm and derriere happens carefully just out of frame.

Also showing up is Cecil Parker as Todhunter, a wealthy barrister who is traveling with his mistress and weighing whether a divorce would impinge his changes of obtaining a judgeship. Needless to say, he's the fellow whose spine shows yellow when the going gets tough.

Providing the comic relief are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, a pair of unctuous British gents whose sole purpose in life appears to be returning to England in time to catch the cricket tournament. It's a twinkly pairing, men who take such seriousness in spectacularly unimportant things, and they act as a sort of self-parody of everything English. They were so popular they would go on to appear together in three more movies.

"The Lady Vanishes" was a huge hit commercially and critically, and indeed it was the success of this film -- after a string of moribund pictures -- that convinced David O. Selznick he ought to bring Hitchcock across the pond to make American movies. For me, it remains one of his weaker efforts, a bit of light, frothy tosh on the way to grander and grimmer things.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Video review: "Frozen"

File the recent Academy Award Race for best animated film under “Most Predictable Event Ever.”
“Frozen” was easily the finest animated flick of 2013, not that the competition was all that keen. It’s a musical with probably the catchiest set of tunes to emerge from the House of Disney since “Beauty in the Beast.” (It also won the Oscar for Best Song, “Let It Go,” and easily could have earned one or two more nods in that category.)

Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) is the orphaned queen of Arendelle who harbors a terrible secret: she possesses magic powers that freeze anything she touches. After a terrible childhood accident, this knowledge has been stripped from the mind of her kid sister, Anna (Kristen Bell).

Elsa has dealt with her burden by shutting herself off from the world, while Anna is raring to get outside of their closed-off castle and have some fun. Following a tragic turn of events, Elsa flees into the frozen mountains. Anna follows to help, aided by a comely prince (Santino Fontana) and an unkempt woodsman (Jonathan Groff), both of whom have romantic aspirations.

Supplying the sprightly comic relief is Olaf, a tiny snowman created by Elsa’s magic who is ensorcelled by the notion of summer, apparently unaware that frozen water turns to puddles when it’s warm. He’s voiced by Josh Gad, who supplies a happy tune of his own.

A bewitching mix of light and darkness, “Frozen” is a fun movie with deeper themes roiling underneath the perky songs and fun action. This is the rare kiddie flick that parents not only will enjoy, but might actually turn on even after the children have gone to bed.

“Frozen” comes amply supplied with quality video extras, though you’ll have to pay more for the Blu-ray edition to get the best stuff. The DVD version comes only with “Get a Horse!”, the animated short that preceded the movie in theaters, and the music video of “Let It Go” in various languages.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo, and you add a comprehensive making-of documentary, a feature on translating Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” and four deleted scenes.



Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: "Need for Speed"

I like video games and I like cars and I like car racing video games and I certainly like movies, but I did not care for this movie based on a car racing video game.

The problem with "Need for Speed" is that it's a goofy flick with aspirations of being A Serious Drama, and those things don't really mix well. Much like the dreariest parts of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, whenever the characters aren't zipping around in souped-up machines, crashing and taunting each other, the movie gets stuck in neutral.

It is, in fact, much like a muscle car sitting in one place revving its engine very loudly: it seems kinda cool at first and certainly draws a lot of attention, but after a short time we get itchy to see the thing, y'know, go.

Aaron Paul, best known as the "bitch" guy from TV's "Breaking Bad," hasn't had much of a movie career -- though he had a strong supporting part in the indie drama "Smashed" from not long ago. He's got serious thespian chops, but this movie -- directed by Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor") with a screenplay by rookie George Gatins -- requires him to deliver a lot of ridiculous dialogue and smoldering stares that don't seem to have a whole heaping helping of intellect behind them.

I'm not saying Tobey Marshall is dumb, but he certainly acts pretty dumb.

Tobey runs a performance car shop in tiny Mount Kisco, New York (though Georgia and its ferocious film production tax credits stand in). His dad has recently died, the shop isn't doing well, but he's got an amiable crew of mechanics/best buds (Ramon Rodriguez, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson) to help pass the time.

They contrive to set up elaborate street racing events, including a guy monitoring traffic from a Cessna in the sky, though the cops are seemingly nowhere to be found. Tobey is the top dog on this little circuit, but he's never had a car good enough to make it to the Big Time, where here is defined as an annual underground race of supercars called the Deleon.

This race is organized by a secretive billionaire named Monarch (Michael Keaton), who reputedly was once a great racer himself but a bad ticker made him quit. Now he sits in a room full of tech gear, delivering daily vodcasts in which he encourages and/or rags on drivers, with an exclusive invite to the Deleon as catnip. Apparently, every single gearhead in the country tunes into Monarch, though law enforcement has not yet paid him any notice. Strange, that.

Here's where things get screwy. The prize for the winner of the Deleon is he gets to keep all the other racers' cars. Of course, if you've every actually played the Need for Speed games or seen any car movie ever, you know that most of the vehicles end up as smoking roadkill.

(Maybe Monarch got so rich because he never has to put up any prize money, and his only major expenses are Web hosting fees.)

The heavy is Dominic Cooper as Dino Brewster, a teen rival of Tobey's who stole his girl (Dakota Johnson) and made it out of their dink town to race on the Indy circuit, which of course begs the question of why he bothers with illegal street races that likely pay a small fraction of his legitimate racing income.

Whatever. Cooper is an appropriately sneering, contemptuous presence.

The Deleon actually ends up as largely an afterthought, as most of the film's running time is concerned with the initial face-off between Tobey and Dino, during which Very Bad Things happen, and then Tobey's race to drive across country in time to make it for Monarch's little to-do in California. The "race before the race" has all sorts of roadway encounters, including incompetent cops, murderous rednecks in trucks and a rescue off the end of a cliff that is just completely preposterous.

Imogen Poots plays Julia, a British car expert who tags along with Tobey for reasons that are never made entirely clear, other than just to have an adorable chick around. The movie's third main star is a special silver Ford Mustang, supposedly the car Carroll Shelby was working on with Ford before he died, which Tobey and his crew finish into a 234-mile-per-hour beast.

Of course, driving a custom-built car 3,000 miles across country at high speeds is a really great way to mess up the engine right before a big race, but "Need for Speed" is not the sort of movie to bother with verisimilitude. The 'Stang is pretty awesome, though I thought the '68 Gran Torino Tobey drives in the initial race even cooler.

The racing sequences are the best thing about the movie, as Waugh & Co. eschew over-the-top computer generated mayhem for practical car stunts, which give these scenes a certain amount of verve and heft.

The talkie parts, though, are so cumbersome, and eat up an astonishing portion of the film's overlong 140-minute run time.

At one point, Tobey and Dino finally have a face-off inside a hotel prior to their race, which involves lots of shoving and grappling and strained threats. "We'll settle this behind the wheel!" Tobey snarls, because that's where every car movie ends. All things considered, though, a punch in the nose would have been quicker, safer and more satisfying.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Dreamscape" (1984)

"So Jane, what you do here in effect is count boners?"
If there was any better indication that a new Rubicon of filmmaking had been crossed, it was this quote from 1984's "Dreamscape," which was the second movie to be released with a PG-13 rating ("Red Dawn" being the first). It boasted enough gory violence, f-words and sex to earn it an R rating, but slide down to the next category with a few modest trims.

The new rating from the MPAA was designed to address a wave of films in the early 1980s -- "Poltergeist" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" among them -- that stretched the limits of the amount of blood and violence allowable in a PG movie. Steven Spielberg was actually among those who suggested an intermediate rating between PG and R.

But the studios soon realized the potential to nudge a host of other adult-oriented material into popular mainstream movies, while still selling tickets to kiddies. A new paradigm was established, and since then most big blockbuster films have carried the PG-13 classification.

The 13 part of the rating is simply a guide for parents. As a former assistant manager of a movie theater, I can tell you there was no actual restriction on under-age children buying their way into the movie, despite outraged assertions from any number of grown-ups.

As an almost-15-year-old when "Dreamscape" came out, I can also authoritatively declare that this fantasy/sci-fi/horror hybrid touched a whole lot of erogenous zones for people in my demographic. The story is about the ability of psychics to enter into the dreams of other people, and help or hurt them depending upon their motivations.

As was the case with the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and other cinema of the era, we were made to understand that if you die in your dream, you die in real life, too. Utter hooey, of course, and we all knew it back then, but it's one of those conceits you swallow in the course of a life of mainstream movie-going.

Dennis Quaid was the star, but the person most people remember from the movie is David Patrick Kelly, who steals the entire second half as "dream assassin" Tommy Ray Glatman. (As he also did in the latter portion of "The Warriors," plus other films.)

So intense in his portrayal of the psychopathic psychic, Kelly seems to be practically shivering out of his skin -- something he actually does later, turning into a snake-man for dream combat against his arch-foe, Alex Gardner (Quaid). He also conjures up fingernail blades to tear out the beating heart of a man, a scene that surely would not have passed muster under the banner of a PG film.

Directed by Joseph Ruben, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Loughery and Chuck Russell, "Dreamscape" was reputedly based on a short novel by Roger Zelazny, who sold a story outline to 20th Century Fox but did not receive a screen credit.

The tale is brimming with all sorts of Cold War anxiety about nuclear annihilation, coupled with paranoia that the government is invading our lives and shredding our freedoms. Generally I'm not one to go in much for political interpretations of movies, but the Reaganesque subtext is pretty hard to ignore here.

Eddie Albert plays the President, who is having bad dreams about nuclear war, including being attacked by radiation mutants, and resolves to pursue disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), an old friend of his who runs a shadowy covert arm of the government -- "They're the guys the CIA is afraid of" -- opposes this, claiming the POTUS wants to "emasculate our nuclear deterrent."

He resolves to nip the problem in the bud by having Tommy Ray enter his mind as part of a secretive "dreamlink" research project housed at a fictitious college. Max von Sydow plays Dr. Novotny, head of the project and an old friend to Alex, whom he recruits to join the mission. Kate Capshaw is Jane, a fellow researcher who takes great pains to keep her relationship with Alex on a professional level.

Quaid, at the height of his brief initial stardom, is a smirky, charismatic presence, playing a guy with the soul of a con artist but who dresses like a preppy (Easter egg-colored cardigan vests aplenty).

George Wendt (Norm!) shows up briefly as Charlie Prince, a best-selling horror author whose vocation somehow gives him insight into the most secretive workings of the U.S. government. He's the one who clues in Alex that Blair is planning to use Tommy Ray to assassinate the president. How the hell does he know this? Unless he's a psychic, too?

The film's lowish-budget roots shine through during the dream sequences, which involve a lot of bad blue screen effects and herky claymation for the snake man sequences. The conception of Alex and Tommy Ray's psychic abilities is rather spotty, granting them the ability to predict the future -- Alex picks winning horses at the track -- but not much insight into other people's non-dreaming state of mind.

I don't think I had seen "Dreamscape" since its initial theater run 30 years ago (gulp!), but I was surprised at how well the movie remained fixed in my mind. I was struck by how much imagery of trains there is in the movie: Alex and Tommy Ray fight aboard a train, and then chase each other through a bombed-out underground station -- all of it bathed in a harsh red filter.

Alex also enters Jane's mind while she is dreaming and seduces her on board a train -- something they act out in real life in the movie's closing shot. Though it's a little creepy when you consider the act in its full context; it's basically psychic rape.

"Dreamscape" holds up well because it boasts a lot of imagination for what is essentially a summer action flick. And it's got a great villain who used the new MPAA rating to get exponentially more dastardly in his deeds.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Video review: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

The biggest question I had about the Coen Brothers’ latest work was not “What?” but “Why?”

Why did they feel compelled to make this movie? Like another fairly recent film of theirs I was cool to, “A Serious Man,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” seems like a movie the co-writer/directors made for themselves rather than for any hypothetical audience. It’s all well and good for artists to primarily please themselves, but that doesn’t mean we need to see it.

Set in New York City in the early 1960s when the folk music scene that produced Bob Dylan was germinating, “Davis” is the story of somebody who never makes it. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a sad sack and a lout who sponges off his friends for everything, even a place to sleep. But he’s a genuinely gifted singer – and so is Isaac, who skillfully and wistfully performs all his songs himself.

Llewyn stumbles from here to there, getting in and out of scrapes, including a perilous pregnancy that threatens the marriage of two fellow singers (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake). Occasionally he lands a gig or an audition, but we sense – and so does he – that Llewyn just isn’t destined for the big time.

The story gets interrupted for a long, strange road trip across the country so Llewyn can play for a club manager who apparently doesn’t even know he’s coming. It’s filled with loopy Coen-esque characters, such as John Goodman as a whiny jazzman, but Llewyn doesn’t have much reason for being there.

You can say the same of the movie about him.

Extras are quite scant, and are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions. You only get “Inside ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’” a making-of documentary. It does feature the notoriously publicity-averse filmmakers plus all the major cast members. It just would’ve been nice to see some deleted scenes and perhaps a commentary track.



Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: "300: Rise of an Empire"

Audiences were torn asunder over "300," the 2007 over-the-top bloodletting set against the (largely fictionalized) backdrop of the Battle of Thermopylae -- including me. The sober critic found it a transcendently silly movie, but my inner 15-year-old thought it cool beyond reasoning.

The entirely unnecessary sequel picks things up where they left off ... well, to be more accurate, it picks up 10 year prior to Spartan King Leonidas' brave, doomed stand with 300 men against the entire Persian army, then it flips to slightly before, and then slightly after, that battle. Part of the new film's fatal downfall is we're never quite sure how what we're seeing relates to the greater conflict.

Set largely at sea, "300: Rise of an Empire" features much of the stylized action of its predecessor, with men cutting each other apart in slow-mo, beautiful ribbons of crimson blood arcing toward the camera.
(For extra exposure to the spurting and squirting, see it in 3-D. Or don't.)

But it lacks any of the visceral punch of the original, and certainly has no figure to match with Gerard Butler's commanding Leonidas. The dastardly 8-foot-tall god/king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is back, briefly, but following a pithy origin story he exists mostly in the backdrop while his pet general, Artemisia (Eva Green), takes the fight to the Greeks with her armada of 1,000 ships.

Sullivan Stapleton is our stalwart stand-in as Themistocles, an Athenian general who (according to the prologue) slew Xerxes' father in an old battle, and now must unite the fractious city-states of Greece into a free nation and face down the invading horde.

Of course, it soon becomes personal between the opposing leaders, with the slithery Artemisia supplied a frightening backstory about an epic wrong committed against her by Greek soldiers. Themistocles is more mysterious, a charismatic but solitary leader -- and apparently a chaste one, too, preparing monk-like his entire life for this great battle.

In keeping with the franchise's signature mix of goofiness and self-seriousness, the pair enjoy a bedding before their inevitable showdown that's somehow even more violent than when they're playing with swords.

Previous director Zack Snyder, who seemed harmonically in tune with Frank Miller's lusty graphic novel, returns here as producer and co-screenwriter (with Kurt Johnstad). New director Noam Murro, whose only other feature film credit is the comedy "Smart People," lacks Snyder's primeval feel for the material, so that even the many beheadings and eviscerations are curiously flat and emotionless. It's like watching a butcher cleave lifeless flesh.

The first "300" also had a more fantastical element, with a pantheon of supernatural creatures filling out Xerxes' horde. Here, it's pretty much workaday guys trading spears and arrows from the decks of their ships, then switching to swords after they ram and grapple. Though once again, somehow every single Greek soldier boasts washboard abs. (The ancients were into cutting carbs and stomach crunches, don'cha know.)

"300: Rise of an Empire" kept the silliness of the original film but lost all its glorious verve. The combatants carve each other up prodigiously, but the mayhem carries no sting. It's got all the blood, but none of the guts.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Video review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

The problem with many fantasy book franchises that get turned into a series of movies is the individual films often seem much like one another. I enjoyed the first couple of “Harry Potter” flicks, but by the time the third one rolled around I felt like I’d already paid enough for the same dance.

“The Hunger Games” only needs two films to arrive at dreary repetition. “Catching Fire,” the sequel to 2012’s mega-hit, unrolls in very much the same fashion, culminating with gladiator-like games where young champions vie to kill each other off while an agitated populace is forced to watch on TV.

The only real difference is that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is no longer an unknown novice from a remote district, but the reigning champion along with her childhood friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with whom she carries on a faux romance for the benefit of the cameras.

She’s recruited (aka forced) to participate in a new set of games featuring former champions by the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who fears Katniss has become the lynchpin of a brewing rebellion. He’s even hired a new Games Master, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to devise insanely diabolical challenges for the competitors.

Katniss and Peeta quickly find themselves in an unlikely alliance with other players, but at times it seems like the very environment is out to get them.

“Catching Fire” isn’t bad, but it takes a long time to get going, and even when it does we’ve already seen all there is to see.

Video extras are decent enough. The DVD version comes with a feature-length commentary track by director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson and deleted scenes.

Go for the Blu-ray combo pack, and you add a nine-part feature-length documentary about the making of the film, “Surviving the Game: Making Catching Fire.”

(Note: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” will be released on video Friday, March 7.)



Monday, March 3, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Death Race 2000" (1975)

"Death Race 2000" is a movie trying to be schlocky and fun, when instead it's just awful and sad.

Over the years it's acquired a cult status not dissimilar from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which came out the same year. I'm not sure if people are lining up for midnight showings of it so they can dress in laugh-out-loud costumes and mimic the dialogue in real time, but maybe in people's living rooms and basements.

The movie exists now mostly as a cheesy artifact that nevertheless influenced later films. It's about a huge annual Transcontinental Road Race in which the main point is for the drivers to kill as many innocent pedestrians as possible. Set in a dystopian future where America has been transformed into an Orwellian nightmare where the people are kept in thrall by an all-powerful leader, the race is a national media phenomenon in which the populace supposedly vents its blood lust by cheering on the gratuitous deaths of others.

Ridiculous television personalities in outlandish outfits act as emcees, gleefully talking up the murderous mayhem to the point we wish they were among those hunted for sport. Of course, many citizens secretly loathe the carnage, and an uprising is growing throughout the land to topple the regime.

Numerous other movies have made use of a similar scenario, starting with "Rollerball," which schlock filmmaker Roger Corman used as the basis for his own down-market ripoff, but with cars. "The Hunger Games" would appear to be the biggest thing influenced by "Death Race 2000," substituting unwilling adolescents for fame-seeking adult drivers.

It was probably a progressive thing in 1975 for two of the five cars to be driven by women, who were just as aggressive behind the wheel -- and in bed -- as their male counterparts. Every driver has a navigator who rides shotgun and is assumed to be their sexual plaything, including Fred Gandy -- later Gopher on TV's "The Love Boat" and a U.S. Congressman -- as the squeeze of the Nazi-themed driver, Matilda the Hung (Roberta Collins).

A pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone vamps it up as "Machine-Gun" Joe Viterbo, a gangster type from Chicago whose car sports tommy guns on the front, along with an absurdly oversized bayonet knife. Curiously, Joe is the one driver who seems to be asexual, showing little interest in the canoodling that goes on between other racing teams. He's also notably sidelined during the en mass nude massage scene that remains the most screencapped thing from the movie, along with the hyper-fast splatter special effects of road kills.

David Carradine plays Frankenstein, the greatest racer ever who's had his body smashed to pieces by his various exploits. He wears an outlandish black costume and helmet that only serve to accentuate his decidedly un-heroic scrawniness. Frankenstein's face is covered/held together by a leather mask that, along with Carradine's long horsey teeth, render him into a somewhat scary countenance.

Of course, it's soon revealed that the mask and the backstory are all a put-on -- Frankenstein is a normal, handsome guy underneath with all his limbs intact. Well, except for his right hand, which literally has a grenade recessed into its prosthetic palm ... a "hand grenade," get it? He's the latest in a long line of guys trained to drive and placed inside the black get-up to serve as the nation's anti-heroic, automotive gladiator.

It seems Frankenstein hates the evil President as much as the rebels who are blowing up the drivers in an attempt to foil the race. They are led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), who has inserted her great-granddaughter, Annie (Simone Griffeth) as Frankenstein's navigator and saboteur. The two play a cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship that includes a couple of beddings.

Disc jockey Don Steele plays Junior Bruce, the comedically upbeat lead race broadcaster, who coos with glee after every kill.

The film is cheap as can be -- have you ever heard of a road race with only five contestants? -- as was SOP in Corman's assembly line of feature film productions. The cars are beyond silly, not even well-suited to their stated purpose, with outlandish colors, non-functional "weapons" on the grille and all convertibles, so as to ensure any splatted bodies end up right in the faces of the vehicle occupants.

Beyond that, though, think about the race itself: Once a year, deadly cars careen across the country from New York City to Los Angeles, killing everyone they come across (with old people and young'uns carrying extra points). Since it's a national event bigger than the Super Bowl, one would think that everyone would know when it's happening, and take great pains not to be anywhere on a road that day.

There is some goofy fun to be found in "Death Race 2000," though it's never quite clear if the laughs are intentional or not. I get the sense that director Paul Bartel and screenwriters Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith started out trying to make a more-or-less serious movie, a parody about America's fascination with cars, sex, violence and television. But at some point they recognized their budgetary constraints and goofy production design, and made a late twisting jump into camp.

The film did well enough to allow Bartel and Carradine to team up a year later for "Cannonball!" (aka "Carquake") about yet another transcontinental road race. Of course, you may have heard of another similarly-themed and -titled movie from a few years later.

And that's the real legacy of the Corman oeuvre -- to spit out movies fast and cheap, where any entertainment value is largely accidental, but inspire other, better filmmakers to copy Hollywood's biggest copycat.