Monday, June 30, 2014

Reeling Backward: The Paper Chase (1973)

Something that many of us do in life is look back on our youth with, if not exactly regret, then melancholy puzzlement. The things that seemed so important to us back then are rendered inert, even pointless with the perspective of the passing years. We ponder the years and mental/emotional energy spent on stuff that we now regard with little value.

This can be especially true when it comes to our schooling. I didn't really have a social clique in high school, but I was part of the stratum of grade-grubbing academic overachievers who were focused solely on putting together the best possible college application. Taking the most challenging classes, rocking a 4.0 GPA, academic societies, the "right" extracurricular activities -- it was part of the perceived on-ramp to the highway of success that had been mapped out for us going back to elementary school.

"The Paper Chase" is about a rather similar journey, cycled forward a few years later. Set at the prestigious Harvard Law School, this film based on John Jay Osborn Jr.'s novel follows first-year law student James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) as he struggles to navigate the hyper-competitive waters and earn accolades, particularly from the demanding professor of contract law, the legendary Charles Kingsfield. 

John Houseman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor playing Kingsfield, and would even go on to reprise the role in a TV series that ran for a total of four seasons (split by a hiatus). Houseman is a strong presence, but the role isn't particularly demanding, essentially asking that Houseman be Houseman -- which is to say, the persona he came to inhabit during the latter part of his career: emotionally distant patrician, clipped elocution, a strong whiff of snobbery and disdain for his lessers.

The film would also earn Academy Award nominations for screenplay, by writer/director James Bridges, as well as sound. The movie is considered to be a nearly word-for-word adaptation of the book, so in a sense the screenplay nomination was an endorsement more of Osborn than Bridges. 

Certainly, the film suffers from shoddy pacing, seeming to grow very slow and myopic in its storytelling, then skimming over stuff that would seem way more important than the time and emotion the filmmakers invest in it. This is especially true when it comes to the romance between Hart and Susan (Lindsay Wagner), a woman is eventually revealed to be Kingsfield's daughter.

The relationship seems to exist entirely so we can have this big reveal moment, but it doesn't grow or ebb or evolve or anything. They get together for sex from time to time, go off on weekend jaunts, but can't move any further because he's studying all the time and she's his nemesis' offspring.

Now about that animosity between pupil and teacher: it exists only in the mind of Hart. The basic story of "The Paper Chase" is how Hart rises to the challenge of his stern taskmaster, not only mastering the lessons of the classroom but also how to earn the right to act as an officer of the courts. He sneaks into the law library's hidden archives to review Kingsfield's own notes from his days as a law student, and reads all of his academic writings going back 40 years. 

Initially trounced by the burden -- on the first day of class, Hart is embarrassed when Kingsfield quizzes him on material he failed to prepare, sending him scurrying to the men's room to vomit -- he eventually become the cocky favorite, boasting to Susan that he's several steps ahead of his adversary, her father. 

The truth is that the aged Kingsfield barely knows who he is, repeatedly having to lean upon a seating chart of his classroom with photos to be able to tell his students apart. One of the final scenes has Hart complimenting Kingsfield on how much the class meant to him, and he's knocked down a peg or five when the professor asks to be reminded of his name once again. There's a great reaction shot of Bottoms, as he realizes his grand quest to vanquish his academic foe has been a sustained ride of utter self-delusion.

Bottoms, one of the most promising young actors of his generation (which includes Richard Gere and Jeff Bridges, his co-star from "The Last Picture Show"), largely disappeared from the film scene after the 1970s, popping up from time to time, especially to portray President George W. Bush in several different settings. 

His poofy white-man afro was a constant source of mirth for me while watching the film. This appears to be as far as the counter-culture invades into the fictional Harvard law scene of the early 1970s, with the long-ish haired students sporting coats and ties and neurotic ambitions about landing the right job with the right law firm. They may take up causes, but there are no rebels here.

The most interesting thing to me about the movie was the group dynamic of the students in Kingsfields' class. They quickly segregate themselves into three categories: those who are destined to fail, the anointed who dominate the Socratic dialogue led by Kingsfield, and the muddled middle, which is where Hart assigns himself -- those struggling to keep up but too intimidated to talk in class. In one of he film's best scenes, Hart forms, and brilliantly executes, a plan to move to the upper echelon.

The different types are encapsulated in the study group Hart gets invited into. Graham Beckel plays Ford -- I should mention the students all are referred to by only their last names -- a wealthy scion from a family of lawyers. Edward Herrmann, who was born looking like George Will's taller sibling, plays the young patrician-in-training, Anderson. James Naughton is Brooks, the hopelessly outclassed student who lacks the brain for even basic analysis of the case law, despite a photographic memory.

My favorite is Bell, deliciously played by Craig Richard Nelson, the sniveling overachiever type who looks down upon everyone else as his underlings. Each student in the study group is assigned to write an outline of each of the courses they share so they can prepare for the make-or-break exams at the end of the term. Bell haughtily refuses to share his 800-page treatise with anyone except Hart, though later he changes his mind. 

"The Paper Chase" is a well-acted, reasonably engaging drama that never quite finds its center. It is transparently obvious that Hart is deluding himself about his adversarial relationship with Kingsfield, so that aspect doesn't hold any surprises. The romance is a fizzle. The only time the movie truly finds its mojo is in those crackling classroom scenes.

It's too bad it takes four decades of remove to have the hindsight to recognize what's really important -- in filmmaking, in academia and in life.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Video review: "Ernest & Celestine"

Given the choice, I prefer to watch a foreign film in its native tongue rather than a version dubbed in English. Others disagree, and they may have a point in the case of “Ernest & Celestine,” an Oscar-nominated animated film about a bear and a mouse who become best pals. Small children who do not yet read, or read slowly, might have a hard time keeping up.

Luckily, the video version of “Ernest & Celestine” includes both the original French voices as well as some Americanized ones. So you can choose to hear Lambert Wilson and Pauline Brunner, respectively, as the voices of Ernest the bear and Celestine the mouse in French, or opt for Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy in English.

The American soundtrack also features the voices of Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Nick Offerman, Jeffrey Wright and Megan Mullally.

The film takes place in parallel worlds: above street level, bears drive cars, shop at stores, go to school, and so on. Down in the sewers, the lives of the mice proceed much the same. The two groups fear and despise each other.

Their only real source of interaction is in the market for bear teeth: the bears buy new teeth to replace their rotted ones (the bears in this world love candy), and the mice file down the baby teeth of bears to substitute for their sharp incisors.

But a chance encounter throws Ernest and Celestine into a pot of trouble, and on the run from the police in both their communities. While hiding out at Ernest’s bucolic cottage on the edge of town, they find themselves becoming fast friends.

There’s an inclusive, gentle message here about showing tolerance to those who are different from us. It may go over the heads of wee ones, but this is the rare animated film adults while enjoy as much as their kids.

“Ernest & Celestine” is sweet, lyrical and lovely – in French or English.

Bonus features are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film. In addition to the dual language tracks, there is also a making-of featurettes, a feature-length animatic detailing the animation process, plus an interview with co-director Benjamin Renner.



Friday, June 27, 2014

Review: "Transformers: Age of Extinction"

Just a quick review today, folks. Paramount did not see fit to screen the fourth transforming robots movie in advance for critics, so I had to hit a late show Thursday night. At nearly three hours long, that kept me up well past midnight.

I didn't like any of the three previous movies directed by Michael Bay, and "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is no exception to the rule. It's the quintessential summer movie: big, loud and dumb. In this case the dumbness dominates the loudness and bigness.

I honestly wonder if this movie had a screenplay prior to the start of production. It's nothing more than a slapped-together string of action scenes with little correlation to a narrative stream. Bay and the person credited with the screenplay, Ehren Kruger, seem like they were trying to slap together a little bit of stuff from every type of successful action picture.

As a result, there are hardly any robots in the first half of the movie, but lots of car chases defying the laws of gravity, a la "The Fast and the Furious." Then there's a whole long sequence exploring a huge, dilapidated spaceship that has the look and feel of "Prometheus." An intergalactic bounty hunter comes after Optimus Prime's head (twice) for the "Predator" parts.

We even get some chop-socky action in the third act set in Beijing, because you know that every Asian person knows martial arts. There's no Shia LaBeouef around anymore -- thank God for brown paper bags -- so Mark Wahlberg fills in as a tinpot inventor who finds a crippled Optimus in truck form and nurses him back to life.

He's the sort of guy who works in his barn laboratory all night and forgets to eat, but somehow remembers to hit the free weights religiously to keep his upper body properly engorged. He's a single dad to an uppity teen girl (Nicola Peltz), whose job is to tag along everywhere he goes so she can become imperiled and in need of rescuing.

She has an older beau who's Irish and a car racer, which comes in handy for those early street scenes. Later, when the transformers all turn from vehicles back into robots, he has little to do but stand around and make protestations of love -- not to his girlfriend, but her old man.

Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer play the evil old white guys who are the heavies, a Steve Jobs-like tycoon and Machiavellian CIA chief, respectively. They conspire to melt down the living metal of the Autobots and Decepticons killed in the last movie and turn them into their own personal army of Transformers. One of them somehow inherits the psyche of Megatron, just so he and Optimus can have another (aborted) duke-out.

The bounty hunter's name is Lock Down, and he has the impressive power to turn his entire face into a huge sniper rifle. I won't even touch the Freudian aspects. OK, yes I will -- Lock Down and his big Penis Head wants to trade Optimus to the bad humans in exchange for a Seed, which can be used to bomb organic matter into metal fodder for more Transformers. Whole lotta sexual innuendo going on underneath this dippy story of warring robot factions.

The CG-generated robots are an improvement over the previous movies. When the Transformers fought in the earlier flicks, it was like watching two piles of metal junk caught in a tornado colliding. There was nothing for the eye to track. Here, the Transformers remain more or less recognizable. Though, other than Optimus and a bearded (?) fellow voiced by John Goodman, their faces don't really stand out.

I confess I've never understood the concept of the Transformers. They've existed for thousands or millions of years, but somehow can only take on the shape of technology that humans wouldn't invent for a long, long time?

Also, the abilities of the Transformers seem to morph on a moment's notice according to the desires of the plot. For instance, I distinctly remember Optimus losing an arm in the last movie. Although he revives from his truck-coma in a pretty beat-up state, the arm is right there. Then he drives by another vehicle that flashes a light beam at him, and not only does it heal all his injuries it turns him into a more modern model of a semi-tractor trailer with a cool flaming paint job. Huh?

(I sure wish I could use this technology on my 1999 Buick.)

And, after walking everywhere to engage with his enemies, and even mounting an ancient dinosaur Transformer like a horse, at the end he suddenly whips out some leg jets and flies off into space.

Look, I know this isn't meant to be Shakespeare. We need a certain percentage of our movie fare to just be escapist entertainment. Hearty foods balanced by desserts and all that. But I don't think it's too much of a request that our silly movies possess some semblance of narrative coherence, or that the human characters have more dimensions than computer-generated dingbots.

I'd hoped the "Transformers" movies were over, but reportedly this new film is actually the start of a new trilogy from Michael Bay & Co. The Autobots will only become extinct when people stop paying for this claptrap.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Driving the train from the caboose

In a rare foray (for this space) into politics, here are my unsolicited thoughts on the (for now) legalization of gay marriage in Indiana:

·    In general, I’m for it. Allowing people to codify their life partnerships ultimately leads to more stability and a better society in which to raise children, and for adults to live in.

·    The definition of “family” is rapidly changing in our country, and it’s important to recognize the legitimacy of non-traditional arrangements.

·    That said, I intensely dislike having this issue decided by a single unelected judge. I disagree that marriage is a “fundamental right” along with voting, ownership of property, etc.

·    Marriage is a societal construction, and one that until very recently in human history flowed almost entirely from religious imperatives. Indeed, marriage is a central tenet of most major religions.

·    Governments codify those relationships; they are not the wellspring of the institution. Using the legal apparatus to effect social change strikes me as trying to drive the train from the caboose.

·    To wit: Gay marriage will never have the veneer of true legitimacy until it is authorized through the democratic process -- a voter referendum, or the actions of a representational legislation. Even a Supreme Court decision is unlikely to end debate -- look at Roe v. Wade.

·    If they held a voter referendum in Indiana for gay marriage, I would vote for it – provided it included protections for religious values (e.g., priests or institutions would not be forced to conduct/host ceremonies that violate their beliefs, etc.).

·    I have been incredibly disappointed in the way some local journalists have covered the story, particularly on social media. To those offenders I would say: Any pretense of objectivity has simply gone out the door. Setting aside the commentariat (those paid to express opinions), people covering the news should, at the very least, refrain from expressing their excitement while the process of reportage is ongoing. There has been a wave of unabashed cheerleading, and it does not reflect well on you or our profession. Even though I largely agree with this outcome, your conduct has been unprofessional and downright shameful.

Review: "Obvious Child"

There's a new style of serio-comic storytelling centered around the disheveled lives of twentysomething New York City women. Movies like "Frances Ha" and "Obvious Child," and the HBO show "Girls," revel in the wretched squalor of their stunted careers and the hapless hopelessness of their romantic entanglements.

The fact that these tales usually feature female directors and/or writers only adds to their sense of neurotic authenticity. As is also common with young women singer/songwriters these days, they make use of their messy real lives as fodder for creativity.

I was underwhelmed by "Girls" and "Frances Ha," but "Obvious Child" is the charming best of the lot, mostly due to the vibrant presence of Jenny Slate. You may know her from being on "Saturday Night Live" for about a minute and a half, and punch-funny turns on TV shows like "Parks and Recreation."

But for most people she's a new face and voice, and my guess is it's one they'll want to see more of. She's pitiable and yet admirable, a born screw-up who we end up rooting for.

She plays Donna Stern, a not-much disguised version of her younger status as a rising stand-up comedienne. By day she works/sleeps in the tiny Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Book Store -- "it's a Manhattan institution," she insists -- and at night plows through drinks and stage sets with her fellow workaday comics.

Her shtick is embarrassingly honest appraisals of her own life, including the opening monologue where describes the spectacularly drone-like sex she has with her current boyfriend -- who happens to be in the audience, and she knows it. He promptly dumps her, and Donna quickly rebounds with an impossibly WASP-y fellow named Max (Jake Lacy) she drunkenly picks up at the bar.

If you've heard anything about "Obvious Child," it's probably in some vague terms about it being an "abortion comedy." This is true, and also not. It's accurate that Donna gets pregnant from her one night stand and speedily decides that she's not ready to be a mother. She schedules an abortion at the earliest convenience, which happens to be Valentine's Day.

Needless to say, this is not a plot designed to elicit warm feelings from the right-to-life crowd.
"You're going to kill it," her best pal Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) offers as encouragement as Donna prepares to do a set the night before the procedure. "Tomorrow I am!" she responds chirpily.

But I don't get the sense writer/director Gillian Robespierre set out to antagonize anyone, and certainly doesn't foist any lectures about 'my body, my choices.' Rather, it's an honest, funny and brave portrait of a young woman trying to navigate her way through life, and often hitting the icebergs. This is Robespierre's first feature film, based on a short movie she made a few years ago with a different cast.

Slate and Lacy have real sparks between them, a magical coupling between the loudmouthed Jewess and the uptight New Englander. They each represent something exotic to the other, and despite the strained circumstances of their situation -- she doesn't share the news with him at first -- they manage some genuine romance, or at least the modern facsimile of it.

A montage dance scene set to the Paul Simon song that gives the film its title is carefree and breathtakingly sexy, despite the fact it doesn't really show much flesh.

The film has a few other drop-in performances from more recognizable actors -- Polly Draper and Richard Kind play Donna's parents, who each love her in their own way, and David Cross turns up as a more successful comedian.

But it's Jenny Slate who gives "Obvious Child" its heart and soul, a silly but satisfying heroine for this day and age.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Friendly Persuasian" (1956)

When Ronald Reagan was trying to woo Mikhail Gorbachev to put an end to the Cold War, he gave him a copy of the 1956 movie, "Friendly Persuasion," to show how people of varied ilks can put aside their differences without resorting to violence. This was ironic for a couple of reasons:
  1. Reagan, who was not exactly slow to dispatch the military into various global conflicts, pursued a massive arms race in hopes of ruining the Soviet economy.
  2. The movie is about Quakers who preach pacifism in the face of the Civil War, but in the end most of the family members do not retain the courage of their convictions.
Whatever its failings as a standard for non-violence, it's a beautiful-looking film that essentially serves as a travelogue for the Quaker lifestyle. It depicts them as wholesome, thoughtful people who embrace an old-fashioned interpretation of the Bible that leads to some choices that may have seemed funny or even dangerous to American audiences of 1956.

Indeed, the film was based on a 1945 novel by Jessamyn West and was originally slated for production years early. But the Red Scare and McCarthy hearings convinced the producers and studio honchos to back-burner it for awhile. 

A healthy 137 minutes, "Friendly Persuasion" is essentially a very lightweight film, just this side of a pure comedy in fact, that suddenly decides to get serious in the last act. Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire play Jess and Eliza Birdwell, upstanding Quakers in southern Indiana circa 1862. They have three kids, ranging from almost-grown Josh (Anthony Perkins) and Mattie (Phyllis Love) to scrappy young scamp Little Jess (Richard Eyer)

Watching the movie, at first it seems like it's not really about anything in particular, other than spending time with the Birdwells and getting to know the rhythms of their lifestyle and faith. The most obvious is using "thee" and "thine" instead of "you" and "yours," and a few other anachronistic language tweaks. Eliza is a preacher at the local Quaker meeting house (what they call churches), and is very concerned with their family appearing proper.

We get the sense that Jess is a late convert to the Quaker life, since he enjoys racing the family horse carriage against his friend and neighbor, Sam (Robert Middleton), and has a fondness for music. (Quakers actually like music, just not the prerecorded kind.)

Later, Jess buys an organ from a traveling salesman, bringing disharmony to their marriage when Eliza refuses to let it in her house. She decamps to the barn to sleep, where Jess comes to comfort her, resulting in the rumpled couple returning to the house the next morning, in one of the more deliberate implications of sex you'll find in a Golden Age film.

Mattie is full of girlish romantic notions, mostly directed at a handsome neighbor, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), who has enlisted as a Union soldier. Josh is a good quiet boy who's still full of beans, and eventually joins the local home guard when Johnny Reb raiders try to cross the river and raid into their territory. Young Jess Jr. more or less acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, observing the goings-on in between battles with his mother's nippy pet goose.

The depiction of Quaker religion and convictions is rather open-minded for its era. I particularly liked the scenes inside the meeting house, where services are non-formal and contemplative. People are invited to say whatever's on their mind, from declarations to semi-confessionals. Their peace is invaded by a Union soldier who tries to shame the men into volunteering to fight.

Later, Josh will have similar conversations with his parents about taking up arms. They never try to browbeat him, declaring him free to make  his own choices, even if they're the wrong ones. Cooper projects a strong paternal presence as the father who loves his children, but recognizes they need room to grow and discover themselves. Perkins received an Oscar nomination for his supporting performance, the only one of his long career.

The big set-piece in the movie is a visit to the fair, which is shown as a pit of temptation -- but also fun. Little Jess proves a natural at parlor games, and Mattie is invited to dance -- imagine! -- with Gard. A strapping Quaker boy challenges the strongman to a wrestling match and seems to be winning, until he fears hurting the man and gives up. The ensuing fight over betting is reminiscent of the scene in "Witness" where Harrison Ford steps up for the Amish.

"Friendly Persuasion" was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, William Wyler. Screenwriter Michael Wilson also received a nod, but he was blacklisted at the time. So due to the odd notions of the time, the movie received a screenwriting nomination without acknowledging the screenwriter. (This oversight, like many during the Blacklist era, was eventually set right.)

I enjoyed the movie well enough, though it's one of those mid-century films that suffers from an inflated reputation. Pastoral and pleasant, it's about some big ideas but frames them in the smallest way possible. My guess is Gorby was mystified by Ronnie's gift.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Video review: "300: Rise of an Empire"

Like its 2007 predecessor, “300: Rise of an Empire” is lusty parade of six-pack abs and copious bloodlettings, set against a historical backdrop that’s been washed through the spin cycle of modern fantasy tropes.

It has all the violence of the last movie, though no equally compelling figure like Gerard Butler’s commanding Leonidas, and certainly none of the verve and wit. If the last movie was dumb-but-glorious, the sequel is the same, minus the glory.

Set soon after the Battle of Thermopylae, “Rise of an Empire” depicts the sea battle between the forces of Persian god/king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and the Greek armies, led by Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Artemisia (Eva Green) is his primary nemesis, a ferocious military leader with a mysterious and tragic background.

The blood and guts fly prodigiously, and new director Noam Murro copies predecessor Zack Snyder’s penchant for speeding up and slowing down the action so we can gaze at the beautiful ribbons of crimson arcing across the screen. This movie has few of the mythological beasties of the last one, so it’s essentially man-on-man carving of flesh.

There are a lot of silly moments here, but probably the goofiest is when Themistocles and Artemisia hold a parley prior to the battle, which soon devolves into much grabbling of flesh. It’s supposed to be sexy; instead it’s laugh-out-loud awful.

Even if you’re a teenager or still one in heart, “300: Rise of an Empire” quickly grows tiresome, then pathetic.

The video comes with a decent-enough array of extra features, including a making-of documentary titled “The 300 Effect.” There are also featurettes on “Real Leaders & Legends,” “Women Warriors,” “Savage Warships” and “Becoming a Warrior.”

Extras are the same for Blu-ray and DVD versions.



Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: "Jersey Boys"

A lot of these Broadway nostalgia acts are what they call "jukebox musicals" -- they're colorful and bright, and the story is just a flimsy excuse to string together performances of golden oldies to please the blue-haired set. They can be good or bad, but there's an inescapable cynicism about them. They feel like live versions of greatest hits compilations.

"Jersey Boys" the stage show reputedly falls into this category -- I haven't seen it, so I can't say for certain -- but the film adaptation directed by Clint Eastwood mostly rises above it.

This is a darker and more ambitious version of the usual showbiz biopic. Eastwood and screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who also wrote the musical book for the stage version) try to get at what brings a great pop group together, and what pries them apart. For them, the answer is right in the title: the pride, fear, braggadocio, family bonds and skewed sense of honor that drive working-class Italians from Jersey.

Before the Beatles invaded these shores, The Four Seasons were America's biggest musical act. Their smooth sound, buoyed by the crystal falsetto of Frankie Valli, connected the music of the Greatest Generation to that of the Baby Boomers. They used the old-timey standard of the barbershop quartet and layered in the increasingly sophisticated production and rhythms of rock 'n' roll.

The story starts out with a bit of a "Goodfellas" feel, with a teenage Valli running with a bad crowd of musician-thugs, who boost safes and other jobs when gigs dry up. There's even a local mafia don, Gyp DeCarlo (a sly Christopher Walken), who receives patronage and dispenses favors because he adores Valli's voice.

John Lloyd Young, who played the role of Valli during the initial Broadway run nearly a decade ago and won a Tony for his efforts, reprises the performance. He assuredly hits the high notes during the songs, though he's a little flat during some other scenes.

(There's some good makeup effects late in the movie to depict an older Valli, though their best efforts come during the early part. Young convincingly plays a 16-year-old, despite that he's pushing 40 in real life.)

The stage version was broken up into four acts, with each narrated by a different member of The Four Seasons. The film adaptation borrows but tweaks this storytelling device, with Valli remaining at the center of the tale while others give their interpretation of events.

Vincent Piazza is terrific and confident as Tommy DeVito, the swaggering leader of the group. A street hustler by trade and disposition, he's always running a side game or trying to whip the other guys into line. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) is the self-described "Ringo" of the group, going along to get along while the getting is good.

Erich Bergen plays Bob Gaudio, the songwriter and brains behind the outfit. A WASP-y type from outside the rough-and-tumble neighborhood, he's brought into the group over the protests of Tommy. His resentments are soon founded, as Bob and Frankie become artistic twins.

Some other subplots, mostly involving Frankie's rocky home life and marriage to an alcoholic wife (Renée Marino), feel short-shrifted and obligatory.

Of course, one of the main enjoyments of the film is listening to the fantastic music of The Four Seasons -- including iconic hits like "Rag Doll," "Sherry, "Big Girls Don't Cry" and also some tunes that didn't become hits in the States, like "My Eyes Adored You."

I always marveled at how The Four Seasons could sing such high notes and still sound entirely masculine. Young does a fairly spot-on imitation of Valli's distinctive timbre.

I also admired that Eastwood made the choice to include performances of entire songs, rather than the usual thing where they start the first two stanzas, maybe get to the bridge, and then cut away into montage mode. The director also makes the clever choice of repeatedly focusing his camera on audiences' reactions to the music of The Four Seasons -- not just a wave of bodies, but close-ups of individual faces uplifted and transported.

"Jersey Boys" is still something of a pastiche about these characters rather than a deep exploration of them. The heart of the story is really about the relationship between Frankie and Tommy, a combination of fierce love and big-brother resentment that neither can ever entirely overcome. Sometimes this gets lost in the songs, but it's a pretty nice sound garden to wander around in.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Silverado" (1985)

Emmett: "Blind Pete always said you'd hang. I guess tomorrow at dawn, he'll be proved right."
Sheriff Langston: "10 a.m."
Emmett: "Oh, right. I always thought they did it at dawn."

"Silverado" is a film that I've never quite been able to peg. All I know is that I've always adored it.

Made in the dark days of the Western between "The Wild Bunch" and "Unforgiven," it would appear at first glance to be an homage to the genre. Made by and starring Baby Boomers, it reads like a bunch of kids playing dress-up and mimicking the shootin' and ridin' of John Wayne and other cowboys they themselves watched on film and TV.

The plot is essentially a pastiche of every great Western trope -- revenge duel, cattlemen vs. farmers, a corrupt lawman, a hero in a black hat, a pretty woman who tempts a wandering soul into settling down, a young boy who idolizes the gunman who's known only a life of tragedy. There's even a modernist angle with a proud African-American standing up to a bunch of racist cowpokes threatening his family.

(About the only thing it's missing is a subplot involving Indians, of which there's not a one.)

And yet, director Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with his brother Mark, often lets the proceedings wander into the territory of parody. The part I've never figured out is whether it's intentional or not.

Consider the quote above. That's just this side of pure comedy. When the cowpoke Emmett delivers the last line, that's not the stern pronouncement of a well-worn cowhand who's ridden everywhere and seen it all. It's the postmodernist quip of a guy in 1985 making a pun out of every movie he's seen that included a hanging.

(For that matter, who the hell is Blind Pete? He's referenced twice in the movie without any other information being provided. Presumably he's another familiar Western type, the crazy/smart old codger. This way Kasdan gets to summon his image without having to bother with actually creating and casting a character.)

Emmett is played by Scott Glenn, one of my all-time favorite "That Guy" movie actors. With his lean, creased face, rangy physique, squinty eyes and gruff voice, he was born looking like he wandered out of a Hollywood Western poster. Emmett has just finished doing five years in prison for manslaughter after killing the patriarch of the McKendrick clain, the local cattle barons. Taciturn and tough, Emmett comes closest of the film's four cowboys to the classic Western hero archetype.

Technically Emmett is the main character, though Glenn receives second billing to Kevin Kline. He plays Paden, a funny/sad gambler/gunman with a wise disposition and fatalistic bent. When we first meet him he's been robbed of everything he owns and left in his longjohns to die in the desert. After being rescued by Emmett, he proceeds to recover his beloved horse, hat and gun in subsequent shoot-outs with his robbers. Paden is a cynic who often takes on lost causes, and a romantic whose passions drift like a tumbleweed, until they stop in the most unexpected places.

Like Kasdan himself, Kline was just coming off the huge success of "The Big Chill." Jeff Goldblum was also in both movies, relishing a small part as turncoat card-dealer Slick. Technically, Kevin Costner was too, though as is well known in Hollywood lore, Costner's role as the dead friend being grieved was left on the "Chill"-y cutting room floor.

Perhaps that's why the role of Jake, Emmett's callow hot-head of a brother, is so deliberately showy -- Kasdan, perhaps sad over depriving an actor of his breakout role, decided to provide him another. All Jake really does is kiss girls, shoot bad guys with his fancy two-gun rig, and smile at the camera. Soon Costner was landing leads in big productions like "The Untouchables" and "No Way Out," and he was off to the races.

Danny Glover plays expert rifleman Mal, just returned from working in the slaughterhouses of Chicago, only to find his family plot overrun with McKendrick cattle, his mother dead of illness, his father soon murdered, and his sister run off to Silverado to become a whore. He gets a nice introductory scene where he's refused a drink of whiskey in a saloon because of his skin, and takes down three fat-faced white guys who try to enforce the unwritten rule.

He's run out of town by Sheriff Langston, a stiff Brit played for comic relief by John Cleese, who was also planning to hang Jake on trumped-up charges. When the boys break out of town, Cleese delivers the funniest line in the movie: After chasing them into a trap where they're pinned down by Mal's marksmanship, Langston decides to abruptly give up the chase. "Today my jurisdiction ends here," he announces, turning his horse around.

Cleese also got very high billing in the credits unwarranted by his limited screen time, though even he's beaten out by Rosanna Arquette. Billed third, she has maybe four total minutes in the movie, and only two dialogue scenes totaling 119 words. (Yes, I counted.) The character exists solely as a sweet-faced lure to the dusty rawhides who dream of a better, settled life.

If Arquette provides an unsatisfactory female presence, then Linda Hunt makes up any difference. Playing Stella, the pint-sized manager of The Midnight Star, the high-end saloon that bears her nickname, she has a small but solid role as a symbol of decency and workaday toughness. Accustomed to serving on the fringes of other people's indulgences, she's surprised to find herself the object of unexpected affections.

Hunt, having recently won an Oscar -- for playing a character of the opposite gender, still the only performer ever to do so -- shows what you can do with a tiny, tidy role that's well-written and splendidly played.

The rest of the cast is filled out by Brian Dennehy as Cobb, the smiling, winking bandit-turned-sheriff who's firmly in the McKendrick pocket; Jeff Fahey as the local crazy-eyed killer; Lynn Whitfield as Mal's sister Rae; Thomas Wilson Brown as Augie, Emmett and Jake's wide-eyed nephew; the inimitable James Gammon as a gravel-voiced outlaw leader; and Thomas Wilson Brown, a generic and throwaway villain as McKendrick.

Everything in "Silverado" is filmed in a precious way as if trying to recreate the best moments of classic Westerns. The movie opens with a shot from inside a tiny cabin out the doorway into the grand, valley-filled landscape beyond, a fairly deliberate borrowing from "The Searchers." The booming musical score by Bruce Broughton, replete with trumpets and other brassy brass, earned an Oscar nomination, as did the sound crew.

(It was Broughton's song, "Alone Yet Not Alone," that got an Oscar nomination for Best Song last year but got disqualified under some arcane rules of the Academy. Broughton sent out a few dozen emails to his friends in the movie biz asking them to give it a listen, which the Academy disallowed as "campaigning." Yet the annual suck-up-fest perpetrated for whatever Weinstein movie on tap trundles on.)

So is "Silverado" an homage, a parody or something else entirely? After seeing it again for perhaps the dozenth time, I confess I still haven't decided. My gut tells me it's a serious paean, a recreation of the cowboys-and-Indians games (minus the Indians) Kasdan & Co. grew up playing.

But then I watch again scenes like Emmett practicing his gunplay, and I wonder still. There's one part where he's aiming at a cactus plant with his rifle from maybe 50 yards away. Not only does he hit the plant, he shoots off individual spines, one at a time. This is so absurdly ridiculous that I can't believe the filmmakers taking it seriously, or imagining anyone in the audience doing so, either. It's stuff like this that makes me think the movie has just gone momentarily goofy.

Sometimes I laugh at "Silverado," and sometimes I just sit back and admire its fanboy, fetishistic take on the Western. What I do know is, whenever I watch this film, I'm grinning as wide as the dusty plains.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Video review: "The Lego Movie"

Not everything is awesome about “The Lego Movie” -- despite the assertion of that obsessively earworm-y song from Tegan and Sara featured in the kiddie animated flick from earlier this year. However, it is a boingy, entertaining thrill ride that is sure to keep younger children occupied for a goodly chunk of their summer vacation.

It might get old pretty quick for parents – I’ve already watched it three times with my 3½-year-old, and am ready to bring a book to our next couch time together. But this hyperactive flick isn’t made for oldsters.

Told mostly in Lego format, with the people, places and things made up of the iconic construction toys, the film follows the adventures of Emmet (spiffily voiced by Chris Pratt). A normal, generic, rather anonymous worker, he lives in a world where everyone follows the rules of their banal society.

Then he falls in with Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a member of the gang of Master Builder insurgents rebelling against the tyrannical Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who hates it when people use their imaginations rather than following the instructions that come with each Lego set.

There’s also a wise wizard (Morgan Freeman), a cop who’s both good and bad (Liam Neeson), pirate/robot Metal Beard (Nick Offerman) and Batman (Will Arnett), who’s additionally Wyldstyle’s bad-boy beau.

The animation is funky, and funny. It’s meant to look low-tech, as if everything really were made of the blocky toys. So the characters have drawn-on faces (watch out for nail polish remover!) and claw hands. Yet the computer-generated look is flashy and textured. I loved how when Emmet takes a shower, blue blocks representing water spill over his body.

Just like the song, “The Lego Movie” will grow increasingly irritating with repetition. But your kids will enjoy it the first time, and the 47th.

The movie comes with a host of video extras, including a feature-length commentary track. There are also outtakes, deleted scenes, storyboards, animations tests, making-of featurettes and spotlights on particular characters like Batman. There are even short movies made by fans using Lego blocks.



Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon 2"

A top-drawer piece of animated filmmaking, 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon” was supremely entertaining for kids while also gently imparting life lessons about finding your identity and overcoming handicaps, both physical and spiritual. The sequel is essentially more of the same, not breaking a lot of new ground story-wise but satisfactorily bringing back the old gang for another whiz-bang go-round.

If it feels thematically lighter, that’s because it is. If it also seems zippier and more pure fun, that’s because it is.

Five years have passed on the Viking island of Berk since the chief’s awkward son, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), flipped the script and convinced the former dragon-fighters that the mighty reptiles were meant to be their companions and mounts, not their enemies. There’s peace and prosperity, virtually everyone has their own pet dragon, and Hiccup no longer feels like the outcast offspring of his mighty father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), who is determinedly duty- and muscle-bound.

No longer a gangly teen, Hiccup is more self-assured and settled. He’s even filled out a bit, though in Hiccup’s case that means progressing from painfully thin to merely scrawny.

His best buddy, Toothless, is a rare (so far unique) Night Fury dragon, sleek black death on the wing. Toothless lost part of his tail due to Hiccup’s experimental tinkering, which also fixed him up with a prosthetic replacement. Hiccup has applied those same skills to his own missing leg, injured during a battle against the huge dragon that was compelling its smaller ilk to constantly raid Berk.

Former competitor-turned-girlfriend Astrid is back, a warrior born. She’s sprightly voiced by America Ferrera, who also supplies a wickedly funny impression of Baruchel’s distinctive speech and mannerisms. Also returning is Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Stoick’s reliable right-hand man and best friend, and the crew of young cutup dragon riders, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse among them.

Hiccup has been spending his time exploring the surrounding isles, and makes a few disturbing discoveries. Some dragon trappers (Kit Harington plays their leader) have been enslaving the winged creatures for a shadowy general named Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), who is said to be building a dragon army and have his sights set on Berk.

Hiccup also encounters a mysterious dragon rider whose affinity with the beasts rivals his own; she (Cate Blanchett) turns out to have a painful past with a personal connection.

Dean DeBlois, who co-wrote and co-directed the first film with Chris Sanders (who departed to work on “The Croods”), takes over solo screenwriting and directing duties. The visuals really pop in this movie, from the slightly reflective nature of Toothless’ ebony scales to the nifty fiery sword gadget Hiccup created for his personal weapon. The flying scenes, in many ways the heart of the original film, are somehow even more exhilarating.

The culminating battle has a bit of a familiar ring, and I wish DeBlois & Co. could have come up with an existential threat that doesn’t feel so much like a retread. To some extent he’s trapped by the series of children’s books upon which these movies are based, though from what I understand it’s a fairly loose adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s novels.

Still, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is first-rate moviemaking, a superior piece of entertainment sure to please parents just as much as their young’uns. A third film has been announced for 2016, and I for one am already counting the days.

Review: "22 Jump Street"

If you're tempted to make a joke about "22 Jump Street," the sequel to the hit comedy starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, continuing with future iterations of "23 Jump Street," and so on, don't bother. The movie has already beaten you to the punch at poking fun at itself.

In fact, one of the most refreshing thing about this reboot of the 1980s TV show is that it gleefully wallows in its own crass commercialism. It's a wicked send-up of not only the whole buddy-cop genre, but of itself.

Our film comedies have now reached the level of ironic detachment where the snake is eating its own tail. Nothing we see is meant to be taken at face value. So the stars aren't playing the roles of undercover cops posing as college students -- one the brainy dweeb and the other the lunkhead bruiser -- but the parody versions of them.

At one point, Hill and Tatum walk into their new "undercover" police headquarters, which happens to be right across the street from their old one. Next door, the "23 Jump Street Apartments" are currently under construction.

If you think that's hip and hilarious, wait till the end credits, which takes the same joke and runs it into the end zone, spikes the ball, bursts out of the stadium into the parking lot, and keeps going.

After inept rookie cops Schmidt and Jenko (Hill and Tatum, respectively) managed to break up a huge high school drug ring, they're tasked with doing the same thing again at MC State. When Schmidt tries to suggest other approaches, their deputy chief (Nick Offerman) sternly enforces the rule of sequels: do exactly the same thing as last time.

This they do, with the socially awkward Schmidt struggling to fit into the college party scene, while Jenko makes the football team as a walk-on and bonds with their charismatic quarterback (Wyatt Russell), who may or may not be lynchpin of campus narcotics trafficking.

The specifics of the plot are so tiresome that co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and their trio of screenwriters barely even bother to pay attention to them. The movie mostly jumps from scene to scene, generally involving Hill and Tatum spewing out motormouth gibberish, making fools of themselves while also commenting on the proceedings as they're unfolding. The movie doesn't so much do jokes as stages uncomfortable situations.

This is the comedy of embarrassment. Much of this is painful to watch, and in seeing our boys squirm we are intended to derive laughs.

And there are a lot of them, though there are long stretches in the middle where we feel more sorry for the people we're following than amused by them.

The lead actors are both in their 30s, and look it, and one of the running gags is that absolutely no one they meet believes they are college age.

"I'm 19," Schmidt says, straight-faced.

"Nineteen minutes late to the pinochle game?" a snarky girl responds.

After awhile, though, the shtick starts to wear thin and we know everything that's going to happen -- like that no gunfight can commence without an extended back-and-forth of insults and quips between the antagonists.

At nearly two hours long, "22 Jump Street" far outstays its welcome. Like an actual college party, it's raucous and intoxicating for awhile, but after 90 minutes you've seen all there is to see, and the music shuffle starts to repeat.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952)

Awhile back I took a look at one of the films often mentioned in discussions about the worst movies ever to win the Best Picture Academy Award, "Around the World in 80 Days." That compelled me to seek out more "bottom dwellers" from Oscar history -- though being sneered at as "the worst of the best" is not really too crushing an insult, if you think about it.

"The Greatest Show on Earth" hearkens back to a time when audiences craved sheer spectacle for its own sake. That this 1952 picture produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille has in spades, showing both the real show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus troupe while mixing in a behind-the-scenes story laden with romance and intrigue.

The back-of-the-show parts aren't nearly as good as the front, but it's still an agreeable piece of entertainment, even if it could easily have lost one-fifth of its 2½-hour runtime.

"Show" was not up against a weak field in the Oscar race its year. "High Noon" was the heavy favorite to win, and may have been undermined by its anti-McCarthy themes. "The Quiet Man" and "Moulin Rouge" were also strong contenders, though "Ivanhoe" does not hold up well. Heck, the masterful "Singin' in the Rain," generally regarded as the greatest film musical ever, did not even merit a Best Picture nomination.

It has been noted that "Show" is one of only a couple of films to win Best Picture without also receiving nominations for both director and screenplay. (The other is "Gladiator.") While it has occasionally happened that a Best Pic saw its director shut out ("Driving Miss Daisy") or its screenwriter(s), it's exceedingly rare for it to happen to both. It did earn a "Best Story" nomination at a time when the Academy still had that category.

The consensus of film historians is that "Show" was seen in the industry at the time as the last, best chance to give an Academy Award to the legendary DeMille, whose career was winding down. The Oscars have a long history of "make up" awards to reward people who deserved a golden statuette but never got one through various circumstances. (See: Newman, Paul, "The Color of Money.")

Little did they know that in 1956 he would go on to direct "The Ten Commandments," possibly his greatest cinematic triumph. In a bit of ironic turnaround, DeMille, having been the beneficiary of the one of the greatest upsets in Oscar history, saw his grand epic beat out by -- you guessed it -- "Around the World in 80 Days." There's some kind of cosmic harmony in that series of events.

About half of the screen time is given over to footage of the show in progress, which is essentially just filming what the circus really did touring around the country. This was a time when kids from rural areas might only ever see a elephant or a tiger or lion when the circus came to town --  not to mention trapeze artists, clowns and so forth.

There's also quite a bit of documentary-style peeks at the monumental logistics behind moving around an entire circus operation of 1,400 people. A lot of this is pretty dull stuff, though the actual raising of the big top is pretty interesting. (This is also the only section of the movie where you'll see any people of color.)

The story part is pretty simple. Charlton Heston plays Brad, the whip-cracking boss who keeps everything running on time. He's sweet on Holly (Betty Hutton), the young trapeze star who's set to take over the center ring. Until, that is, Brad recruits the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a famous lady-killer who only works in the limelight.

Sebastian takes a shine to Holly, who uses this to make Brad jealous, who is in turn wooed by Angel (Gloria Grahame), the elephant performer who's been around the block a few times. Also hanging around is Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour), who does an "iron jaw" hanging act as well as singing in a big island musical number.

The two high points of the narrative are Sebastian falling during a dangerous battle of one-upsmanship with Holly, and the big train wreck near the end that threatens to shut the circus down permanently. There are also confusing subplots involving a mobster, a cheating carny and a German trainer who's green-eyed for Angel.

The big problem with "The Greatest Show on Earth" is it couldn't decide if it wanted to be a journalistic look at what goes into putting on a major circus or a schmaltzy Hollywood story set against a circus backdrop. It tries to do both, and as a result neither part is thoroughly successful, though the show part wins a contest between them.

I haven't even mentioned Jimmy Stewart as Bubbles, a sympathetic clown who never removes his makeup and seems much more worldly than a clown should, particularly when it comes to medical matters. (At one point, he's able to diagnose that Sebastian's mangled rictus arm should make a full recovery just by watching him try to throw a punch at Brad.)

He's got his own back story about being a wanted murderer on the lam, a doctor who performed a mercy killing for his sick wife. I enjoyed Stewart's antics as a clown -- like the rest of the cast, he actually spent time living and training with the real circus performers. Though his character and tale don't carry much emotional weight, also just like the rest of the cast.

"The Greatest Show on Earth" is very much like going to the circus. There are momentary thrills and chills, a few scary moments, some funny scenes, and a whole lot of mushy stuff. Then you go home and, after a while, you forget about it. Worthy Best Pictures can be many things, but the one thing they should not be is forgettable.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Video review: "Non-Stop"

There ought to be a name for this sort of movie, in which an aging star reestablishes his action-film cred by starring as a cantankerous oldster who puts a big hurt on some whippersnappers. Geezer’s Revenge? Oldsploitation?

Or perhaps we should just name the genre after Liam Neeson, who has become its current poster boy with the “Taken” series and now “Non-Stop,” in which he plays a federal air marshal squaring off against a mysterious killer in the skies. Neeson brings his usual crusty authority to the role as Bill Marks, a drinker and borderline loser who redeems himself through heroism.

The plot is more or less preposterous, with passengers dying every few minutes and the villain sending Marks clues and taunts via text message, as the latter tries to puzzle out the identity of the bad guy. Is it the quiet Muslim fellow? The obnoxious cop? Or maybe the amiable woman (Julianne Moore) chatting up Marks before the stuff hit the fan?

“Non-Stop” isn’t terribly original … OK, let’s be honest, it’s pretty much a rip-off of “Die Hard,” “Speed” and several other superior thrillers. But it does what it does well, with a reasonable amount of action and intrigue, plus Neeson backing it all up with his craggy solidity.

Call it what you like, but this old-school action/thriller delivers the goods.

Video extras are so-so. The DVD comes with a comprehensive making-of documentary, “Suspense at 40,000 Feet” that includes the participation of all the key cast and crew. The Blu-ray version adds a single featurettes with director Jaume Collet-Serra focusing on the creation of the movie’s many action scenes.



Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: "The Fault in Our Stars"

"The Fault in Our Stars" is an exhausting movie. And I mean that in a good way.

It's been awhile since a film left me so emotionally wrung out. This tender-yet-sharp drama about two teenagers with terminal cancer falling in love, based on the best-selling YA book by John Green, promises to be the no-BS version of tragic young romance. And, mostly, it is.

"This is the truth. Sorry," introduces/apologizes our heroine, Hazel Grace (a remarkable Shailene Woodley).

Hazel, 17, had thyroid cancer which has spread to her lungs, forcing her to constantly breathe with the aid of an oxygen tank and counting her dwindling days on this mortal coil. Smart and realistic, she attends a church support group for young cancer patients, mostly to appease her loving but slightly smothering parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell).

There she meets Augustus Waters, an exuberant character exuberantly played by Ansel Elgort. A former cancer patient himself -- his right leg is prosthetic, rendering him a cyborg, he boasts -- he's mostly there to support his best friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), who sacrificed one eye to the disease and is in danger of losing the other.

Augustus is a braggart and a charmer, the sort of fellow who coasts through life buoyed by his own outsized expectations for himself, telling the group he fully expects to live "an extraordinary life." But it's the retiring Hazel he can't keep his eyes off of, and soon the pair have struck up a deep friendship that dances right up to the line of love in full bloom.

The chemistry between Woodley and Elgort is terrific, with her the wary, inner-directed girl obsessed with damaging as few other lives before she dies, and he the world-conquering hero who knows not fear or hesitation.

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote the terrific "(500) Days of Summer," don't go in for a lot of storytelling tricks to endear the couple to the audience. Rather, they focus on building the connection between Hazel and Augustus, and through them we are drawn in.

Director Josh Boone mostly stays out of the way, eliciting strong performances from his cast while remaining as true to the book's tone as possible. (It's unread by me, but from what I've gathered it appears to be an extremely faithful adaptation.)

Soon after meeting, Hazel and Augusts each invite the other to read their favorite book. His is the novelization of a video game ("Counterinsurgence 2"), showing that Augustus is bright if not worldly. Hazel gives him "An Imperial Affliction," the tale of a girl who dies of cancer, written by a mysterious author named Peter Van Houten who has decamped to Amsterdam, eschewing his fans and promising never to write another word.

Later, Hazel and Augustus will get a chance to travel to the Netherlands to meet him, a trip filled with magic and discovery, except for the actual part where they meet their beloved author (Willem Dafoe).

(Here's a pro tip on the interpersonal skills of writers: Expect to be disappointed.)

The film is set in Indianapolis (Green was born and lives here), though it was shot in and around Pittsburgh. (Darn those miserly Indiana film tax incentives!) If you look hard one can spot a few cues in the background, most notably a picnic scene at the "Funky Bones" outdoor art exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's 100 Acres. Augustus also rocks a Rik Smits jersey at one point.

"The Fault in Our Stars" is ultimately a life-affirming film, if one that favors sour realities over saccharine fantasies. "I don't want this particular life," Hazel admits. This movie is not afraid to show the bottom of being 17 and knowing you are soon to die, and that's pretty low. But the view from there is still uplifting.

Review: "Edge of Tomorrow"

Some people are bound to dismiss "Edge of Tomorrow" as a mash-up of other, better science fiction movies. And there's no denying there are elements of other themes familiar to the genre -- alien invaders, time travel, nifty futuristic hardware, existential questioning of one's identity.

In fact, if someone hasn't already labeled it the love child of "Groundhog Day" and "Starship Troopers," then I'm copywriting the phrase.

But despite coming across as less than original, it's a compelling sci-fi thriller and a solid star vehicle for Tom Cruise. He's taken a beating in the press lately and his last few films haven't fared well at the box office, though I thought last year's "Oblivion" -- with which "Edge of Tomorrow" shares more than a few similarities -- was an exemplary example of the genre.

The kick here is that Cruise's character, William Cage, is thrown into a battle to retake Normandy from the alien bugs, dubbed "mimics." He's had no combat training, and can't even flip off the safety on his weapons. But he strives to persevere against the overwhelming odds and... dies almost immediately. Because that's exactly what would happen to someone in that situation.

Except that he wakes up on the morning of the day before the battle, and has to do it all over again. He lives a little longer the second try, but not much. He wakes up again, stays alive another bit more during the fight, and so on.

It seems that during his first foray, some special alien blood/goo got absorbed into his own system, giving him the same ability the alien overlord has to "reset the day." If things aren't going well for it in the battle, it travels back in time and tries again. Now Cage has the same power to use against the enemy.

The metaphysics and specifics of this are never really explained, and in some ways it's better that the filmmakers don't even try. This is hardcore suspension-of-disbelief territory, so the audience had better just swallow the conceit and move on.

Not only is Cage not a seasoned soldier when his journey begins, he's not even a particularly likeable guy. An advertising flack who lost his business when the invasion tanked the global economy, he was given a major's rank and the job of "selling the war" to young recruits. He was an expert at boosting the cool exo-skeleton "jacket" armor the soldiers wear, and idolizing heroes like Rita "The Angel of Verdun" Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who managed to kill hundreds of mimics on her first combat mission.

Turns out Rita previously had the same ability as Cage, and became an expert killer through hundreds of conquests that were constantly reset. But eventually the power fades, so the two team up to put an end to the hive mind of the aliens before the slaughter on the beach even begins.

If the comparison to "Groundhog Day" seemed a little strange at first, it soon becomes clearer. By reliving the same day over and over again, Cage gets countless attempts to set things right. He saves the life of one of his squad-mates, and maps out the battlefield with Rita in a seemingly futile attempt to win the beach head. He also tries warning his superiors about the disaster about to unfold, which goes nowhere.

There's a lot of action, obviously, but also some unexpected humor and pathos as Cage finds himself growing closer to Rita, only to watch her die day after day. Director Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity") and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth adapt the novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka by making the main character seem as real and grounded as possible in an unreal and bizarre setting.

If there's a weak spot, it's the aliens, which never really rise above the level of video game threat. Vaguely metallic, they look like balls of tentacles that whirl around the fight, not unlike those rubber Koosh Ball toys. They're just targets waiting to be blown up, and never seem to gather any real power of menace.

Still, "Edge of Tomorrow" is clearly a better-than-average science fiction thriller. Even if it steals from other movies, at least it borrows from the best.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Days of Heaven" (1978)

Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" may just be one of the most gorgeous films ever made. Some also find it among the most confounding. I acknowledge both the beauty and the resentment.

It was only Malick's second feature film; its reception was such that he would not direct another movie for 20 years, through a consensual unspoken arrangement between himself and Hollywood. It was shot almost entirely in the "golden hour" between dusk and twilight -- actual only about 20 or 25 minutes per day, which must have been a logistical nightmare during production.

The cinematographer, Néstor Almendros, won an Oscar for his efforts, though he was losing his vision and had to leave when the production ran long, so Haskell Wexler actually shot at least half the footage used in the final film. "Days" also earned Academy Award nominations for sound, costumes and the lush musical score by Ennio Morricone, which employs a rather traditional orchestral arrangement of strings and wind instruments that the great Italian usually eschewed.

The look of the film is just mesmerizing. The great sea of wheat fields in 1916 Texas Panhandle (actually Canada) often whisper and whip around in the foreground, while the characters are far away and small to us. When Malick does go in closer, everything has a dreamy, slightly washed-out character of indistinctness.

We feel like we've wandered into a painting. Indeed, you could probably snip any single frame from the movie, blow it up, frame it and put it on a wall in a museum, and it would not look out of place.

The line between cinema and painting has sometimes blurred with a few artists, including Kurosawa and Malick. Malick is famously indecisive as a filmmaker, often re-shooting things many times over or entirely changing around a day's shooting schedule on a moment's notice. He spent nearly three years editing the movie, and finally stumbled upon the idea of having a minor character narrate the entire story, calling the actress back to record bumpkin-ish lines that were largely improvised.

(In fact, as Peter Biskind noted in his book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Richard Brooks was given a look at some of the footage from "Days of Heaven" to help him decide whether to cast Richard Gere in his movie, "Looking for Mr. Goodbar." That film went through pre-production, shooting, editing and post-production and was released into theaters while Malick tarried with his film.)

The three main characters remain very remote to the audience, and this is the main reason I think the film isn't nearly as engaging as it could be. Roger Ebert, in his Great Movie re-review of the film, argued that since the young girl Linda (Linda Manz) is the narrator, the audience is experiencing everything at her remove, so the people she's talking about are necessarily at arm's length. To me, that explains what the movie is trying to do but fails to justify the fact that it doesn't really work as a storytelling device.

The plot is pretty simple. A hot-headed young migrant work named Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his boss with a shovel while working in a Chicago factory, so he flees with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and sister Linda down south. To deflect attention from the fact that he and Abby are unmarried, they maintain the fiction that she is actually his other sister.

Given how they canoodle and romp during their their little down time at the farm where they end up, no one is really stupid enough to believe this. Although the rich young farmer (never named and played by Sam Shepard) who owns the spread is ensorceled by her. He offers to let her stay on during the off-season, and Bill overhears a doctor telling the farmer he has a year or less to live due to some mysterious illness. They hatch a scheme to marry Abby off to the farmer so she can inherit his rich 20,000 acres.

This goes well enough, except for two problems: Abby eventually comes to genuinely care for the quiet, decent man, and he manages to retain his vigorous health for the most part. Bill leaves in a huff, angry at himself for using the woman he loved so poorly. He later returns, and tragedy soon follows in his wake, some of it almost Biblical in aspect.

Everyone looks so impossibly young and fresh-faced. Adams had an ethereal beauty, with big eyes and a small downturned mouth, and seemed like she could belong to whatever era she was portraying. Shepard and Gere wear contemporary hairstyles parted in the middle, which I think was intentionally incongruous. Their smooth faces are contrasted with the foremen at the factory and on the farm, who serve as villains with their creased, pock-marked visages.

I loved watching "Days of Heaven," but in the sort of way one admires an arresting landscape. You never really tire of looking at it, but any meaning or narrative you must impose on it yourself. Paintings often tell a story, but only a tiny snippet of one. We must imagine what came before and after ourselves.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Video review: "Robocop"

I’m not mortally offended by Hollywood wanting to remake one of the seminal movies of my youth, but did they have to be so tame about it? This mincing, PG-13-rated sci-fi action/drama feels like it’s had all its precious bodily fluids slurped out of it. The result is cool-looking but rather unexciting.

The story is familiar: in a dystopian near-future, noble Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is blown apart in the line of duty. He’s put back together as cyborg by a nefarious corporation that runs the police services, and is sold to the public as their savior. But there’s more to the story, with Michael Keaton playing the villain who cares more about maximizing revenues than actually improving lives.
The new look of Robocop is quite a sight, with black armor and a red eye slit. Though no one’s ever satisfactorily explained to me why they leave his lower face exposed.

Rounding out the cast are Abbie Cornish as Mrs. Murphy; Michael K. Williams as Murphy’s partner; Samuel L. Jackson as a demagogic TV yapper; Gary Oldman as a conflicted scientist; and Jackie Earle Haley as a mercenary stooge.

Murphy/Robocop comes across more as a video game avatar than an authentic tortured soul. And the over-the-top bloody violence so intrinsic to the 1987 movie are replaced with CGI-heavy eye candy.
The new “Robocop” isn’t a terrible flick. But it commits the one crime that the enduring memory of the original renders unforgiveable: it’s forgettable.

The movie comes with a decent enough mix of video extras. There are a handful of deleted scenes, schematics of Robocop and other Omnicorp creatures and hardware, and three making-of featurettes.