Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy"

If Spider-Man and the X-Men aren’t doing so well at the box office, then what chance do Star-Lord and Rocket the talking raccoon have?

If there’s any justice in the world, plenty.

The latest cinematic iteration of the Marvel Comics universe focuses on a troupe of super-heroes who aren’t particularly super, and don’t have nearly the pop culture following of the web-slinger or Wolverine. Yet “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a lot more fun, and a helluva lot funnier, than most anything we’ve seen from the genre since… well, ever.

While other super-hero movies have had a sprinkling of humorous moments, this is more or less a straight-up comedy. There’s plenty of zingy action, but it plays second fiddle to the guffaws.

There have been several versions of the comic book group over the years, none of them particularly successful until recently. The movie, written by Nicole Perlman and James Gunn, who also directed, changes things around further. The Guardians are now a vagabond quintet of misfits and thieves who stumble backward into heroism while trying to pawn off a mysterious orb they’ve stolen.

This is a mythology in which pink-skinned humanoids are in the minority. Most of the cast is either dolled up in elaborate makeup and prosthetics, or represented through computer-generated imagery. It makes for a rousing, colorful visual landscape.

Chris Pratt, best known for funnyman roles in TV and movies, is an unlikely but winning protagonist as Peter Quill, a human scamp who dubs himself Star-Lord, though he’s vexed when no one seems to have heard of his moniker. He was kidnapped from Earth by alien ravagers when he was a boy, and now tools around in a spaceship looking for adventure.

He doesn’t have any powers per se, though he carries an array of helpful gadgets, including boot rockets, a retractable helmet with red-eyed goggles, and twin stun guns. He’s also got a serious thing for 1980s culture, since that’s all he knows of Earth. He likes to pop in a cassette mix tape of tunes and boogie while he works.

I won’t bother trying to describe the plot, since it’s completely indecipherable, other than to say everybody wants the mysterious orb that Star-Lord absconds with in the opening minutes.

This brings together the Guardians, who all get captured and thrown into prison while fighting over the orb. While they put together a breakout plan, this allows us to get to know the rest of the team.

There’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-hued assassin who is looking to trade in her evil boss for greener pastures. And Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a muscle-bound dude with skin like lava, who seeks revenge for his murdered family.

Stranger yet is Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a feisty humanoid raccoon with incredible engineering skills and a chip on his shoulder. (Think Joe Pesci with fur.) Even more fantastical is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a tree-like figure who accompanies Rocket as his pet/houseplant/bodyguard. He can grow his body into new shapes, but can only speak the same three words: “I am Groot.”

There are so many villains in this movie, every time you meet one when you think they’re the head scoundrel, only to reveal an even bigger baddie behind them. Djimon Hounsou shows up early, decked out in impressive black armor and blue contact lenses, but turns out he’s just the lackey of the lackey of the lackey.

Ronan (Lee Pace) seems to be at the center of things, a rebel Kree who wants to destroy the noble Nova, despite a treaty between their peoples. He’s currently indentured to Thanos, an all-powerful space king.

I also enjoyed Benicio del Toro as The Collector, an obsequious trader of exotics, and Yondu (Michael Rooker), a space pirate and father figure to Star-Lord. Indigo blue with a bone Mohawk, Yondu has a nifty trick: an arrow he carries around in a holster that goes anywhere (and through anything) at his whistle.

Come to think of it, most everyone in this movie has a nifty trick. Everything we encounter is special and has a backstory or hidden attributes that we can’t wait to discover. A dense, dizzying diaspora of originality, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the sort of film you need, and want, to see more than once to fully appreciate.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957)

Charles Laughton is today's Morgan Freeman. He was good in supporting roles or leads, as comic relief or deadly serious, and he made every movie he was in better. I've enjoyed catching up with some of his roles while writing this column for more than five years (!), and "Witness for the Prosecution" features one of his most delicious performances.

First, a word about film credits. Tyrone Power was the top-billed actor and the face on most of the posters, with Marlene Dietrich a close second. Both give nice turns in "Witness," but it's clear from watching even five minutes of the movie that they're the supporting characters. The story is focused entirely through Laughton, playing ailing British barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, defending an acccused murderer in the trial of his long and storied career.

Power plays Leonard Vole, the accused, a seemingly hapless fellow and natural charmer with the ladies. It turns out (spoilers ahead) that he actually did commit the murder he's accused of, and relied on the skilled thespian powers of his German war wife, Christine (Dietrich), to construct an elaborate ruse to get him off. It was deliberately playing against type for Power, who was known mostly for heroic swashbuckling roles such as Zorro.

"Witness" was also his final film -- Power succumbed to a sudden heart attack at the tender of age 45, literally with a sword in his hand while filming his next big production.

Dietrich, still a stunner at age 57, continued to perform for many more years, including a live stage show in which she flaunted a "nearly nude" sheer dress in her 70s. She was also laid low during a performance, falling off the stage during a show in Australia and suffering a seriously broken leg. She endured until age 90, alcoholic and largely bedridden.

So why was Laughton, certainly no small fry as a movie star himself, relegated to third billing despite carrying the entire movie? Who really knows, as showbiz has rarely made a lot of sense. Maybe the advertising boys preferred the winsome couple over the famously frog-faced Laughton.

Laughton certainly garnered all the meaningful attention, earning an Academy Award nomination (the third of his esteemed career) as well as a BAFTA nod. The film also got Oscar noms for best picture, best director (Billy Wilder), editing and sound recording. Neither Power or Dietrich were recognized, though strangely Elsa Lanchester was for her comic relief role as Robarts' nagging nurse.

Based on a short story (later turned into a play) by Agatha Christie, "Witness for the Prosecution" wears the clothes of a whodunit while existing more as a character study of its leading trio. Wilder and Harry Kurnitz adapted the story for the screen, and while the last few minutes are deliberately shocking, the actors carry the narrative rather than the other way around.

Probably three-quarters of the picture takes place inside a courtroom, in the British version of the familiar courtroom drama genre. It's much more stuffy and genteel than American courtroom films, which tend to have a lot of big emotions and sweaty stand-offs.

Christine was thought by Robarts to provide the key alibi for her husband, who dilly-dallied with an older heiress in hopes that she would loan him money to develop his eggbeater invention. She turned up with her head bashed in, and the woman's crotchety maid points the crooked finger of blame at Vole. Things aren't helped when it's revealed that the victim changed her will to make him the beneficiary of an £80,000 inheritance -- about $2 million in today's dollars.

Robarts is vexed when Christine is instead called as a witness for the prosecution, and proceeds to throw Leonard under the bus, saying he came home with blood on his sleeves and at 10:10 p.m., not the 9:26 p.m. he swore to. But then Robarts receives some letters from a mystery woman that claim the whole thing was a plot to get rid of the husband she'd grown tired of.

I won't reveal the very end, but suffice it to say that the brilliant barrister finds out that he's had the wool pulled over his eyes.

Robarts has just returned from a long convalescence, with a strict nurse in tow and instructions not to try any more criminal cases. Of course, he gives in to the temptation of a juicy murder case -- along with cigars and brandy snuck into his thermos full of cocoa.

Blowsy, charismatic and indulgent, Robarts can't leave behind the life of outfoxing his opponents he's grown to love so much. There's even a funny little trick he does of using his monocle to shine a reflected light in a person's face to find out if they're lying. Turns out it isn't so reliable, as Vole passed with flying colors.

"Witness for the Prosecution" is good old-fashioned filmmaking -- a thriller-cum-drama where all the real action is confined to the courtroom. It's there Robarts, and Laughton, ply their considerable skills with reptilian panache.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Video review: "Noah"

Darren Aronofsky is not the sort of filmmaker who punts.

He makes dizzyingly complex movies that charter a course through the interior minds of his characters, who often descend into madness or despair. He broke onto the scene with “Pi,” and more recent efforts include “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” both of which got the attention of Oscar voters.

For his latest effort Aronofsky literally reached back to his childhood and a poem he wrote about Noah, the Biblical savior who builds an ark to save his family and two of every creature on Earth from God’s destructive flood. Religious literalists may be offended by the modernist reimagining of scripture by Aronosfsky, who also co-wrote the script with Ari Handel.

In this version of the tale, Noah (Russell Crowe) is a temperamental eco-warrior, a vegetarian who carefully harvests the bounty of the land, as opposed to the meat-eating descendants of Cain, who mine for precious metals, wage constant wars, and worse.

He receives dream-visions from the Creator (the word “God” is never used) indicating He plans to destroy the world, and Noah is charged with saving all his creatures. In Noah’s interpretation, he, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their three sons and adopted daughter (Emma Watson) are merely caretakers for the animals, and are expected to die out afterward.

His enemy is Tucal-Cain (a snarly Ray Winstone), who thinks his right of free will includes displacing Noah and his clan from the ark. Lending a hand are the Watchers, golem-like giants made of stone who are actually the souls of fallen angels, trapped for helping the descendants of Adam and Eve.

Also hanging around is Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), the last of the great Biblical patriarchs endowed with magical powers. A major subplot involves a rivalry between Noah and his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman), who resents that his father refuses to let them choose wives to take along on the ark.

“Noah” represents a bold vision, unintentionally goofy at times, but one still engaging and illuminating.

Extra features are a tad disappointing, especially if you buy the DVD version, which contains exactly nothing. Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you add three making-of featurettes: “Iceland: Extreme Beauty,” “The Ark Exterior: A Battle for 300 Cubits” and “The Ark Interior: Animals Two by Two.”



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: "Lucy"

"Lucy" starts out as a brash crime thriller/drama with a sci-fi twist, and then it swerves into profundity, and folly.

Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, an inconsequential American girl partying in Korea, who gets forced into being a drug mule for an international kingpin. It turns out the mysterious blue powder surgically implanted in her belly -- it looks like the stuff from "Breaking Bad" -- leaks into her system, and causes one of those chain reactions where it rewrites her entire DNA, granting her super powers.

In this case, the change is not in her body so much as her mind. The human brain only uses 10 percent of its cerebral capacity -- as we are continually reminded in concurrent lectures by a brilliant scientist, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). If we could unlock just 20 to 40 percent of that potential, he suggests, humans would become capable of all sorts of amazing feats -- including telepathy, telekinesis and more.

Lucy is the living experiment, with her mind growing apace even as she embarks on an elaborate revenge-slash-salvation mission to find the other drug mules and confiscate the other bags of narcotics before they ... well, it's not exactly clear why she wants the stuff.

To prevent the creation of other super-brains like her? Given the way she disposes of the innocent -- shooting a taxi driver for the crime of not speaking English, for instance -- altruism does not seem to be high on her priority list.

Min-sik Choi, the Korean star best known for his role in "Oldboy," plays the drug lord, Mr. Jang, who is sophisticated and wears expensive suits and seemingly has an entire floor of a high rise set aside for his gory amusements.

The reconstituted Lucy easily mows through Mr. Jang's bodyguards to force him to give her the locations of the other mules. She hurts him enough to make him really angry, but doesn't kill him, which even with 10 percent of my brain I can deduce is not a very smart move.

(This is the perennial conceit of movies about the super-intelligent, as they always proceed to do very dumb things.)

Anyway, the plot quickly morphs into a race against the clock, as Lucy determines she will not live past achieving total consciousness, aka 100 percent brain use. She hooks up with a smoldering French detective (Amr Waked), who's basically just there to bear witness to her miracles and provide the barest of romantic subplots.

Soon she moves past parlor tricks like making a hallway full of gunmen levitate to tapping into people's cell phone calls just by read their energy patterns out of the air, taking over entire computer systems, and so on. In essence, she becomes Neo from "The Matrix," but without the alternate reality.

Writer/director Luc Besson, a Frenchman known for over-the-top tales of kinetic fantasy like "The Fifth Element," came up with a great idea for a movie and then didn't know where to cut the string. Individual scenes have a certain vibrant energy, like when she's flying on a plane, working two laptop computers at the same time, and her physical being starts to fritter away. But we feel the same thing happening to the narrative.

Having Johansson play the role with a sort of vacant robot mien was a mistake. She says that she can no longer full pain, fear or desire, and that she worries her humanity is slipping away. But why would this be so? One would think being able to fully access our memories and experiences would render them more emotionally intense, not less so.

"Lucy" is a smart idea for a film, obtusely executed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Night of the Hunter" (1955)

'Preacher' Harry Powell of "The Night of the Hunter" has been called one of the most frightening villains in cinematic history, but Robert Mitchum doesn't actually seem to be trying very hard to be scary. In fact, there are times when his performance is downright comical, as if he's channeling a character from Loony Tunes.

The great actor Charles Laughton only got once chance to direct a feature film. "Night" was a critical and commercial failure, and his tenure in the director's chair was done. But over time the movie has risen in stature and today is regarded as a seminal midcentury film, due in large part to its distinctive look and Mitchum's bold turn.

It's generally included in the film noir tradition, though Laughton was consciously trying to emulate the German expressionist style of the 1920s. With its low angles, looming shadows and stretched perspectives, there are some shots that could have come straight out of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

I think this sensibility also influenced Laughton's direction of Mitchum's performance. Powell is a serial killer who poses as a wandering preacher during the Great Depression. He famously has "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on the four fingers of each hand, and has a prepared little speech about these forces continually grappling with one another. He talks to God frequently, and seems to think he's part of the Lord's higher purpose. A switchblade in the pocket of his black reverend's coat is the instrument of his judgements.

Powell grows increasingly deranged as the story goes on. By the end, he's leering into the camera and making animalistic squawks. He clutches a wounded limb with a sense of mortification, almost like Wile E. Coyote being  unable to believe that the Road Runner keeps getting one up on him.

At a spare 92 minutes, "Night" is one of the few films you wished was longer. It would help better flesh out the characters, particularly Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), the lonely widow who Powell woos and weds. He was prison bunk mates with her husband (Peter Graves), who was executed for a bank robbery in which he killed two people and made off with $10,000. He hid the cash inside his little girl's doll, admonishing the children to never speak of it to anyone. Powell is determined to procure it for himself.

In seemingly the space of just a few minutes of screen time, Willa is widowed, introduced to Powell, married, rejected out of her wedding bed, turned into a religious zealot and murdered. There's a beautifully creepy shot of Willa dead at the bottom of the river, still tied to the driver's seat of Powell's Ford Model T, her long hair flowing with the kelp. It only serves, however, to  underline the fact that she exists in the movie as a construct there to service the plot, rather than a flesh-and-blood person.

Another problem with the script (by James Agee, based on a novel by Davis Grubb) is that it's told largely from the perspective of Willa's son John (Billy Chapin), but he largely remains inscrutable. Chapin tries in vain, but the script sets him up as a totally reactive character. Though there is a certain level of threat during his scenes alone with Powell, where the "preacher" drops the wholesome pretense he shows to adults and becomes coy and belligerant.

The film takes the unusual twist of introducing a main character two-thirds of the way through the picture. John and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) escape down the Ohio River in their father's skiff and eventually end up on shores belonging to Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish), an old woman who takes in orphans.

"I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds," she says, musing to herself as she is wont to do.

Cooper is religious and fierce, and is the only person in the movie not intimidated or fooled by Harry Powell. She siccs the shotgun on him to run him off, then stays up all night waiting for him to break into the house. Strangely, she has a phone in her home, but waits until she's put buckshot into the false preacher before calling the state police.

I liked how Powell exists more as an existential threat than an actual one, riding around the countryside looking for victims, singing gospel tunes in a rich baritone while trolling for the next helpless woman or child to harm. But in the end he's just a kook wielding a skinny little knife that an elderly widow easily gets the best of.

Entertaining? Certainly. Genuinely threatening? Hardly.

I admired "The Night of the Hunter," but it works better in pieces than as a whole.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Video review: "Transcendence"

A box office and critical bomb, “Transcendence” is one of those movies that at least doesn’t suffer from a lack of trying.

This big, ambitious sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp posits a world in which artificial intelligence is threatening to take over, with promises of infinite knowledge and immortality -- as long as humans are willing to give up control and subvert their free will.

Depp plays Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who wants to build a sentient computer. He is forced to make himself the subject of his experiment when he is fatally wounded by anti-technology terrorists. With the help of his wife (Rebecca Hall) and reluctant best friend (Paul Bettany), he uploads his consciousness into a super computer.

The recomposed Will spreads across the Internet like a virus, and quickly makes breakthrough discoveries in medicine, energy and nanotechnology. He oversees the construction of a utopia-like town in the desert, and begins conscripting an army of henchmen controlled by his technology.

There are a lot of huge, thoughtful ideas in this movie. The screenplay by Jack Paglan had languished on the Black List of promising but unproduced scripts for years. But first-time director Wally Pfister, a cinematographer by trade, is clearly out of his depth, lacking the storytelling chops to translate such a complex narrative with overarching themes.

In the end, “Transcendence” is a slave to its science fiction tropes, rather than rising above them and giving us something new.

Video extras are OK, though you’ll have to spring for the more expensive Blu-ray combo pack to get most of them. The DVD version contains only two featurettes, “What Is Transcendence?” and “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision.”

On the Blu-ray you’ll get four more making-of featurettes, and theatrical trailers.




Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: "Planes: Fire & Rescue"

I was not a fan of "Planes" from last year, calling it a cheap-looking spinoff from the "Cars" universe.

Produced in part by an animation studio in India, it was released not under the Pixar label, but Walt Disney Pictures, as if to telegraph to the world that this film would not have the inspiration and polish we've come to associate with movies like "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story."

The hurry-up sequel, "Planes: Fire & Rescue" is still not up to the standards of the Pixar/Disney legacy. But it is notably better than the original, which essentially recycled the story of plucky young racer Lightning McQueen and translated it into the skies.

The new film goes in a totally different direction story-wise, and exists more in action/thriller territory. I wouldn't go so far as to use the term original. But at least director Roberts Gannaway, a veteran of Disney's straight-to-video arm, and his cast and crew have come up with something sufficiently different to justify its existence.

At a brisk 83 minutes, I found it engaging enough for grown-ups, and my 3-year-old was quite delighted. 

The 3-D upgrade is rather unnecessary, as the animation isn't really detailed and textured enough to gain much benefit from additional layers. Depending on your perspective, this movie resembles really ambitious television programming or downscale filmmaking.

Dane Cook is back supplying the voice of Dusty Crophopper, a humble crop duster who somehow managed to win a race around the world against professional planes. He's now a bona fide celebrity, enjoying his quiet life in Propwash Junction in between more racing. (Sound familiar?)

But trouble turns up when his gearbox starts to come apart, and a replacement part can't be found. Unable to crank his engine into the red, it appears his racing days are over. When aviation authorities threaten to close down his home airport due to a lack of sufficient firefighting vehicles, Dusty decides to become certified as a SEAT -- single engine airborne tanker.

So he's off to a new locale, Piston Peak National Park, to take lessons in fighting forest fires from the great Blade Ranger, a fire and rescue helicopter with a taciturn demeanor (ably voiced by Ed Harris). 

There's a new crowd of supporting characters to meet, too:
  • Dipper (Julie Bowen), a veteran firefighting plane who takes a serious (almost creepy) shine to Dusty;
  • Windlifter, a heavy-lift chopper with an American Indian background (Wes Studi);
  • Cabbie (Dale Dye), an ex-military transport plane who drops the Smokejumpers, a gaggle of utility ground vehicles, into the middle of a fire;
  • Maru (Curtis Armstrong), a mechanic tug who insists he can fix anything "better than new";
  • Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins), the unctuous Cadillac park superintendent who's more interested in building and promoting his Xanadu-like country club than giving the firefighters the resources they need.
Outfitted with water landing pontoons instead of wheels, Dusty is put through his paces by the demanding Blade Ranger, who has a secret past of his own fame. (Another total ripoff from "Cars," this time of the Doc Hudson backstory. Hey, I said it was better than the last movie, not a total departure.)

The action scenes are fairly compelling, with some good smoke/fire effects and sympathetic vehicles in peril (including Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as pair of romantic oldster RVs). And they don't go too heavy on the "life lessons" stuff, other than depicting the nobility of the firefighting profession.

There are a good number of clever jokes and throwaway lines, many of which will go over the heads of tiny kiddies but give their parents a smile. A truck in a bar complains, "She left me for a hybrid. I didn't even hear him coming!" Or the quip made by the firefighters about the fancy-pants Cad, "He waxes himself... daily."

Is "Planes: Fire & Rescue" high-quality filmmaking? Hardly. This is till rather rote entertainment better suited for streaming video and DVDs than a $10 movie ticket. But in a summer light on acceptable fare for small children, this will pass the time amiably. It cruises well at low altitudes.

Review: "The Purge: Anarchy"

Who would you kill?

That's the lure of "The Purge: Anarchy," the sly sequel to the successful low-budget horror film from just last year. As you may recall, the setup is that in a dystopian near-future American, one night a year everyone is allowed to murder, maim and rape without consequence -- the notion being that by "cleansing" ourselves of negative emotions, it makes for a more harmonious republic.

(Unless you're one of the ones being cleansed, of course.)

Personally, I can't say as I've ever had a overwhelming urge to kill another human being. Oh, there was that boss who treated employees like chattel, and anyone who kicks a dog is deserving of a good smacking around, just on general principle.

But blood and death? I don't need that in my dreams. And maybe I'm naive, but I don't think the vast majority of other people would, either.

So writer/director James DeMonaco, who also helmed the first film, starts off with a premise that is pretty whack. But like a flowering plant that is garish and goofy on the surface, sometimes there are roots that go down further than you'd expect. And that's the case with "Anarchy."

Abandoning most of the horror film tropes of the original flick, the sequel falls more into thriller/drama territory. There are a lot of shoot-em-ups and grisly scenes of mayhem. But the meat of the story is one of revenge and redemption, with a strong message about the rich preying on the weak.

As the Commencement, as it's called by the New Founding Fathers of America, approaches for the year 2023, a backlash has started to rise. There's an Internet prophet (Michael K. Williams) railing against the system, claiming the wealthy and powerful are using the purge to weed out the poor and weak.

It's also notable that most of the purgers are white, while the bulk of their victims are brown people.

"Change will come when their blood spills!" urges the leader of the 99 percenters.

Most people, though, are just scared and prefer to wait things out behind barricaded doors.

But not our never-named protagonist. Played by Frank Grillo, a recognizable actor who often portrays heavies and second fiddles, our man has apparently been planning for the purge for a long time. He's got an arsenal of guns, an armored car and a sour attitude. He's out to get someone, though the reasons remain hazy.

Then he comes across Eva (Carmen Ejoga) and Cali (Zoe Soul), a mother and daughter who have been torn from their apartment by a squad of militaristic goons. He stops to save them, and before long they've added a yuppie couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) to the mix, and he's saddled with a whole troupe of innocents to look after.

The group wends its way through downtown Los Angeles, getting into all sorts of bizarre scrapes and encounters with gangs in fright masks and whatnot. (The creepiest antagonists roam around in a semi-tractor trailer; the ominous Big Daddy is their leader.) It's reminiscent of "The Warriors," another ludicrous-yet-evocative glimpse of a chaotic future where roving bands of bloodthirsty tribes seek each other out for pointless exchanges of brutality.

Some sequences are just rote action -- typical machine gun fire and sweaty urgency. Others drive home the us-versus-them theme with delicious panache. A real fist-pumping turn of events is when the friendlies are captured and auctioned off to super-rich purgers, but then they flip the script.

"The Purge: Anarchy" is one of those movies that seems really silly at first. And it is. But it's also got some disturbing things to say.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Westerner" (1940)

Tonally, "The Westerner" is one of the weirdest films I've ever encountered.

Ostensibly it's about Judge Roy Bean, the famous/infamous Texas Justice of the Peace who essentially operated a combination saloon/courtroom as his own personal fiefdom. He generally dispensed the same punishment to every offender: hanging, and a fine that always equaled whatever currency the man had in his pockets at the time. Bean kept the money for himself as court fees, with enough parceled out to the silent undertaker character who seems to populate every Western.

(I should note the real Bean only ever sentenced two men to hanging, and one of them escaped.)

But Gary Cooper was the star of the movie, so the story was shifted so that Bean was the supporting character and Cooper's character, Cole Harden, became the intrepid cowboy who runs afoul of Bean's frontier justice, but later becomes his friend. Walter Brennan, the great character actor, won his third Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the role, the only person to have done so three times.

As a result, the part that normally would've been the straight-up villain role ends up being a cantankerous, wrong-headed but amiable goof who's more pitiable than hateful. Unlike Brennan's straight-up villain in "My Darling Clementine," there's no suggestion of darkness in his heart -- simply an unbending view that "sodbusters" are the sworn enemy of the cattlemen who settled the town of Vinegaroon.

Bean is a bundle of eccentricities. Other than being a hanging judge, his entire life seems to be wrapped up in the image of English actress Lily Langtry. Her picture is plastered all over the saloon, and when a citified customer discloses that he was once in England but declined to attend one of Langtry's performances, he is summarily thrown out.

Harden is smart enough to leverage the judge's ardor to get him off the hook for alleged horse thieving. He claims to have met Langtry, and even have a lock of her hair back with his things in El Paso. Bean essentially agrees to suspend his sentence if Harden will give over the hair. When the real horse thief turns up, Bean is pleased with how Harden acquits himself, and they form a tenuous friendship based on their mutual ornery-yet-cagey dispositions.

So, even though this is the story of a quasi-jurist who essentially used his authority to murder people who disagreed with him, most of the movie actually has a light, fun-and-games tone to it. The comedic aspect is pumped up by Cooper's performance, which is another iteration of his aw-shucks star persona. His sidewise reactions and double-takes cue us in to how loony Judge Bean is.

The last half-hour or so, though, takes a nose-dive into tragedy. Harden has also befriended some of the homesteaders, including old patriarch Caliphet Matthews (Fred Stone) and his hard-headed daughter, Jane Ellen (Doris Davenport), who is the only one of the farmers brave enough to stand up to Bean.

Harden tries to play the role of the peacemaker, convincing Bean to let the homesteaders farm in peace, while also warning him of a group of farmers who come to town to give Bean a taste of his own medicine and lynch him.

It's not the first time somebody's had that idea -- a running joke is that Bean survived an attempted hanging himself, which left him with a stiff neck that Harden continually has to pop back into place with his hands or, on one occasion, a punch to the face. Almost everything the movie depicts about Bean is Hollywood flimflam, though this bit is actually true.

Anyway, Bean breaks the peace by having his men burn down the Matthews' farm, killing Caliphet in the process. Harden goes to the county sheriff to get a warrant sworn out, and is deputized to bring Bean in. That's impossible while he's surrounded by his henchmen in his own town, which he renames Langtry after finally securing the purported lock of hair (Harden actually snips it from Jane Ellen).

But when Bean hears Lily Langtry is coming to the territory to perform, he has one of his men buy out the entire theater, and burns all of the tickets but one, so he can watch her without distraction. Harden's waiting onstage when the curtain comes up, though.

In a rarity for Westerns of this era, they don't have a quick-draw duel, but simply shoot it out while hiding behind chairs and columns. Fatally wounded, Bean is helped by Harden to Langtry's dressing room to finally meet his idol before falling over dead.

Bean's death doesn't carry any emotional impact, since he's indisputably the heavy of the piece, even if a charismatic one.

According to Cooper biographer Jeffrey Meyers, the screen icon was worried about being upstaged by Brennan, and only made the film  under protest after Samuel Goldwyn enforced his contract. The pairing was so productive, however, that they went on to make four more films together, including "Meet John Doe," "Sergeant York" and "The Pride of the Yankees."

I was struck how physically formidable Brennan appeared next to the 6-foot-3 Cooper. Brennan often played characters much older than himself, and often seemed small and scraggly, and sometimes even wizened. Here he's lean but rangy.

Directed by William Wyler, "The Westerner" has some terrific production values, including the burning of the homesteaders' fields and houses, which even includes the imposition of some special effects flames onto the screen. I also liked that both Cooper and Brennan rode their own horses, including during a galloping chase through the desert.

In addition to Brennan's Academy Award win, the film was also nominated for black-and-white art direction and original story, back when they still had that category. It's odd, since the two credited screenwriters, Jo Swerling and Niven Busch, did not receive Oscar nods but Stuart N. Lake, who came up with the story idea, was.

Judge Roy Bean is an iconic figure made more so by film and television adaptations of his life, including a TV series in the 1950s. There was also a 1972 feature film starring Paul Newman, and this time they cast the movie star in the Bean role, instead of finding some bullpucky cowboy part for  him to play off of.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Video review: "Under the Skin"

I liked "Under the Skin," but you may not.

This off-kilter sci-fi/horror starring Scarlett Johansson is a deliberate head-scratcher. It's not the sort of movie that declares itself to you and shows you everything about itself. Rather, it exists in the shadows, giving us glimpses and hints of meaning, and leaving it to the audience to assemble a complete picture in our heads.

I suspect that many people will find it maddening, but it never failed to keep me engaged and fascinated.

Co-written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, who also made the wonderful "Sexy Beast," "Under the Skin" doesn't have a whole lot of plot. A strange, unnamed woman (Johansson) trolls around Scotland in a van, luring men to their demise. She doesn't just stab or shoot them; she uses her body as bait to trick them into immersing themselves in a pool of inky black goo.

Is the liquid real or imagined? What exactly happens to the men's bodies? Is the woman an alien, a demon or something else entirely? Who is the strange motorcycle rider who follows her about, first as her facilitator and later as her huntsman?

At first she is a completely heartless killer, she gradually becomes more emotionally attuned to the humans she's preying upon. An encounter with fellow with a severe facial disfigurement seems to change something in her, and her disguise begins to slip more and more.

(I should mention that almost all the men Johansson encounters are portrayed by non-actors, which give their encounters an added sense of serendipity and authenticity.)

"Under the Skin" eschews easy answers, but its charms lie in keeping us absorbed by its dark puzzle.

Video extras are rather disappointing, confined to a single featurette, a making-of documentary that touches on various aspects of production.



Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Andy Serkis, the actor who has become famous for his motion-capture performances as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and as Caesar the chimpanzee in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," receives top billing for reprising is role in the sequel to the latter.

This is notable for a couple of reasons: I believe it's the first time a performer represented digitally through CGI has been credited as the lead actor in a movie also starring live-action performances. This had already been the case with all-CG movies like "Avatar," which essentially were animated films. But here the motion-capture acting stands right beside the live actors -- indeed, it stands taller.

This is appropriate, since the heart and soul of the story in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is about the simians, with the humans acting as the sidekicks. "Rise" featured some chimps and apes blended with puppetry and special effects, but here the apes are all CG.

How good is the digital representation of apes? They seemed as real to me as the humans sharing the frame. Their eyes crinkle with emotion, their brows lower with anger, their throats burble with both simian noises and human-made speech.

If there's a knock to be made against this movie, it's that the live actors don't make as much of an impact as Serkis & Co. Other than Gary Oldman, who has an all-too-brief role as an anxious ex-soldier, most of them are somewhat flat.

That's OK; "Dawn" is still the best summer movie of 2014, with a combination of terrific action scenes and a genuinely moving story about the conflict between apes and people in the aftermath of an apocalypse, and how inhumanity is a trait both tragically share.

Set 10 years down the road from the last movie, "Dawn" sees most of the human population decimated by a biological warfare agent known as the simian flu, and the wars that followed. As the story opens, Caesar has become the grizzled leader of an entire colony of intelligent apes. They hunt other animals for food, and have built a huge wooden village in the forests around San Francisco.

Though they can speak halting English, Caesar and his tribe prefer to communicate through the sign language they were initially taught by humans. They also carry over other of mankind's affectations, such as adorning their faces with war-paint while hunting and riding horses.

It's been two years since they last saw any men, so they doubt they still live. But then they stumble across a party of humans led by Marcus (Jason Clarke), who are on a mission to get the old electric dam power generator working again. Humans survivors have gathered in a large tower in San Fran, but their fuel is nearly run out.

Misunderstanding and fear initially rule the interactions between man and ape, and blood is shed. But Caesar, worried that a war will mean the death of many of his kind, bends to their requests for help.

This does not sit well with members of his tribe, including his teenage (in temperament, if not years) son, Blue Eyes, and Koba (Toby Kebbell), his right-hand ape. As we know from the last movie, Koba was left scarred and blind in one eye from human medical experiments, and he's not about to forgive and forget.

Some of the most powerful sections in the movie depict the growing conflict between Koba and Caesar. In one scene, Koba sneers at Caesar letting Marcus and his band perform their "human work," touching his wounds as example of that kind's deeds. But they always make up, which consists of the subservient ape bowing before his leader and offering his open hand for a grasp of friendship, indicating he's been forgiven.

But others are not so accommodating, and soon the fight escalates despite the efforts of Caesar and Marcus.

The action scenes are kinetic and hefty; we can almost feel the weight of the great gorillas and chimps as they swing from branch to branch -- or girder to girder when they cross the Golden Gate Bridge into the humans' domain. Caesar hates guns and refuses to use them, though later some of his kind make darker choices -- as do humans.

(These machine guns, like seemingly all movie iterations, never have to be reloaded.)

There's one terrific early scene where Caesar brings his entire army to the doorstep of the humans. They just sit there, astride horses or on their feet, staring with disdain at their once-betters. Then Caesar opens his mouth and bellows a warning, and all the humans gasp at what they've just heard. You can see etched on their faces the moment their entire worlds crashed down upon them.

Rounding out the cast on the human end are Keri Russell as Marcus' wife, a CDC scientist; Marcus' artistically bent son (Kodi Smit-McPhee); and Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who is Koba's human counterpart, barely able to conceal his hatred of apes. Also making an impression among the apes is Karin Konoval as Maurice, the gentle giant orangutan who is the intellectual leader of the tribe, teaching the younglings and acting as Caesar's conscious.

New director Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield") ably takes over from Rupert Wyatt, who departed to work on another project. Holdover screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are joined by Mark Bomback, who reportedly did a script polish.

Smart and soulful, humanistic yet full of verve, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a great piece of entertainment.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: "Ida"

We don't get to see a lot of Polish movies in most of America, so "Ida" is a welcome break from the usual stream of French, Danish and German fare. Director Pawel Pawlikowski ("My Summer of Love"), who also co-wrote it with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, delivers a film of spareness and stillness in which emotions are kept tamped down.

And yet, because the characters strive so hard to keep their fears and passions hidden, that only lends them that much more power.

Shot in elegant black-and-white -- almost every frame is a work of art -- the story is set in 1960, as a now-Communist Poland still struggles to unbury itself from the horrors of World War II. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice nun about to take her vows.

Orphaned on the doorstep of a priest as a babe, she learns she has one living relative, an aunt who formerly was a judge and state prosecutor during the Stalinist regime, responsible for bringing Nazi collaborators to justice. The head nun insists Anna meet and reconcile with her before she
recedes into strict convent life forever. 

Trzebuchowska is a marvelous subject for the camera, with her leonine face and luminous eyes. She keeps her gaze downcast most of the time, whether out of primness or training, but when she looks up her eyes are probing and brave.

The aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), turns out to be a mass of contradictions. An alcoholic who seems to have one-night stands with a parade of men most every night, she's at once a loner who seems desperate for company. She treats her newfound niece with disdain, responding candidly that she did not respond to all the letters from the orphanage because she simply didn't want to.

But she has a secret to tell: Anna's parents were Jews who were murdered, not by the Nazis but one of their fellow Poles. Her real name is Ida Lebenstein. Most everything Anna/Ida has thought about herself turns out to be untrue.

The two go on a quest to find out the truth about their family. They travel to their hometown and begin questioning locals and neighbors. Along the way they pick up a handsome saxaphone player (Dawid Ogrodnik), and Anna feels stirrings of her unexplored womanhood. Wanda openly encourages her to sleep with him, arguing that the vows she's about to take won't mean anything if she doesn't know what she'll be giving up.

More secrets are revealed that turn this sad story into one of soul-tearing tragedy. We learn more about Wanda and her own journey to a crossroads without turnings.

Some viewers may find "Ida" a little slow, but this is a beautiful story, beautifully told. These are tears you'll want to shed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Review: "Life Itself"

It is a supremely satisfying full cinematic circle that Steve James has directed the documentary about the great film critic Roger Ebert, based on his autobiography, "Life Itself." After all, it was Ebert and his partner-in-snark, Gene Siskel, who first championed James' documentary, "Hoop Dreams," 20 years ago, turning it from a little-known festival entry into one of the most seminal films of the modern age.

James would not have a career, or certainly not the career he's had, without Siskel and Ebert. For more than two decades they cajoled people into loving movies while warring with each other on their iconic television show, wherein films could live or die by their up-or-down judgment.

"Two thumbs up" was their (fiercely trademarked) journalistic blessing every Hollywood producer wanted to see on the poster of their flick, while "Two thumbs down" could mark the kiss of death. Ebert and Siskel, otherwise known as "the fat one" and "the bald one" to people who couldn't recall their names but nonetheless knew who they were, spread their passion for cinema from their Chicago empire across entire generations and geographies.

"The studios started out helping us, then hating us, then fearing us," one of the longtime producers of the show says.

This of course was back in the day when film reviewers wielded amorphous but actual power, when newspapers actively sought after and promoted local voices, when people couldn't wait to hear what "their" critic from their hometown paper had to say before plunking down cash for a ticket. Inter-city battles between critics like Ebert and Siskel were the hot sauce in the soup of a community's ongoing conversation about the arts.

Sadly, most cities today, even major metropolitan centers, cannot boast one full-time movie critic, let alone two.

"Life Itself" is a marvelous movie about a marvelous man, and one for whom James and his crew are not afraid to provide a warts-and-all portrayal. Since it's based on Ebert's own writings, many of his faults are enumerated by himself: he was an alcoholic, an egotist, womanizer and occasional bully.

But he was also a natural man of letters, the sort who could dash out a fully thought-through review in a half hour. Ridiculously prodigious -- he blogged tirelessly, penned travel books, a screenplay for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and even a cookbook -- the words flowed out of the burly, bespectacled Ebert like water.

James' documentary satisfyingly explores every angle of Ebert's life, from the professional to the personal, the public persona of the newspaper and TV star to the private things he kept hidden.

For any erstwhile student of Ebert's history, some of the material will already be well known -- such as how the Chicago Sun-Times plucked him, a cub reporter barely into his 20s who'd only been at the blue-collar tabloid a few months, to be the movie critic in 1967. This was at a time when reviewing films was seen as such an inconsequential endeavor that the rival Tribune used a revolving door of writers who all published under the same pen name.

A lot of the story, however, will be brand new and emotionally affecting to the general public, such as how low Ebert grew during his last few years, when cancer forced the removal of his jawbone and the loss of his speech, and thus his TV career. James filmed with Ebert and his wife, Chaz, for several months prior to his death in 2013, and the footage of his ordeal in hospitals and rehabilitation centers underlines his bravery in writing openly on his blog about his travails. (I felt tears welling as a nurse suctioned out his GI tube, his face wrenched in the effort to withstand it.)

Also surprising are testimonials from filmmakers, unknown ones but also giants like Werner Herzog, who talk about how Ebert's championing their work made a difference in their careers. Martin Scorsese (who is also a producer) says that he was essentially washed up in the 1980s, until Siskel and Ebert hosted a tribute to him at the Toronto Film Festival. He says it gave him the strength to go on -- nonetheless, they savaged his next effort, "The Color of Money," something Scorsese talks about without malice.

James also includes extended discussions on the rivalry between Ebert and Siskel, which brought out the best and worst in each man. Other notable critics, like Richard Corliss of Time magazine or the New York Times' A.O. Scott, weigh in with their thoughts on how Ebert's TV work and friendships with filmmakers affected his place in the professional pantheon.

(Full disclosure: like many established and aspiring movie critics, I enjoyed a correspondence with Ebert some years ago, when he gave me some career advice, and I had the pleasure of meeting him once in person.)

Finally, there is the tender story of Ebert's late-in-life romantic blossoming, marrying Chaz at the age of 50 and expanding his lifetime of bachelorhood into an instant extended multicultural family of children and grandchildren.

Love, laughter, tragic flaws, exotic locales, antagonists who become friends, losing the ability to speak but finding a voice -- Roger Ebert's life has all the ingredients for a great movie. And "Life Itself" is that movie.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Advise & Consent" (1962)

"Advise and Consent" is a film of firsts and lasts.

It was the final film for the great Charles Laughton, already declining from cancer. Wrapped in a colorless, shapeless suit like a shroud, his once-expansive frame had shriveled down to merely bulky. He plays Seabright "Seab" Cooley, a wily old curmudgeon representing South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, who positions himself as the chief antagonist to Robert A. Leffingwell, the president's nominee for Secretary of State.

Laughton cackles and minces, cajoles and bullies, as the situation warrants. His voice had lost some of its power, and you can hear at a couple of points that his lines have been dubbed over. Contrastingly, it was the first film role for Betty White, playing a young female senator who gets accused of using "her sex" to her advantage.

It was one of the earliest mainstream movies to tackle McCarthyism head-on, or at least just off to the side. During the confirmation process, Leffingwell is discovered to have participated in some Communist meetings back when he was at university, though he never joined the party.

Still, the trial-like subcommittee hearings have all the fire and brimstone of the real anti-Communist witch hunts. Merely the accusation of Communist affiliations is enough to scuttle one's political career, and even eliminate the possibility of a job in academia.

It was also one of the first movies to tackle homosexuality head-on, with an upright young senator (Don Murray) from Utah -- named Brigham, too, in case the suggestion that he's a Mormon wasn't already underlined enough -- being blackmailed for a romance with another soldier during the Korean War.

That was a bold topic for director Otto Preminger to take on in 1962, though the portrayal of gay men isn't exactly progressive. The senator's trip to New York to find his old lover turns into a descent into Dante's inferno, with a parade of effeminate man-boys and a nightclub full of tilted wrists and gay Lotharios. (One of the oldest cruelties inflicted against homosexual men is the mythology that they're attracted to essentially every straight guy they meet.)

Still, the film is clear in pointing out that it's not the senator's affair that constitutes a great sin, but the way it's used against him by a political rival to torture his wife and family life, eventually spurring him to take his own life in his senate office.

"Advise & Consent," written by Wendell Mayes based on the novel by Allen Drury, was not considered a particularly successful film at the time. It got middling reviews, so-so box office, and failed to receive any Academy Award nominations -- though Laughton got a BAFTA nomination and Burgess Meredith won the award for supporting actor from the National Board of review for his portrayal of a dim, easily-manipulated former associate of Leffingwell.

It's too bad, because I thought it a terrific political thriller chocked full of top-notch performances. In writing the Reeling Backward column for almost five years now (!), I've often encountered supposedly great movies that I found to be undeserving of their reputations -- and enjoyed taking them down a peg or five. Even more rewarding, however, is discovering an amazing picture that has, for one reason or another, largely been forgotten.

Leffingwell is played by Henry Fonda in typical upright straight-man mode, who lies about his leftist associations during the confirmation hearings, and then immediately confesses to the president (Franchot Tone) and requests that his name be withdrawn. But the POTUS is dying, and wants to make sure his foreign policy gains are cemented under Leffingwell's able hand, since he -- and most everybody -- has a low opinion of his amiable vice president and successor, "Happy" Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres).

Ayres is wonderful in his small but pivotal role, giving Hudson a kind of self-effacing nobility. Being the vice president, he says only half-jokingly, "is a sort of disgrace, like living in a mansion with no furniture."

Ostensibly the star of the picture, Fonda is actually pretty peripheral to the story, other than the extended sequence where he testifies before the subcommittee, and later interrogates and discredits the Meredith character. He's less a fully fleshed character than an ideal, a New Age man who believes in laying aside the "outworn" policies of treating the Soviets as implacable enemies to be destroyed.

This positions him in opposition to the prideful Cooley, in addition to a vague dust-up between the two years earlier. Seab is a master manipulator, offended that Leffingwell's nomination is poised to upset the genteel comity of the Senate, turning it into  "a cockpit of angry emotion" -- nevermind that he's the one who will be doing most of the antagonizing. Even the way Seab pronounces the name seems distasteful to him, as if he's being mocked -- "laughing well."

Even if he's a self-aggrandizing egomaniac, Seab is at least demonstrated to have some redeeming qualities in the end. That can't be said for Fred Van Ackerman, a junior senator who charges himself with being Leffingwell's main defender. Played by George Grizzard, Van Ackerman is a small, effeminate man/boy who always keeps a cadre of silent gray-suited men around him, dubbing them his "brain trust."

They also carry out his dirty work, like threatening the Mormon senator, Brigham Anderson, charged with shuttling Leffingwell's nomination through the process. When Anderson learns of Leffingwell's perjury, he refuses to pass him through. He ends up trapped between his conscious and the threats to his family, and he wilts under the pressure. This is actually the weakest part of the film, as it's given too much screen time and sucks much of the momentum out of the political intrigue, which is where the real juice is.

I also enjoyed Walter Pidgeon as Bob Munson, the patrician Senate Majority Leader, who tries to be accomodating as possible to the various whims and outsized personalities of his coalition. Gene Tierney has a small role as his political patron and secret girlfriend, and Peter Lawford turns up as a womanizing senator with a trick or two up his sleeve.

All of these figures are the same political party as the president, though which is never explicitly stated. The film came out in 1962 but seems very much a product of 1950s mentality. It's interesting, though, that this is the rare political film where the opposition party never really comes into play. Most such films make the primary villain a member of the opposite party, such as the similarly themed "The Contender" from 2000.

The film is also notable for portraying the White House Correspondents Dinner, quite possibly the first mainstream movie to do so. Then as is now, it's depicted as a chummy affair where politicians and press agree to treat everything off-the-record, yet somehow a lot of news always ends up getting made. The president uses the occasion to castigate his foes and affirm his support for Leffingwell.

The final sequence, building up to and featuring the roll call vote for Leffingwell's nomination, is a master class in cinematic tension. The prospects for Leffingwell rise and recede, even as the names are called one after another. Munson would seem to have marshaled his forces and have it in the bag, but then some last-minute events throw everything into doubt.

I'm not quite sure why "Advise & Consent" was not greeted more enthusiastically at the time. To me it's a first-rate political drama with a bunch of terrific actors letting it fly. It wasn't the first or last of its kind, but it is one of the best I've seen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Video review: "Bad Words"

A lot of movies want to seem edgy and dark, but for the most part they’re pretenders, inching up to the line of actual rebelliousness and then backing away with a smirk. “Bad Words” is not one of them. It’s a pitch-black comedy that gleefully barrels into offensive territory, then dares you not to laugh.

It stars Jason Bateman -- who also makes his directing debut -- as Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who hoodwinks his way into the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee for eighth graders.

Competing against kids in the throes of awkward adolescence, he mocks, bullies and abuses them. He torments a heavy girl into quitting. He convinces another that he’s sleeping with the kid’s mother. He treats the parents and the adults running the competition with even greater contempt.

Guy is, in short, a tremendous jerk. Exactly how he got to be so and why he’s undertaking this strange mission are the central dynamic of this movie, which was written by Andrew Dodge.

What’s astonishing is that we end up caring about Guy, if not exactly endorsing his cryptic motivations. He even gets to show a poignant side in his relationship with a chirpy little Indian-American kid (Rohan Chand), which starts out with antagonism and morphs into something like tutelage.

If you’re up for a bracing film about the joys of being bad, this is it.

Video extras are short in quantity but long in quality. There are deleted and extended scenes, a making-of documentary titled “The Minds and Mouths Behind Bad Words,” and a feature-length commentary track supplied by Bateman.



Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Film review: "Tammy"

McCarthy Does Mumblecore.

That's my three-word review of Melissa McCarthy's new comedy "Tammy," an oft-turgid wallow in sentiment and icky embarrassing humor. It's still got some genuine laughs, and is buoyed by McCarthy's winning screen presence. It's not a long movie at 96 minutes, yet you could easily chop a half-hour out of it and have a winner.

Mumblecore, for those not into zero-budget indie films, is epitomized by rambling dialogue that has the appearance of being ad-libbed. Its influence on mainstream comedy is clear to see, though usually it's punky young guys -- think Jonah Hill or Michael Cera -- with the verbal diarrhea.

After an impressive string of hits including "The Heat" and "Identity Thief," McCarthy is currently sitting in the unlikely catbird's seat as Hollywood's most consistently bankable star over the last few years. She's running the show on her projects, and has decided to team up with her husband Ben Falcone, who co-wrote the screenplay with her and makes his directing debut.

He frequently turns up in her movies as her beau, though here he just has a bit part as the jerk boss at the Topper Jack's burger joint where she works.

The result of their collaboration is a raunchy road trip comedy starring McCarthy and Susan Sarandon as her grandmother. They have some fairly predictable misadventures, some romantic hook-ups, binge drinking and petty larceny.

In the end, we all Learn Something -- in this case, that McCarthy had better find some new material if she wants to keep her streak alive.

The story starts off with an epic bad day for Tammy. Living in tiny Murphysboro, Ill., she crashes her ancient Corolla into a deer on the way to work, then gets fired for being late. Arriving home unexpectedly early, she's surprised to find her husband (Nat Faxon) serving an elegant dinner to his mistress (Toni Collette). Tammy promptly packs her stuff and decamps to her parents' place, two doors down.

"You never cooked me dinner!" she shrieks. "And it smells good, too!"

But her mom, played by Allison Janney, is something of a pill. Tammy's grandmother Pearl (Sarandon) lives with her but has had enough, so the pair take off for an impromptu jaunt for parts unknown with $6,700 of grandma's cash as their stake.

It's sort of a Thelma & Louise thing, with a cross-generational twist.

The ages of the actresses don't exactly sync up, with less than a quarter-century dividing them all -- McCarthy is only 11 years younger than Janney, who in turn is only 13 years Sarandon's junior. It is rather strange to see Sarandon, whose potent sexual presence has lit up screens for four decades, doing the cranky oldster routine complete with puffy feet from diabetes.

The running joke is that Tammy is the hard-partying cutup of the family, but Granny Pearl is at least her equal despite her prim outward appearance. She's a nasty drunk, supplies teenagers with beer and boasts of having been an Allman Brothers groupie.

Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh turn up late in the game as wealthy lesbian friends of Pearl's, who help them out when they're on the lam from the law. Bates lights up her scenes, feisty yet down-to-earth, and has one emotional crescendo that feels like it belongs in another movie.

Actually, most of "Tammy" feels like it belongs in another flick. McCarthy may be all that as a screen comedienne, but she and her hubby needed to run their screenplay through the spin cycle a few more times.