Monday, September 29, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Harry and Tonto" (1974)

Jack Nicholson did not win the Best Actor Oscar for "Chinatown." Nor did Al Pacino for  "The Godfather Part II." Or Dustin Hoffman for "Lenny." Or Albert Finney for "Murder on the Orient Express."

No, the golden statuette went to stage and TV actor Art Carney, then best known as Jackie Gleason's dimwitted sidekick Norton on "The Honeymooners." He played elderly ex-teacher Harry Coombes, evicted from his rent-controlled New York City apartment, briefly ensconced at his son's middle-class suburban home and then off on a destination-less journey westward accompanied only by his tabby cat, Tonto.

In keeping with the tropes of the road picture, there's not much rhyme or reason to Harry's journeys, other than discovering new places and people. The plot is more or less determined by his encounters, some of them profound, some of them merely amusing, a few depressing. Carney carries the picture as a man of structure who finds that he's grown tired of his confines, and yearns to ramble.

(I do feel compelled to point out that Carney was actually only 55 when the movie came out, playing 70-something Harry. As a result, he became one of those actors, like Alec Guinness and Wilford Brimley, who was actually much younger than the populace thought the was. Carney rode the success of "Harry and Tonto" to a couple more decades of busyness in Hollywood in "old man" roles.)

Director and co-writer Paul Mazursky (with Josh Greenfeld) made movies that were largely about the in-between spaces that most films skip over. He seemed less interested in the big clanging events in life than what happens right before, or after.

His recent passing, along with that of Robin Williams, prompts me to recall the lovely "Moscow on the Hudson," about a gentle Russian who defects to the West. Mazursky was a strange species in Hollywood, an animal who could effortlessly swim in the intersecting tides of sadness, drama and laughter without ever seeming like he was stretching for an emotional crescendo that wasn't there.

His films also eschewed easy stereotypes and simplistic characterizations. Take Harry's eldest son, Burt (Phil Bruns), who takes in his dad after he is forcibly evicted from his apartment so it can be torn down for a parking garage. Normally this sort of guy is used in the  movies as a demonstration of middle-class desperation, the hard-working "family man" who finds himself estranged from his loved ones and bereft of his youthful passions. But while clearly high-strung, especially about the fates of his own young adult boys, Burt is portrayed as a loving son who looks out for Harry and genuinely cares about him, even if he can't fathom his motivations.

I also admired the depiction of Harry's grandson Norman (played by Joshua Mostel, Zero's boy), a gentle young man who is experimenting with various aspects of youth culture, including a vow of silence and mild-altering drugs. Harry, forced to share a room with the boy, is entirely non-judgmental about Norman's choices, even asking to borrow the books he's reading so he can better relate to the younger generation.

But ultimately Harry decides it's time for him to move on, especially after his best (only?) friend dies, a Polish radical, Jacob (Herbert Berghof), who angrily dismisses everyone he dislikes as a "capitalist bastard" -- even his own father. Harry's only real social structure was going to the store for groceries and treats for Tonto, good-natured banter with his fellow senior apartment dwellers and park bench conversations with Jacob.

Harry plans to visit his daughter in Chicago (Ellen Burstyn), but refuses to go through security at the airport when they want to X-ray Tonto's pet carrier. Similarly, a bus drive ends abruptly due to more Tonto troubles, so he buys an old jalopy for $250 and commences the road portion of the trip. Along the way he picks up a teen runaway (Melanie Mayron), who embarrasses him by revealing her breasts upon emerging from their hotel shower.

Other adventures include meeting a man who sells New Age-y medicinal health food (and blenders); a drunken stroll through a Las Vegas casino, where he brings an epic win streak to an end; a night in jail with an American Indian healer (Chief Dan George) who admits to practicing both good and bad medicine, depending on how he feels about the patient; reuniting with a long lost love, now wasting away from dementia in a  nursing home; a road quickie with a hooker; and bursting through the bluster of his other son (Larry Hagman), a failed real estate broker in Los Angeles.

The cyclical, episodic nature of the story lends a sense of deep perspective and sanguine wisdom gained. Harry flitters from here to there, seeing what each new day brings, and maintaining the same optimistic (but discerning) mood no matter what nature it may hold.

The ending is a little abrupt, and tends to prompt thoughts along the lines of "Well, what was that all about?" In the end, Harry is still Harry, if now in a different zip code and with a broadened outlook on life.

If "Harry and Tonto" doesn't have a big overarching Something Important statement to make, it's out of design rather than happenstance. This is a beautiful tale about following wherever your feet and heart take you, and accepting what you find for whatever it is, rather than what you'd like it to be.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Video review: "Transformers: Age of Extinction"

For the record, I haven’t liked any of the “Transformers” movies. I was a little too old for the 1980s television show, but I’ve caught up with it since and wasn’t impressed. None of the more recent TV spinoffs, either. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that I’m a Transformer-hater. In my view, they’re less than meets the eye.

Mainly, it’s because I just don’t understand them. They’re supposed to be an ancient race of sentient robots who can change shapes … so why would they change into things like trucks and jets, which wouldn’t even be invented for millennia?

The fact that the entire enterprise was just a marketing ploy for a line of Japanese toys doesn’t help; the whole thing is the result of a mercenary, rather than creative, impulse.

So here is the fourth movie, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” from director Michael Bay. All of the original cast is gone, notably Shia Labeouf, replaced by Mark Wahlberg as an obsessive inventor who stays up nights working on gadgets but somehow remembers to lift weights so he looks good in a tight T-shirt.

He buys an old semi-tractor trailer truck to fix up, and lo and behold, it’s actually Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), leader of the good Autobots, who are now few and scattered. It seems a couple of human bad guys (Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer) are using the metal remains of the dead transformers to create an army of new ones, so they need to be smashed up.

There’s also a nefarious transformer bounty hunter, who’s after Optimus so he can use his head for some familiarly murky end-of-the-world type nonsense.

The computer generated robots look better than they ever have, especially the action scenes, which have been slowed down enough for the eye to track. The characters and plot, though, are mere afterthoughts – oftentimes the movie seems like an unrelated string of action scenes.

This fourth Transformers flick – reportedly not the last – isn’t the worst of the bunch. But the franchise has yet to learn how to take on the shape of quality filmmaking.

The movie comes with a host of video extras, though you’ll have to shell out for the Blu-ray combo pack to get them – the DVD version comes with exactly nothing.

The centerpieces are an extensive interview with Bay on his approach to action movies, and “Evolution Within Extinction,” a comprehensive making-of documentary touching on all aspects of the production, with a heavy emphasis on the CG creation of the transformers.

There are also a handful of other featurettes, and an Angry Birds video game tie-in.

Movie: D
Extras: B-plus

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: "The Equalizer"

I know what you're thinking: Denzel Washington in a remake of the cheesy 1980s TV show, "The Equalizer," about an over-the-hill secret agent who helps out people in need?!? Our Denzel? Who's been a prime model of cinematic masculinity for ... well, a heck of a long time, actually. Still, why is he doing old-man roles?

I hate to break it to you, but Washington will be 60 in a few months. Sixty. Which makes him five years younger than Edward Woodward was when the show debuted in 1985.

In retrospect, the TV series was prescient about introducing a subgenre of filmmaking that's become quite prevalent today: the Geezer Spy Thriller. We've seen any number of aging big-name actors take to the field as late-in-life action stars, with Liam Neeson ("Taken") and Kevin Costner ("Three Days to Kill") among them.

The basic premise of these movies is the man, always a loner, always with a mysterious past, though there's pain and violence there, usually involving secret agent work for some shadowy governmental arm. He thinks he's given up that life of dark deeds, but circumstances and/or an inability to look away from evil prompt him to apply his deadly skills against a coterie of bad guys.

The tough young punks all dismiss him because he's old, aka less than a man, but he soon puts them in their places -- specifically, lying on the floor in a pool of their own blood.

Washington plays Robert McCall very close to the vest. He is defined by his stillness and passivity, at least until he springs into action. Bob works at Home Mart, a big-box hardware store a la Lowes or Home Depot, where he stocks shelves and pushes around dollies loaded with bags and such, and takes a good-natured ribbing from the younger employees. His apartment is tidy to the point of OCD, and is filled with classic literature books that he's making his way through.

Bob is very aware of the passage of time. He uses his watch to time most everything he does, from getting ready in the morning to taking out an entire room of armed bad guys bare-handed. Bob does most everything sans weapons; I can only recall him wielding a firearm one time in the entire movie. Mostly, he lures his prey in close, putting them at ease with his frumpy appearance and non-threatening demeanor, and then strikes like a cobra.

To say that he "fights" his opponents is to suggest that they ever have a chance of getting an upper hand on him. Most encounters are over in less than two seconds. Even his chief nemesis, an enforcer for the Russian mafia named Teddy, is clearly not his equal in hand-to-hand combat skills. He's played deliciously by Marton Csokas, ever so slithery and brutal. With his slicked-down hair and slimy manner, he practically seems to be secreting toxic oils through his epidermis.

Things come to a head when Bob defends a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) he's grown friendly with. A non-sleeper, he visits the same diner every night around 2 a.m., bringing his own tea packet carefully wrapped in a handkerchief; like him, she's one of the regulars. She dreams of getting out from under her abusive Russian pimp, Slavi (David Meunier), and becoming a singer, but she's beaten to a pulp for her transgressions. Bob offers to buy her freedom, but Slavi is disinclined, and the bloodletting ensues.

This brings in a succession of ever-higher-ranking Russians to deal with the situation, and a subsequent rising body count.

Director Antoine Fuqua previously partnered with Washington very successfully in 2001's "Training Day," which won him his second acting Oscar. The two seem to intuitively get each other, as Washington's performance is fully vested with emotional and dramatic power. In lesser hands, this would probably seem like exploitative dreck, but cast and crew elevate the material to unexpectedly hefty heights.

Bob never seems like a mere killing machine, but a complex man with a simple outward facade. He takes no joy in slaying -- unlike the sadomasochistic Teddy -- but is not shy about putting his skillset to good (bad) use.

Fuqua's action scenes have a tendency to go a little over the top ... and then they go a little more. He uses slow-motion effects in the middle of the mayhem to an almost interminable degree. There's only so much one can take of water drops beading slowly off the brow of our hero, or him striding purposefully away from an explosion, contemptuous of the shockwave and debris.

A little slo-mo goes a long way, bro.

Screenwriter Richard Wenk makes the wise choice of only using the television show as a mere springboard to tell their own story. Bob, with his slouchy colorless clothes and brusque manner, bears no resemblance at all to the clipped British lilt, natty suits and trench coats of TV.

Despite some occasional bouts of silliness owing to taking itself too seriously, "The Equalizer" is a surprisingly effective psychological thriller, featuring a gruff but relatable hero and some eminently hiss-able villains. Liam Neeson may currently be king of the Geezer Spy genre, but Denzel Washing may just be the man to knock him off the throne.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: "The Boxtrolls"

I thought last year a slow one for quality animated films, but if anything 2014 has been even duller. “Frozen” finally came along at year’s end to brighten things up, and this time September has delivered its own wondrous surprise: “The Boxtrolls.”

This stop-motion gem is one of the best of its ilk since “Coraline.” It’s a whiz-bang collection of fun action, Dickensian backdrop, cute critters and one really nasty, yet pleasing, villain.

Based on a novel by Alan Snow, the story centers on the titular trolls, who live underground and wear old cardboard boxes instead of clothes. Though they tend to pilfer things left unattended, they’re more tinkerers who love to build junk than malicious marauders. They go by the names of whatever’s on their box: Fish, Shoe, etc.

I just love the trolls’ look, with pasty skin, pointy ears, tufts of random hair and big liquid eyes surrounded by dark patches like a domino mask, which makes them look like vintage cartoon burglars. They don’t really speak, using a collection of croaks, clicks and squeaks to communicate.

The boxtrolls have gotten a bad rap from the humans after they allegedly pilfered a baby years ago. Archibald Snatcher, a lowlife climber who yearns to wear one of the “White Hats” signifying town leaders, appoints himself chief boxtroll catcher, and sets about exterminating the population.

Snatcher is voiced heroically by Ben Kingsley, in one of the best vocal performances in recent memory. Snatcher chews and growls his words as if they are poison to his mouth – not unlike the fine cheeses favored by the White Hats, which he craves to share despite the fact they make him swell up like a landed jellyfish. And he’s got a buxom alter ego.

He has a trio of henchmen who range in malevolence from reluctant to gleeful – Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan do the voices. The nicer pair proclaim themselves the good guys, but worry they’re really evil stooges.

Isaac Hepstead-Wright provides the voice of Eggs, a human boy who was the baby kidnapped by the boxtrolls, though there’s more to it than that. He’s grown up with them and is convinced he is a boxtroll, despite evidence to the contrary. (He insists his ability to use English is a “speech impediment.”)

Eggs finds himself stranded on the city streets topside, where he encounters Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), daughter of the local lord (Jared Harris). Willful and obstinate, Winnie is infuriated by her parents’ continual ignoring of what she has to say, particularly with regard to the truth about the boxtrolls.

Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi are animation veterans without a lot of experience in the top seat, but prove to be top-notch visualists and storytellers. Irena Brignull and Adam Pava wrote the screenplay.

My guess is the stop-motion work has been augmented with some computer-generated effects, since there some things – like smoke dissipating from Snatcher’s various steamworks contraptions – that couldn’t be achieved otherwise.

I’m no purist myself – whatever works onscreen, works. This is a movie of dense layers, from the grimy cobblestone streets and buildings to extreme close-ups of the characters, which are incredibly detailed and facially expressive. (And those wonky teeth – so British!)

“The Boxtrolls” is the sort of delightfully inventive family picture that parents might be tempted to indulge in a second viewing – on their own, with the kiddies tucked in at home.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Informer" (1935)

"Stagecoach." "The Searchers." "The Grapes of Wrath." "How Green Was My Valley." "Drums Along the Mohawk." "Young Mr. Lincoln." "My Darling Clementine." "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." "The Alamo." "How the West Was Won." "Mister Roberts." "The Quiet Man." "How the West Was Won." "Rio Grande."

John Ford arguably directed more iconic movies than any other Hollywood filmmaker. Unlike Hitchcock or Welles, who never earned the plaudits during their lifetimes commensurate with their body of work, Ford was well recognized by his peers: his four Academy Award wins for Best Director are a record that will likely never be surpassed.

(He won two more Oscars for his wartime documentaries.)

Interestingly, none of his Oscar wins were for Westerns, the genre with which he is most associated. His first, 1935's "The Informer," is probably the least known of the bunch. Based on the novel by Liam O'Flaherty, it was previously adapted into a 1929 British film before Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols had their own crack at it.

The result was a resounding success, winning four of its six Oscar nominations, losing the Best Picture race to the Clark Gable/Charles Laughton version of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Star Victor McLaglen won for Best Actor, and Max Steiner took the musical score prize. Nichols won the screenwriting Oscar, but became the first person to refuse to accept an Academy Award, citing the ongoing screenwriters guild strike.

The members of the Academy apparently didn't hold it against him -- Nichols would go on to be nominated three more times.

McLaglen is hardly your standard matinee idol. A huge man with a barrel chest, craggy face and balding pate, he mostly resembled an albino ape with an Irish brogue. (He often affected that accent for his roles to the point American audiences assumed he was an Irishman; actually he was a Brit born in Kent who was raised in South Africa.)

McLaglen gives an exuberant performance as Gypo Nolan, a dimwitted bruiser and petty thief who was court-martialed out of the Irish Republican Army for endangering the rebels with his inability to keep a secret or maintain a low profile. For some reason, the IRA guys here are all represented as young, good-looking fellows wearing long trench coats and narrow-brimmed fedora hats, almost like proto-Bogarts.

Gypo is not just dumb; he seems to have absolutely no control over his thoughts and urges. He essentially exists as pure id, his mouth and his fists immediately carrying out whatever thoughts spark inside his primordial swamp of a brain. He swaggers this way and that from moment to moment, becoming increasingly inebriated (a McLaglen specialty) as the story goes on.

The setup is that Gypo, penniless and friendless in 1922 Dublin, rats out an old friend on the lam (Wallace Ford) in exchange for a 20-pound reward from the police. Unfortunately, his friend is caught at his mother's house and refuses to be taken prisoner, and is gunned down by the police.

Gypo had hoped to use the money to buy steamship tickets to America for himself and his sweetie, Katie (Margot Grahame), who has recently been forced to selling herself on the street. His 20-pound fortune now becomes blood money, a deadly albatross hanging around his neck and spilling out of his pockets as he goes on one long bender of drinking and carousing.

Gypo at one point declares it "the greatest night of my life," and he means it, despite his genuine sorrow for his good friend's death as a result of his actions. Always forced to be the mindless muscle, the guy who stays in the back and takes orders, Gypo revels at becoming the "cock of the walk," buying everyone rounds and bursting into an exclusive party of hoity-toity types.

He takes to going around holding his meaty fists in the air like a triumphant prizefighter, shouting his own name with a crescendoing emphasis on the latter syllable: "Gih-POHH!!" It's his cry out to the world, a man celebrating a brief interlude as the center of attention, a bonfire that's bound to burn out.

Of course, his time on this mortal coil is ticking downward. The IRA quickly figures out that it was him who fingered their compatriot. And with every pound Gypo drops at various pubs, fish 'n' chips counters and saloons, it's not hard to put together who claimed the filthy lucre.

Preston Foster plays Dan Gallagher, the local IRA commandant, who knows he has to enforce the code against snitchers but it reluctant to condemn another man, especially one so pure of heart as Gypo. By "pure of heart" I don't imply that Gypo is angelic -- far from it. What I mean is that the towering lummox hasn't an ounce of deceit or falseness in him. Whatever he's doing or feeling at any given moment, he gives himself over to that completely.

At first pathetic and imbecilic -- watching him fritter away his money on whiskey and hangers-on, his dreams of finding a new life in America almost immediately dashed -- Gypo eventually becomes a tragic, sympathetic figure. At the end when he's finally caught he pleads, "I didn't know what I was doing!" And it really is true.

After he escapes (briefly) from the IRA and runs to Katie, he demands to know where the 20 pounds he gave her is -- forgetting, in his drunkenness and stupidity, that there were only a few crumpled notes left when he finally handed them over.

Heather Angel plays Mary McPhillip, the sister of Gypo's betrayed friend. She has a romance with Gallagher that feels ill-placed within the story of Gypo's descent and ultimate absolution. Una O'Connor plays her mother -- her name may not be recognizable, but her face is, a character actress often called upon to play ridiculous older women, such as the pinch-faced maid in "Witness for the Prosecution."

"The Informer" isn't a great movie, but it shows off John Ford's burgeoning talent for using landscapes to his benefit, weather sprawling vistas in Monument Valley or the mist, dank streets of London. And McLaglen is a revelation as the flawed, pitiable Gypo.

Known to be extremely hard on actors -- Ford was dubbed "the only man who could make John Wayne cry" -- he also knew how to get great performances out of them.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Video review: "The Rover"

Australian writer/director David Michôd’s first feature film, “Animal Kingdom,” garnered a lot of attention four years ago, not to mention an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver. His follow-up, “The Rover,” is a bold and innovative sophomore effort, though only intermittently engaging.

It’s set 10 years after a global economic collapse. Different nationalities have moved to Australia for undisclosed reasons. The outback has never looked so dry and spare, seemingly just a collection of roads interrupted by strips of shantytowns. There’s some electricity, and a little commerce, but mostly it’s just a bunch of tired people playing out the string.

Enter our (never-named) antihero, played by Guy Pearce. His sullen stare and studied silence lend a clue that he’s not to be messed with. When a band of criminals crash their truck during a getaway, they steal his car. He manages to get the truck going again, and takes off after them. In fact, he seems quite willing to die to get his car back. Why? The vehicles seem like a fair trade.

Along the way he encounters Rey (Robert Pattinson), the dimwitted kid brother of one of the robbers, who was left behind, shot up and dying. Our man takes him to a doctor to get stitched up, then holds him hostage to help find the brother, and his car.

Over time, the two men develop an unlikely bond. Pattinson is a marvel, displaying an innate sweetness and more than passable Southern accent. They each have something to teach the other: Rey needs to toughen up, and his crusty friend needs to be reminded where the last nugget of his humanity resides.

 "You should never stop thinking about a life you've taken,” he says. “It's the price you pay for taking it."

“The Rover” is essentially a mystery, in which we try to puzzle out who this strange man is, what is the source of his anger and pain, and whether he’s really as bad as he seems to be. The plotting is a bit tedious at times, and even at 102 minutes the film could probably have used an editing trim. It’s a worthy effort, if not an entirely successful one.

Video extras, which are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions, are limited to a single featurette, “Something Elemental: Making The Rover.”



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: "This Is Where I Leave You"

I'm not sure if "This Is Where I Leave You" is the most original film ever made, but what it lacks in freshness it makes up for with delectable actors and snappy scenes. The Altmans are borderline crazy, self-obsessed and narcissistic, but somehow 103 minutes with them feels like time well spent.

Directed by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum") from a screenplay by Jonathan Tropper, based on his own novel, the movie brings together the four adult children of the Altman clan after their father passes away. Mom Hillary (Jane Fonda) is a real piece of work, a showboating therapist who wrote a best-selling book, "Cradle and All," in which she spilled the intimate details of her kids' tumultuous upraising.

They have not, unsurprisingly, turned into well-adjusted adults. And they're none too pleased about their mom's insistence that they sit Shiva together for seven days, per their father's dying request. (This, despite being only partially and nominally Jewish.)

Judd (Jason Bateman) is the fulcrum, the character upon which all the others pivot. A successful radio producer and one of those guys who seems to have the perfect little life planned out, he's thrown for a loop when he catches his wife sleeping with his boss.

Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is brittle and angry, mother to two young kids and married to an on-the-go businessman who can't put down the phone and work for even a few minutes, not to mention witness the miracle if his child's potty training.

Paul (Corey Stoll) is the oldest and most responsible, the one kid who stuck around in his hometown to take over the business from his father. He and his wife (Kathryn Hahn) have been trying without success to get pregnant, and the pressure and constant questions about their progress is like splitting a rail.

The baby of the clan is Phillip (Adam Driver), born years after the others and partially raised by them. A natural-born screw-up with an impish talent for needling others, Phillip is dating a much older woman (Connie Britton) who acts as his enabler and sugar momma.

The filmmakers essentially throw this grab-bag of resentment, sibling rivalry and neuroticism into a pot and set it to a slow boil. There are arguments, jokes, bonding, more fighting, and so on.

It doesn't sound like much, but the cast really drives the material to terrific heights. They click in a way that you rarely see large ensemble casts do; usually each actor is trying to accomplish their own goals for their character and sacrifice the group dynamic. This is the sort of movie that you can't imagine any other performers in those roles.

A few minor characters flit in and out of the foreground. Across the street is Hillary's dependable friend Linda (Debra Monk) and her son Horry (Timothy Olyphant), a former beau of Wendy's who suffered a terrible brain injury years ago. He sort of wanders around, helpful but forgetful, like a more verbally proficient Boo Radley.

Wade's estranged wife (Abigail Spencer) turns up, pleading for a second chance and with more drama to share. Penny Moore is a townie (Rose Byrne) who's stoked a long-burning fire for Wade, and he's at a low point where those glowing embers are looking pretty good. I also enjoyed Ben Schwartz as a young rabbi who can't outrun his horndog teen reputation and nickname.

Despite not a lot of screen time to spread around to every character's story, the film does a good job of making each of them distinct and relatable.

"This Is Where I Leave You" plays out fairly predictably, but I didn't mind the lack of surprises because the journey getting there is so caustically funny and unexpectedly heartwarming. When the Altmans aren't verbally punching each other -- sometimes physically, too -- you want to give them all a good squeeze.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: "My Old Lady"

Kevin Kline is in fine, fine form in “My Old Lady,” a movie that is not about his character’s wife. In it he plays a middle-aged man with a squandered life who finds that the incredibly valuable Parisian apartment he has inherited comes with a catch: the 92-year-old woman who already lives there, and isn’t about to leave.

She’s played by Maggie Smith, no slouch herself.

It seems Mathias Gold’s estranged father purchased the lovely chateau-sized place from Mathilde Girard more than 40 years ago under a “viager” arrangement. This especially French concoction involves selling a home at a low price, often to an elderly person, with the agreement that the seller will continue to live there, indefinitely. The buyer only gets the place when the seller dies.

Mathias, a failed writer, has little to show for himself other than two divorces and the clothes on this back. He used his last penny to fly to Paris to arrange the sale of his the apartment, which his hated father left him (unaccompanied by any funds, which went to charity).

Looking at a payday of millions of euros, he’s none too pleased to find Mathilde living there. A retired British teacher with an elegant if snippy personality, Mathilde has the legal right to stay – and even charge Mathias rent while he’s there!

(I feel compelled to point out that though the characters are supposed to be decades apart in age, Kline and Smith are actually only divided by 12 years -- yet another example of sexist showbiz ageism. Though both thespians have been blessed with stubbornly unchanged looks. And Smith had already been in the old biddy business for quite some time: she played a centenarian in “Hook” 23 years ago!)

Thus begins a sly contest of wills, as these two cagey warriors battle to outlast each other. To pass the time Mathias sells off some furniture for pocket money, gets advice from a real estate agent (Dominique Pinon), lines up a potential buyer and begins to take an interest in Mathilde’s daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who also lives at the apartment and is more openly antagonistic than her mother.

Kline has always been one of the unlikeliest movie stars, a cards-down actor who always gives the sense of an internal complexity at work, only a peek of which he’s showing us at any given time. That’s especially true with the wily Mathias, who is presented as a loathsome opportunist, and yet is winningly charismatic and droll.

Writer/director Israel Horowitz, who adapted his own stage play, manages to craft a movie about a trio of characters, all of whom are deeply flawed in some way, and yet make the audience care deeply about them. Just when we might feel ready to judge them for some past action, new information comes along that makes those dark deeds, if not justifiable, then at least relatable.

Filled to the brim with smart, snappy dialogue and engaging characters, “My Old Lady” is one of those movies that keeps revealing new layers to itself. I certainly hope Kline’s turn, one of the best of his career, is remembered come Oscar nomination time.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989)

"Crimes and Misdemeanors" is perhaps Woody Allen's most ambitious film, and not his most successful. Though it was a substantial critical and popular hit, I found it rather dreary and ineffectual. It's a self-conscious exploration of morality, of whether belief in God or in humanist choices are incompatible, and whether dark crimes -- big and small -- can weigh down our souls like anchors in the ocean.

It's the sort of movie, in fact, where the two main characters, whose stories have paralleled without ever intersecting, bump into each other in the last scene and blatantly discuss the theme of the picture. It's the classic example of telling rather than showing, and I'm of the school that when you tip your hand too much into the light, the audience is quick to check out emotionally and intellectually.

In many ways "Crimes" reminded me of "A Serious Man," another movie by great filmmakers that I disregarded despite the widespread affection with which it was met. Both also focus on Jewish figures whose faith is called into question, though Allen's picture is more about the general question of faith in a higher power, while "Man" is essentially a rumination on Jewish theological imperatives.

Martin Landau received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy Awards, which is ridiculous for what is so clearly a leading role. He plays Judah Rosenthal, a very successful ophthalmologist who has reached the "great man" point of his career, where he collects awards and salutations in his final years before retirement. He has a loving wife (Claire Bloom) and daughter, a fabulous Long Island mansion, status and respect, and is by all measures a good person who does charitable work.

But he has a secret. For the past two years he's been carrying on an affair with a younger woman, a flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston). He recently broke it off and she's become unstable, threatening to confront his wife and making all sorts of demands upon him. Dolores appears ready to blow up his life if she can't have him, destroying his marriage and even having him arrested as an embezzler, since he confided in her about some financial improprieties involving the foundation he heads up.

On the flip side is Cliff Stern (Allen), a wannabe documentary filmmaker whose entire existence seems to be built around hollow aspirations for the sort of success Judah takes for granted. His marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason) is an empty husk, drained of all passion and joy -- they're just marking time until the inevitable. He spends most of his days watching old movies or trolling book stores, often in the company of the niece he dotes upon.

Cliff is given a huge opportunity to direct a PBS profile of Wendy's brother Lester, a famous television comedy producer and writer. Cliff can't stand his preening, self-adoring brother-in-law, played with full-bore snark and smirk by Alan Alda. (Lester has the habit of interrupting conversations so he can whip out a tape recorder to document his awful, but commercially viable, ideas for shows.)

But Cliff falls hard for Halley (Mia Farrow), a producer on the show. Lester also has an eye for the careful, cautious woman, who's just come out of a nasty divorce. So at first it's unclear if Cliff is wooing her just to spite Lester. But they find a genuine attraction between them while collaborating on Cliff's true labor of love, a documentary about little-known but brilliant philosopher.

The two characters share a lot of the same New York City bandwidth without ever actually tripping over each other, at least until the movie's end. Judah treats Lester's brother Ben (Sam Waterson), a rabbi who is going blind but seems to retains his full vision about the human condition and its perils. The two men are eventually brought together by a wedding that Lester is paying for, as Cliff and Wendy make their final appearance together before announcing their divorce.

It's pretty clear that Allen was using Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" as the basis for a modern riff on the themes of guilt and morality. Judah uses his scuzzy brother (Jerry Orbach) to have Dolores murdered, and then he spends of the rest of the picture anguishing over his terrible actions. He even visits her apartment after the deed is done, ostensibly to collect incriminating photos and journal entries but mostly, we suspect, to gaze upon her dead body and punish himself.

A doubter who grew up in a deeply religious family, Judah begins to feel the weight God's gaze upon him, and wonders if he'll ever be able to see the light again. When a police detective drops by to ask routine questions, he almost confesses his sins upon the spot.

Cliff, on the other hand, is guilty of much less serious acts of immorality -- desired, if not commissioned, infidelity -- and does not feel any remorse over how much he disdains his wife. It's a fairly typical Woody Allen character, full of neurotic bombast and nebbishy charm, and we feel greatly for the little fella when his worst fears are realized and Halley returns from a long assignment in Europe affianced to Lester.

Though it's more or less a straight drama, Allen can't resist throwing in bits of his trademark humor, such as Cliff's edit of the profile about Lester including cutaway shots to Mussolini. Or lamenting about his nonexistent sex life: "The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty."

I adored Martin Landau's performance in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but on the whole I found the juxtaposition with Allen's own character incongruous and unsatisfying. Allen tries to split the difference between two interesting characters, and loses his way.

Supposedly the filmmaker threw out most of the first act while editing the movie, and called back his cast for reshoots. I think the best movie he could've made would have been to write himself out of the picture.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Video review: "Godzilla"

It’s only been four months since the (latest) remake of “Godzilla” hit theaters, but already the movie has recessed into the dim fog of memory one keeps for so-so flicks.

This was one-half of a terrific summer action movie. Once big G finally arises from the ocean and starts laying the smackdown on his equally huge bat-like foes, “Godzilla” is as fun and entertaining a film as we saw all season. But you have to wade through the dreary first 60 minutes to get to the good 60.

Bryan Cranston plays a scientist whose life was turned upside by a deadly seismic event 15 years ago. Now he’s a loony loner spouting conspiracy theories, and is estranged from his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a resolute soldier. But when monsters start wreaking havoc on cities in Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco, they put aside their differences to answer the call.

The middle section is truly stultifying, as talking-head generals and politicians debate the scientific and geopolitical repercussions of skyscraper-sized beasties doing a WWE imitation on their population centers.

Eventually “Godzilla” finds a sense of fun, but you may not find the wait worth it.

I would never advise people to buy a ticket to a movie but not walk in until the halfway point. But on video… well, let’s just say that if, during the early going, your finger gets a little jittery hovering over the Chapter Skip button of your remote control, I won’t judge.

The video comes equipped with a nice host of extras, divided into two sections. “The Legendary Godzilla” looks at all aspects of the production, from special effects to casting the actors, and creating the look of the M.U.T.O.s, Godzilla’s ancient enemies.

“MONARCH: Declassified” is supposedly a host of “evidence” showing how the governments of the world hid knowledge of Godzilla’s existence for decades. Fun, quirky stuff.

Features are the same for the DVD and Blu-ray combo pack versions.



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: "The Drop"

"The Drop" is an intriguing, atypical movie. It starts out with a lot of disparate characters and story elements, some of them related, much of it not. Over time they gradually float towards each other, each piece locking into place in a way that might not have seemed obvious at first.

The experience of watching it is like stumbling upon a disassembled pocket watch, and then witnessing the little gears and springs drag themselves, with almost gravitational pull, into a cohesive whole again. The actual process of putting itself back together can be a bit tedious at times, but at some point everything clicks together.

This is another film based on the writings of Dennis Lehane, who also penned the screenplay. Movies based on his work have been up ("Gone Baby Gone"), down ("Shutter Island") and vastly overhyped ("Mystic River"). Here is a film that seems to contain the Lehane mythos boiled down to its inky essence. The story happens almost entirely inside one seedy bar, and the few frozen city blocks around it.

Tom Hardy plays Bob Saganowsky, who sloshes drinks at Cousin Marv's Bar. Bob speaks in a clinched little croak, almost whiny; he isn't terribly bright and is passive almost to the point of transparency. There are rough types who come into the bar, and some try to get a rise out of Bob, but they leave unsatisfied, because it's like kicking a sweet puppy who only comes back for more.
He is, in short, a mook.

Cousin Marv is mostly a figurehead these days, an aging hulk who barely moves from his corner table. His name's on the bar, and he used to run a little action on the side -- he was, he says, somebody who made people sit up when he walked in. But he got pushed by some tougher Chechen mobsters, and flinched, and now it's their bar and he just runs it.

James Gandolfini could play controlled rage better than just about anybody, so Marv is a fitting final screen role for him.

The title comes from the process of picking one bar at random to be the place where all the gambling and other dirty money winds up for the night -- "the safe for the entire city." It soon becomes clear that somebody's looking to hit Marv's the night it's the drop, and Bob gets caught up in the tide of events.

One night Bob is walking home from work and comes across a bloodied puppy dumped in a trash can. The woman who lives there, a waitress named Nadia (Noomi Rapace), helps him patch the dog up, but insists Bob adopt him as his own. He blanches at first, but finally takes on the little pitbull, whom he dubs Rocco. This is, for him, a major addition to his tiny universe, which essentially consists of just the bar and keeping up his dead parents' tidy brownstone.

Accepting the responsibility of the dog changes something in Bob ... or does it? Hardy's performance is one poker face behind another, so we're never quite sure what's going on the other side of that lunkhead mien. Dribs and drabs of information leak out to suggest there's more there. He and Nadia start seeing more of each other, hesitatingly -- it's like two wounded animals sniffing the other's wounds.

Other characters' orbits intersect with that of the bar. There's a perpetually smiling police detective (John Ortiz) who sees Bob at the same church every morning, and wonders why he never takes communion. He starts investigating a stick-up at the bar, and then noses into old crimes that have become part of the neighborhood lore.

There's Eric Deeds (an imposing Matthias Schoenaerts), a hustler with a past connected to Nadia. He casts a baleful eye at Bob for seemingly mysterious reasons, stopping by the bar or his house, claiming Rocco is actually his dog, and dropping idle threats. (Somehow, he makes an umbrella seem weapon-like.)

And then we have the Chechen boss, Chovka, chillingly played by Michael Aronov. He expects Marv and Bob to recover the money stolen during the robbery. You can see the wheels turn in Bob's head, slowly, and in Marv's head, slightly less slowly -- if they could find the money, wouldn't that imply they were in on the job?

Director Michaël R. Roskam takes his time -- too much, really -- building up the suspense, but the plot of "The Drop" eventually gets there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fall film preview 2014

Spaceships! Sequels! Hobbits! Kiddie cartoons!

If that movie lineup sounds familiar, that’s because it looks a lot like the one from fall of last year -- or even this past summer. It seems Hollywood really believes in the mantra, “They liked it the first time, they’ll like it the seventh.”

At least the latter part of 2014 is light on super-hero flicks. Not that they’re unworthy; we just had quite a raft of them over the past few months, and it’ll be nice to trade them in for some more serious fare angling for Oscars -- spandex for starched collars, so to speak.

So here is our preview of fall films (release dates subject to change). Ones I think look particularly promising get a gold star ().

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Sept. 19) -- A kidnapping thriller starring Liam Neeson? Sounds like a retread, but the twist here is Neeson plays a disgraced cop hired by a mob boss to find out who killed his wife. Think hard noir.

This is Where I Leave You (Sept. 19) -- A quartet of adult siblings -- Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll -- must deal with the death of their father and their (alive) and overbearing mother (Jane Fonda).

The Boxtrolls (Sept. 26) -- Stop-motion animation gets a jump-start in this delightful-looking tale of ugly trash-collecting critters who like to dress themselves in old boxes. Voices of Ben Kingsley and Elle Fanning.

Jimi: All Is by My Side (Sept. 26) -- The long-gestating biopic of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix finally arrives starring Outkast’s André Benjamin in the title role. He has limited acting experience and Hendrix’s estate balked at granting the rights to any of his iconic songs, so…

The Equalizer (Sept. 26) -- The “Geezer Spy” genre gets another try with Denzel Washington tackling a reprise of the cheesy 1980s TV series. He plays a home improvement store drone who helps crime victims by night. The Lowes Ranger?

Annabelle (Oct. 3) -- A prequel of the hit horror flick “The Conjuring,” starring that creepy doll in her origin story.

Gone Girl (Oct. 10) -- One of the most hotly anticipated movies of early fall, this drama from David Fincher (“The Social Network”), based on the fanatically popular book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), stars Ben Affleck as a seemingly perfect husband who may or may not have something to do with his disappeared wife (Rosamund Pike).

The Judge (Oct. 10) -- Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall play battling father and son lawyers whose relationship changes when the dad is accused of a serious crime. With Vera Farmiga.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Oct. 10) -- The beloved children’s book by Judith Viorst gets the big screen treatment starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner as parents of a precocious 11-year-old boy having a moment.

Birdman (Oct. 17) -- OK, there is one super-hero movie this fall, but it’s an offbeat black dramedy from “Babel” director Alejandro González Iñárritu starring Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor who mounts an unlikely Broadway production about a masked man he used to play. With Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis.

The Best of Me (Oct. 17) -- The newest mushy romance/drama based on a Nicholas Sparks book stars Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden as a couple rekindling their teenage love.

Laggies (Oct. 24) -- Keira Knightley plays a 30-ish woman whose life is stuck in neutral. She decides to get away for a while by bunking with teen Chloe Grace Moretz and falls for her dad (Sam Rockwell).

St. Vincent (Oct. 24) -- Bill Murray could be looking at another Oscar nomination for one of his signature funny/sad characters, a misanthropic loner who reluctantly babysits/mentors the troubled young boy next door. Co-starring Melissa McCarthy.

Horns (Oct. 31) -- Daniel Radcliffe wakes up after a personal tragedy to find that he’s sprouting demon’s horns from his head. With Juno Temple.

Whiplash (October) -- This indie darling took top honors at Sundance Film Festival and stars Miles Teller as an aspiring jazz drummer taken under the harsh wing of a fearsome conductor (J.K. Simmons).

Interstellar (Nov. 7) -- The latest from bold filmmaker Christopher Nolan (“Inception”) stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as astronauts from a dying Earth who make a desperate space journey through a wormhole. Minds, prepare to be tripped.

The Theory of Everything (Nov. 7) -- This biopic of Stephen Hawking stars Eddie Redmayne as the famed astrophysicist, focusing on his early life and romance before being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). With Felicity Jones.

Big Hero 6 (Nov. 7) -- A teen robotics expert builds his own bodyguard in this Disney animation flick based on a lesser-known comic book.

The Homesman (Nov. 7) -- Tommy Lee Jones directed, co-wrote and stars in this Western about a claim jumper who helps a tough pioneer (Hilary Swank) escort three mentally troubled women through dangerous territory.

Rosewater (Nov. 7) -- Don’t expect this to be a hit in Iran, as it details the detention and torture of a Western journalist (Gael García Bernal) by the Islamist regime. An unlikely directorial debut from TV jokester Jon Stewart.

Dumb and Dumber To (Nov. 14) -- Geriatric dimwits? A reprise of the comically dumb duo of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels seems like a desperate effort to cash in on faded glory. But the trailer’s actually funny, and the Farrelly brothers are due for a hit.

Fury (Nov. 14) -- Brad Pitt plays a World War II tank commander who takes his crew on a dire mission behind enemy lines. Directed by David Ayer, who made the terrific but hardly seen “End of Watch.”

Foxcatcher (Nov. 14) -- Steve Carell plays waaaaay against type as a wealthy Olympic wrestling philanthropist who murdered one of the team athletes. Co-starring Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Directed by Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”).

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1 (Nov. 21) -- In a familiar move, the final book of a popular film adaptation gets split into two movies. In this half, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) embraces her role as a key figure in the rebellion against the oppressive Panem regime.

The Imitation Game (Nov. 21) -- The story of mathematician Alan Turing, who helped crack the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

Horrible Bosses 2 (Nov. 26) -- Insert your own joke here; it’ll probably be funnier than anything in the movie.

Penguins of Madagascar (Nov. 26) -- The “Madagascar” franchise of animated flicks are winding down, so here’s the spinoff starring those adorable penguins who speak and act like G-men.

Wild (Dec. 5) -- After a troubled few years professionally and personally, Reese Witherspoon tries to be taken seriously again in this true story of a feckless woman who makes a 1,100-mile journey on foot after tragedy and finds herself transformed. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”).

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Dec. 12) -- This year already saw controversy over a revisionist take on the story of Noah; are we ready for an action-hero iteration of Moses? Christian Bale plays the Biblical Jewish prophet, now reconfigured by director Ridley Scott as a badass warrior. With Australian Joel Edgerton, incongruently, as Egyptian pharaoh Rhamses.

Inherent Vice (Dec. 12) -- Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix, who made the kooky and occasionally brilliant “The Master,” team up again in this loopy ‘70s tale of a drugged-up private investigator poking into the disappearance of a former girlfriend. With Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Dec. 17) -- Even I, an ardent lover of all things Tolkien, have grown weary of how far astray director Peter Jackson & Co. have wandered from the gentle children’s book by J.R.R. As humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) reaches the conclusion of his epic journey to free a mountain of gold from a dragon, can they stick the landing?

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Dec. 19) -- Hapless museum guard Ben Stiller travels across the Pond for more adventures at London’s British Museum with friends old -- Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) -- and new -- Sir Lancelot and a pharaoh (Ben Kingsley).

Annie (Dec. 19) -- An African-American Orphan Annie? And Daddy Warbucks? Traditionalists might blanch, but Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis and winner Jamie Foxx seem like a perfect fit for this update.

Mr. Turner (Dec. 19) -- Perpetual sidekick Timothy Spall gets a shot at a leading role in this drama from celebrated British auteur Mike Leigh, about the life of painter J.M.W. Turner, an influential early Impressionist.

Into the Woods (Dec. 25) -- The Broadway musical gets an adaptation at the hands of Rob Marshall, who knows a thing or two about that (“Chicago”). It’s an ambitious interweaving of various famous fairy tales, from Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella. Starring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp.

The Interview (Dec. 25) -- Funnymen Seth Rogen and James Franco already got in trouble with real-life Korean dictator Kim Jong-un because of this fictional story about tabloid TV stars who land an interview with him, then get recruited by the CIA to assassinate him.

Big Eyes (Dec. 25) -- Offbeat director Tim Burton is back with a bio of artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who tried to claim credit for the ubiquitous midcentury portraits of large-eyed waifs actually created by his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams).

Selma (Dec. 25) -- Is America finally ready for a cinematic portrait of Martin Luther King? David Oyelowo tackles the civil rights icon as one of the leaders of the seminal 1965 drive for voting rights in Alabama.

Paddington (Dec. 25) -- Nicole Kidman plays a taxidermist who wants to stuff a talking, red-hatted bear -- and not with his favorite treat, marmalade -- in this adaptation of the popular children’s books.

Unbroken (Dec. 25) -- Angelina Jolie takes another turn behind the camera in directing this amazing true story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic runner who suffered a terrible ordeal as a Japanese prisoner of war during WWII.

Maps to the Stars (date TBA) -- Horror auteur David Cronenberg tackles the hypocritical Hollywood scene in this ensemble film about a nobody girl (Mia Wasikowska) who infiltrates the life of a faded movie star (Julianne Moore) and a young driver (Robert Pattinson). With John Cusack.

Men, Women & Children (date TBA) -- Hollywood wunderkind Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) takes a look at love and lust in the Internet age, starring Adam Sandler as a porn addict and Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”) as a World of Warcraft nerd.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Theirs Is the Glory" (1946)

I've long been a vocal advocate for "A Bridge Too Far," one of the last of the big-budget World War II spectacles and, in my mind, one of the most underrated. It didn't make much of an impact in the States, but was a big hit overseas.

Screenwriter William Goldman noted in his classic tome about the Hollywood biz, "Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade," that the British are very fond of memorializing their disastrous military adventures, while Americans tend to shy away from them.

So it was a surprise to me to discover "Theirs Is the Glory," a 1946 film shot a year after the actual Battle of Arnhem. While "Bridge" depicted the entirety of Operation Market Garden, a bold and (many feel) rash attempt to punch through into Germany and end the war by Christmas 1944, "Glory" focuses on the battle for the last of the series of bridges the Allies were trying to capture. (The bridge that was one too far.)

What's amazing about the film is that it contains no actors or studio mock-ups of the battle site. The actual men who participated in or witnessed the fighting returned to the town of Arnhem one year after the actual events and recreated them for the cameras. "Glory" also contains extensive footage of the actual battle itself shot by newsmen and military photographers.

As a military strategy, the quest for the Arnhem bridge over the Rhine was too clever by half. Paratroopers from the First British Airborne Division, who by necessity are only lightly equipped, were dropped well behind enemy lines near the town and charged with capturing the bridge. This they did, with great derring-do.

Unfortunately, they were only supposed to have to hold it for two days. The column of Allied tanks got bogged down in the mission of linking up the captured bridges, giving time for the German forces to respond and, as one general memorably orders in "A Bridge Too Far," "flatten Arnhem."

Out of some 10,000 paratroopers dropped for the Arnhem operation, only about 2,000 successfully escaped when their forces withdrew after nine days. The rest were killed or captured -- most of the latter being too severely wounded to retreat.

The concept for the film is novel, but it's a better idea than a movie. It ends up playing out like a bunch of disconnected footage of soldiers running hither and fro, in between obvious showbiz pyrotechnics simulating artillery, and falling down from non-existent bullet wounds.

The soldiers are obviously not actors, and don't do very good jobs of portraying themselves. They tend to speak in stilted sentences in that very blasé British way, in which men in terrible peril seem not at all concerned about it. It gets so silly, it reminded me of that scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" in which an English soldier is mildly perturbed by a tiger biting off his leg.

Director Brian Desmond Hurst, a more than competent journeyman, tries his best to lend some narrative momentum to the proceedings, spotlighting a few soldiers and focusing on them. But in the end "Glory" feels like what it is, a pastiche starring non-professionals.

So it becomes more interesting to me to see how this little-known film (at least in the U.S.) affected "A Bridge Too Far." I was struck by the similarities of several sequences, and wondered if Goldman was inspired by them (or if he even saw the film). "Bridge" was based on a book by Cornelius Ryan that was published three decades after the events; perhaps Ryan was influenced by "Glory."

The Liv Ullman character, a local Dutch woman who aids the Allied soldier, seemed to have her look and demeanor modeled after a person in "Glory." She even wears a similar woman's suit and also has a religious bent.

One of the most harrowing sequences in "Bridge" is a night crossing of a river using flimsy little boats, with the soldiers getting cut to pieces by German crossfire. There is a very comparable scene toward the end of "Glory," though here it is the withdrawal from Arnhem rather than part of an earlier advance.

"Bridge" has a nerve-wracking bit where the Brits have been forced back from their supply drop sites, and the Allied planes continue to rain down ammunition and other supplies that they desperately need but can't get to. In both movies, a single soldier scrambles out to try to retrieve one of the massive tubes, but dies for his gallantry.

Johnny Frost is a memorable character in "Bridge" played by Anthony Hopkins, a gallant young officer who leads the forces holding the north side of the Arnhem bridge long past anyone's expectations. There are remarkably similar scenes in each film where Frost and his soldiers, now wounded and without hope, lie together in a bombed-out building essentially awaiting their fate. Frost bravely gives the command for those who are fit to escape back over the river.

In "Bridge," though, this is the opportunity for one of the best bits of dialogue in the movie, where a young soldier tells a story about why he always has an umbrella, even in combat, because he doesn't want to be mistaken for a German and knows "no Jerry would carry one."

It may be Hollywood bullshit, but it's smashingly good B.S.

Even though it's not a very good film, mostly what "Theirs Is the Glory" does for me is reinforce how good "A Bridge Too Far" is, in imposing a cohesive story on a massive series of events and large array of people. Goldman's screenplay is really superb, giving us a dozen or so distinctive characters and letting the action play out through their eyes.

The movies have often -- rightly -- been accused of changing around historical records for their own purposes. But sometimes you have to "showbiz up" the tale to get at the nut of the truth. "Glory" tries for verisimilitude and is dull; "Bridge" spritzes things up and soars.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Video review: "Words and Pictures"

Maybe it’s because of Robin Williams’ recent passing, but “Words and Pictures” reminds me a lot of “Dead Poets Society.” Though instead of featuring one brilliant, kooky and passionate teacher, we get two – and they fall in love.

The setup is that the pair, who both work at an elite prep school, are antagonists whose clash of philosophies and personalities drives their students to creative heights. Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is a famous painter now suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. She claims not to care about forming personal relationships with her students or colleagues; for her, it’s all about creating images that sear themselves onto the brain and the soul.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) was once a famous writer, now a wastrel drunk who serves as the school’s longstanding jester and provocateur. Despite his self-destructive tendencies, “Mr. Mark” cares like hell about inspiring his pupils, cajoling them through highly unconventional means – he dubs haiku poetry “the first Twitter.”

After hearing Delsanto make disparaging comments about the power of words, Marcus launches an unofficial war on pictures, which carries them through the school year and various developments, including him being threatened with the loss of his job.

Binoche and Owen make for an appealing couple, a pair of gorgeous middle-aged loners who are so wrapped up in their own egos and miseries that they can’t grasp the golden prize right in front of them. Their banter is caustic and even mean-spirited, yet somehow the magnetic pull between them shines through the insults.

Smart, quirky and sexy, “Words and Pictures” reminds us why learning, and teaching, can be so enriching.

Extra features are somewhat scanty in quantity but substantial in quality. Director Fred Schepisi, a veritable Hollywood legend (“Barbarosa,” “Roxanne,” “Six Degrees of Separation”) still cranking out movies in his 70s, provides a feature-length commentary track. There’s also a 19-minute making-of featurette.



Friday, September 5, 2014

Video review: "Mustang -- The First 50 Years"

By the time I was old enough to start appreciating cars, the original generation of Ford Mustangs -- 1965-73 -- were already considered old cars. The restoration craze hadn't quite taken off yet, so a lot of "pony cars" were simply aging rustbuckets still tooling around, often handed off to second, third or fourth owners.

I specifically remember riding in the back of our station wagon on a long family road trip and watching a 'Stang pass us by. It had a gray primer paint, not a few dents and rust spots, and an exhaust that sounded like a perturbed elephant with a leaky trunk. I was mesmerized.

"One day," I intoned to no one in particular, "I'm going to own one of those."

My parents, used to the wayward ramblings of a precocious 10-year-old, paid little attention beyond a scoff and a harrumph

Now, when I'm cruising around in my Winter Blue 1969 fastback -- a 351C-4V, for those to whom that means something -- I often encounter former Mustang owners who tell me about the cars they used to drive and love. "Why'd you get rid of it?" is the question I always ask. None of them has ever given an answer that really satisfied me or, I think, themselves.

This year Ford is celebrating the 50th birthday of the Mustang, along with the introduction of the sixth-generation 2015 iteration. To celebrate they've produced a video, "Mustang -- The First 50 Years."

This is an enjoyable and illustrative journey through the conception, first production and astonishing evolution of perhaps America's most famous automobile. It includes plenty of history and stock footage of the cars, interviews with the surviving original engineers and Ford executives, and other stuff you'd expect.

But they also pepper it liberally with profiles of individual Mustang owners and their cars, specialty shops like Roush, museums, integral personalities like Lee Ioccoca and Carroll Shelby, and a whole lot of other material that form the integral backstory behind the car.

I appreciated this, since it's easy to tell the story of how an idea became a car, but much harder to say how that car became an icon. That "Mustang -- The First 50 Years" does, with flair and not a little showmanship.

It's also not afraid to take a hard look at some of the dark days of the Mustang, such as the early 1990s when Ford seriously considered canceling the entire line. There is also the second generation from 1974-78 when the car rapidly shrank in horsepower and (many feel) styling charisma in response to the oil crisis.

Originally envisioned as a "secretary's car," the Mustang soon grew larger and beefier, eventually becoming known as one of the kings of the muscle car movement of the late 1960s and early '70s. Though the look of the car has changed much over the years, it nearly always retained the inimitable styling cues -- long hood, short deck, recessed headlights, low roofline, tri-bar tailights -- that instantly marked it as a Mustang.

In an age when so many makes and models of cars are virtually indistinguishable from another, people can still spot a Mustang a long way off.

A total of 2½ hours long, "Mustang -- The First 50 Years" is part tribute, part hagiography and a little bit of gentle myth-busting. What a sweet ride down memory lane.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: "The Last of Robin Hood"

More than 20 years ago Kevin Kline had a lovely performance in “Chaplin” as an aging movie star playing out his last hand as a wastrel playboy. He was so good as Douglas Fairbanks that when it came time to cast someone as Errol Flynn in his declining years for “The Last of Robin Hood,” Kline seemed an obvious choice.

He terrifically captures Flynn’s fizzy, rakish persona, which showed little difference between his on-screen swashbuckling and his off-screen adventures. (Flynn chronicled them himself in his posthumous autobiography, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways.”) He spent so much time carousing, drinking and drugging, seducing young girls, sailing on his yacht and otherwise dribbling out his days, it’s hard to believe he found time to make movies.

Done up with Flynn’s signature pencil mustache and cravat-and-evening-jacket outfit, tumbler of booze perpetually in hand, Kevin makes for a pretty spot-on physical impersonation, too.

(Normally I would feel compelled to point out that, at nearly age 67, Kline is rather too old to play Flynn, who died at 50. But Flynn’s hard-charging lifestyle aged him prematurely. And Kline, in several shirtless outings, flaunts a surprisingly athletic figure that helps the age concerns vanish.)

“Robin Hood” takes its title from perhaps Flynn’s most famous role, but focuses on the last two years of life when his star had fallen and he worked only itinerantly. He notices a young starlet, Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning), and in the classic Hollywood seduction method, sends a flunky to fetch her.

Their initial coupling is, to say the least, brief. Not surprising, considering this is a man who was charged with statutory rape in 1942 (and acquitted) and bedded so many ladies they coined the phrase, “In like Flynn.”

But a couple of factors work to sustain the relationship beyond a one-night stand. First is Flynn’s profound self-awareness, including the thought that that his ability to attract women is rapidly waning, and he’d rather not be left alone at the end of the party. The other is a certain Machiavellian aspect to Beverly: the sense that she’s using him as much as he is her.

This is honed and encouraged by her mother, Florence (Susan Sarandon), a showbiz mom who pushes her daughter to sing, dance and act her way to easy street. In Beverly’s case, the talent is not an even match with the ambition, so when Flynn turns up offering to “help” the girl’s career, Florence offers a few perfunctory objections before signing on.

Of course, there’s more revelry than actual opportunity. At one point Errol and Beverly disappear for five months to Africa, and in the finished film she only has one line of dialogue. But the pair seem to be a genuinely affectionate couple, with Florence often tagging along as chaperone.

At some point I should mention that Beverly is only 15 when she and Flynn start dating, and just 17 when he dies. This comes as a shock to him when he finally learns it, though not so much to quit the affair. Obviously, this information puts the entire dynamic of the relationship in a different, disturbing light.

Writing/direction duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland tell the story from a flashback perspective, with Florence narrating her side of events to a book author after Flynn has passed and a media firestorm erupts over his teenage damsel. Sarandon paints a picture of a profoundly deluded woman, who gave up her own dreams of stardom to push her kid to unwholesome lengths.

If the movie has a weakness, it’s that Flynn and Florence are vivid, engaging characters and Beverly remains something of a cypher. Fanning does what she can with the material, but the script doesn’t lend her a lot of opportunities to reveal the character’s interior architecture.

But “The Last of Robin Hood” is worthwhile, if for no other reason to see Kline scamp and strut as the iconic bad boy. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” goes the classic Hollywood line -- one that could’ve been written about Errol Flynn.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Video review: "Ida"

What if everything you thought you knew about yourself turned out not to be true? That’s the premise of “Ida,” a spare Polish drama set in 1960.

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a prim young woman about to take her vows as a nun. But the mother superior insists that Anna, an orphan, visit with her only living family member before committing to a life wearing a habit.

The relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who has refused all contact with her, is a bitter drunk who sleeps around prodigiously and wallows in her glory days as a prosecutor for the communist insurgency that now rules the land. She reveals to Anna that she is actually Jewish, her real name is Ida, and her family was murdered by locals as an appeasement to the Nazis.

They spend the next few days riding back to their roots, talking to people and trying to reveal the truth.

Trzebuchowska is a luminous presence, a seemingly meek woman who has deep reserves of boldness and curiosity. During her journey she finds out much about the world, and questions her place in it.

Shot in stark, hauntingly lovely black-and-white by director Pawel Pawlikowski and crew, “Ida” is sad and beautiful cinema.

Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurettes, on the set interviews and a Q&A with Pawlikowski and Sara Freeman.



Monday, September 1, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Gandhi" (1982)

"Gandhi" may just be the most resented Best Picture Oscar winner of all time. Which is ironic for a biopic about the iconic advocate of peaceful resistance to oppression. The "little brown man in a loincloth" stole hearts and minds all across the globe, and also the Academy Award from the rightful winner.

At least, that was the standard saw at the time. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" was (then) the top-grossing movie of all time, beloved by American audiences of all ages, made by the Baby Boomers' wunderkind filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. "Gandhi," meanwhile," was very British, very long (3 hours, 11 minutes), and (to many) felt more like a history lesson than a movie.

I don't think I'd seen the film since it came out 32 years ago. Now having watched it again with the improved perspective that comes with the passage of time, I've analyzed my feelings about both movies and come to the considered conclusion that ... "E.T." really did get hosed.

Which isn't to say that "Gandhi" isn't a good film. Actually, it's very good. The acting is splendid, anchored by a then-unknown Ben Kingsley in the title role. It's beautiful to look at and epic in scope, with director Richard Attenborough's camera sweeping across landscapes and seas of people, and then settling in close for intimate moments with Gandhi puttering around his ashram, dispensing wisdom in between spinnings of looms and milkings of goats.

I don't mind lengthy pictures that fill that time with important and engaging events, but you could easily lop a half-hour out of "Gandhi" without losing much of the narrative momentum. For me, the first half is best, as we watch young lawyer Mohandas Gandhi agitating for the rights of Indian immigrants in South Africa, and later returning to his homeland as a middle-aged man and spending a year or two assimilating himself back into his native culture before taking a stand on independence for India.

It's a period of self-discovery, as Gandhi morphs from a standard-issue activist to quasi-holy man.

The second half becomes a bit repetitive, as Gandhi is now a revered international figure and official Great Man. Now going alternately by the names Mahatma ("great soul"), Bapu ("father") or Gandhiji (a familiarization), he ceases to speak to other people as individuals but makes pronouncements for the masses -- even if there is only one other person in the room.

Largely drawn from the real Gandhi's utterances ("an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind"), they nonetheless add to the stilted nature of the film's latter portion.

I was struck by the depiction of Gandhi's reliance on the media to spread his message. It seems he always has an entourage of Western journalists following him around (Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen among them). He cajoles and charms them, extending his friendship -- offers that, at least in the depiction of the movie, reporters are more than happy to turn into an exchange.

There is relatively little depiction of Gandhi's personal life. His four sons are barely seen, and there are essentially two scenes exploring his relationship with his wife, Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi), whom he married in an arranged ceremony when they were both just 13.

The most notable is when Gandhi first organizes an ashram -- essentially a farming commune -- and insists that everyone share all the work, including cleaning out the latrine. Kasturba objects that this is the work of "untouchables," the lowest caste of Indians relegated to the dregs of society. Gandhi becomes angry and even physically violent with her, but quickly finds his peaceful center.

The primary relationships are with Gandhi's fellow Indian National Congress activists: Pandit Nehru (Roshan Seth), a moderate Hindu who would later become India's first prime minster; Maulana Azad (Virendra Razdan), a younger scholar who doesn't say much; Vallabhbhai Patel (Saeed Jaffrey), an exuberant man of the people; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee), the peevish and aristocratic chief of India's Muslim faction, who would eventually splinter away from the group and become the founding father of Pakistan.

The best parts of the latter portion of the movie are these men holes up in various rooms, discussing how they will best gain their independence from the British Empire and map out the beginnings of their own country. There's a sense of grandiosity in the moment, but also that these were human beings who could be petty and flawed.

I enjoyed the tight little smile that Kingsley gives Gandhi, who uses it as a sort of imperturbable mask he presented to the world. He employs the same expression both in greeting old friends and in surrendering to the various military or police authorities who come to arrest him from time to time.

Perhaps the most harrowing sequence in the movie is the depiction of the Amritsar massacre, in which British forces fired open a crowd of completely peaceful demonstrators, resulting in more than 1,200 casualties, with something like 370 killed, including women and children.

Edward Fox plays the steely general who ordered his troops to fire for 10 minutes straight into the thickest parts of the crowd as they tried to escape. At the inquest hearing, asked if he would have used machine guns if the armored cars carrying them had been able to fit into the square, he tersely replies, "I think probably, yes."

A great number of actors enjoy small roles in the film, most of them British: Nigel Hawhthorne, Bernard Hill, Richard Griffiths, Trevor Howard, Ian Bannen, John Gielgud, even a very young Daniel Day-Lewis as a South African street punk who threatens Gandhi. John Ratzenberger even turns up as a jeep driver, though I swear his distinctive nasal honk has been dubbed.

"Gandhi" was nominated for 11 Oscars and won eight, including Best Picture, Actor, Director, Original Screenplay (by John Briley) and Original Score.

I don't really begrudge "Gandhi" its Best Picture win all that much. The Academy has a predilection toward certain pedigrees of filmmaking: historical, biographical costume dramas with a sense of profundity and gravitas. (This was part of the reason "12 Years a Slave" was such an easy pick to make earlier this year.) 

"E.T.," for all its wondrous magic, is still seen as a children's picture, and Oscars tend not to go the way of feel-good family pictures (or comedies).

The one Oscar I do think was a serious injustice was Best Costumes, which won over "TRON." Whatever you want to say about the video game adventure, it had a lot of groundbreaking special effects combined with elaborate, vividly original costumes.

For years I had made light of the Gandhi vs. TRON costume donnybrook by saying of the former film, "It was a guy in a white sheet!" Now that I've seen the movie again, I confess that there was much more to the costumes in "Gandhi" than the little man's simple homespun wrap. Gandhi wears natty period suits in the early period, and some of the other notable Indian figures are quite snappy dressers. Nehru, of course, even had a classic mid-century style of suit named after him, faithfully replicated in the film.

Still, I place more value on doing something differently from the way anyone has done it before than executing a familiar thing well. So even upon further reflection, I still think "TRON" got robbed in the costume award.

Actually, this sums up well my feelings about "Gandhi" as a whole. It's overall a pretty marvelous film, but in the end it's a fairly standard "great man" biopic. Perhaps that's why the movie's reputation has waned rather than waxed with the passing of years, and it is mainly remembered only as the film that "E.T." lost to.