Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: "Before I Go to Sleep"

"Before I Go to Sleep" isn't terribly original, which doesn't necessarily mean that a film won't be any good -- but in this case, it does.

The problem with this psychological thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth is that it contains no surprises. Even when the story is trying to shock us with a twist, we've already guessed everything long ago. Watching it is a 92-minute exercise in waiting for the movie to arrive.

It's not helped by a story that borrows heavily from "Memento." And by "borrow," I basically mean "steals the entire premise and narrative dynamic." Kidman plays Christine, who wakes up at age 40 thinking she's still in her mid-20s, because every night all the new memories she's acquired during that day flee from her mind.

She leaves notes and pictures for herself so can assimilate every morning, but also clues suggesting that a crime has taken place. Despite not being able to remember anything from the previous day, Christine begins to investigate the matter, which resulted in her being left severely beaten and with her faulty memory. She uses a digital camera to make a video diary to instruct herself on her latest discoveries.

If you'll recall from "Memento" -- it's been 14 years, but: spoiler alert! -- the amnesiac main character was actually being manipulated by others with nefarious intent. It becomes pretty clear that the same thing is going on here, so the question is figuring out who it is.

There are only two potential culprits: Christine's long-suffering husband, Ben (Firth), and her psychiatrist, Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong). She has good reasons to suspect both. The doctor takes the odd steps of calling her at home every morning to trigger her memory recall, and also picks her up in his car for treatment. Nasch insists that she not tell her husband about their sessions.

Ben, meanwhile, is a ball of half-truths and nervous energy. He insists he keeps information from Christine to protect her -- such as the fate of a close friend (Anne-Marie Duff) who apparently abandoned Christine after her injury, and another more devastating matter. He would seem to be a devoted husband -- he has to essentially convince her to fall in love with him on a daily basis -- but there are flashes of anger that are troubling.

Writer/director Rowan Joffe adapted the novel by S.J. Watson. He generally elicits solid performances out of his cast, though his handle on pacing and mood are lackluster. Often the movie is just a dull parade of phone calls, Kidman poring through photographs or documents, and similar expository shuffling of the cards.

I had problems with the particulars of Christine's condition, which are never satisfactorily explained. She has full recall of her activities throughout the day, but sometime while sleeping everything gets flushed. Has she tried staying awake all night to see what happens? If she wakes up to pee at 2 a.m., will her memory of the previous day still be there or not? What about 5 a.m.? Midnight? If she takes a nap in the afternoon, does that trigger the brain dump?

It's not that I find the notion of memory loss implausible. After all, I've watched hundreds of movies that I almost immediately forgot all about. This is destined to become one of them. Maybe if I just lay down for a little while; I am pretty tired...


"Before I Go to Sleep" isn't terribly original, which doesn't necessarily mean that

Monday, October 27, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Thief" (1981)

"Thief" is about a man who will not bend. Frank is a professional who's very good at what he does, takes pride in it, and is very particular about the way he goes about his business. He does not cut corners. He plans everything out from beginning to end. He does not take orders from anyone.

The fact that Frank is a jewel thief as opposed to, say, an engineer is merely one key aspect of a character who is complex while also being quite simple.

By simple I don't mean that Frank, played by James Caan in perhaps his finest performance, is dull-witted or dense. He's actually quite cagey in a pugnacious, unschooled sort of way. Perhaps it would be better to say that Frank is defined by his singularity -- a particular set of skills and outlook that serve both to exalt and circumscribe him. Frank is the best there is, but is not capable of being other than what he is.

Every other smart criminal pays off the crooked cops to keep them off his back -- to "round off the corners," as they urge. Frank would rather take a beating, have his house bugged and be followed by teams of undercover police than give in.

When a high-level fence and connected boss named Leo (Robert Prosky) offers to take Frank under his wing, set up high-level scores and "make you a millionaire in four months," Frank stubbornly refuses to become his vassal, insisting on signing up for a single job and then calling it quits. Even when there appears to be mutual respect and affection growing between them -- Leo buys a baby boy for Frank when he and his wife cannot conceive -- Frank goes ballistic when Leo persists in stringing him along.

In a lot of ways "Thief" reminded me of a later film, "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling as a wheelman whose carefully ordered world goes awry when he breaks his own rules and strives for something beyond the perfection of his job. I find it hard to believe that director Nicolas Winding Refn's 2001 film wasn't heavily influenced by Michael Mann's earlier one.

They share a lot of similarities in terms of characterizations, sleek noir-ish visuals and an atypical soundscape -- which, in the case of "Thief," was the result of the work of Tangerine Dream, an electronica band that created a lot of arresting movie soundtracks during the 1980s.

It was the first film score by Tangerine Dream, in a movie that heralded many other firsts. It was Mann's first feature film after success on television. It was the debut screen role for Prosky, as well as Jim Belushi, who plays Frank's right-hand man, plus William Peterson and Dennis Farina, who have bit roles as a bouncer and gunman, respectively.

Though I wouldn't see "Thief" until years after "Drive," the kinship to Mann's work was apparent to me even then. I noted in my review that "Drive" seemed "stuck out of time."
"For at least the first 30 minutes, I was convinced the story was set in the 1980s. The plethora of vintage cars, an ’80s-ish soundtrack and the gold-on-white scorpion jacket worn by the main character seemed to spring forth from 'Miami Vice' crossed with 'Less Than Zero' ... It very much reminded me of the work of Michael Mann, whose visuals could overpower a bare-bones story."
(Mann, of course, also produced "Miami Vice," which generated a lot of interest in its day for the wardrobe and bling, but is now generating reconsideration as one of the best TV shows of the '80s.)

I also took note of both films' use of sudden, explicit violence amidst stories that are much more attuned to mood and character than exploitative action. Belushi gets seemingly his entire innards splatted against the side of a van by a shotgun blast, and Prosky enjoys a similarly gruesome demise.

In his debut outing as a director, Mann mostly constrains his visual stylization to servicing the story. His screenplay, adapted from a memoir by a real master thief employing the pen name of Frank Hohimer, uses the cliche of the skilled man performing "one last job" to explore Frank's interior journey.

After spending 11 years in prison, most of his adulthood, Frank has been out for four years and appears to be a success. He owns two businsesses -- the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, where he makes and takes calls, and Rocket  Motor Sales, a higher-end used car lot. He wears silk shirts and $800 suits, changes cars frequently but favors Cadillacs, and carries himself with the sort of innate swagger that intimidates others.

Frank thinks he's got it all mapped out -- he even carries around a pastiche of photos of everything he wants for the rest of his life: a mansion, cars, a wife, kids and the companionship of "Okla," a master thief he did time with and who is played by Willie Nelson. In perhaps the film's most glaring flaw, Okla is given little screen time, really just two scenes, and Nelson is so good in them it hints at all sorts of unrealized narrative possibilities. Frank gets Okla sprung from jail so he can die a free man, which he promptly does without a real sense of denouement.

Mann gets a little too caught up in the particulars of the big heist, a "burn job" in which Frank uses a long thermal lance to melt the face of an especially challenging vault. His camera also tends to linger a little too long on objects for their visual appeal rather than their narrative purpose -- but that's been a characteristic of his entire oeuvre.

This being Mann's freshman film outing, it's certainly imperfect. I found the ending of the movie a little too Wild West-y and incongruent with what came before. Also, Frank's relationship with his wife (Tuesday Weld) is rather flat, other than an outstanding first scene at a diner, which Caan has described as the favorite of his long career. In it he essentially lays out who he is, and tells a riveting story about nearly dying after being targeted for a gangbang by a prison crew of inmates and guards.

He learned, he says, to fear nothing by valuing nothing, including his own life. Only by being willing to let go of everything important to him was he able to survive -- an ethos he takes to extremes by brutally cutting all his strings before going after Leo. But that's Frank, recognizing that he's been fooling himself with a vision he cannot have without compromising his hard inner core.

Quibbles aside, "Thief" is a moody minor masterpiece, a probing character study that disguises itself as a heist flick.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: "St. Vincent"

I think superior film acting is misunderstood – or, at least, often misidentified.

When we’re talking about adulation and awards, most of the attention tends to focus on “big” acting. That’s where the performers can display a whole lot of studied behavior and over-the-top emotion, or spew great dialogue at a furious clip. Think Denzel Washington in “Training Day” or Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

But some of the best cinematic acting is played close to the vest, using only subtle cues, and tends to get overshadowed by the more grandiose sort. Example: I remember watching “Awakenings” and everyone was raving about Robert De Niro’s tics and stammer. For me, the performance was emotionally vacant. Meanwhile, I thought Robin Williams was staggering, seeming to leak pain and loneliness out of his epidermis.

There are a few big moments to Bill Murray’s brilliant performance in “St. Vincent,” but what most struck me about the role was how brave and uncompromising it was. Most movies of this sort about cantankerous older men provide us a window to access his secretly cuddly soul. We feel the actor winking at us even as he parades the sturm and drang.

Not Murray. His Vincent McKenna is a man who is entirely true to himself, even if that truth is off-putting and abrasive. A drunk and a gambler, he doesn’t seem to have anything going on in his life beyond his decrepit Brooklyn house, his battered convertible Reliant K-car (complete with wood paneling) and playing the horses at Belmont Park – mostly poorly, which is why he’s perpetually strapped for cash, with a loan shark (Terrence Howard) circling.

Vin is a sour pill, and he knows it, embraces it, though he doesn’t necessarily delight in throwing his obnoxiousness in other people’s faces. Mostly, he’d just rather leave people alone, and have them return the favor.

This is perhaps the finest turn of Murray’s long career, and one certainly deserving of some attention from awards voters down the line.

The setup is that a newly single mom named Maggie (Mellissa McCarthy) moves in next door with her awkward young son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), and Vin is pushed by necessity/opportunity to form a relationship with the kid.

They don’t meet under the best of circumstances: her moving truck smashes up his place, and they exchange unpleasantries. On the first day at his new Catholic school, Oliver has his clothes, phone and keys stolen, and can’t get into his house. Maggie works long hours as a medical scanning technician, so an ad-hoc arrangement emerges in which Vin babysits Oliver for $12 an hour. She needs a helping hand, he needs the cash and the boy needs a friend.

The pair bond while going to the track, imparting wisdom about standing up to bullies (aka, how to break a nose) and other manly arts.

Most movies of this sort quickly teeter over into rank sentimentalism, with somebody like Vincent softening up like mush in the warm glow of a golden-hearted kid. But Vin more or less stays the same, while it’s Oliver who opens up and grows. This is not so much a story about an old crank who has a change of heart, but one who lets the world into his self-imposed cocoon long enough to discover the reason he got that way.

First-time writer/director Theodore Melfi elicits some terrific performances from his cast. Murray is bleak and brilliant. Lieberher is studious and inquisitive as Oliver, because that’s the kind of child he is. McCarthy is so genuine and wonderful as a struggling everyday woman that I’m willing to forgive her for starring in and co-writing “Tammy.”

Chris O’Dowd has a nice turn as a remarkably upbeat priest/teacher at Oliver’s school, and Naomi Watts supplies enviable comic relief as a pregnant Russian hooker who exchanges services, and something more, with Vin.

“St. Vincent” is one of my favorite films this year. It’s got a lot of hard edges, but treats its characters as believable people who, despite their problems and pain, possess an inherent grace.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: "Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"

I always thought “Watchmen” was the anti-superhero superhero movie, but this one takes the cake. It’s not so much against superheroes as movies based on their comic books, registering as a spit-flecked denunciation of the way such flicks saturate our culture, almost like a spreading disease that uses up actors’ careers and audiences’ time.

“Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is an obsidian-black comedy about Riggan Thomson, an over-60 actor who played a costumed hero decades ago and has struggled to do anything equally consequential since. He’s played by Michael Keaton, who knows something about that.

If this sounds like stunt casting, that’s because it is -- but then this whole movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams”) is a gimmick, if a very clever one.

Thomson has now sunk most of his heart, soul and bank account into mounting a Broadway production based on the work of short story master Raymond Carver, which he also wrote and is directing.

At one point he finds himself facing off with a hostile New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who announces that she’s going to close the play with a vicious review, even though she hasn’t seen it, because she resents Hollywood dilettantes invading her sacred space where real art is made, taking up a theater (the actual St. James) that could be better used for, well, just about anything.

We suspect her lips are channeling the thoughts of Iñárritu, who co-wrote the screenplay (along with three others), and they’re really talking about caped crusader movies.

Keaton is a marvel in this movie, providing an emotionally naked performance as a self-consumed man who has spent so much of his life worrying about being appreciated that he hasn’t ever really inhabited the present tense. Riggan is constantly reminded of this by his estranged daughter, Sam (Emma Thomson), recently graduated from rehab and hired as his assistant -- partly out of a sense of guilt and partly to keep an eye on her for his ex-wife (Amy Ryan).

Iñárritu created the role expressly for Keaton, which was deft, but then unwisely keeps getting in the way of his lead actor.

The director makes all sorts of showy creative choices, like constructing the entire movie out of (seemingly) uninterrupted tracking shots, so we’re constantly shadowing the actors like a ghostly presence. Similarly, the music score (by Antonio Sanchez) is made up almost entirely of percussion instruments, but the disjointed beats bump the movie off its rhythm rather than riding one.

Riggan professes not to think much about being Birdman, but in fact he’s verily haunted by his feathered former alter-ego. The voice of the hero speaks to him (Keaton’s guttural rasp is wonderfully eerie), offering alternate praise and scorn, trying to convince Riggan to give up his ridiculous dream and return to costume work. In private moments when the alter egos are conferring, Riggan performs feats of telekinesis that, even if imagined (?), help buck up his brittle psyche.

The play is teetering on the edge of disaster. Riggan replaces his awful second lead actor, injured during rehearsal, with Mike Shiner, who’s brilliant but notoriously difficult to work with, and he’s played by Edward Norton, who also has a reputation for… but I think you get it now.

Mike is greeted as the production’s rescuer but soon sets about as its chief saboteur, stealing Riggan’s limelight in the press and even stopping a preview performance cold when his (real) gin is confiscated. He’s also the boyfriend of the lead actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), a bundle of neurotic self-doubt, who recruited him but soon comes to regret it. Meanwhile, Riggan is having an affair with the other, much-younger actress (Andrea Riseborough).

Flitting around the edges of the story is Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s lawyer, producing partner and underappreciated fixit man.

The performances are delicious in “Birdman,” particularly Keaton, who will deservedly be the subject of a lot of Academy Awards conversations. I just wish Iñárritu had enough faith in his star to let him shine in the spotlight, instead of constantly distracting us with his showy, look-at-me direction.

Earlier in this review I called the movie clever, and it is that; but it’s the sort of feckless, selfish clever that feels compelled to keep reminding you how clever it is.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Charade" (1963)

"Charade" has sometimes been described as "the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock didn't direct," but I'm not sure if that's really fair. Hitch often included bits of puckish and morbid humor in his films, but when it came time for scaring people, he was deadly serious about his craft.

This 1963 romantic thriller, by contrast, is fizzy and fun. Though there are a few moments where Audrey Hepburn, as wan heroine Regina Lampert, aka "Reggie," is imperiled, they are fleeting and frightening only in that sort of way you know everything is going to be alright. After all, she's the star of the picture, and if anything really dire happened to her, the show would be over.

When I say Hepburn is the star, I mean truly that: she far outshines co-star Carey Grant, but she's meant to. He is the moon who basks in her reflected light; he reacts to her rather than the other way around. Romantically, she is clearly the pursuer and he the pursued prey, wielding the shield of propriety to fend off her advances: 'Come into your room? Alone? At this time of night? Heavens!'

In this way director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone essentially made a proto-feminist feature film. In some sense Hollywood has backpedaled since then -- nowadays it's almost unthinkable to have a star of Grant's stature in a movie in which he plays second fiddle to an actress.

The basic plot is that she's a widow whose husband was murdered, and now three strangers are chasing her around Paris, claiming she has $250,000 that belongs to them. (That's about $2 million in today's dollars.) Grant shows up as Peter Joshua, a dashing stranger who gets embroiled in the intrigue. She falls for him hard, even when it turns out he's in cahoots with the criminals... sort of. It gets more complicated from there.

The film has an interesting progeny and legacy. Stone and Marc Behm wrote the spec screenplay, but no studio was interested. So Stone turned it into a book, and suddenly everyone in Hollywood wanted it. Thus he turned it back into a screenplay. (Behm got a story credit.)

When they released the film, Universal Pictures improperly copyrighted the movie, so "Charade" became part of the public domain immediately. The fact that anyone could release their own version of it on video, or play it on television, probably helped the film remain popular over the years. It didn't even get an "official" video release by Universal until the awful, unnecessary remake starring Mark Whalberg came out in 2002, when the original was tacked on to the DVD as a bonus feature.

There was also a brouhaha over Hepburn's utterance of the word "assassinated," which was changed to "eliminated" in the wake of JFK's murder.

The movie is a total lark, more comedy than anything else. But I adored the cartoonish villains, the Parisian locales and the genuine romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Grant.

"Do you know what's wrong with you?" she asks as they part at the end of their night. "No, what?" he responds, setting up endless possibilities of Hollywood riffs. Instead, she looks at him pensively and exhales, "...nothing!" A beautiful line, and again usually the sort of thing the guy says to the dame, not vice-versa.

Grant was 59 when the movie was made to Hepburn's 33, though as I've noted before he seemed to stop aging at 38, looking much the same until he was deep into his 60s. Still, he felt self-conscious about the age difference and had the filmmakers add in several self-deprecating references by his character.

Unlike most older stars who fade away or segue into crotchety grampa roles, Grant had a daughter, his only child, at the age of 62 and decided to retire from acting to become a full-time daddy. Apparently he was just as magical in his final role as all his onscreen ones; Jennifer Grant wrote a loving tribute.

The bad guys are:
  • James Coburn as Tex, a tall, preening showboat with a Southern drawl and a mean disposition.
  • George Kennedy as Scobie, who's even bigger and even meaner than Tex, plus he has hook/weapon prosthetic hand.
  • Ned Glass as Neopold Gideon, an older intellectual type, a turncoat who tends to have sneezing fits when he's nervous or endangered.
  • Walter Matthau as Hamilton Bartholomew, a shady CIA man who claims to be helping out Reggie but is actually after the money himself. I'm not really giving anything away here, since Matthau practically smokes with suspicion from his very first scene. Not to mention, despite ostensibly being the Paris bureau chief of a federal government division, he's never able to muster up any actual resources to assist her.
The trio of chase men are introduced in a terrific scene: they each show up to Reggie's husband's funeral, and make close inspections of the body to ensure he's really dead. Scobie even sticks a pin in it -- literally.

In another rarity of mainstream Hollywood films, it's actually Tex, rather than Peter or Reggie, who has a flash of insight and figures out what her husband did with the money.  

But then the bad guys start showing up dead one by one, so suspicion falls on Peter, whose real name turns out to be Alex Dyle... or is it Adam Canfield ... or maybe Brian Cruikshank. One of the cleverest lines of dialogue is the very end, when Reggie and ... her man have gotten engaged, and she proposes they have lots of boys, "so we can name them all after you."

"Charade" also marked the first collaboration between Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, earning an Oscar nomination for original song.

Part screwball comedy, part spy thriller, and a whole lot romantic, "Charade" is what nowadays we would call the perfect date movie. A lot of these movies are forgettable, but not this one.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Video review: "The Purge: Anarchy"

I’m always leery when a low-budget movie becomes a hit and then we see a sequel churned out a year later. The gestation time for most features films is about five years from conception to theatrical release, so most things done in a fraction of that time tend to be hasty and sloppy.

“Crank something out, cash in” is the byword.

“The Purge: Anarchy” bucks this trend by actually being superior to its 2013 predecessor. While the first film was more a schlocky horror film edged with social commentary, the sequel falls into the straight action/thriller category.

If you’ll recall from the last movie, things are set in the dystopian near-future where the United States has been taken over by a group of patriarchal dictators. Once a year they hold the Purge – a single night in which any crime, from assault to murder, is perfectly legal. The idea is for the collective unconscious to jettison itself of all those pent-up negative emotions.

Sounds great – unless you’re one of those who gets pent on.

Frank Grillo, as the unnamed protagonist, is out for some sort of revenge. But when he sees some masked marauders threatening helpless folks, his better instincts take over. Soon he’s defending a whole group of victims from the ultra-rich puppet masters who control the gangs and use the purging to maintain power.

A ludicrous but effective mix of action, scares and 99-percenter outrage, “The Purge: Anarchy” is a catharsis from awful sequels.

Video extras are barely so-so. The DVD comes with a making-of featurettes, “Behind the Anarchy,” including interviews with principle cast and crew. Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add some deleted scenes.



Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: "Fury"

One of my favorite things to do as a critic is to point people to great movies they’ve probably never heard of. Case in point: “End of Watch,” which was in and out of theaters so fast in 2012 you probably missed it even if you didn’t blink.

Writer/director David Ayer’s next film, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Sabotage,” similarly disappeared without a trace. I’m hoping that won’t be the case with his latest, “Fury,” a World War II action/drama starring Brad Pitt that mostly takes place inside a single Sherman tank.

Fair notice: this a grim, dark movie about the dank corners hidden away inside men’s souls. It makes “Saving Private Ryan” seem like a lullaby.

The battle scenes are gruesome, and what happens when the shooting stops is often even more troubling. American soldiers are portrayed not as decent men who sometimes commit evil deeds in the heat of combat, but killing machines who only want to murder the Germans before the krauts murder them.

What a pitiable world Ayers has drawn for us. Unlike most WWII movies that are set when the Nazis still have the upper hand, here it’s April 1945 and the Germans are offering their stiffest resistance before the collapse they know is inevitable.

The soldiers are all scarred, grimy beasts; the German landscape is an open wound, ripped and gasping; the detritus of war lies all around, smoking armored hulks like prehistoric behemoths brought low. It’s not so much that death and carnage are everywhere, but everywhere is death and carnage.

To wit: when the fresh young recruit, Norman (Logan Lerman), is assigned to the crew of the “Fury,” the battered tank that has survived many battles, his first duty is to clean out the bloody mess left by his predecessor. While doing so, he finds part of the man’s face, perfectly intact, staring at him.

So again I say: not for the squeamish, this.

Pitt has a stout, merciless role as Don, aka “Wardaddy,” the sergeant who commands the Fury. His face done up with scars and hair chopped in a deliberately unattractive fop with shaved sides, Don is sure-handed and unrelenting with the enemy, and the same with his crew. He’ll let them bicker and bitch, but when it’s time for them to perform he will brook no hesitation.

When Norman fails to spot and kill a German soldier with an anti-tank gun, and absolutely horrific results ensue, Don makes personally sure that the lad will not flinch next time, using brutal but effective means. He’ll let the Neanderthal gunner, Grady (Jon Bernthal), indulge his base instincts, but only up to a point.

Don takes a softer hand with Bible, a thoughtful young man played thoughtfully by Shia LaBeouf, and Gordo (Michael Peña), the rock-solid tank driver. The sergeant has promised all his men he will keep them alive, but their latest mission will test that pledge.

The Fury is assigned to a platoon of five tanks to guard a crossroads against a force of fresh German troops, who are threatening the advancing division’s supply line. If they fail, the entire Allied advance will ground to a halt and the war could last months longer.

Ayer shows an expert hand for the battle scenes, keeping the focus on the men inside the Fury while giving a pulse-jumping view of the action outside. Tracer bullets and ordnance flash at the screen like lasers, lending the proceedings an eerie stuck-out-of-time feeling. An encounter with a technologically superior Panzer Tiger is especially effective.

The movie works better as a war picture than a character piece. We never quite get all the way inside the heads of the characters, so their peril doesn’t carry as much emotional freight as you’d expect. And a scene inside the apartment of a German woman and her cousin goes in many different directions at once, like a grenade, rather than focused, like a sniper’s bullet.

Still, this is one depiction of war destined to linger in our memory. At times this movie almost seems like a pugnacious middle finger to the classic war epics, in which disparate men come together for a violent but altruistic cause. “Fury” crushes the notion of the nobility of war under its grinding, pitiless treads.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: "Men, Women & Children"

"Men, Women & Children" is an audacious, ambitious film that dives into the deep end of cinematic contemplation and, eventually, disappears beneath the ripples it commenced. But not before a heroic effort.

It's not so much a coherent story as a mirror turned around at the audience, daring them to consider how we live today, how the digital age has bent and distorted the way we approach love and sex -- especially teenagers, who have never lived in a world without instant communication and universal access to visual gratification.

This is one of the rare movies I wish was longer; its sprawling narrative and heady themes needed more space to give themselves a full workout. Director and co-writer Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air") ends up drowning in the same trouble that afflicts most films with large ensemble casts and intersecting storylines: it moves on too quickly when it should linger, and tarries when it has outlasted its purpose.

If the notion of underage kids communicating graphically about what they'd like to do to each other is shocking to you, then you might sympathize with Patricia, played by Jennifer Garner. She monitors every step her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) takes online -- she reads the girl's text messages before she sees them, deleting if she finds them objectionable. Using tracking software on Brandy's phone, mom knows her daughter's whereabouts 24/7. Indeed, Patricia, with her pained expression and wounded eyes, doesn't seem to have a job or a personal life, only a cause: to keep kids safe online -- even if it means stripping them of any semblance of freedom.

Needless to say, Brandy is driven to seek release, and finds it with Tim (Ansel Elgort), another wayward soul. He's the star running back of the football team, but quits mid-season so he can have more time to play Guild Wars, an online role-playing video game. He's bereft by a personal loss, and in Brandy sees a companion with whom to drift. They plug the rents in each other's fragile psyches, forming a relationship that is -- by the standards of other couplings in the film -- remarkably healthy and not dictated by sex.

On the other extreme is Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a 16-year-old who flaunts her sexuality instinctively, aided by a mother (Judy Greer) who enables her Hollywood ambitions. They take risqué, but not obscene, photos of her and post them on a website -- including private shoots for paying customers. What's scarier than the idea of a mother basically pimping out her daughter is that neither seems to fully grasp the impact of what they're doing.

Most affecting is the story of Allison (Elena Kampouris), a painfully thin girl wracked by twin, intermarried crucibles: anorexia and being the last female (she thinks) in her social circle who hasn't "hooked up." She visits websites where beauty-obsessed girls provide emotional support to willingly starve themselves -- Google it; they're real -- and fantasizes about the football player she's known since seventh grade. Her body is an unruly burden to her, both her corporeal heft (any) and her wretched virginity.

The stories of some of these kids' parents also float in and out of the foreground. Most notable, though not as interesting as it sounds, is Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt as a married couple whose sex life has turned cold, and they each use the Web to fulfill their needs with strangers.

It's an interesting idea, especially in that it's she craving sexual adventure while he mostly pines for simple intimacy, but their path seems more pathetic than dangerous. Meanwhile, their 15-year-old son has grown impotent after being burned out on hardcore porn.

"Men, Women & Children" gives us an almost entirely bleak view of lust in the 21st century, but that's not its problem. By focusing on too many characters and tales, the film's dark, brave message loses signal strength. There either needed to be a lot more of this movie, or a lot less.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The League of Gentlemen" (1960)

There was a time when Jack Hawkins was Britain's top movie star. This might not seem likely, since he didn't get serious about acting until he was about 40 and, while certainly handsome, his bulldog-like visage did not naturally lend itself to romantic or leading roles.

Nevertheless, his skills as a thespian kept him quite busy in movie-making even after his star fell, usually in supporting roles as authoritarian figures -- sometimes deluded ones -- in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia" and many others. A heavy smoker, Hawkins even continued to act after having his larynx removed in 1965 due to throat cancer; other actors dubbed his lines until his death at age 62.

"The League of Gentlemen" represents one of his few post-1950s leading roles. It's a bank heist movie directed by Basil Dearden with a distinctive, clever twist: the robbers are not professional criminals but former British military officers who have fallen on hard times. Not only is it a chance for the eight men to collect £100,000 each -- about $2 million in today's dollars -- but they get to use their wartime skills in a peacetime setting.

As Lt. Col. Norman Hyde, Hawkins is the unctuous brains of the operation. The only one lacking a criminal record or black mark on his military dossier, he's incensed at being cashiered after 25 years of loyal service, dismissed "redundant." He certainly doesn't appear to want for money -- Hyde lives in a large, secluded mansion and drives a Rolls-Royce. In the film's tipsy opening sequence, he emerges from a sewer grate at night wearing a natty black tuxedo.

There appears to be more backstory there, but screenwriter John Boland, adapting the novel by Bryan Forbes, purposefully keeps it close to the vest. Hyde lives alone, out of choice rather than economic necessity, and lets the dishes pile up in the kitchen. There is a large portrait of a handsome woman in the foyer -- actually Deborah Kerr -- and when asked if she is his wife and is she alive, he announces, "Regrettably, the bitch is still going strong."

Testy language for 1960! I was also surprised by a brief shot of a chestful of nudie magazines, with bare breasts clearly visible.

Hyde researches the military records to find the perfect other seven men for the job:
  • Lt. Edward Lexy (Richard Attenborough ... I know, I'm fixated) -- Radio man and somewhat weaselly ladies' man.
  • Maj. Peter Race (Nigel Patrick) -- An itinerant gambler and black marketeer of impeccable breeding, he becomes Hyde's second-in-command after an initial antagonism.
  • Captain "Padre" Mycroft (Roger Livesey) -- A quartermaster dismissed for gross indecency, he now impersonates a priest.
  • Maj. Rupert Rutland-Smith (Terence Alexander) -- A decent, reserved chap kept economic cuckold by his wealthy, younger wife.
  • Capt. Frank Weaver (Norman Bird) -- Bomb disposal leader who was drunk when his squad was blown up.
  • Capt. Stevens (Kieron Moore) -- Ousted for homosexuality -- "odd man out" is how Hyde describes him, in the only suitable language for the time -- he's reliable muscle.
  • Capt. Martin Porthill (Bryan Forbes) -- Booted for killing Greek separatists, he now sponges off older women.
Despite a limited amount of time to personalize each character, the actors do a wonderful job of building a distinctive persona that allows them to stand out from each other. Attenborough and Livesey in particularly are quite charismatic, in very different ways. Livesey steals the show in a sequence where they impersonate active-duty military officers to steal arms from the local army station. He pretends to be a general and uses the opportunity to lord it over Hyde and Race.

There's a lovely fun scene where Hyde first gathers them all at a swanky club, after having invited them to read an American pulp fiction novel, "The Golden Fleece," that describes exactly the sort of bank robbery Hyde is proposing. After declaring them all "crooks of one sort or another," he proceeds to detail each man's shame individually, and then declare the operation as their chance to get their revenge on the system that betrayed them.

The rest of the movie proceeds as a fairly typical crime caper: the planning of the job, brushes with danger, internal conflicts between the men, followed by the actual heist itself. It goes off perfectly, but their little company -- which they cheekily dub "Co-Operative Removals Ltd." -- is betrayed by the one small detail they overlooked.

British movies were not covered by the Hollywood Production Code, in which lawbreakers always had to be shown receiving their comeuppance. But that appears to be the case with "The League of Gentlemen," in which they are all carted off in the same policy lorry at the end.

The robbery scene is almost anticlimactic. It's mostly notable for the scary-looking gas masks the men wear after smoking out the whole block around the bank. Complete with breathing tubes and a metallic voice projection device used by Hyde, they make for a positively frightening bunch.

I enjoyed "League" for what it is, a rapscallion crime caper, though I admit to being a bit disappointed that it was not what I thought it would be. I expected a harder-edged serious crime drama, something like Stanley Kubrick's early work, in which Hyde is consumed by rage at British societal structure and bent on revenge.

But this isn't existential crisis; it's fun 'n' games. That's all well and fine, but I'd like to see the version where Hawkins gets to play a homicidal maniac in a tux.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Video review: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

Once storytelling franchises have been around while -- especially ones involving science fiction and/or super-heroes -- it can be hard for filmmakers to find enough creative real estate to let their imaginations sprawl. After all, histories have been set, great and terrible deeds done, characters evolved or killed off, and it's a bad notion to retread over familiar territory.

So what to do? More and more, these movies are going retcon.

Retconning is when a new set of creators essentially reboots everything we know about a mythos, blanking the slate so they can start over from a zero point of their own choosing. "Star Trek" did this recently, and now the X-Men comic book heroes have, too.

This bold new film, the best super-hero flick since "The Avengers," looks at a post-apocalyptic world where nearly all mutants have been destroyed by the menacing robotic Sentinels. Clawed, nearly unkillable warrior Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent 50 years into the past to occupy the mind of his younger self, and must convince the Professor X of that era (James McAvoy), who is wallowing in a pit of self-pity, to take action to prevent the terrible tide.

That means diverting power-mad frenemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and shape-shifting skulduggerer Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from their mission to make mutants the master of regular humans rather than the object of their hatred. Needless to say, they're not happy to go along.

There's one scene that may just be the most entertaining action sequence of the summer, and it involves a new mutant named Quicksilver who is so fast he practically lives in his own dimension of time.

A satisfying mix of action, convincing characterizations and plot twists, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" delivers one for the ages.

Video extras are quite hefty, and include deleted scenes with audio commentary by director Bryan Singer, a gag reel, gallery and several making-of featurettes.



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review: "The Judge"

“The Judge” has all the hallmarks of a labor of love, and all the weaknesses. It features a couple of top-notch performances but it’s overlong and meandering, including a lot of stuff better left on the cutting room floor -- or better yet, in the screenwriters’ wastebasket.

The film stars Robert Downey Jr., who is the producer and put the project together with his wife, Susan, to create a legal drama in the vein of “The Verdict” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Unlike “The Verdict,” which was a character piece that should’ve won Paul Newman an Oscar, “The Judge” is more of a star vehicle for Downey to do what he does best.

We’ve seen him play this character for a while now, which is a variation on Downey’s own star persona -- super-smart guy, light-speed verbosity, can be alternately charming and bullying, a fundamentally good man who sometimes has to convince others, and himself, of that fact.

In this iteration he is Hank Palmer, a high-powered attorney who escaped his hated tiny hometown of Carlinville, Ind., but is called back after a tragedy, and then must deal with another. His opposite is his father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), an upstanding local judge for the past 42 years who regards Hank as an unwanted guest. There’s obviously an ocean of bad blood between these two.

Nick Schenk wrote the screenplay, later fixed up by Bill Dubuque, from a story that director David Dobkin and Downey (uncredited) came up with. Dobkin is a curious choice, known entirely for comedies both good (“Wedding Crashers”) and not so much (“Fred Claus”).

I think Dobkin needed to stand up to his star/boss a little more, and reel in some of the more sprawling aspects of the story and Downey’s performance. Downey is an amped-up powerhouse of a performer, much in the vein of John Malkovich, and left to his own devices tends to chew up the scenery. He does enjoy a few quieter moments where he’s just reacting to people or circumstances, and those are his best in the movie.

(Full disclosure: I interviewed Dobkin and Downey for a local TV station at the Indianapolis premiere, and had to miss the first 10 minutes or so of the movie to do so.)

Duvall is just splendid, and his performance only seems to grow sharper as the movie goes on. Judge Palmer is cussed and cantankerous, and demonstrates little superficial love to his two other sons, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a former baseball prospect gone to seed, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), the mentally impaired baby who spends most of his time fiddling with 8mm film. To Hank, he shows only open hostility.

Things grow more complicated when the judge is charged with running down a man on a bicycle with his car, and Hank is eventually brought in to defend him, after the local yokel attorney/antique dealer (Dax Shepard) proves spectacularly unequal to the task.

The last half of the movie is mostly taken up by the trial, as Hank faces off with a slick prosecutor brought in special from Gary named Dwight Dickham (an intimidating Billy Bob Thornton), who seems to bear some kind of grudge against the Palmers.

There’s a strong through-line of a narrative in “The Judge,” but also way too many unnecessary elements. We’ve got Hank hooking up with an old flame (Vera Farmiga), who adores Hank for all his faults, including “that hyper-verbal vomit thing you do” -- which is a much better description of this Downey trait than the one I gave above.

And there’s drama about the dashing of Glen’s major league dreams, the death of the judge’s wife, a nasty old criminal case that haunts the current proceedings, a visit from Hank’s daughter, a kittenish bartender at the local pub (Leighton Meester) who hooks up with him and is later revealed to be … well, it’s just creepy.

There’s a lot good going on in “The Judge.” But at 141 minutes it needed a serious editing trim and/or screenplay rethink to hone it down. The essence is a triangle story with Downey, Duvall and Thornton each supporting one leg, and you don’t really need anything beyond that to muddy things up.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: "Kill the Messenger"

Gary Webb's career was killed not so much by the CIA as by professional jealousy. His stories, first published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, alleged that the CIA engineered, or at least willingly allowed, money from drug trafficking in the U.S. to support the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration.

These facts would be largely corroborated by subsequent government investigations. But Webb, first hailed as a journalistic hero, was systematically torn apart by the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The new film about Webb's story and its aftermath, "Kill the Messenger," portrays the editors at the big national papers as incensed that they had been scooped by a perceived inferior competitor.

If this sounds far-fetched, then you've never worked at a newspaper. They can be insular, fiercely protective enclaves, both internally and especially in dealing with rivals. When you beat them on a moderately big story, they try to ignore it -- as if the very fact that they didn't run anything about it diminishes its importance.

If you beat the other team at a really big story, the story often becomes about you. Webb found himself celebrated, then targeted, then summarily drummed out of the business. He committed suicide seven years later.

But the wider availability of information in the Internet age prompted many to follow up on his big story and legacy, including Nick Schou, who wrote the book "Kill the Messenger" upon which this movie is based, along with Webb's own tome, "Dark Alliance."

Jeremy Renner plays Webb as a prototypically normal family man, who likes to hang out with his kids and tinker with motorcycles. Except, that is, when he gets a bite of a good story -- then he becomes a Rottweiler, not just unwilling but biologically incapable of letting go.

The film, directed by Michael Cuesta from a screenplay by Peter Landesman, is firmly in Webb's corner as a righteous journalist done wrong by the powers that be. Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who play his editors, practically leak air as turncoats who have their reporter's back, until they don't.

The movie similarly starts stronger and then grows fuzzy around the edges. The first half, as Webb meticulously hunts down leads, most of them from the underworld of South and Central America cocaine traffickers, shows the drudgery of investigative journalism, sparked by occasional electricity when connections are made.

The second half gets a little repetitive and dreary, as the backlash against Webb grows, reputedly inspired by a concerted effort by the CIA itself. Shadowy figures start hanging out around Webb's home, and mute men in suits paw through his papers without even a by-your-leave.

The relationship between Webb and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) follows the traditional line in these sorts of movies, where the loving, understanding spouse grows concerned about how invested their partner is in their work, pushes back, and eventually dire choices must be made. They seem to fall in and out of love in just a few ticks on the clock.

The good outweighs the bad in "Kill the Messenger," but like Webb's reporting -- prone to exaggeration and theatricality, but essentially true -- it tries too hard at embellishing a good tale that needed no help.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Reeling Backward: "A Bridge Too Far" (1977)

Recently this column focused on "Theirs Is the Glory," a fairly unique film in which the actual participants of the failed Allied stratagem to end World War II by Christmas 1944, Operation Market Garden, returned to the site of the battles one year after the fact to recreate the action for a motion picture. The same military operation later became the basis for the 1977 feature film, "A Bridge Too Far."

In my essay on "Theirs Is the Glory," I mostly concentrated on the similarities between it and "Bridge," wondering if screenwriter William Goldman or author Cornelius Ryan, on whose book the latter film is based, were influenced by the earlier picture. That inspired me to go back to "A Bridge Too Far," and see how it has held up to my memory.

It only reinforced my opinion: "A Bridge Too Far" is one of the great WWII epics, and an incredible marriage of narrative structure, inspired direction, gritty performances and technical mastery from the support crew, particularly the musical score by John Addison (who himself served as a soldier in Market Garden).

Market Garden would remain a forgotten bit of history for 30 years until Cornelius Ryan wrote his book about the adventure, in which the Allies dropped 35,000 paratroopers behind enemy lines to capture a series of bridges. The plan was to have XXX Corp, the British armor column, punch up the road to connect the bridges, thus creating a hole directly into Germany.

Except, the Allies ignored evidence of a great deal of German resistance along the route, including an entire Panzer tank division near Arnhem, the last and most important of the bridges, since it spanned the Rhine River and the border into Germany itself. The British paratroopers, who were only supposed to have to hold the bridge for two days, gave up after nine, leaving behind 80% of their men as casualties or prisoners of war.

That's a lot of story to cram into a feature film, even a three-hour one, but Goldman's screenplay is an exercise in elegant structure. The story begins and ends with generals, both Allied and German, as they plan bold stratagems and then later try to pick up the pieces of where things went wrong. The middle section focuses on the lower ranks of soldiers, the dogfaces who actually have to carry out the fight their superiors dreamed up.

You've heard of "all-star casts," but this one is simply jaw-dropping. For the Brits: Anthony Hopkins, Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Sean Connery. For the Germans: Hardy Krüger, Maximilian Schell, Wolfgang Preiss. For the Americans: Robert Redford, Elliot Gould, Gene Hackman, James Cann, Ryan O'Neal. Not to mention Liv Ullman and Laurience Olivier  as Dutch civilians. And Denholm Elliott and John Ratzenberger turning up in bit roles.

Redford, arguably the biggest movie star in the world at the time, doesn't even show up until after the two-hour mark. 

I found it interesting how the script is laid out into essentially four sections. The first is the planning of Operation Market Garden, in which British heads are swelled and the first seeds of doubt creep in. Frank Grimes has a terrific role as a nervous major who unsuccessfully points out the presence of tanks, and is sent on medical leave as a result. The second section is the actual drop, a beautiful and daunting ballet of parachutes -- more than 1,000 men jumped out of planes for the sequence -- and the Allies' initial success in taking their objectives. The third is what I call the "American vignettes," and the last act is when everything goes to hell.

The vignettes are a quick succession of three stories centered around American characters. Elliott Gould is up first in a semi-comedic bit about his regiment failing to take the first bridge before the Germans blow it up, necessitating the building of a claptrap "Bailey bridge" to get the tanks across -- but not before delaying them 36 hours. Gould is terrific and charismatic, chomping on a cigar and shouting jokes in between the orders. Addison's music goes into a jazzy, bouncy mode.

Then we get James Caan as a nearly monosyllabic sergeant who protects his young captain -- he doesn't put on his coat at first, so we think he's just a punk private or something -- even guaranteeing the officer that he won't die. He appears to fail in his mission, as the captain is left for dead after being shot in the head. But the sergeant carries the body in a jeep through enemy lines to a mobile Army hospital and, at gunpoint, forces the surgeon (a spot-on Arthur Hill) to examine the wounded lad, revealing that he's still alive. 

(This may sound like Hollywood bullshit, but other than the part about being chased in a jeep by German soldiers, it really happened.)

The last and most harrowing of the vignettes is Redford as the major tasked with crossing the Waal River and taking the bridge at Nijmegen. Due to logistical snafus, they had to make a daytime crossing in flimsy portable boats, the wind blew away their smoke cover, and the unit was cut to pieces. Watching Redford with his helmeted head tucked down, pulling his rifle butt through the water like an oar, all the while chanting "Hail Mary, full of grace..." remains one of my seminal cinematic moments. (Again, this really happened.)

Sean Connery also gets a mini-vignette of his own as Major General Roy Urquhart, commander of the British airborne division dropped near Arnhem, who gets cut off from his own command and has to hide out in a little Dutch enclave, dodging from house to house, during which time he is presumed dead.

Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning, played by Dirk Bogarde, more or less acts as the heavy, playing the gung-ho Brit general who will not cancel the operation for any reason. Those who "rock the boat" are encouraged to clam up or suffer the consequences. 

At the end of the film Browning is depicted as duplicitously claiming to always have been skeptical about the operation -- "As you know I've always thought we tried to go a bridge too far" -- rather than an unreserved booster. In reality, Browning raised his doubts prior to the operation, and he and his family -- Bogarde actually served alongside Browning during the war -- were outraged at his villainous portrayal.

It being only three decades and a bit after the events depicted, many of the actors had an opportunity to talk with and even befriend the men they were playing. Edward Fox knew Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks, commander of XXX Corp, prior to filming and later cited it as his favorite movie role. Michael Caine changed some of his dialogue after asking his counterpart how he would have issued orders, and the real Lt. Col. Johnny Frost had to explain to Anthony Hopkins that he would never have run too quickly between cover, because he had to show his men how contemptuous he was of enemy fire.

The production of "Bridge" is a Homeric story unto itself, and one others have already told better than I could -- notably by Goldman himself, who wrote a making-of book, "Story of a Bridge Too Far," and also included an entire chapter about it in his seminal showbiz tome, "Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade." 

(Extremely short version: Joseph E. Levine, a lifelong maverick producer, personally financed the film's $22 million budget -- about $86 million in today's dollars -- himself, then convinced some of the biggest global movie stars to participate by all accepting the same weekly pay rate. He recruited Richard Attenborough (him again) to direct, undertaking an incredible logistical and artistic challenge. Then as some of the amazing footage of the airdrops and battle scenes started to come back in, Levine showed the rushes to distributors who bid on the international distribution rights to the film. As a result, "Bridge" was already in the black before the first ticket was sold.)

The ultimate result was surprising, and not. Everywhere but the U.S. the film was a smash hit. Here, American and audiences and critics used to rousing pro-Allies depictions of the war collectively shrugged their shoulders at a massive production about a colossal military screw-up. Thus, "A Bridge Too Far" is barely known on these shores.

Their loss; "A Bridge Too Far" was perhaps the last of the great World War II epics.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Video review: "Edge of Tomorrow."

American ticket buyers continue to give Tom Cruise movies the stink-eye, but that doesn’t mean the films aren’t any good. Case in point: “Edge of Tomorrow,” a solid science-fiction thriller that didn’t amount to any great shakes at the domestic box office (though it fared better overseas).

The concept is mash-up of familiar ideas we’ve seen in other movies: creepy alien bugs are threatening to take over the Earth, and we’ve got to stand our ground. Cruise plays William Cage, a smarmy advertising exec-turned military spokesman, who finds himself dumped into a massive assault effort without any combat training or experience.

And… he dies.

Not surprising, given his applicable skillset (or lack thereof). What is surprising is that he wakes up, alive, and it’s the morning before the operation. He gives the mission another go. And dies. And tries again. Dies… though he lives a little longer this time.

It seems Cage got infected with some alien goo that affords him the power to travel through time and “reset the day,” a la “Groundhog Day.” So he makes it his duty to keep trying to find a winning solution to the disastrous war plan. He recruits an ally in Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the gruff war hero he helped turn into a celebrity.

The action scenes are frenetic and absorbing, with Cage having to learn to use one of those cool exo-skeleton/armor thingees that seem so prevalent in sci-fi flicks these days. Director Doug Liman directed the first, and best, Jason Bourne movie, and knows how to keep the main character seem grounded amidst a fantastical backdrop.

The aliens are a bit of a disappointment, resembling balls of metallic tentacles that roll and thrash around the screen. They’re video-game boogums, meant to scare us and be blown away.

“Edge of Tomorrow” has occasional bouts of supreme silliness, but it’s worth a look… or two.

Video extras are OK. The DVD version comes with two featurettes: “Weapons Of The Future” and “Creatures Not Of This World.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add another featurette on filming the storming of the beach, deleted scenes, an interview with Liman and an “Adrenaline Cut” of the film’s signature action scenes.



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: "The Good Lie"

I admit I was cringing when I went in to see “The Good Lie,” the based-on-truth story of the Lost Boys of Sudan – refugees of war, thousands of whom eventually made their way to the U.S. and built something positive out of the ashes of their orphanhood.

I was leery not because of its touchy subject matter, but because Hollywood movies about people of color so often employ a white protagonist to make the troubles of the subjects seem “relatable,” or whatever ridiculous reason they provide. Even good, sincere efforts like “The Help” have relied upon this insidious crutch, and when I saw cutie Reese Witherspoon in the cast credits, I thought “Here we go…”

I’m happy to report that Witherspoon, while a key part of the story, is a supporting character and the focus remains squarely on the African actors, most of whom are actually Sudanese. She doesn’t even show up until a half-hour into the movie, acts as the boys’ guide in finding jobs and settling into America, then cedes into the background where she belongs.

Director Philippe Falardeau’s last movie, the wonderful “Monsieur Lazhar,” was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film, and TV veteran Margaret Nagle supplies the screenplay. The final result is heartfelt, occasionally dipping a toe into maudlin, but also surprisingly funny and wise.

The first part is the best and most harrowing, as we watch a group of Sudanese children escape the destruction of their village and the death of all of their parents. (Only a few are actually siblings, but they refer to each other as “brothers” and “sisters.”) They must trek 1,000 miles on foot to Kenya, more of their number dying along the way, just so they can become ensconced in a massive refugee camp.

At first we think this will be the story of Theo (a terrific Okwar Jale), the eldest child who, by rite of all the adults of the tribe being killed, is made Chief and leader. He is patient and kind, pushing the little ones to great lengths on their perilous journey but also serving as their unwavering protector. There’s an incredible moment where Theo holds a piece of glass, the group’s only real tool, under the noses of his sleeping charges to see if they still draw breath.

But circumstances change and impetuous Mamere (Peterdeng Mongok) becomes chief. They eventually make it to Kenya and, after growing to adulthood, are selected for a church program that sends lost boys (and girls) to America. Though they are separated from their beloved sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel), the three resolve to start new lives in Kansas City.

The middle part of the movie is largely a fish-out-of-water story, as young men who literally grew up fighting off lions must take on the First World challenges of telephones, buses and crabby bosses. Mamere (now played by Arnold Oceng), dreams of becoming a doctor and feels guilt over his actions regarding Theo.

The other two are Jeremiah (Ger Duany), tall and soulful, and Paul (Emmanuel Jal), a mechanical whiz who is prone to impetuousness and despair. Mamere, still acting as chief, tries to keep his little tribe from splintering further.

Witherspoon plays Carrie, a young-ish woman with a messy life and messier house, who helps the lost boys get jobs but keeps finding herself circling back to offer a hand and, eventually, friendship.

There’s a point late in “The Good Lie” where someone must fly back to Kenya and navigate the nightmarish diplomatic bureaucracy in order to right a great wrong. In a lesser movie it would be the perky blonde heroine who has taken up the cause of the helpless Africans. Here, the Sudanese make their own choices.