Sunday, November 30, 2014

Video review: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Technically, I’m not sure if “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the sequel to the prequel to the “Apes” movies from the 1960 and ‘70s, or what. But I do know it was the most entertaining movie I saw this summer.

The follow-up to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is set 10 years down the road, when humans have mostly died off due to disease and intelligent apes are now the Earth’s prime species. Represented entirely through computer animation, the chimps, gorillas, baboons, orangutans, etc. squint and snarl, bicker and bond, and also speak English when the mood strikes them.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the leader who championed the uprising against the humans, and now suspects they’re extinct. But then Marcus (Jason Clarke) shows up on the doorstep to their forest village with a band of other people in tow. After some convincing, Caesar reluctantly agrees to help them turn the power back on at the nearby hydroelectric dam, but it soon becomes clear that the coming conflict is unavoidable – both between and within species.

The human characters are a bit blah, but the interactions between the apes are electric. Caesar has a deep bond of trust with his chief lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), but when the latter encounters humans, it triggers his memories of being medically experimented upon. Similarly, on the human side there are those who fear the apes and think it would be better if they were just wiped out.

With its mix of soulful reflection and engaging sci-fi, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was the best big-budget spectacle this past summer had to offer.

Video extras are quite extensive. There are deleted scenes, a production gallery of photos, feature-length commentary track by director Matt Reeves, and eight making-of featurettes.



Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: "Penguins of Madagascar"

The “Madagascar” movies have run their course, and if spinning off the cute penguin sidekicks into their own movie seems like a cheap grab for more bucks, that’s because it is.

There really is no reason for this film to exist, or more accurately there is no reason for it to exist as a film. Lots of animated movie franchises now replicate themselves into straight-to-video shorts, including “Toy Story,” “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.” There’s no shame in it – my kids love to watch these off the DVR or Netflix.

The problem comes in taking a story that is all television and trying to pass it off as a whole movie. “Penguins of Madagascar” is like that. The trio of screenwriters are all TV guys, and it shows. It’s just a bunch of goofy jokes and antic capers with barely a story thread to connect them.

It likely will keep wee ones entertained, though adults may find their eyelids growing droopy (as did I).

As you’ll recall, the running joke about the penguins is that they act like secret agent men. Their chief, Skipper (voice of Tom McGrath), talks like a G-man from a 1950s television show. Of course, it’s funny that clownish, winsome penguins act like mini-James Bondses … for a while. Trying to run out the gag for 92 minutes quickly grows weary.

To help string it along, they add an extra dimension: the youngest penguin, Private (Christopher Knights), is the adorable mascot of the foursome, beloved more for his endearing ways and looks than as integral member of the team. Over the course of the show… er, excuse me, movie, he gets to grow in their esteem.

The other two penguins are Kowalski (Chris Miller), Skipper’s right-hand man and teller of truths, even when inconvenient and upsetting; Rico (Conrad Vernon) has a penchant for swallowing things, and blowing stuff up, and swallowing things that later blow up after he’s expectorated them.

John Malkovich is really good as the heavy, an octopus named Dave who sometimes masquerades as a human scientist who looks exactly like Dwight Schrute from “The Office.”  It seems he’s a former zoo resident who hated having his limelight stolen by penguins, and now he’s created an energy ray that makes them less pretty, or something.

(Sorry if I’m a little fuzzy on the details; seriously, I think I may have nodded off.)

The X-factor in the story is another team of group of critter agents. They call themselves the North Wind, as all the animals are arctic-oriented, and they drive the penguins mad with jealousy because of all their cool equipment and vehicles. Compared to them, the penguins are old-school amateurs.

The interlopers are: Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) – his name isn’t classified; it’s actually “Classified”; Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), a peevish seal; Eva (Annet Mahendru), an alluring snow owl; and Corporal (Peter Stormare), a Russian polar bear who acts as the outfit’s muscle.

The humor is largely of the slapstick-and-bodily-emissions variety, perfectly suited to the kindergarten crowd. Co-directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith stage action scenes that are generally pretty coherent.

There are also a few in-jokes scattered throughout the dialogue, in which names of celebrities are buried inside seemingly mundane chatter: “Elijah, would you hand me that?” And listen carefully to the narrator at the beginning – it’s probably the best laugh of the movie, for those who get it.

I tittered at a few of these, while recognizing this movie was not made for me. Or anyone who counts their age in double digits.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: "Horrible Bosses 2"

I liked “Horrible Bosses” just enough to give it a wobbly recommendation. It was a scattershot-funny comedy with a novel premise: three working stiffs decide to off their evil bosses, with each doing another’s tormentor to throw off suspicion. Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikas and Jason were agreeably dippy as modern guys trying to get medieval, and failing pathetically.

It did well at the box office, so here’s the inevitable sequel, with an almost entirely different set of filmmakers swapped out and anything resembling cleverness leached away.

The setup is that the trio has now left behind the world of worker bee slavery to become their own bosses. They’ve come up with an idea for a product called the Shower Buddy, which, near as I can determine, all it does differently from a regular shower head is also squirt shampoo on you along with the water. The miracles of the modern age!

Still, it does well enough that they launch their company, rent a warehouse, buy some equipment and start hiring employees. There’s a modestly funny montage of them conducting job interviews, with the joke being that they hire absolutely everyone, including the scary ex-con and the woman who can’t speak English.

At first, I thought this would be a deliciously sly bit of satire in which the upstarts themselves turn into the horrible bosses, and another set of underlings decide to kill them, leading to more recriminations and hijinks. Alas, no, it quickly devolves into an unfunny retread of the last movie, but instead of attempted murder they kidnap somebody for ransom.

The heavy here is Christoph Waltz as the magnate of a home products retailer, who agrees to carry the Shower Buddy but then reneges at the last minute, threatening to toss the boys into financial ruin. To get back at him and retrieve their money, they resolve to kidnap the jerk’s even jerkier son, played by Chris Pine. But the kid has a better idea: cut him in on the scam, and they don’t even have to go through with the actual kidnapping.

The lead actors all play familiar versions of their star personas. Bateman is Nick, the careful, slightly repressed one; Day is Dale, the nervous nebbish who now has a wife and triplet baby daughters; Sudeikis is Kurt, the resident horndog because, well, every comedy ensemble needs one.

Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Jamie Foxx all return for cameos of their characters from the original movie, respectively: sadistic boss, now behind bars; sex-addicted dentist, still addicted to sex; and criminal consigliore who’s a lot less badass than he lets on.

Aniston was the MVP of the last movie, and proves so again here. Maybe it’s because she’s largely played sweethearts that the notion of her as a lecherous pervert is especially zingy, but in any case she scores the most laughs with her naughty banter.

The jokes come fast, fast, fast and mostly miss, miss, miss. The script seems barely polished above the level of ad-lib, and largely consists of a bunch of scenes of the crew popping off and cracking on each other.

I’m still a little fuzzy about who exactly the horrible bosses of “Horrible Bosses 2” are supposed to be – the Waltz character may be a tool but he’s not their boss, just a backstabbing customer. Of course, “Horrible Vendor-Client Relationships” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Rock 'n' Roll High School" (1979)

Like the band it features/fellates, The Ramones, "Rock 'n' Roll High School" managed to achieve cultural iconography without ever enjoying the mainstream success that usually accompanies it.

The Ramones, now generally regarded as one of the most influential punk banks of the 1970s, only had one gold record: a compilation of hits. The 1979 movie, a product of the house of low-budget schlockmeister Roger Corman, never made any big waves at the box office, but like many of his cinematic progeny found popularity at midnight movie showings and on video.

It had a budget of $200,000, which is still only about $650,000 in today's dollars, and has since made that back many times over.

It's a fun, frothy, dim-witted teenage romp assembled along the usual lines of the familiar vibrant youth vs. stodgy grownups theme: kids just want to dance and party, and teachers/administrators/authority figures are joyless drones enforcing the arbitrary dull routine of The Man.

Corman favorite Mary Woronov as Miss Evelyn Togar, the iron maiden of a new principal looking to impose order at Vince Lombardi High, has film counterparts in Dean Wormer from "Animal House," Rev. Moore from "Footloose" and countless others. As is often the case with females in charge, there's also a heavy accent of sexual domination. Because women in power are scary, y'know.

In the grand tradition of high school movies, most of the cast were deep into their 20s and, in the case of star P.J. Soles, bumping up hard against 30. I feel compelled to point out that Woronov was only a few years older than the supposed teens her character supervised. Clint Howard as Eaglebauer, resident student head of black market activities, was barely turned 20 but looked older than everybody else.

Soles plays Riff Randell -- one of the all-time great movie character names -- who is the head of the school's rock 'n' rollers and the Ramones' #1 fan. The story thread, such as it is, is that Riff has written a new song that she wants the band to play, which is the Ramones' real song and the title of this film. Togar takes away her tickets, but Riff conspires to get into the concert anyway and meet her heroes. Soles even gets to perform her own version of the song in a gym class routine.

Like untold starlets before her, Soles' career arc is a sad if all too common tale. She had her first role in "Carrie," was Michael Myers' topless victim in the original "Halloween," enjoyed a starring role in "Rock 'n' Roll High School," had small but memorable parts in "Breaking Away," "Private Benjamin" and "Stripes," and seemed to be on her way to stardom until ... she more or less disappeared. In 2004 a band even titled their album, "Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles?"

That's not really fair, as if you look at her profile Soles has actually stayed pretty consistently busy on TV and film for the past 35 years. But she was a vibrant, puckish presence in her early films, especially so in "Rock 'n' Roll High School." Her Riff is brimming with insouciance and defiance, a headstrong party girl who fought the power because the power sucked, and, well, because it was fun.

With her neon-colored Chuck Taylors bopping and hips swiveling admirably in the best sort of white girl proto-twerk, Soles rocked with flair and confidence.

The secondary story involves Riff's best friend, Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), the school genius/nerd who yearns to be rid of her virginity. She's a classic high school movie ugly duckling, in that she's an obviously beautiful girl who wears pulled-back hair, frumpy clothes and oversized, face-swallowing glasses.

Kate secretly adores Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten, son of Dick), captain of the football team and a total dreamboat, but who can't find anything to talk to girls about except the weather. He in turn pines for Riff, but is steered by Eaglebauer's hook-up service -- guaranteed or your money back! -- to Kate.

The Ramones show up about one-third of the way through, and probably close to 50% of the total movie is devoted to the playing of their songs. As a Ramones fan, I enjoyed these scenes even as I realized they existed mostly to pump up the movie's run time into the acceptable 90-ish minute range.

Joey Ramone and his erstwhile brothers can't act their way out of a paper bag, gumming their lines as if reading them for the very first time. Finally, Snoop Dogg has a challenger for the title of worst musician-to-movie-star transition.

Paul Bartel has a fun, tidy role as Mr. McGree, the snooty classical music teacher who disdains the Ramones until he stumbles into the concert and becomes a tweed-wearing punk rock devotee. Don Steele, a real-life successful DJ, moonlighted as an actor in Corman films and shows up here as Screamin' Steve Stevens, a local radio personality who sort of acts as the film's emcee and Greek chorus.

The movie's a hoot in a dumb sort of way, with everything played very cheesy and goofy. Jokes hit and miss, but come at such a furious pace the duds sink fast and are forgotten. Miss Togar's chief toadies are a pair of hall monitors who are fat and unattractive and, for some reason, wear Boy Scout-ish outfits complete with kerchiefs. Their favorite duty is performing body searches on female students.

As a cultural artifact, perhaps the most notable thing about "Rock 'n' Roll High School" is its tameness. It was rated PG, and aside from a few scenes of characters toking up doobies and one guy snorting coke, there really isn't much sex and drugs. Soles briefly appears topless, but only from behind, getting into her shower during a dream sequence, where she discovers the Ramones guitarist flailing away. There's also a super-short snippet of a co-ed shower taking place during the big final party sequence, but everyone's covered in bubbles up to their shoulders.

I think Corman and his stand-in filmmakers -- director Allan Arkush, screenwriters Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride -- were just looking for a quickie pop music comedy to lure in the kiddies who bought tickets to "Grease" and snuck into "Animal House." And that's what they got. (Joe Dante, one of many graduates of Corman's unofficial film school, assisted with the story and direction.)

Supposedly the original title for the project was "Disco High," but polyester suits and synthesized beats were already waning by '79, so they wisely went with the hipper, harsher new sound of the day.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Video review: "The November Man"

When he was a younger man, Pierce Brosnan played James Bond and was quite good at, to my mind. Now he’s around 60 and too old to play a run-of-the-mill spy, but of just the right vintage to segue into the burgeoning Geezer Spy genre --  now dominated by Liam Neeson (“Taken”) but also populated by the likes of Kevin Costner (“3 Days to Kill”) and Denzel Washington (“The Equalizer.”)

These movies all tend to resemble each other, to wit: our hero is an efficient, ruthless killer who has now retired from the game/faked his death, but is recruited/forced to take on One Last Job which, of course, goes horribly awry and thus he must wade through a veritable army of bad guys who mock him for his decrepitude, until he shows them what a supreme badass he still is.

The whole thing is an exercise in aging Baby Boomer fantasy, which doesn't necessarily mean the movie won't be very good, though that is in fact the case with "The November Man."

The plot is a nigh-incomprehensible mish-mash of gunfights, car chases and distressed damsels, with Brosnan as an ex-CIA man who finds himself facing off with some of his old crew, plus some new whippersnappers.

He's brought in to sneak out a high-level source, who is then assassinated in the middle of the operation. Soon he's laying waste to Russian mafia, various assorted goons and his own CIA handlers/turncoats.

The action scenes are crisp and engaging, but any time people start talking the movie slows to a crawl.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the ideas of geriatrics pulverizing their younger competition. Until they can come up with some fresher stories, though, best to leave the oldsters in retirement.

Extra features are pretty good, though you'll have to spring for the Blu-ray edition to get them -- the DVD version comes with zilch.

There's a making-of documentary, featurettes on shooting in Belgrade and Brosnan's comeback, plus a feature-length commentary with Brosnan, director Roger Donaldson and producer Beau ST. Clair.



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1"

I haven't been a big fan of "The Hunger Games" series in general, and now it's fallen into the trap of so many fantasy/supernatural franchises based on books -- splitting up a novel into two movies. It's been done by Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Twilight and I'm sure the Divergent folks are gearing up to follow suit.

Nearly always, this is done for business rather than artistic reasons -- why sell one ticket to the series' slavering YA fans when you can sell two?

What usually ends up happening is that the penultimate movie is a bunch of boring exposition and build-up, and you have to wait for the follow-up for the real catharsis.

It should be noted that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1" is 20-25 minutes shorter than the previous two films, and the lack of a substantive narrative is glaring. It essentially plays out as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), having escaped the tortures of the gladiator-like televised games organized by the oppressive nation of Panem, spending most of the movie wandering around looking haunted and google-eyed.

The thing we liked about Katniss is that she's tough, resourceful and fiercely independent. She made things happen and shook things up. Here, relegated to a more passive, reactionary role, she comes across as a whiny teen thrust onto a stage she hasn't earned.

The action scenes are still engaging, what few of them there are, and Donald Sutherland still has a twinkly, loathsome presence as President Snow, the thoroughly evil dictator brutally putting down a rebellion inspired by Katniss, aka the Mockingjay.

Long stretches, though, are just plain dull.

If you'll recall from the last movie: Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), having jointly won their Hunger Games by faking a romance for the benefit of the audience, were recalled by Snow to participate in another games featuring past champions. It turns out the rebellion, aided by Games Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), had rigged the games to break out Katniss and several other of the champions as a way to stoke the rebellion in the various Districts.

Katniss, brilliant scientist Betee (Jeffrey Wright) and pretty boy Finnick (Sam Claflin) were rescued, but Peeta and the others were captured by the forces of the Capital. Katniss finds herself in the hands of District 13, the stark underground home base of the rebellion, which is led by enigmatic president Coin (Julianne Moore).

She finds some familiar faces who survived the bombing of her own district, including her mother, sister and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her childhood friend and would-be lover. Katniss is tasked with appearing in a bunch of propaganda videos, or propos, decked out in a cool black Mockingjay uniform. But she turns out to be a terrible actress, so they decide to put her into actual combat, which yields some better footage. The war plays out mostly offscreen, with reports of various insurrections and retaliations filtering in.

The big surprise is when Peeta starts showing up in Capital broadcasts as the counterpoint to Katniss, urging peace and responsibility. He's denounced as a traitor by the rebels, and Katniss has to deal with her complicated feelings for him. She doesn't fully return the romantic ardor Peeta had for her, but there is love on some level. The pair, formerly faux lovers, are pushed by their respective backers into positions of antagonism.

Director Francis Lawrence, a holdover from the last movie, is joined by two new screenwriters, Danny Strong and Peter Craig, in adapting Suzanne Collins' novel. I've actually read all three of the Hunger Games books -- don't judge; it was research! -- and have been surprised by how faithfully the films have followed them.

Fans may appreciate this ultimate fidelity, but it can actually be a problem when adapting a book to the movies. The rhythms of the page and the screen are completely different, and I think that's why so many sections of this movie feel like we're treading water, story-wise.

I mean, at this point what purpose do Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) serve in the movie, other than recalling some friendly faces? Their tiny bit of expositional dialogue could easily be passed off to other characters. Kill 'em off, I say.

They key challenge in adapting a book to film is finding ways to condense and distill the tale down to its essence. There's no such attempt at cinematic alchemy here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: "The Theory of Everything"

“The Theory of Everything” seemingly falls into the category of what I call “Great Man” movies, which are biopics of historically notable people that attempt to take you behind the public persona and get at the living person behind the façade. “Ray,” “Capote,” “The Iron Lady” are recent examples.

I generally relish these movies, though it seems like there’s a built-in ceiling on how good they can be. They’re usually anchored by an amazing, Oscar-caliber performance that dominates so much it tends to suck all the air out of the film. It becomes a showcase rather than a story.

“The Theory of Everything” has many aspects of the Great Man genre, including a turn by Eddie Redmayne as physicist Stephen Hawking that is sure to generate a lot of talk come Oscar balloting. It’s full of a lot of “behavior,” but also plenty of soulfulness.

But the film is also about Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane Hawking, and how they navigated their romantic lives around his crippling ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which left him confined to a wheelchair at a young age and eventually unable to speak. That’s not surprising, considering this movie is based on Jane’s book about their relationship, adapted for the screen by Anthony McCarten.

Felicity Jones plays Jane, and if she’s not exactly Stephen’s co-equal in the film’s narrative focus, she at least holds her own in her scenes with Redmayne. Together they draw a portrait of love and sacrifice, of limitations both physical and emotional.

This is not so much “the Stephen Hawking story” as the story of the Hawkings.

Director James Marsh has toddled back and forth between documentaries (including the Academy Award-winning “Man on Wire”) and narrative features, and brings a sensibility of observation without trying to strong-arm the story into places where he might want it to go.

He focuses most of his attention on the early part of the Hawkings’ lives, starting when Stephen was a gangly British doctoral physics student who fell in love with Jane, a lover of languages. Even then, Stephen’s physical ticks hint at trouble to come, such as his scrabbly chalkboard writing of equations or the pigeon-toed walk that sometimes barely keeps him upright.

Harry Lloyd and David Thewlis are spot-on in smallish, tidy roles’ as Stephen’s gregarious best friend and mentor, respectively. Emily Watson is used poorly in a cameo as his mother; I suspect her part got cut down during editing.

Marsh and McCarten don’t get too deep into the woods of Hawking’s theories about black holes and the beginning of the universe, focusing more on the poetic aspects that work cinematically rather than the nuts-and-bolts of the actual theorems. It’s probably a wise move, but they stay so far away from the specifics of what made Hawking world-famous that it saps the character’s integrity -- we know he’s important because we’re told he is.

There are some bleak and beautiful scenes in “Everything” as we witness Stephen’s descent into disability, even as his mind reaches for the heavens.

I particularly liked the moment where he, having gotten around for years on a pair of canes, agrees to use a wheelchair. “It’s just temporary,” he stammers out in his warped speech, smiling at the lie he and his spouse have shared. There’s also the scene where he first uses the voice synthesizer that became Hawking’s trademark, joking that people will assume he’s American.

With three children and acclaim descending upon Stephen, they would seem to have all the ingredients for happiness. But the film shows how a life of total selflessness wears upon Jane, a burden she has taken on willingly but comes to resent. When a friendly face appears to help out, in the form of her choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox), she’s relieved.

Soon he’s incorporated into the family unit like a brother/uncle, and it becomes clear Jonathan and Jane share feelings for each other. Stephen, alert and observant, understands the dynamic and, through his passivity, essentially blesses it. What might seem odd or even perverse to some is rendered into unremarkable normalcy.

Most of the attention for “The Theory of Everything” will focus on the particulars of Stephen Hawking’s condition, and his bravery in rising above it. The real story, though, is about how one loves a great person who is not necessarily capable of fulling returning it, which is deeper and more interesting.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Wild Geese" (1978)

"The Wild Geese" is just an aggressively bad piece of crap. It was part of the "war adventure" pictures that seemed to have a heyday during the 1970s and early '80s, often idolizing the mercenaries and spies who had so often played cinematic heavies. In many ways these movies, largely exploitative escapist fantasy, were a reaction to the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.

The hook here is that it's four old mercenaries having another go. I'd call it the proverbial "one last job," except that while half the four main characters have to be lured back into the game, the other two see it as just another in a series of missions.

Stars Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore and Hardy Krüger were, respectively, 53, 48, 51 and 50 when the film came out in 1978 -- though Burton, long beset by ailments self-inflicted and not, looked closer to 70 than 50. I don't know if their chronological ages qualify as "old," though maybe that's a self-defense mechanism on my part, since I'm not much younger than that.

The set-up is that Allen Faulkner (Burton), a former colonel in the British army, is hired by Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger), a powerful banker and nobleman, to rescue a deposed African president named Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona). Limbani is a true reformer, a force for good in a continent that has often known despotic rulers who only wish to exploit their own people and natural resources.

But Matherson is not in it for altruistic purposes, nor indeed is Faulkner. The bankers want him back in power because they think he'll be better for business that his autocratic usurper. And Faulkner, who has fought on the behalf of clients both noble and not, sees a big paycheck -- as well as a taste of the adventure he craves.

That's a recurring theme among the 50 or so ex-soldiers Faulkner recruits for the mission: a desire to return to a life that had meaning, even if it was very dangerous. Most of the men are over 40, a few out of shape, but mostly still fellows in their prime who want to hold a gun again and make a difference -- while collecting a huge paycheck, of course.

Like so many movies of this ilk, the first half has to do with recruiting the team and putting the pieces into place, and the second half is the mission itself, which always starts out smooth as whipped butter and soon turns to disaster. In this case, it's because Matherson pulls his support at the last minute, choosing Limbani's successor over the man he's just paid to have rescued. Their plane literally leaves them at the airstrip.

Faulkner's first recruit is Rafer Janders (Harris), a logistical whiz and military tactician. A man of conscience, he regrets having used his skills at the behest of unworthy dictators, and has settled into a contented life as an art dealer, raising a young son, Emile, alone after his much-younger French wife abandoned them. So beneficent is Rafer, he refuses to speak an ill word about his former lover. He's convinced to join because of Limbani's status as "the real thing" who will help his nation.

Moore turns up as Shawn Fynn, a rakish ladies' man who has fallen onto working for the local mob -- or "mah-fia," as they pronounce it in the British lilt. Other than a sequence where he kills a mobster's jerk kid and then briefly has a contract put out on his head, Fynn doesn't really serve much purpose in the story.

There's a ridiculous part where the hitmen, in the midst of trying to take out Fynn, Rafer and Faulkner, learn the contract has been lifted and suddenly flee away from the scene. Because those sorts of guys would hate to kill someone by accident.

Last, and least, is Krüger as Pieter Coetzee, a white South African who wants to use the money from the job to buy a farm in his homeland and settle down. Pieter has worked for a lot of despots to keep the black man down, and delights in calling Africans "kaffir," which is the roughly the American equivalent of the n-word.

After the rescue has been effected -- in a tightly wound action sequence that is probably the movie's best -- Pieter and Limbani start sniping at each other, with the African eventually convincing the Afrikaner that there are some things worth fighting for. Of course, this epiphany arrives just in time for Pieter to sacrifice himself for Limbani.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen (son of actor Victor) and screenwriter Reginald Rose, who adapted the then-unpublished novel by Daniel Carney, seem intent on creating an old-school "adventure film" with some modern themes. That's all well and fine, but they ended up with a straightforward, downbeat piece that plays out like a geriatric swan song.

The film did well overseas but flopped in the U.S., partly due to some studio troubles and partly because of the lack of an American star in the cast. It did spawn a 1985 sequel, which is even more lightly regarded than this film.

The Simbas, the force of supposedly elite African soldiers whom the Wild Geese fight -- I should mention this term is never used during the movie -- end up as a faceless bogeymen who fall down when the good guys shoot them. This is one of those pictures were the villainous bullets rarely (though eventually) find their mark, but the machine guns of the hero can take out four or five of the enemy in one deluge.

"The Wild Geese" has been criticized as racist, mostly because the film shot in South Africa during Apartheid, but also because of the way the Simbas are portrayed. Normally I resist this sort of politicized critique of movies, though here it's rather hard to avoid. 

I would swear that in several shots they used non-African actors or stunt men done up in blackface. And during one scene where they kill the mercenaries' homosexual medic with knives, I clearly heard the cries of chimpanzees on the soundtrack.

About that gay medic: Witty, played by Kenneth Griffith, somehow manages to be both a progressive and regressive icon in one depiction. On the one hand, he's a fairly stereotypical mincing fag, seemingly attracted to every straight man he comes in contact with. He even makes out his will to a beloved proctologist. But he's completely accepted by the other men of the mercenary unit, and he proves himself a brave and capable soldier.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Video review: "Into the Storm"

After I saw “Into the Storm” this summer I dismissed it as forgettable entertainment, but apparently I was even more spot-on in this assessment than I thought. When I was looking over titles in deciding what new video to write about this week, I literally couldn’t remember if I’d seen it or not.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s a perfectly agreeable special effects-heavy disaster thriller, with a few spectacular scenes as a major tornado event rips through a fictional Midwestern town. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and exist merely as the audience’s stand-ins as they bear witness to the unfolding spectacle.

To say the movie borrows from 1997’s “Twister” is an understatement; this is essentially an unauthorized remake. A team of stormchasers cruises around in a specially modified vehicle that is tornado-proof -- we’ll see about that! -- to capture the storm for posterity, scientific data and social media dap. Soon they’re in over their heads and debris is flying everywhere around.

This is part of the “found footage” style of filmmaking, in which the characters are using video cameras to record what happens to them in real time. It’s a nice gimmick, but sometimes you wonder why people don’t put down their camcorders to help their fellows in need.

Matt Walsh and Sarah Wayne Callies play the clashing leaders of the storm team; Richard Armitage is the vice principal of the local high school given to derring-do; Max Deacon and Nathan Kress) play his video-happy sons; and Alycia Debnam Carey is the obligatory cute girl.

“Into the Storm” is the cinematic equivalent of fast food: quick, cheap, tasty and soon evacuated from mind and body.

DVD extras are limited to a single making-of featurettes, “Fake Storms: Real Conditions.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add two more, “Into the Storm: Tornado Files” and “Titus: The Ultimate Chasing Vehicle.”



Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: "Rosewater"

I'm not sure if "Rosewater" would have receive all the intention it's getting if not for the presence of writer/director Jon Stewart, the TV funnyman/self-declared oracle who wanted to take a crack at something more serious. Still, it's a good film, a bit overly earnest, but certainly worthy of our attention.

It's not surprising Stewart chose the plight of journalist Maziar Bahari as his subject. The Canadian-Iranian was arrested by the Iranian regime in 2009 following an appearance on a segment for Stewart's "The Daily Show" in which the interviewer jokingly referred to Bahari as a Western spy. The Muslim fundamentalists who run the government, who aren't big on subtleties, arrested him and kept him in solitary confinement for nearly four months, where he was submitted to emotional and physical torture.

The film, based on a book by Bahari, takes a long time getting to its heart, which is Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal) trapped in a room with his "specialist," aka interrogator. The first 30 minutes or so show him wandering around Tehran covering the Iranian presidential elections, videotaping the sometimes-violent demonstrations, and visiting with his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo).

This section is supposed to establish Bahari's bona fides as a gentle free thinker who just wants to bear witness to the historical events taking place. But it slows down the proceedings greatly and sap them of emotional strength.

Once captured, though, the movie takes off even as the story stays more or less locked in a single room. Bahari is kept blindfolded almost all the time, facing a wall, while his specialist tries to elicit a confession out of him. Over the weeks and months that follow, he learns little about the man other than he uses rosewater as a cologne.

Trapped the rest of the time in a lonely cell, the man's mind begins to wander -- thinking of his pregnant wife, his father (Haluk Bilginer), who was himself kept a prisoner during the days of the Shah, and his sister (Golshifteh Farahani), who suffered a similar fate for being a Communist in the 1980s.

The conversations with his imagined father were the most interesting to me, as Bahari falls further into despair and considers giving up and signing the confession. In a demonstration of old-school manliness, his father's spirit urges him to "give them nothing" and resist the beatings, and walk out of prison with his head held high -- even if it takes years.

Eventually, Bahari finds a way to overcome his captors using his imagination and willpower. It's the triumph of the beta male.

The performances are generally solid, especially Kim Bodnia as "Rosewater," Bahari's chief interrogator. Bodnia portrays him as a man who knows he has an awful job, but tries to make the best of it as he can. Over time he forms a bond with his prisoner that is surprising to him, especially when his superior orders him to deliver an arbitrary beating.

"Rosewater" isn't a great drama, but it's a pretty good one. Whatever else you want to say, Jon Stewart has a future in movies if ever gets tired of being incredibly rich and successful on television.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: "Whiplash"

“Whiplash” is ostensibly about music, but actually it’s an expedition into human depravity -- and greatness.

Andrew Neyman is a 19-year-old drumming prodigy who gets tapped by a brilliant, domineering conductor to be lead stick man for the top jazz band at the world’s best music conservatory, then is subjected to a barrage of abuse and sadism that is not to be believed. The film is the tale of their relationship: student and teacher, victim and bully, innocent and despoiler.

We loathe the teacher, of course, but then watch with a combination of fascination and revulsion as Andrew absorbs the man’s foulness and starts to become a reflection of him. This amazing film, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, dares to ask prickly questions about what it takes to be a great artist, or a great anything.

Do suffering and accomplishment necessarily go hand-in-hand? Should people of exceptional talent and drive worry about being a good person? If you are the best there is at something, does that excuse being a colossal jerk? Can you reach the pinnacle of a career without stepping on others?

These are the sorts of things we ask ourselves in the blackest night, and tremble at the answers.

How bad is Lawrence Fletcher? Imagine the nastiest teacher you ever had, multiple it by 1,000, heap in a mountain of personal vindictiveness, pettiness, egomania and cruelty, and you would still not be close to reaching the horror of the conductor of the Studio Band at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City.

Fletcher rules the jazz program like a tyrant. Students and even other instructors bow their heads and fall silent when he strides into a practice room, spewing expletives and belittling judgment. Andrew, a freshman languishing as the alternate drummer in the second-tier band, is surprised and thrilled when Fletcher taps him to move to the top of the program. He’s even more flattered when the man chats him up and offers encouragement.

“Have fun,” Fletcher often says, though his chief vocation involves depriving everyone around him of it.

Andrew’s first practice session is instructive. The top drummer (Nate Lang) treats him like a flunky, there to turn pages and tune the snare drum. Fletcher throws out a trombonist when he admits to being off-pitch, even though it was actually another player -- to Fletcher, it’s worse to not know if you’re out of tune than fail to confess it.

Given a shot in the chair, Andrew is ridden by Fletcher to match his tempo, even though he seems to be spot on. Fletcher screams and spits, even slaps the boy around, then mocks Andrew when he weeps: “Oh my dear God, are you one of those single-tear people?”

Fletcher is, of course, a work of total fiction. In our modern age of lawsuits, anonymous professor ratings and touch-button video, the idea that someone like him could survive and thrive in such a high perch is preposterous. But J.K. Simmons never plays the man as a cartoon. Even though Fletcher’s antics are perpetually over the top, Simmons keeps him grounded, believable and utterly terrifying. It’s a masterful performance.

(I am astonished to learn that in his long and busy career, Simmons has never been nominated for an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe or individual Screen Actors Guild award. That’s about to change, I deem.)

Miles Teller, one of the finest actors of his young generation, holds the movie together as the sensitive, malleable Andrew. He throws himself into his work, determined to be the greatest jazz drummer since Buddy Rich, practicing until his hands bleed. Then he dunks them in ice water, bandages them up, and practices some more.

Andrew does this because he’s afraid of Fletcher, but also because he discovers inside himself a bedrock of determination, a will to succeed that matches his conductor’s. For a time they even appear to be in synch, as Andrew pushes away his adoring father and new girlfriend (Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist) to focus on his music.

But Fletcher is always there to raise the standard another notch, demand more, and throw nails in his pupil’s path. He insists he does this to help Andrew become the next Charlie Parker, relating a story about the young Bird having a cymbal thrown at his head as motivation. The baleful gleam in his eye, though, suggests he merely enjoys the torture for its own sake.

A bravura tale of antagonism and ambition, “Whiplash” is a masterpiece in double time.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Kit Carson" (1940)

It's funny to think about how much liberty Hollywood took with history back in its heyday. Nowadays if they make a movie about something that really happened and change around too many facts, audiences and critics would jump all over it for inaccuracies. But back in the day, they'd unfurl a whole bunch of BS and not blink twice.

Kit Carson, a mountain man, scout and quasi-military man, was already a legend during his lifetime. He helped blaze the trail to California through Oregon, fought in the Mexican-American War and, briefly, the Civil War. Books were written about his adventures as far back as 1849, there were a couple of movies, including 1940's "Kit Carson," plus a 1950s TV show. Most everything about his life, from the books to the shows, was made up out of whole cloth or twisted around to a laughable degree.

Fir instance, Carson actually made several expeditions with U.S. Army Captain (later general) John C. Frémont during the 1840s. Rather than Frémont recruiting Carson as the most renowned scout in the West, the two men bumped into each other on a steamboat cruise and the frontiersman pitched his services to the soldier.

Both men fought in the Mexican-American War, though separately. And both were already married when they met each other -- in Carson's case, several times over to American Indian brides. The certainly never fought gallantly over the hand of a wealthy Californian's daughter, Dolores, played by Lynn Bari.

In one of the more interesting aspects of this movie, each man is actually pushing the woman they love toward the other fellow. Dana Andrews is upstanding and charming as Frémont, while Jon Hall plays the country bumpkin angle to the hilt as Carson. The well-bred Dolores, in typical fashion, finds the lanky scout to be an insufferable savage, until she recognizes his finer qualities.

Frémont offers to marry Dolores, even though he knows she loves Carson, because he's such a selfless guy and all that.

The two men butt heads several times in the early going, but without rancor, as Frémont insists on following his orders to find the most direct route to California to the letter -- even if it means riding right into a trap the Shoshonis have laid out for his troops. Carson, as the hired wagon master for the pioneers trailing in the soldiers' wake, urges caution and forbearance.

"It's better to lose 60 miles than 60 lives," he reckons.

Carson's two gleeful sidekicks are Ward Bond as Ape, a good-natured liar, and Harold Huber as Lopez, their south of the border amigo. They're always ready to ride off with Carson at a moment's notice, quick with a joke and a laugh. Ape gets a love interest of his own, a pinch-faced woman named Genevieve (Renie Riano). But, like Carson, he can't countenance the idea of giving up a life of roaming and beaver pelts for a bed and a home.

The heavy is General Castro, played by C. Henry Gordon. He's secretly supplying rifles to the Indians and goading them into attacking the American wagon trains.

Gordon is as white as me and Huber was a Russian Jew, and don't make for very convincing Mexicans. But that's about par for the course in this movie, in which the several shots of the Shoshonis clearly show most of them to be white guys in war paint and feathers.

"Kit Carson" is amiable, formulaic and dumb as a desert-baked brick.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Video review: "Jersey Boys"

“Jersey Boys” was fairly ignored at the box office, but it’s just the sort of movie that clicks on video.

It’s got a historical story that appeals to older audiences, not to mention a soundtrack that plays like a Top 40 list from the 1960s. Couple that with winning performances and a dark – though not too dark – look at the underbelly of the music biz, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a home video hit.

The story of The Four Seasons is the story of America’s transition from the relative stability and conservatism of the 1950s to the upheaval and pandemonium of the ‘60s. The band, who combined the smooth vocals of the old-timey barbershop quartet with the beats and theatrics of rock, owned the airwaves prior to the British invasion.

Based on the Broadway show and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Jersey Boys” stars John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, whose effortless falsetto was somehow both angelic and masculine. Young, who also starred in the stage version, manages to play Valli from age 16 to 60 without ever straining.

I also appreciated the fact that rather than having the actor lip-synch to vintage recordings of the real McCoy, Young actually provides his own facsimile of the distinctive Valli sound – and a really good one, too.

Rounding out the cast are Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, who wrote many of the Four Seasons songs; Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi, the go-along-to-get-along member of the group; Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, the resident bad boy; and Christopher Walken as a local mafia don with a soft spot for the boys.

A lot of movies get lost in the shuffle of summer, and most of them deserve to. But “Jersey Boys” nails its high notes.

Extra features are merely so-so. The DVD comes with just a single making-of featurettes, “Oh, What A Night” to Remember.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add two more, “From Broadway To The Big Screen” and “Too Good To Be True.”



Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: "Big Hero 6"

I miss comic books, though I don’t know if they miss me. It’s been 25 years since I bought one, and since then an entire generation of artists has grown up and created books I’ve never heard of -- including “Big Hero 6,” which has now been adapted into a Disney animated film.

Apparently, the Disney folks weren’t acquainted with this lesser-known Marvel title until about three years ago. But it supposedly, in Hollywood parlance, “spoke to them.” I’m just not sure if they understood what it was saying.

The problem with “Big Hero 6” is that it’s structured as the gentle tale of a boy and his robot, and then it veers suddenly into a superhero team genesis story with lots of boingy action and sneering bad guys. Not only to the two halves never really mesh, but the other four members of the “6” wind up as afterthoughts.

In this tech-heavy story, they’re literally add-ons.

Based on the comic by Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle, “Big Hero 6” is set in an alternate version of our world, slightly in the future. The locale is San Fransokyo, a multicultural mix of East and West sensibilities. Fourteen-year-old Hiro Hamada (voice of Ryan Potter) is a science whiz who’s already graduated from high school, but spends his days hustling in robot battle matches. His older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), thinks Hiro should follow his own lead and enroll at the Institute of Technology, where they’re taking robots and gadgets to the next level.

Tadashi’s own big invention is Baymax (Scott Adsit, who must have the most calming voice I’ve ever heard), a funny-looking medical robot made of inflatable vinyl. He puffs himself up to full size when he senses a person is injured, resembling a crossbreeding of the Michelin Man and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters.”

(I pause here to point out that, though I’ve not read the comic book, I did enough research to learn the Baymax in it resembles the portly, vanilla-personality version seen here not at all. He’s a huge, mean, green warrior.)

Anyway, bad things happen and Hiro decides to transform Baymax into a blinged-out badass -- a serious challenge, considering he’s basically a white balloon who leaks air if even slightly abraded. His programming is about helping the sick and injured, not laying down the hurt. But Hiro tinkers with his exterior, transforming Baymax into a big red flying goliath, and with his innards, rendering him more assertive.

The rest of the team are assembled late in the game, and are other students at the institute. They include Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), who wields energy blades sprouting from his hands; Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), who concocts all sorts of strange goos from within her handbag; Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), who skates around on and wields gravitational discs; and Fred (T.J. Miller), a dim-bulb dude-ish type who dreams of becoming a fire-breathing dragon… and does, sort of.

It’s kind of nice to have a team of super-heroes who did not get their abilities via gamma rays or mutation, but through sheer dint of their brains and hard work. They’re basically nerds in super-suits. Interestingly, the outfit Hiro creates for himself does not grant him any powers; he basically just rides around on Baymax’s back like ballast. It’s also weird that, after an early moment spraying Hiro’s burn with ointment, Baymax never employs his medical skills again.

The villain is a mysterious bad guy in a kabuki mask who has stolen Hiro’s micro-robot technology to create a seemingly invincible army of tiny minions who can form themselves into any shape he imagines. (I was never quite clear why Hiro, who creates all the incredibly advanced power-ups for his team in a garage, isn’t able to just whip up some more microbots.)

Other notable characters include Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), a reckless industrialist; Professor Robert Callaghan, benevolent head of the institute (an excellent James Cromwell); and Maya Rudolph as the Hamada brothers’ loving aunt.

I really liked the early part of “Big Hero 6,” when it’s just the story of a lost and lonely kid who uses his smarts to invent a friend. Then it tries to go all “Avengers” on us.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: "Interstellar"

"Interstellar" sure is an odd, dense, occasionally brilliant and occasionally maddening cinematic experience. The latest from director Christopher Nolan continues the mind-trippyness of "Inception" and marries it with an outer space story about astronauts from Earth exploring other galaxies and dimensions, in between disastrous explosions and human frailty.

It wants to be the thematic and aesthetic inheritor to "2001: A Space Odyssey" but registers several orders of magnitude lower on the scale of worthiness. It plays out as one long (nearly three-hour) space ride with a lot of mind-boggling science and pseudo-science mixed into the humanist blender.

The movie never failed to engage me, but it didn't leave me very satisfied, either. Nolan and his cast and crew get the quantum mechanics of their space tale right, but the human element never makes it off the launch pad.

The story -- Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, wrote the screenplay -- is set in a typically vague near-future where things have gone awry for humanity. An agricultural blight is wiping out the Earth's crops one by one, and dust storms blow in from time to time like biblical revelations.

Cooper (Matt McConaughey) is a pilot/engineer-turned farmer. There's not much use for science guys these days, just those who make food. Cooper resents the way humanity has bookended its ambitions -- we're supposed to be explorers and pioneers, he laments on his dirt-caked porch, not tenders of sod. His son, Tom, embraces the agrarian future but his 10-year-old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), dreams the dreams of her father.

Through a quick, not entirely coherent succession of expository scenes, Cooper is recruited to lead a NASA mission that represents humanity's last hope. It seems a stable wormhole opened up near Saturn 50 years ago. Previous astronauts were sent through to scout out a habitable new home world for the species. Cooper and his crew, chiefly Anne Hathaway as astrophysicist Dr. Brand, are supposed to link up with them.

The space travel scenes, through wormholes and gravitational slingshots and whatnot, are transcendently beautiful and awe-inspiring. Aided by Hoyte Van Hotema's cinematography and the familiar pounding musical score of Hans Zimmer, Nolan has captured the notion of space wrapping in itself in an ingenious way previously unseen on the big screen.

I won't give away too much about what they find on the other side, other than to say the passage of time is a primary consideration. The theory of relativity states that time travels at different speeds depending on where you are, so the team must complete their quest before everyone on Earth starves. Meanwhile, Cooper frets upon the children he left behind, who transmit video messages into the ether they aren't sure if he'll ever see. (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck play them as adults.)

Unfortunately, the Nolans' script suffers from similarity lapses in relativity, though on the narrative rather than the temporal plane. The story races ahead heedlessly at times, testing the audience's ability to keep up based on half-garbled dialogue. Then it will go into a slow spin, as the characters get all moony and contemplative, and we wish they'd fire up the jets or blow a hatch, or something.

(I should also mention I often had difficulty hearing the dialogue -- not understanding it, but just hearing it. I'm not sure if was the speaker system in the theater or the film's sound mix, but Zimmer's music blasts at you in waves of organ chords that overpower the actors' voices like lily pads caught in a tidal wave.)

There's power and majesty in "Interstellar," but also smallness and limitation. The film's sheer grandiosity serves to expose its inability to coherently line up the X-Y-Zs of its plot. Nolan & Co. aim for the stars, quite literally, and if they don't reach them they provide us enough of a glimpse to leave us dazzled and befuddled. It's like being knocked out of your regular orbit, teetering off to points unknown.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Cottage to Let" (1941)

Though it's not a particularly good film, "Cottage to Let" is interesting to consider, both as wartime propaganda and with regards to genre.

Released in late summer of 1941, production would have had to begun right after the declaration of war between in England and Germany. Since it was based on a stage play by Geoffrey Kerr, someone must've been dreaming this thing up not long after Poland fell.

The bad guys are shifty German agents who have infiltrated seemingly every nook and cranny of the United Kingdom, including remote Thrail Manor in the Scottish moors. Essentially it's an Agatha Christie-ish whodunit, except instead of trying to find the murderer we're attempting to discover which of the residents, or which ones, are the Nazis.

The movie's title was later changed to "Bombsight Stolen," which may just win the award for worst film title, ever. Though "Cottage to Let" isn't much better, suggesting a frothy romance about Brits on vacation.

Narratively, the movie is structured like a slamming doors, upstairs/downstairs comedy of manners with plenty of potboiler elements mixed in. The audience's alter ego is Ronald (George Cole), an "evacuee" boy -- moved out of London amidst the bombings and forced to live in the country manor of the Barringtons. Ronnie is a puckish lad who takes Sherlock Holmes as his personal hero, believing him to be an actual historical figure. Soon he's sleuthing out clues all over the estate.

Mrs. Barrington (Jeanne De Casalis) is the adorably absent-minded matron trying to run various war fundraising efforts and social cotillions in the midst of urchins left at her doorstep, injured RIF Spitfire pilots being dumped into her lap and her eccentric inventor husband, John (Leslie Banks), in danger of blowing up the place.

Mr. Barrington is supposedly the most brilliant scientist in the U.K., though he stubbornly insists upon working in his isolated laboratory with a single assistant, Trently (Michael Wilding), rather than in London surrounded by military and intelligence handlers. Unfortunately, there's a leak somewhere in Thrail Manor, and some of Barrington's best inventions -- such as a self-sealing airplane fuel tank -- are getting into the hands of the Germans almost as soon as they go into production.

The injured pilot is Perry (John Mills), a dashing young officer who clearly is up to something. Director Anthony Asquith and screenwriters Anatole de Grunwald and J.O.C. Orton show him unplugging and re-plugging the phone to report his downing while lying bloodied and bandanged in a hospital bed at the cottage next to Thrail Manor, so we immediately know he's a bad egg. Soon he begins to woo his nurse, young Helen Barrington (Carla Lehmann), which puts the long-suffering, amorous Trently into a fit.

The M.O. for this story appears to have been to cast doubt on half of the cast members, and see who cracks. Trently is under suspicion because he was educated in Germany and traveled there before the war. The butler, Evans (Wally Patch), is a little too martial in his bearing and clumsy in his housekeeping skills to be a simple servant. The cook, Mrs. Trimm, quits suddenly in a huff, and confers with Trently after giving her notice.

Then there's Dimble (Alastair Sim), a strange bird of a man who has rented out the cottage before all the new boarders arrive. Tall, thin and with a false sense of friendliness, Dimble pokes his nose into everybody's business, often while peeling a potato with a penknife.

It would seem amateurish to make Dimble, so homely and awkard compared to the rest of the cast, the Nazi stooge, and the filmmakers pull a reversal on us near the end that's supposed to be a head-snapper. But I figured it out barely a third into the movie, and I doubt if any audience members wouldn't do so, too.

The stage roots, and flaws, of "Cottage to Let" are glaring -- a limited number of locations, who's-your-uncle dialogue repartee, a romantic angle that feels tacked-on and unnecessary. I rather liked Leslie Banks as the bumbling-but-decent inventor, but his limited screen time registers him as more a sideshow than the star of the picture.

Maybe if they'd made Ronnie the Boy Detective the bad guy -- then we really would've had something.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Video review: "Maleficent"

Hollywood likes to boast of big stars in big movies that “no one else could have played the part,” but in the case of “Maleficent” I think that’s demonstrably true. Only Angelina Jolie has the requisite combination of compelling screen presence, supernatural beauty and somewhat eerie star persona to play in this revisionist take on the Sleeping Beauty fable.

In many ways it’s surprising that Disney would commission such a dark twist on one of its most iconic animated films. Jolie plays the villainess as a maligned antihero who has everything she loved torn away from her, and responds in kind.

In this version, Maleficent is a powerful fairy who falls for a human boy, only to have him betray her and cut off her wings in order to gain the throne of the kingdom for himself. She dubs herself the queen of the Moors, the land where the magical creatures hide, and later places a curse on the new king’s daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning).

As the years pass Maleficent finds herself spying on the girl, from whom goodness shines like the sun, and eventually befriends her. Despite her hatred for Aurora’s father, she finds herself regretting her curse, which says the girl will fall into a deathlike slumber upon her 16th birthday.

Tonally it’s a tough act to pull off, to balance this oft-mesmerizing mix of woe and whimsy, and not one that first-time director Robert Stromberg is entirely up to. (Reportedly they even had to bring in a more seasoned filmmaker to “help” with reshoots.)

Still, it’s a visually captivating journey, and certainly one that’s never boring. Jolie’s get-up as Maleficent, with her horns, ebony dresses and facial prosthetics, is can’t-take-your-eyes-off amazing. I only wish the story equaled the eye candy.

Video extras are quite good, though you have to opt for the Blu-ray combo pack in order to get the best stuff. The DVD comes only with “Aurora: Becoming A Beauty,” a featurettes focusing on Fanning’s casting and transformation.

The blur-ray includes a half-dozen making-of featurettes touching on all aspects of the production, including the special effects to create Maleficent’s look and the film’s battle scenes. You also get a handful of deleted scenes.