Monday, December 29, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Eyes Without a Face" (1960)

"Eyes Without a Face" is revered as a seminal bit of proto-horror, but not by me. The French classic's influences on other movies and pop culture are quite evident, most notably in the main character's eerie featureless white mask, which John Carpenter says inspired the one he used for his "Halloween" character. Billy Idol even recorded one of his most famous songs based on the movie.

But being influential is not the same thing as being good, and "Eyes" is a rather shoddy piece of filmmaking.

The story is incredibly slow and dull, with tons of "filler" often seen in low-budget flicks to help pad out the running time: people driving up to places, getting out of cars, walking in doors, etc. With the right mood and music, these sorts of mundane actions can be used to build tension. But director Georges Franju just feels like he's treading water.

There are some arresting visuals in the movie, and the black-and-white photography is often arresting and beautiful in an off-kilter way. But these assets are offset by the goofy storyline, stiff acting and turgid pacing. A quartet of screenwriters can't do much interesting with Jean Redon's novel, including Redon himself, who was one of them.

The story is pretty straightforward and falls firmly in the 'mad scientist' category -- though Pierre Brasseur as Dr. Génessier is rather stoic and plodding, notable more for his gravely voice and stern visage than ever being truly frightening. His daughter and secretary both had their faces severely damaged in a car accident -- though apparently without affecting the rest of their bodies -- and the good doctor is using his pioneering work in "heterografting" to transplant live tissue.

Of course, putting a new face on someone means somebody else has to lose theirs. Génessier was apparently successful with his secretary, Louise (Alida Valli), who shows only a scar on her throat that she keeps covered with a choker of pearls. But fixing his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), has proved harder, with multiple attempts having failed.

As the story opens Génessier has faked Christiane's death by removing the face of another girl and disposing of the body. But the new facial tissue was rejected, and Christiane now lounges around their country manor wearing that creepy mask, which fits her skull so tightly I suspect the effect was achieved with makeup rather than an actual prosthetic.

Anyway, over the course of the movie a couple more girls are captured and used as unwilling face donors. One of them escapes and kills herself by jumping out a window.

The scene depicting the surgical removal of her face is probably the standout of the film, and the special effects are still fairly impressive more than 50 years later. The filmmakers had to be very careful about how much gore they showed in order to get he movie past  European and American censors, so the only shot we see of Christiane's unmasked face is highly distorted.

Oddly, the police investigating the disappearances of the girls note that only blue-eyed women are kidnapped, which makes little sense since the doctor is only removing the flesh on their face, not the eyeballs.

The film's soundscape is interesting, and off-putting. The great Maurice Jarre provided the haunting musical score. But there are long stretches without any background score, and Franju fills these spaces with a lot of clicks and clacks, rendering a scuffling cacophony that echoes the character's movements. The sound of their shoes is particularly invasive.

Normally you don't notice this sort of tertiary stuff in a movie, because the director has more going on to hold your attention. Not here.

There's a great idea for a movie inside "Eyes Without a Face," but the one they actually made is ham-handed and stilted. The resulting movie is not scary, or emotionally affecting, or intellectually stimulating. Take away that cool white mask and I suspect this film would have been quickly forgotten.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Video review: "The Equalizer"

“The Equalizer” falls into that category of films that I call, “I’m not really sure they needed to make that, but the movie they did make isn’t bad at all.”

Like the recent Spider-Man reboot, remaking a cheesy 1980s TV show about an over-the-hill spy who helps everyday people doesn’t seem like a very intuitive move. But Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua, who previously teamed up successfully on “Training Day,” manage to create an engaging story and character that use the show as a mere jumping-off point.

Robert McCall (Washington) is an older man who works a drone job at a big-box store, keeps his apartment compulsively clean, reads books and visits the same diner at 2 a.m. every day. He can also kill you in two seconds with his bare hands, if he’s so inclined.

Because he’s an old, somewhat schlumpy guy, his opponents don’t even see him as a threat. A couple of jump cuts later, and suddenly they’re lying on the ground, oozing blood.

After a young prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) he’s befriended is treated shabbily by her Russian pimp, Robert steps in to help out. He easily dispatches an entire roomful of hoods, thus setting off a chain reaction of ever-escalating violence. Soon a sadistic fixer from the motherland is dispatched to take of things personally.

“The Equalizer” is basically a dumb movie, smartly made. It won’t win any awards for originality, but Denzel Washington is still really good at playing a badass.

Bonus features are rather decent, though you have to spring for the Blu-ray edition to get the best stuff. The DVD only has two featurettes: one focuses on the climactic showdown at the fictional Home Mart, and the other is about Moretz’ character.

The Blu-ray adds a gallery of production still photos, and four more featurettes. They focus on stunts, Washington’s combat training for the role, Fuqua’s vision and adapting an old TV show into a modern action movie. There’s also a “Vengeance Mode” featuring some of the nastiest fight clips.



Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: "Unbroken"

“Unbroken” is the sort of story that if it weren’t true, people would dismiss it as Hollywood hoo-ha. But Louis “Louie” Zamperini really lived this life: Olympic athlete who competed at the 1936 games in Berlin, WWII bombardier whose plane crashed into the Pacific, surviving 47 days at sea before being captured and subjected to two years of torment as a prisoner of war.

This movie, which I think one of the most powerful of the year, hasn’t received much love from other critics, and I find that puzzling. Is it the presence of Anjelina Jolie as director, and a certain snootiness towards glamorous movie stars stepping behind the camera? If so, I’ll just remind them people said the same thing about Clint Eastwood and Mike Nichols … and they didn’t turn out too bad.

To my mind, Jolie acquits herself splendidly, hitting the emotional high and low notes just right, as well as staging a few daring action scenes. Clearly, she’s got a future behind the camera if she carries out her threat to abandon acting.

Chiding of the screenplay seems more well-placed. The script has some big names on it – Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson – as well as being based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand, who also penned the splendid “Seabiscuit.”

But it is a fairly conventional narrative presentation. And, as others have pointed it, it almost seems to combine elements of three famous Oscar-winning films into one: the Olympics sequence from “Chariots of Fire,” the lifeboat part from “Life of Pi” and the POW stuff from “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” 

Oh well. The historical record is what it is. The movie also truncates the latter portion of Hillenbrand’s book, which deals with Zamperini’s (unsurprisingly) difficult transition to civilian life and religious awakening.

Jack O’Connell is solid as Zamperini, but I do think this sort of movie might have been better served by having a more recognizable actor in the main role. Since the screenplay doesn’t really attempt to get inside the character’s head, but observes his trials and tribulations from without, audiences might have a harder time connecting emotionally with him. We need more of a touchstone.

The supporting cast is terrific. I especially liked Domhnall Gleeson as Phillips, the pilot of the bomber that crashes into the ocean, who has a sort of reserved grace, and Jai Courtney and Garrett Hedlund as fellow POWs, who know they can’t help him directly when the guards are beating him to a pulp, but cheer on silently.

If I have one serious complaint with the movie, it’s Japanese singer/actor Miyavi as the sadistic head guard the prisoners refer to as “The Bird,” because he sees everything. Most of what’s depicted really happened – the Bird was sent into hiding as a war criminal after Japan’s surrender.

OK, so he’s a bad guy. But the film turns him into a cloying, effeminate monster who sidles up to his charges and whispers in their ear before delivering a beating. His eyes even look odd, like he’s been made up with excessive mascara or something. The end result is the Bird feels like a cartoon, much like the Michael Fassbender character in “12 Years a Slave.”

It’s like they’re trying to cram all the evil of an era into a single figure, and it rings false.

Still, “Unbroken” was one of the most riveting cinematic experiences I had this year. The lesson of Louie Zamperini isn’t that he was tougher and braver than everyone else, but that this power to withstand desperate challenges resides in all of us if we can find it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943)

I was fairly disappointed with "Hangmen Also Die!", a noir war drama from 1943. Its pedigree is impressive: directed by the great Fritz Lang, it starred favorite character actor Brian Donlevy and featured a script by revered playwright Bertolt Brecht, his only official screenwriting credit (though he was known to do plenty of script-doctoring in his day).

The film recently received a loving restoration and Blu-ray edition, which looks and sounds fantastic. So I held out high hopes that here was a forgotten World War II picture that I might adore, much in the vein of Battleground!

Alas and alack. Donlevy is actually quite flat and apathetic, in a role so small it's ridiculous that he's billed as the star. Lang is always good for a few haunting frames and clever use of shadow, but compared to "Metropolis" or any other of his seminal work it's not terribly imaginative.

And Brecht's story is just a complete jumbled mess. Its emotional high points arrive at odd points, so there's less of a feeling of a building crescendo than just some stirring speeches that randomly arrive and disappear. The most interesting character is a Gestapo inspector, and the last act is a nigh-incomprehensible patchwork in which a local Nazi collaborator is framed for the murder of a high German official.

The movie is loosely based on the real 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who was the Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague. The film is essentially a paean to the Czech people and their brave resistance to the Nazis.

Donlevy plays Dr. Svoboda, a local surgeon who carries out the shooting of Heydrich, who lingers for a few days while the Nazis seek the assassin(s). While being chased by soldiers, he's helped by a young woman on the street who points the Germans in the opposite direction, but then the Gestapo tracks her down and starts raking her and her family over the coals.

She is Mascha Novotny, played by Anna Lee, and really she is the main character. Everything else revolves around her. She and Svoboda strike up a faux romance to throw the Germans off the hunt, which doesn't do much for the affections of her real fiance, Jan (Dennis O'Keefe), an upstanding type.

The Nazis are mostly fooled except for Gestapo inspector Gruber, deliciously played by Alexander Granach. Short, burly with a Cheetos mustache and odd shaved-sides haircut that resembles a proto-mohawk, Gruber supplies much of the middle section's energy. Granach was actually a German Jew who fled his homeland shortly after Hitler's rise to power, and made himself a healthy film career playing both Nazis and heroes.

Gruber is suspicious of everyone and everything, and unlike his more heavy-handed counterparts who are quick to resort to mental and physical torture, he mostly gets things done by out-thinking those around him. He's also capable of being quite the party boy when the mood strikes, and he gets to canoodle with an appropriately matronly German floozy.

Shoehorned in is a mostly parallel story about Anna' father, Professor Novotny, played by the great character actor Walter Brennan. The professor is a noted academic figure who has eschewed politics for the past 15 years, but then he and a bunch of other intellectuals are snatched up and held hostage in retaliation for the assassination attempt. Soon the Nazis are executing them a bunch at a time until the real shooter gives himself up.

Brennan gets to do that whole "quiet nobility" thing, and he's quite good at it, but these scenes don't fit with the rest of the story. It almost becomes a POW film, with the professor and his fellows bonding and writing revolutionary poems while waiting for the axe to fall.

The most interesting thing about "Hangmen" is its depiction of how people deal with an occupying force -- both in their regards to the enemy and how they relate with those of their number who cooperate.

Anna soon learns that Svoboda is the assassin, and insists that he give himself up to save the life of her father and the other hostages. Svoboda -- under pressure from other members of the resistance -- demurs, pointing out that his act is essential to their movement to overthrow the Germans. At one point she actually gets in a carriage to Gestapo headquarters to spill the beans, and is nearly assaulted when a mob finds out her plan.

Eventually she comes around to the right side of things, and assists Svoboda and the other resistance leaders in concocting an elaborate frame job to convince the Nazis that one of their Czech collaborators, a rich beer baron named Czaka (Gene Lockhart), was actually the assassin. This involves getting dozens of witnesses to lie about Czaka's whereabouts, and seems highly implausible.

"Hangmen Also Die!" exists now mostly as an artifact of its time, a pot-boiling bit of propaganda designed to whip up the masses. As a piece of filmmaking, though, it leaves much to be desired.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Video review: "The Good Lie"

Reese Witherspoon is the star of "The Good Lie," but she's not the main character. In fact, she's rather off to the side and in the background, which is where she belongs.

That's not a knock on Witherspoon's appeal as a movie star, which is considerable. It's just that this is a film about Sudanese refugees, and I'm glad director Philippe Falardeau and screenwriter Margaret Nagle chose to keep their focus on the African characters. Too many movies of this ilk feel compelled to tell black stories through the unnecessary prism of a white protagonist.

The real main character is Mamere (Arnold Oceng), the leader of a ragtag group of refugees from the Sudanese civil war who end up being placed in Kansas City to start new lives. These young men, who literally grew up fighting lions and tigers, find themselves helpless against the modern challenges of bus routes, telephone answering machines and the like.

The other two main figures are Jeremiah (Ger Duany), who flirts with the idea of entering the priesthood, and Paul (Emmanuel Jal), who is a savant with machines but has trouble keeping his impulses under control. They also have a "sister," Abital (Kuoth Wiel), forced to live in a faraway city.

Witherspoon plays Carrie, a social worker put in charge of helping them out. Over time, she finds herself drawn ever more into their lives, becoming friends rather than just part of her job.

The most powerful section of the movie is the first half-hour, as we follow the characters as young children trekking hundreds of miles across the African continent to find sanctuary. I won't give away what happens, other than to say the events are life-changing and have a profound impact on their progress in America.

Though the proceedings occasionally wander into sappy territory, "The Good Lie" is a heartfelt story told well and true. The movie didn't sell a lot of tickets, but hopefully will find the audience it deserves on video.

Extra features are rather slight, and are confined to the Blu-ray edition. They include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.



Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review: "Wild"

 I was surprised to appreciate “Wild” a lot more than I thought I would. The tale of a young woman who sets off on a seemingly random 1,000-mile trek by foot to find herself, it looked like the sort of simplistic, life-affirming pap you often see in cinemas this time of year.

But buoyed by a terrific, grounded performance by Reese Witherspoon, “Wild” is anything but maudlin. It’s a tough, gritty look at a woman at their end of her rope, who sets out on an expedition in which the destination doesn’t matter, but testing herself in spirit and body is the true aim.

She happened to choose the Pacific Crest Trail, a grueling path through the Western mountains and deserts, as her personal crucible. But really, it could have been anything.

Her story is less about going somewhere, and more about finding your own path, and getting started along it.

The quality of the filmmakers behind the project should have clued me in. Director Jean-Marc Vallée was nominated for an Oscar last year for “Dallas Buyers Club,” and also helmed the high-toned “The Young Victoria.” Screenwriter Nick Hornby is known for cerebral material such as “An Education” and “About a Boy.”

The film is based on the best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the PCT through California, Oregon and Washington two decades ago while in her mid-20s. Her marriage had just come off the tracks and ended in divorce, due mostly to her philandering. (Thomas Sadoski has a tidy, small role as her long-suffering but sweet husband.)

On top of that, her beloved mother (a glowing Laura Dern) had died of cancer, and Cheryl was getting ever more heavily into hard drugs. Clearly things were headed in a foul direction.

Instead of hitting rock bottom, though, she came across the idea of traveling the PCT, despite being an itinerate hiker herself. We see exactly how inept she was in the early going, as she struggles to shoulder a pack that is literally bigger than her, and tears her feet to bloody shreds with too-small boots.

Cheryl meets a few people along the way, mostly men, and there’s an explicit threat of assault or rape with many of these encounters, as a young cute blonde girl all alone on the trail. But she proves quite able, and some scary meetings turn out to be friendlier than first blush. (W. Earl Brown turns up nicely as a gruff bushmaster.) Still, a couple of hunters appear to enjoy frightening her just for the sheer thrill of it.

In the film’s most bizarre (but true!) sequence, she is nearly run over by an enthusiastic African-American reporter for the Hobo Times who says his name is Jimmy Carter. Despite Cheryl’s protestations that she’s not homeless, just in between homes, she ends up becoming an unwilling subject for the publication.

Along the way, our protagonist is revealed to be a thoughtful, literate woman – she writes down quotes from famous writers in the trail station journals – who’s simply made a lot of bad choices in her life. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, she hits the road like a latter-day Jack Kerouac, though on her own two feet rather than behind the wheel.

Instead of just flaunting her freedom, though, Cheryl Strayed was seeking inspiration and forgiveness. “Wild” is the soulful tale of how she learned these were not things out there to be discovered, but gifts only she could give to herself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review: "The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies"

Unlike the triumphant finale of the three “The Lord of the Rings” films, the last movie in “The Hobbit” trilogy feels more like the grateful collapse at the end of an overlong marathon.

With regards to “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” the audience won’t exactly be exclaiming, “Thank goodness that’s over!” But like an overambitious runner who found they’d signed up for a more grueling race than anticipated, the series concludes with quite a bit less enthusiasm and energy than when it started.

As I’ve said in my reviews of the previous two movies: the Middle-Earth of author J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps my most treasured mythological playground. I grew up adoring these books, dreaming of hobbits, orcs, magical rings and dragons. You could set pretty much any story in this realm and I’d be first in line to buy a ticket.

But director Peter Jackson and his co-screenwriters have so twisted, changed and augmented Tolkien’s straightforward tale that it barely even deserves to have “The Hobbit” in its title. They’ve expanded slender storylines into major themes; turned behind-the-scenes events barely hinted at into full-blown subplots; and in many cases, just plain ol’ made a bunch of crap up.

It’s still a rousing picture after a slow start – things don’t really get going into the titular battle is joined.

In case you don’t remember, humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) had been plucked by deposed dwarven heir to the throne Thorin (Richard Armitage) and meddling wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help reclaim the Lonely Mountain taken over long ago by a fearsome dragon.

As this movie opens, the great wyrm Smaug (voice by Benedict Cumberbatch) has been roused from his slumbers and is attacking Lake-town, the tiny fishing village built on docks into the lake next the mountain. Dutiful bowman Bard (Luke Evans) takes up arms against the dragon and brings him down.

But Thorin, driven mad by a lust for gold from “dragon sickness,” refuses to share any of the great wealth of the mountain with the refugees of Lake-town. And he certainly wants nothing to do with the elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), who previously kept the company prisoner and now wants his own slice of the pie.

It seems likely to come to a nasty conflict, but meanwhile the Orc armies led by the terrifying Azog (Manu Bennett) are bearing down on them all. The last half of the movie or so is essentially just a bunch of swordplay.

In the book Bilbo got knocked unconscious at the start of the fighting, and thus everything that transpired went undepicted. Jackson & Co., of course, couldn't do that with a big-budget spectacle, so we get a whole raft of CGI beheadings and splatterings (though curiously bloodless, to keep the PG-13 rating intact).

The best of the "add-on" material involves the effort by Gandalf and other powerful sorcerers -- including Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) -- to force out the evil force that has invaded the fortress of Dol Guldur. As we know, it turns out to be the shade of Sauron, who will go on to cause more trouble down the road. It's a brief but thrilling side excursion.

Other new material is less successful, especially a contrived romance between one of the dwarves and an entirely concocted female elf character (Evangeline Lilly). This results in a love triangle with familiar friend Legolas (Orlando Bloom), plus his daddy issues with the king, and a journey up north that appears to serve no narrative purpose at all.

I was thrilled with what this team of filmmakers did with the "Lord of the Rings," occasionally altering the navigation but keeping the terrain intact. Here, though, they seem like they weren't content with the tale Tolkien spun, and decided to supplant it with their own.

It's still a decent fantasy flick; it's just not "The Hobbit."

Video review: "Magic in the Moonlight"

Woody Allen, who started out as a TV punchline writer while still a teenager, has moved restlessly between comedy and more somber fare all his career as a film director. I’ve enjoyed a lot of his dour stuff, such as “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Match Point.”

But his newest, “Magic in the Moonlight,” is one of his most light-hearted and purely entertaining movies in years.

Set in the upper-crust world of the 1920s, it’s the story of a magician named Stanley who’s also a man of science. Played unctuously and splendidly by Colin Firth, Stanley makes a hobby of exposing charlatans who pretend to have psychic abilities. His latest target, a young would-be seeress named Sophie (Emma Stone), proves to be his greatest challenge – and an unlikely love interest.

Though Sophie’s manner while doing her act is amateurish and transparent, her divinations have the disturbing habit of being unerringly accurate. Soon Stanley, who places more trust in Nietzsche than religion, is wondering if his life of agnosticism about the great beyond has been a tragic mistake.

It’s a great-looking movie, filled with sun-dappled gardens and shorelines, terrific period costumes and lots of pretty people to look at.

Filled with wry humor, delightfully clumsy encounters and a whole lot of extravagant mannerisms, “Magic in the Moonlight” is best described in one word not lately applicable to Woody’s work: fun.

Alas, as is often the case with the Woodster’s video releases, there is only the bare minimum of bonus features. And they are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray versions: A making-of featurette, “Behind the Magic,” and publicity footage from the film’s red carpet premiere in Los Angeles.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Indiana film critics announce 2014 awards

The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of writers dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is proud to announce its annual film awards for 2014.

"Boyhood" won top honors, taking the prize for Best Film and earning a total of three awards. Richard Linklater won in the Best Director category, and the film also took the Original Vision award, which recognizes a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking.

"Whiplash," which was the runner-up for Best Film, won two awards: Damien Chazelle's script in the Best Adapted Screenplay race, and J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" also won two awards: Ralph Fiennes was named Best Actor, and Wes Anderson earned the Best Original Screenplay prize.

Besides the winner and runner-up for Best Film, eight other movies were named Finalists in that category, cumulatively representing Indiana film critics' picks for the 10 best movies of 2014. (See full list below.)

Reese Witherspoon took Best Actress honors for "Wild," while Jessica Chastain took Best Supporting Actress for "A Most Violent Year."

In the inaugural vote for the newest category, Best Vocal/Motion Capture Performance, Andy Serkis won for his work on "The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." The IFJA is the only critics group in the U.S. to give out an award for nonrepresentational acting.

"The LEGO Movie" won Best Animated Feature, "Two Days, One Night" took the prize for Best Foreign Language Film and "Life Itself" took Best Documentary.

The Hoosier Award, which recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with roots in Indiana, or a film that depicts Hoosier State locales and stories, went to film historian and preservationist Eric Grayson.

IFJA members issued this statement with regard to the Hoosier Award: "For more than a decade, Grayson has worked tirelessly to collect, restore and exhibit movies on celluloid film, often for little to no pay or recognition. We commend his efforts to preserve movies in their original state and show them to people who share his passion for cinema. Countless films would have been lost to the ages were it not for his efforts."

The following is a complete list of honored films:

Best Film
Winner: "Boyhood"
Runner-up: "Whiplash"
Other Finalists (listed alphabetically):
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
"Guardians of the Galaxy"
"The Imitation Game"
"Life Itself"
"A Most Violent Year"
"St. Vincent"

Best Animated Feature
Winner: "The LEGO Movie"
Runner-Up: "The Boxtrolls "

Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: "Two Days, One Night"
Runner-Up: "Ida"

Best Documentary
Winner: "Life Itself"
Runner-Up: "An Honest Liar"

Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Runner-up: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"

Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"
Runner-up: Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game"

Best Director
Winner: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Runner-up: Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"

Best Actress
Winner: Reese Witherspoon, "Wild"
Runner-up: Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl"

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Jessica Chastain "A Most Violent Year"
Runner-up: Melissa McCarthy, "St. Vincent"

Best Actor
Winner: Ralph Fiennes, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Runner-up: Tom Hardy, "Locke"

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
Runner-up: Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood"

Best Musical Score
Winner: Mica Levi, "Under the Skin"
Runner-up: Alexandre Desplat, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Original Vision Award
Winner: "Boyhood"
Runner-up: "Under the Skin"

The Hoosier Award
Winner: Eric Grayson, film historian and preservationist
 (As a special award, no runner-up is declared in this category.)

Reeling Backward: "The Hands of Orlac" (1924)

I don't review a lot of silent films here in this space -- and by "not many," I mean I believe this is the very first one.

I freely admit I don't respond to most silent film like I do other classical cinema. To me, it's almost an entirely different art form. Silent films are, with some exceptions, much more theatrical and slow-paced. They were made for people used to stage productions, vaudeville or crushingly long novels.

Let's face it: people just had more patience a century years ago. Of course, they had to: there just wasn't as much to do.

One advantage silent films had was their universality. By changing around the title cards for dialogue, a film could just as easily play in Istanbul as Idaho. Music was also much more important to a movie, since it consisted of the entire auditory aspect of a cinematic experience (and often was played live by an orchestra). 

"The Hands of Orlac" is pretty typical of its era. It falls into the expressionist horror neighborhood, and is a fairly close cousin to the better-known "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," which also was directed by Robert Wiene and starred Conrad Veidt. Veidt is mot remembered as the stern German commandant from "Casablanca," but in his youth made a career out of playing spindly fellows given to violence and/or supernatural control.

(He also starred in 1928's "The Man Who Laughed," as a man whose face was frozen in a rictus grin, and clearly served as the inspiration for the Joker character.)

Based on a story by Maurice Renard, "Orlac" tells the tale of a famous pianist who loses his hands in a train accident, and wakes up to discover that doctors have miraculously stitched on a new pair that work perfectly. (Except for playing the piano.) Alas, they turn out to have belonged to a condemned murderer named Vassuer. Haunted by the origins of his appendages, Orlac begins to have visions and feels compelled to knife somebody -- particularly his wife, Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina).

Later, he's bedeviled by a man (Fritz Kortner) with iron gloves who claims to be the guillotined murderer, brought back to life by the same mysterious medical process that returned Orlac's hands. He murders Orlac's father and demands a large chunk of the inheritance as compensation for his stolen hands.

Story-wise, there isn't that much to tell... actually, I just relayed the entire plot to you. As I said, the narratives of silent films tend to be fairly simplistic.

The movie is very slow-moving, with long extended scenes of Veidt staring at his hands as if they were foreign objects, and bulging his eyes out in that way very popular in films of the time to depict people in peril or physical distress. (Sorina also gets to pull this move several times.)

The visuals are creepy and evocative, but my modern sensibility kept wishing the director would speed things along. My reaction was very much the same as that I had watching Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" -- it really doesn't take long to convey emotional power through moving imagery. When you keep the camera focused on the same thing, on and on, or keep cutting back to the same image, over and over, you're beating a dead horse, cinematically.

It's a beautiful-looking film, even with the graininess and scratches that come with 90-year-old celluloid. The use of irises and slow fade-ins and -outs feels very dated, of course, but Wiene's use of dense, murky shadows offset by harshly lit foregrounds and faces is still compelling to look at.

This idea of body parts imbued with their own spirits became a familiar one in movies after this one came out. "The Hands of Orlac" was adapted into film twice more, and a 1980s horror flick starring Michael Caine, "The Hand," which scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a lad staying up too late watching HBO, also seems clearly inspired.

The metaphysics remain pretty vague. At first we are told Orlac's new appendages act independently of his will -- he finds he can no longer play the piano, and even his handwriting resembles Vassuer's. Subsequent events, though, suggest it's all part of an elaborate delusion contacted inside his fevered head.

I enjoyed the artistry of "The Hands of Orlac," but it exists for me now as an artifact rather than a living, breathing piece of cinema. Watching it is akin to wandering through a museum, peering at dusty trophies behind thick glass. We relate to these objects not for the power they hold, but its echo.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Night of the Iguana" (1964)

James Garner was offered the lead role in "The Night of the Iguana" but said it was "too Tennessee Williams for me." I understand what he was talking about.

Stage-to-screen translations are often handicapped from the get-go. There's the feeling of being severely bookended -- both with locations and the number of characters. It's OK for a play to stay stuck in one place with a handful of people for a couple of hours, but movies tend to get claustrophobic if they aren't on the move.

Then there's Williams himself, whose plays tended to focus on lost, pitiable souls who struggle to articulate their own despair. Sometimes the film versions, some of them scripted by Williams himself, soared on the strength of the cast and direction -- "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Streetcar Named Desire." But with "Iguana" it often feels like the story is caught in an eddy, swirling about itself without ever going anyway.

The main character, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), is a youngish man of the cloth whose ability to withstand temptations of the flesh is, shall we say, lacking. In the two decades since he was ordained he was without a parish to call his own for all but a single year, and his one stint as a pastor comes to a crashing end when he diddles with an underage girl of his flock. In the opening scene he suffers a near-breakdown from the pulpit, denouncing the worshipers for judging him, and literally chases them out of the church.

Flash to two years later, and Shannon is now working in Mexico as a guide for Blake Tours, a bargain-basement outfit catering to religious types. His current gig isn't going so well. As they pull into the coastal town of Puerto Vallarta -- a name made famous by this film; a statue of director John Huston still resides in the village square -- Shannon is being henpecked by Miss Fellowes, the domineering head of a group of Baptist women teachers.

Fellowes doesn't like Shannon because she senses the lecherous personality beneath Shannon's gentle facade. Her suspicions aren't unfounded -- her winsome teenage niece is played by Sue Lyon, who had the title role in "Lolita," and plays a similar part here as a teenage temptress. Shannon tries to hold off the girl's advances, but not very hard.

Fellowes is played by Grayson Hall, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role, though I find this style of screechy, google-eyed overacting hard to swallow. Late in the going it's suggested Miss Fellowes is a "butch" who secretly desires the girl for herself, though the harridan is too self-deluded to admit this to herself.

This is notable in of itself, to have a fairly overt reference to homosexuality in a mainstream 1964 film. There's also an explicit reference to smoking marijuana, though it's not depicted.

Anyway, Shannon's dalliance is discovered and Fellowes declares her intention to have him fired. So he hijacks the bus and takes them to the Costa Verde Hotel, a rundown little place up the beach run by an old friend of his, Fred. He confiscates the bus' distributor cap and dumps the old biddies there, since he thinks there is no phone and thus now way to contact his employer.

Alas, Fred has died, and one of his last acts was getting telephone lines run up the steep hill to the hotel. Shannon responds by getting good and drunk and waiting for the axe to fall.

The Costa Verde is now run by Maxine (Ava Gardner), Fred's widow, who is a real piece of work. She espouses a carefree attitude but has a short temper and plenty of vim left in her. An aging beauty, Maxine felt abandoned by her much-older husband the last few years, and took to openly consorting with her two cabana boys -- a pair of shirtless, perpetually smiling young studs who constantly hang around, rarely speaking, occasionally helping out the guests or the proprietress with luggage, or any other needs.

Maxine never wears any shoes or seems bothered by anything, but it soon becomes clear she's carried a torch for Shannon for a long time. She finds him pathetic but adorable, a man-boy who has regular crack-ups about twice a year, and clearly needs someone to look after him. And this is a woman who desperately needs some fun in her life.

Some unexpected competition for Shannon's attention arrives in the form of Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), an English portrait artist who travels the globe with her 97-year-old grandfather, whom she calls Nonno (Cyril Delevanti) and introduces as the world's oldest practicing poet.

Of course, it's been 20 years since Nonno last composed a poem, and the two are essentially well-bred vagabonds who fritter around, peddling their artistic services -- her portraits and his recitations -- in exchange for food and lodging.

If Maxine is a piece of work, then Miss Jelkes is an even odder bird. Her prim manners and reserved disposition resemble those of a missionary, and in some ways that is her role in the film -- to show up and minister to the troubled heathens. Jelkes has a very firm grip on who she is and what her shortcomings are, and seems not at all troubled by her current hardships.

"Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind or violent," she says.

Things go on from there. Miss Fellowes and her flock of biddies, having successfully detached Shannon from Blake Tours, depart for more sightseeing, and we're left with Shannon, Maxine and Jelkes to figure out the dynamic between them. Jelkes offers counsel to the suicidal Shannon -- though, as Maxine correctly surmises, it's halfway playacting; the man has an inveterate theatricality about him.

There's some splendid acting in "The Night of the Iguana," particularly Kerr and Gardner. I found Burton to be a twitchy, sweaty mess, a whole lot of behavior substituting for a character.

Hanging around with this crew is like being trapped at an annoying party you can't leave. You might wander into a semi-interesting conversation or two, but in the end it feels like time wasted.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Video review: "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Back when “Guardians of the Galaxy” came out, I praised it highly but fretted that audiences wouldn’t come out for yet another comic book adaptation based on characters most of them had never heard of.

Silly me. Now the top-grossing film of the year, “Guardians” obviously didn’t need any sympathy.

What a dizzy, daffy antidote to a summer of largely dreary flicks. Here for the first time was a super-hero movie that was a flat-out comedy. That whole thing with glum caped crusaders kvetching about “with great power comes great responsibility” had gotten kinda old. Here’s a quintet who love doing what they do, no apologies, and plenty of humor along the way.

Rather than being inveterate do-gooders, these Guardians are a motley crew of thieves and killers who get thrown together while greedily pursuing the same mysterious space orb. They are:
  • Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), a smirky, quip-throwing human with cool gadgets;
  • Gamaro (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned assassin and turncoat;
  • Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper), a spirited raccoon engineer;
  • Groot (voice by Vin Diesel), Rocket’s 9-foot-tall tree-like companion;
  • Drax (Dave Bautista), a burly red guy with revenge on his mind.
The plot is a little hard to follow, but something to do with a powerful rebel Ronan (Lee Pace) who wants to throw off the yoke of his master, Thanos, an evil space emperor. Ronan and his fellow Kree want to destroy the Nova, a benevolent race guarding the orb.

The action is zingy, the villains (there are many) quite hiss-able and the belly laughs plentiful. I doubt “Guardians of the Galaxy” will need my boosterism for its video release.

Video features are good, not great, and feel a bit underwhelming considering the success of the film. The DVD comes with but a single feature, and it’s more of an ad: an exclusive look at “Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add a feature-length audio commentary track, deleted scenes, gag reel and making-of featurettes.



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: "The Homesman"

“The Homesman” exists somewhere in that netherworld between the Western and the anti-Western. It celebrates the austerity and grit of the mid-1800s, and the people who settled west of the Mississippi River; but also casts an unsparing, gimlet eye on the brutality of those times -- and those who made it so.

It’s the sort of movie full of horses and guns and stare-downs between desperate folks, but it’s not really about those things. There is little actual violence, and that which does transpire ill comports with the uses traditionally seen in this terrain of filmmaking.

Story-wise it kind of jags this way and that, like a drunken rider upon a lame horse, neither one too sure about the navigation. But it contains a brilliant performance by Hilary Swank, full of contradictory emotions and urges that nonetheless seem perfectly confined inside a character who feels urgent and alive.

And Tommy Lee Jones, who co-stars and also directed and co-wrote the film, isn’t half-bad himself. Not to mention an impressive supporting cast that includes the likes of Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld, John Lithgow, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson.

Based upon a book by Glendon Swarthout, the story concerns a journey from Nebraska to Iowa roundabouts 1850 to return three wives who have gone crazy on the lonely plains to their families back East. Their husbands are reluctant to leave their crops or children to make the long, arduous journey, so Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) steps forward.

To all outward appearances, Mary Bee is a marvel. An educated woman from New York, she runs a prosperous claim including prime farmland, stock and a tidy house. She is active in her church and community – as much as one can be when you measure the distance to neighbors in miles – and respected by all. She is, as one forthright fellow puts it, as good a man as any man in these parts.

But there is an itchy desperation to Mary Bee, driven by the fact that she is 31 years old (firmly into spinsterhood), a mite bossy and “plain as an old tin pail,” to use a variation on a common refrain. As the story opens she essentially throws herself at a callow clod with whom she has lately been social. “Why not marry?” she proposes, going on to outline the financial benefits of a pairing, and we sense this not the first time such a speech has been given.

Rejected, Mary Bee agrees to oversee three women who have been more successful in getting married, but not in what comes after. Played by Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer, each has experienced extreme tragedy that has driven them over the edge, including the death of children, due to causes natural ... and otherwise.

The trio exists as ghostly, wordless figures of pity, though Jones and his co-screenwriters (Wesley A. Oliver and Kieran Fitzgerald) are careful to show glimpses of the cruel lives that made them so.

Her charges locked into a boxed wagon, Mary Bee begins her expedition but stumbles across a man sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck. He is George Briggs (Jones), a claim-jumper and man of constant wanderings. He agrees to assist Mary Bee in exchange for saving his life, and thus begins a volatile relationship built on distrust and resentment, but also a shared sense of solitariness.

Along the way they encounter the usual sorts of challenges – Indians, rapacious cowboys, bitter snows and stomachs shriveled from hunger. The real journey is in these two damaged people venturing toward a nexus where they can both abide. It would seem impossible; she has a despairing desire to be needed, while he holds his rootless freedom as his most cherished (and often only) possession.

I wish “The Homesman” had as coherent a sense of narrative as it does well-limned portraits of its main characters. Some of the encounters in the film, particularly in the second half, have little connective tissue with the themes and story that surround them. (One, a visit to an intended town that so far has only built a hotel, tries too transparently to borrow a page from “Unforgiven.”)

But Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones are well worth the price of admission on their own. In most Westerns the actions define the character, but here it’s the words, said and unsaid, that offer a peek inside distant souls.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970)

After essentially blowing up the Western genre, what do you do next?

In the case of Sam Peckinpah, coming off the divisive glory of "The Wild Bunch," which was excoriated for its brutal violence, you make a silly -- yet slyly consequential -- comedy like 1970's "The Ballad of Cable Hogue."

A casual observer of Peckinpah would be hard-pressed to even recognize the filmmaker's fingerprints on this gentle, life-affirming movie starring Jason Robards as a desert hermit who builds his own oasis in between tumbleweed towns. But they are there, including a general pessimism about the ability of the individual to conform to the strictures of society, and a sober realism about the usefulness, and misuse, of violence to address conflicts.

A big flop at the time, "Cable Hogue" essentially ended Peckinpah's career as an auteur. From there on out, he became a hired gun brought in -- usually reluctantly, due to his well-earned reputation for drunkenness and absenteeism on the set -- to work on prepackaged studio projects. But the movie has come to be reevaluated over the years and found new admirers, including myself.

Cable Hogue is not your typical Western protagonist, and he's certainly no hero -- at least not a cookie-cutter one. He's illiterate, ill-tempered, a skinflint to barter with, and seems to prefer the sun-baked company of lizards and rattlesnakes to that of most people. In the opening minutes he's even revealed to be a bit of a coward, declining to shoot his back-stabbing gold mining partners when he has the drop on them.

Yet Peckinpah and screenwriters John Crawford and Edmund Penney (plus an uncredited Gordon T. Dawson) delve deeper into Hogue's dust-caked, odorous personage and find a well-hidden nobility. Cable may be uncouth but he's not dull-witted; he's stubborn but capable of self-reflection and change; and he's intrinsically invested with enough pride to demand respect from those who would laugh at him -- which is pretty much everyone he meets, at least initially.

The movie is a celebration of a seemingly ordinary man who demands that he be accepted as he is, prodigious faults and all. He will make his own rules and abide by them, as will those who wander into his tiny two-acre domain. And he will never forget himself and dream of becoming something other than what he is.

In short, he is Cable Hogue, he is a man, and he will not be denied.

The story begins with those scheming partners, Taggart and Bowen (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, respectively), betraying Cable and leaving him in the desert to die without a drop of water or any possessions beyond the clothes on his back. Near death, he communes with the Lord, giving his feeble life over into His hands, and is rewarded by stumbling across a tiny water hole in the middle of nowhere.

Actually, the hole -- soon expanded into a well -- is right along the stagecoach route to the town of Deaddog. Cagey Cable reasons that having a place to stop and water horses will prove valuable to parched travelers. He refuses the offer of a lift into town and sets up shop, though his first transaction doesn't go so well when the customer refuses to pay the 10 cent fee to drink and Cable is forced to shoot him dead. But the miscreant has enough money in his pockets to secure the deed to the land, and Cable is officially in business.

His second customer is a mite better, the lecherous Reverend Joshua Sloan (David Warner), who sees the descended light of heaven in the curves of the female form, and is always ready to lay his gentle ministrations upon their quivering flesh. He wears a reverend's collar that can be turned around to become a gentleman's tie, depending on need and circumstance. Josh soon becomes Cable's confidante, assistant and needler-in-chief.

The heart of the story lies in Cable's initial visit to Deaddog to secure his claim and grubstake to build something out of nothing.. Laughed at by the town children, thrown out of the stagecoach office when he offers to sell half the deed to his land for $35, Cable runs into a pair of friendly faces that brighten his perpetually sour mood.

The first is Hildy (Stella Stevens), the preternaturally pretty town prostitute who kindly directs Cable to the proper destinations he seeks (since he can't read the signs) and rewards him with a backward glance or two. With her painfully thin waist and incongruously heaving bosom and ample hindquarters -- which Peckinpah's camera lingers over, again and again -- Hildy looks like a caricature of every female character in every Western ever made. She's sweet-natured but ambitious, mercenary but generous of spirit (and flesh). Hildy looks upon Cable with pity, which he interprets as affection, and to her surprise her feelings do eventually evolve in that direction.

The other kind encounter is with Cushing (Peter Whitney), the local banker who, like seemingly every banker in a Western, resembles a cross between a walrus and an owl. Cable barges into his office and starts rambling about how the world has wronged him, and they quibble over the meaning of "collateral," and if Cable has something of value to secure a loan.

Halfway out the door, Cable turns back and gives Cushing this look that is just an ocean of emotion and meaning -- pain, anger, regret, confusion, despair, neediness. Honestly, it's probably my single favorite moment of Jason Robard's career. The words that follow are almost beside the point:

"Well, I'm worth something, ain't I?"

In every other movie you've ever seen, the penitent man walks away rebuffed, and the unctuous official returns to his paperwork. But Cushing is genuinely moved and offers Cable $100 to start his business. He later makes sporadic visits to Jackass Flats, now redubbed Cable Springs, to check on his newest customer. In one sojourn, Cable is moved nearly to tears to receive an American flag designating his outpost as an official stop on the stagecoach line.

Most of the second half of the movie is taken up with romance. Joshua becomes enamored with a town woman whom he thinks has just been widowed, until her huge husband shows up in a huff. Hildy is thrown out of Deaddog by the burgeoning Bible-thumber movement, and opts to shack up with Cable (he has built himself a shack by this time) before lighting out for San Francisco. Her plans are to marry a rich man, preferably old or frail, and become "the ladyiest damn lady you ever saw!"

The love between Cable and Hildy deepens, but she is too set in her plans to remain, and he too focused on his little empire to go. That, and Cable has an ulterior purpose. He figures that if he remains in one key spot long enough,  Taggart and Bowen are bound to stumble across it and he can exact his revenge.

This actually does come to pass, but plays out in a completely different way than you'd expect of a Peckinpah film. It soon becomes clear that though Cable did have a score to settle, it was not with his erstwhile partners but with himself. Having failed to live up to his self-image of manhood, he cannot complete his journey until he proves to himself that he can pull a trigger when he has to. Having done so, his bloodthirst leaks out of him like sweat in the hot sun, and is consumed by the insatiable, uncaring desert.

The ending of "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" is a little too quick and gimmicky for my taste. I often feel that filmmakers kill off their main character because, having completed his or her personal quest, they don't really know what else to do with them. Personally, I would've liked to known if Cable Hogue, the humble but defiantly self-made man, could've stuck it out as Hildy's nicely creased arm candy.