Monday, August 31, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" (1958)

"The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" features the incomparable Ingrid Bergman and also Hollywood's maddening habit of taking a true life story and bullshitting it up into a sappy romance.

Gladys Aylward was a real Englishwoman and longtime domestic (read: maid) who at the spinsterish age of 30 used her life savings to travel to China to work as an unaccredited missionary. She ended up making it her home -- earning Chinese citizenship, the trust of the people and even a minor government post. Aylward adopted several children of her own and rescued more than 100 orphans  from certain death during World War II.

A pretty inspiring tale, which made for a popular book, "The Small Woman" by Alan Burgess.

But of course the studio couldn't leave well enough alone. In addition to casting the tall, stunning Bergman in the lead role -- who hides her Swedish accent about as well Sean Connery sounded like a Russian submarine captain -- they cast German actor Curd Jürgens as her half Chinese/half Dutch lover.

(Speaking of Connery, he screen tested for Jürgens' role, but was probably deemed too young in his late 20s to start opposite Bergman, who was then in her early 40s.)

Jürgens wears slightly tinted makeup and prosthetic to complete the racially insensitive ensemble. Bad enough, except that his character, Colonel Lin Nan, is based on a real (and non-biracial) Chinese official who befriended her. The film's ending shows her abandoning her young charges to return to her home province, presumably to reunite with Lin.

When the real Aylward saw the movie she was mortified, commenting that she had never so much as kissed a man in her whole life.

To complete things, another major Chinese character, the Mandarin of Yang Cheng, is played by British actor Robert Donat, also in embarrassing, unconvincing makeup. (Yellowface?)

At least one major Chinese character, Aylward's cook and companion Yang, is played by an Asian actor, Peter Chong.

They couldn't even get the title right. The name of the hotel that Aylward ran along with an elderly missionary, Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler), was actually called "The Inn of the Eight Happinesses." (The Chinese consider the number eight lucky.)

Not really sure why six happinesses is considered worse than eight.

But all films are a product of their times, and I can't dismiss the movie for following common -- if grating -- practices of its era. I'm sure screenwriter Isobel Lennart was pressured into making changes so that American audiences would find the story more palatable.

(Heck, in this space I once profiled a movie called "Across the Pacific" in which the characters never even reach the Pacific Ocean.)

Bergman admirably carries the movie as Aylward, who later is given the name Zhen-Ai, which is translated for us as "she who loves everyone." She depicts the character as brave and resolute without losing her crushing sense of humility. Zhen-Ai Aylward is less Norma Rae than a shrinking violet who learns to toughen up.

The first act is about her saving up the money and pluck to get to China after being refused a spot as a missionary. Despite her faith and obvious devotion, it seems she is rejected solely for being from a lower working class.

Her introduction to Yang Cheng is challenging. The locals are suspicious of foreigners, and she gets chased by some women for daring to help up a small child who had fallen in the mud. The poverty and the way human life seems debased repulse her.

Eventually they get the inn going, a waystation for traveling mule teams who serve as the lifeblood of the rural economy. They entice the men with stories of baby Jesus and other biblical tales. Her older companion soon dies, and Aylward must persevere on her own.

The Mandarin -- sort of a governor and judge rolled into one -- gives her the job of "foot inspector" to make sure the people are following the government's new edicts against footbinding. It was a horrid custom in which little girls' feet are tightly bound to crush them into tiny lotus shapes and never grow any larger. She only gets the job because the previous foot inspectors, all men, were run out of the various villages, and the Mandarin deems her the most expendable candidate.

Lin Nan turns up as the modernistic government official trying to drag the peasants into the 20th century. He's half-Danish and despises his European blood, and at first is deeply suspicious of the two interloper women. But things get progressively mushier.

It's certainly a beautiful film, with the Welsh mountains standing in for Chinese ones. Director Mark Robson, who had just been nominated for an Academy Award for "Peyton Place," scored another nod for this film. This makes him one of the few directors to score Oscar nominations in consecutive years.

Despite the racial swap I enjoyed Donat as the Mandarin, a man who projects an image of fierceness to protect the deep sentiment he secretly harbors. It's the sort of well-written supporting role you saw a lot of in mid-century Hollywood fare.

I loved and hated "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness." Before seeing it I would have said I could watch Ingrid Bergman in just about anything, but this film tested that resolve at times. It's a classic white-person-goes-someplace-exotic-and-finds-their-inner-peace story, which I could have appreciated for what it was, if not for the stiff and manufactured love story.

It's a romantic film; but the real passion was between a woman and her adopted homeland. No kissyface necessary.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Video review: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Twice in my life I’ve anticipated a movie that I knew I was either going to love or hate, because of a deep personal connection with the source material. The first time was “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” based on my favorite novel. This year it was “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a sorta-sequel to 1985’s “The Road Warrior,” a cherished cinematic touchstone.

Luckily, in both cases my fears were unfounded, the movies magnificent.

“Fury Road” is set in post-apocalyptic Australia, portrayed here as a shriveled, hardpan desolation of greed, death and human suffering. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is an ex-cop just trying to survive and make sense out of why he wants to.

Captured by the despotic local warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), Max finds himself thrown in with a group of women escaping his clutches, led by the fierce one-armed lieutenant, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). They’ve liberated a giant “war rig” and are steering it toward a fabled “green place” somewhere in the east.

It’s essentially one long chase scene, with Joe’s braying, death-obsessed War Boys nipping at their heels, along with a few other various mongrel clans. It’s an orgy of car crashes and death-defying stunts, carried out with minimal assistance from computer-generated imagery.

The action is just jaw-dropping in its spectacle and intensity.

Along the way, Max and Furiosa learn to trust – or at least tolerate – each other’s presence. And Nicholas Hoult has a surprisingly touching role as Nux, a fading War Boy who finds himself disillusioned by his short life of deity worship for Immortan Joe, a decrepit figure held together by his armor and the cult of personality he’s cultivated over the years.

Brutish and thrilling, “Mad Max: Fury Road” proves you can go home again.

Bonus features, which are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions, included some deleted scenes and a good spectrum of making-of featurettes. Titles include “Maximum Fury: Filming Fury Road,” “Mad Max: Fury on Four Wheels,” “The Road Warriors: Max and Furiosa,” “The Tools of the Wasteland,” “The Five Wives: So Shiny, So Chrome” and “Fury Road: Crash & Smash.”



Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: "No Escape"

A rather clumsy but also rather effective thriller, "No Escape" is a dark night's ride through a landscape of xenophobia and primal instincts. It's the sort of movie that accomplishes its mission but makes you feel a little slimy after watching it.

It's about an American family who land in some unnamed Southeast Asian country to start a new life with dad working for a benevolent U.S. company building a plant to provide drinking water for the spectacularly ungrateful natives, who launch a coup almost the minute they get to their hotel and start hunting foreigners for summary execution.

There's more to it, of course. Director John Erick Dowdle ("Quarantine"), who co-write the script with brother Drew, throws in suggestions that the Western spooks and suits have been here for some time, ripening up the ground for economic enslavement. Hey, somebody says, maybe all those leering marauders shooting American tourists in the back of the head are just freedom fighters standing up for their own children!

I'm guessing this is supposed to make us feel better about cheering when the yanks smash in the face of some anonymous bandana-wearing thug. Today's globally-themed disposable entertainment comes conveniently embedded with its own white guilt.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell play the parents, and they're the best things about the movie. They're likeable and emotionally identifiable figures, and both have faces that are fascinating to watch in the way their beauty seems to transgress every supposed rule of how attractive people are supposed to look. I'm guessing a bunch of people told them they were ugly as teenagers, and look at 'em now.

Like Gerard Depardieu's, Wilson's nose boasts more interesting topography than most mountain ranges, with clefts, ravines and humpback rises. Thank God the plastic surgeons never got ahold of him.

Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare play the daughters, and they're good eggs, adorable when needed and whiny just when the story needs them to make noise when the bad guys are trolling nearby. Pierce Brosnan plays a scarred, debauched Irishman who offers a little help at the airport, and then a little more down the line. These days when Brosnan turns up in a movie, we just assume he's got a Walther PPK or a wristwatch laser stashed somewhere.

The bulk of the movie is essentially just one big long chase, as mom and dad try to get the kids to safety while avoiding the roving, random bands of bad guys. They end up making for the border with Vietnam to seek asylum ... Vietnam! You can practically feel the filmmakers poking us with the irony stick.

Look, I understand the rules better than most about how movies manipulate us, and the ways we are driven to root for the protagonists by having the villains do nasty things to them. But I'm uncomfortable with the way this picture uses Asian heavies as faceless boogums barely indistinguishable from each other.

The Americans wander around, stupidly trying to speak English to everybody, while the natives chatter away like inscrutable monkeys. Since the movie never even bothers to give the country a made-up name or language, they're literally generic hostile "foreigners."

(It was shot in Thailand, for what that's worth.)

The Americans are the naive innocents, of course, caught up in some overseas intrigue that interests them only so much as it threatens them. You get the sense that the dad's first call after the tragedy will be not to relatives to assure their safety but to his company to see if his relocation bonus check will still clear.

"No Escape" is visceral, nail-biting and sure to entertain. Your instructions are to shriek at the scary Orientals, and try not to think too much about it afterward.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: "Mistress America"

Many critics and audiences went nuts for “Frances Ha,” the last collaboration between writer/director Noah Baumbach and actress/screenwriter Greta Gerwig, but not me. I found it an unfocused and rambling portrait of a twentysomething woman trying to find a purpose in New York City. So I approached their next film together, “Mistress America,” with some hesitation.

Even though thematically the movies are kissing cousins, “Mistress” is a much more fully realized and vibrant work. Here Gerwig is not the subject of the story but its object. Her character, Brooke Cardinas, is a 30-year-old New Yorker who seems to have a lot of jobs and grand ideas, but all of them are transitory. She’s got a load of panache and personality, the sort of person who lights up a room and effortlessly takes it over.

She is described, aptly, as a woman who is spending her youth well.

It’s no wonder that Brooke is captivating to the actual protagonist, Tracy Fishko, an 18-year-old Barnard College freshman. They’re thrown together because Tracy’s mom and Brooke’s dad are marrying each other, which means they’re soon to be step-sisters. Brooke takes Tracy, who’s been struggling to fit in at school, under her ample wing for a night of fun and freedom, essentially auditioning to become her role model and muse.

Soon Tracy, who aspires to be a writer but has been declined by the hoity-toity campus literary society, is penning a vivid and not-very-well-disguised portrait of Brooke -- her fearlessness and foibles, her bright imaginings and doomed plans. Tracy reads portions of her short story throughout the film, serving as a sort of narration.

This is a very, very smart film about how people consciously and unconsciously are inspired by and imitate others. It’s also very self-aware, such as when the two women are silhouetted at night against a lit-up bridge as a groovy tune plays on the soundtrack, and one says to the other: “We look like we’re in a song!”

Tracy is played by Lola Kirke, who’s had a few small roles here and there, but announces herself with this nuanced, emotionally true performance. She has that rare ability to let the audience see her thinking, so we are swept along with Tracy as she beholds the amazing Brooke and is inevitably pulled toward her and starts emulating her.

Tracy has her own small circle of friends, notably Tony (Matthew Shear), a sensitive beta-male type who shares her literary ambitions. They hang out during first semester; both rejected by the lit society, and form their own little circle of trust. It seems like they must end up as a couple, but as often happens in real life the current pulls us in other directions. Tony winds up dating Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who is defined by her jealousy.

Things really get interesting when Brooke’s plans to open a restaurant hit a financial snafu, and she’s led to approaching a wealthy ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus), for the cash. Unfortunately, he’s now married to Brooke’s former best friend, Maimie-Claire (Heather Lind), who -- as she sees it -- stole her man, her T-shirt design, her cats and her richly deserved life of idle comfort.

Tracy and Brooke decamp to Michael and Maimie-Claire’s extravagant Greenwich, Conn., mansion, along with Tony, who’s providing the ride, and Nicolette, who’s providing the suspicion. This whole gaggle shows up on their doorstep, and at first I had visions of the same thing happening in “Funny People,” a potentially great movie that flushed itself down the commode with an ill-advised and rambling visit to an ex’s abode.

But this encounter, which essentially takes up the last third of the film, merely brings all the characters into sharper focus. The dynamic between Tracy and Brooke is examined, exposed and fundamentally altered. The muse gets P.O.’d at the artist.

The dialogue is razor-sharp and eminently quotable: “It was too much fun to agree with her.” “He’s the sort of guy I hate, except that I’m in love with him.” “I’m the same! I’m just the same in a different direction now.”

Smart, brave, probing and sensitive, “Mistress America” shows us that movies about messy people don’t have to be a mess themselves.

Monday, August 24, 2015

More "Mad Max: Fury Road" thoughts

 The greatness of "Mad Max: Fury Road" only becomes more apparent upon repeated viewings. The ability to pause and go frame-by-frame is a particular thrill. You find out things like the fact that George Miller used snippets of the earlier movies in Max's visions, such as the Toecutter's eyes bugging out or a black-masked marauder. The spare dialogue is enhanced by captions, so you can catch all the nuances of the linguistic mash-up used by the characters, altered slightly between the clans of the War Boys, Many Mothers, Joe's Wives, etc. ("Are you a Black Thumb?" aka mechanic.)

It seems more and more clear to me that this world is set much further down the road after the apocalypse, perhaps 40 or 50 years. Of course, Max would have to be an old man by then. Which is perhaps why he is essentially a supporting character, more an existential force than a person, a whitewashed version of the "magical Negro" figure who exists mainly to support and propel the main character, who is Furiosa.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Video review: "I Am Chris Farley"

If you looked at the average lifespan of “Saturday Night Live” alumni compared to the general population, you'd find it’s shockingly low. So many talented comedic fireballs have gone to early graves -- some to disease (Gilda Radner) or violence (Phil Hartman), but far too many to excessive lifestyles and a lack of self-control.

Anyone watching the show in the 1990s initially viewed Chris Farley as the reincarnation of John Belushi: a maniacal tubby guy with a natural grace for physical comedy that belied his girth. “I Am Chris Farley” is the new documentary about his life, where he came from, why he was so popular on the show -- and why he was incapable of doing anything halfway.

Directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray interview an impressive list of people who knew or worked with Farley, tracing his rise from class cut-up in a bucolic Wisconsin town to king of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago up through the seemingly ordained call-up to SNL. We learn that he was a man who would literally do anything for a laugh, even being suspended from his Catholic school for exposing himself during typing class.

People like Adam Sandler, Dan Aykroyd, David Spade, Bob Saget, Mike Myers, Christina Applegate, SNL chief Lorne Michaels and many others weigh in with memories, regrets and praise. Farley’s brothers and childhood friends speak of a soul so innocent and pure that there was simply no nastiness in him. His inability to cope with alcohol and drugs was, they say, simply an extension of a man whose appetite for joy was unquenchable.

Myself, I was never a particular fan of Farley’s. He seemed to operate under the principle of “comedy by volume” -- that is, any line of dialogue becomes funny if you shout it loudly and repeatedly. The half-life he could wring out of material was regrettably brief; no doubt the reason his two films in a starring role both bombed as audiences couldn’t summon the endurance for 90 minutes of Farley’s pratfalls and mugging.

His act got old fast, and so did Farley. His death at age 33 of an overdose, compounded by his obesity, came as a shock to exactly no one, his friends say.

Still, if Farley’s brand of merriment wasn’t my bag, I appreciated the devotion he put into his craft. As this doc underlines, no one put more effort into looking like a screw-up.

It’s an insightful, affecting portrait of a misunderstood comedy giant who left us too soon.

As a straight-to-video release that’s also being shown on the Spike TV channel, there are no bonus materials.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: "American Ultra"

"American Ultra" is a quirky take on an old saw. This action comedy stars Jesse Eisenberg as a seemingly normal guy who discovers one day that he has amazing skills, including the ability to take down armed assailants with his bare hands. He wasn't even aware he could do this, until he does it.

We've seen this idea before with "The Bourne Identity," "The Matrix" and countless other flicks. The notion holds appeal because maybe anyone of us could be revealed as the badass chosen one, too.

The twist here is that Eisenberg is seemingly the last guy on Earth who could secretly be a trained super agent. It starts with the actor's small stature, unimpressive physique, soft features, trembly voice and disappearing chin. If you looked up "beta male" in the dictionary, it'd probably have his picture as an illustration.

Screenwriter Max Landis ("Chronicle") layers on the reinforcing characteristics. Mike Howell is an unassuming stoner who clerks at the Stop-n-Go, gets high with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), draws an amateur comic starring Apollo Ape and Chimp the Brick, and does little else. He's wracked with crippling phobias, including a violent aversion to leaving his town of Liman, West Virginia.

As the story opens, they are about to fly off on a Hawaii trip where Mike plans to pop the question. (Hawaii? Fancy ring? Must've been a lot of double-shifts at the Stop-n-Go.) But he's unable to get on the plane, and worries that he's just slowing Phoebe down. But then some big guys in black camo show up out of nowhere and try to kill him, and Mike easily takes them out armed with nothing more than a piping hot cup o' soup and a spoon.

Here we have the classic trope about the master spies deciding that a rogue agent who hasn't done anything to anybody in years needs to be eliminated -- even if it requires expending many more agents' lives and the entire operational budget to do it. Listen, spooks: if Jason Bourne decides he wants to retire on the beach, let him get fat on barbecue and piña coladas.

Topher Grace plays the maniacal young CIA chief who goes after Mike, and he's got a small army of his own twisted agents to do it. Of course, he always sends them against clerk-boy in twos and threes, instead of calling the whole gang in at once. On several occasions he's literally got a bunch of his "tough guy" spies sitting around doing nothing while he picks a pair to be the latest sacrificial lambs.

Lesson two, spooks: if you have 17 guys to dispatch against one, why in the world would you not just send all 17?

Connie Britton plays the good CIA gal who recruited Mike (unbeknownst to him) and is still looking out for him. Walton Goggins, so great on the "Justified" TV show, is the Laugher, one of the evil toadies. John Leguizamo turns up as your friendly neighborhood drug dealer, and Tony Hale plays a nebbishy desk agent caught between loyalties.

It's a fun ride, and director Nima Nourizadeh keeps things moving at a snappy pace. Eisenberg and Stewart have nice chemistry together in between all the chases and dismemberments. (Though I recommend the little-seen "Adventureland" if you really want to see some romantic sparks fly between them.)

"American Ultra" succeeds under the wallflower charms of Jesse Eisenberg and a clever script. Sometimes even pathetic losers can kill you with a spoon, so be nice.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review: "The End of the Tour"

“The End of the Tour” is simultaneously a great character study and possibly the best portrait of writers I’ve ever seen.

It’s essentially a two-person conversation that takes place over the course of five days in 1996. Both are youngish men who have recently published books. One is famous, the other is not. The less celebrated one is writing a profile of the famous one for Rolling Stone magazine while he finishes up his book tour.

They grow friendly, but jealousy and resentment are always close at hand. They circle each other warily, tribal companions and combatants harboring their own stakes and agendas. Theirs is a magnificent, haunting dance of intellects and emotions.

David Foster Wallace is the celebrated novelist, whose “Infinite Jest” has just been released to spectacular acclaim and predictions of major awards. His dense, playful style of writing, replete with extensive endnotes and citations, seemed a precursor to today’s hyperlinked, hyperactive style of information consumption.

He plays up his regular-guy image, teaching at an unremarkable Illinois state college, wearing bandanas and hanging out with his slobbering dogs and select friends. Wallace killed himself in 2008 at age 46.

David Lipsky is the interviewer, a few years younger and whose own novel, “The Art Fair,” has been much more modestly received. An early scene shows him reciting at a sparsely-attended book reading, so later when he looks out over the packed room for Wallace’s final book tour appearance, we understand how that stiffens his spine.

In Wallace, Lipsky beholds someone more accomplished and wants to capture that, understand it, and thereby ensure his own ascent.

Director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) and screenwriter Donald Margulies reveal many things about both men in “The End of the Tour,” but also hold back in other ways. For instance, Wallace never produced another novel while alive. (An unfinished work was published posthumously.) He mostly turned to nonfiction and essays, even penning for Rolling Stone.

Meanwhile, Lipsky’s article was never actually published in the magazine. The interview essentially became memories and a box of old tape recordings. Lipsky dug them out after Wallace’s passing and turned it into the book, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” upon which this movie is based.

Jason Segel plays Wallace. Yes, that Jason Segel – the pants-dropping comic everyman of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and TV’s “How I Met Your Mother.” If you can’t conceive of him giving a layered, dramatic turn, just remember that many funnymen have gone on to become serious actors. I believe this film will do for Segel what “Moscow on the Hudson” did for Robin Williams.

It’s a career-changing, stand-up-and-take-notice kind of performance.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky. It’s a tight, precise portrayal, the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from the actor from “The Social Network.” His Lipsky is nebbishy and charming, sort of a modern-day Woody Allen type. He’s ambitious and can be ruthless when pushed, but he genuinely likes Wallace and wants to get inside his head.

Plot-wise, the story essentially just follows Lipsky as he follows Wallace to Minneapolis for the last leg of his book tour. They spend almost every minute together, driving in cars, riding in planes, hanging in the downtime. Lipsky keeps his recorder going the whole time, an old-style cassette job with an oversized microphone, one of which every journalist of a certain age probably has stashed somewhere. The tape machine becomes a virtual third character, an omnipresent reminder that their conversations are “on the record” and posterity is listening.

The men talk about writing, depression, addiction, sex, television, having kids, the intangible appeal of Alanis Morissette and other topics. It’s fascinating to watch the tidal ebb and flow of trust, as Wallace starts out very reticent to reveal himself, then slowly opens up, only to recede back into himself when he starts to think Lipsky is playing him.

And Lipsky is playing him -- from a journalistic perspective. He peeks into the guy’s medicine cabinet and writes down the contents, makes notes after a middle-of-the-night heartfelt conversation, and declines to order an alcoholic beverage because, he tells Wallace, he respects the 12-step process. It’s Lipsky’s way of letting Wallace know he knows about past substance abuse problems.

These are the sorts of things reporters routinely do as part of the job that outsiders would doubtless regard as monumentally crummy. Intrusive? You just defined journalism.

Better than any film I can think of, “The End of the Tour” captures and crystallizes what it’s like to be inside the head of people who live through words. Eisenberg and Segel are magnificent conduits into the writer’s darkest corners.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Walkabout" (1971)

"Walkabout" is mostly remembered for its gorgeous photography and its tale of innocent lost British children wandering around the Australian outback with the help of an Aborigine boy. But the film begins and ends with horrifying, unjustified acts of violence that detract from its enjoyment.

Mind you, I'm not talking about the fact that people die horribly. It's that these deaths carry exactly zero psychological weight with the two English children. These traumatizing events seem to have zero impact on their psyches, only presenting challenges to their immediate physical plight. I never could reconcile the rest of the movie with these two black marks upon the film's emotional integrity.

"Our father just killed himself after trying to shoot us with a pistol? Oh my! Well, look at that gekko!"

If that comment seems flip, that's because it is. It also makes light (improperly) of director Nicolas Roeg's signature technique of crosscutting the narrative imagery with sudden environmental shots of the character's surroundings or inner thoughts. It's a startling style, which has been countlessly copied and (over)used by other filmmakers: Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, etc.

The movie is very much aligned with the Australian New Wave. Like another one of those films recently discussed here, "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "Walkabout" has a hazy, dreamlike quality that cues the audience in to the fact that they're not watching a straight, linear sort of picture.

This is underscored by John Barry's lush music, replete with his familiar swells of stringed instruments. Lacking a distinct melody, the score adds colors and shades to the cinematic experience without imposing an emotional state on the viewer.

The film was based on a novel of the same name by James Vance Marshall, though screenwriter Edward Bond changed things around significantly for the movie.

In the book the siblings are Americans whose plane crash-landed in the outback, and some of is told from the point of view of the Aborigine boy, who was on his rite of manhood journey when he stumbled across the pair. He struggled with whether to help them, since he is supposed to remain alone on his spiritual quest, but decides he cannot leave them to die. It's a fateful choice; he perishes himself after catching influenza from them, since he is not immunized.

"Walkabout" means very different things in British and Australian cultural traditions. The Aussies have expanded the meaning beyond Aboriginal customs to mean any kind of arduous journey or undertaking. For the English, it means an informal stroll or walking tour, especially by a VIP.

These gradations of meaning seem to apply to the siblings, who never seem very afraid despite often being close to death.

Jenny Agutter plays the sister, while her brother is played by none other than Roeg's own son, Luc. David Gulpilil, as the Aborigine, suffered the ignominy of having his last name misspelled in the film's credits.

None of the characters are ever named in the movie, simply referring to each other as "he" or "she" or "you." Gulpilil's character does not speak English, but he and the tyke soon figure out a basic form of communication through mime and a few Aborigine words.

Agutter and Gulpilil were both about 18 when the film was shot, though I get the sense their characters are meant to be closer to 14 or 15. This adds an extra layer of discomfort to the frequent nude scenes, which include shots of genitalia.

"Walkabout" was originally given an R rating by the MPAA, but upon appeal it was changed to GP, later known as PG.

This is pretty astonishing, considering there is also some quite graphic violence of the Aborigine performing some apparently unsimulated hunting and butchering of wild animals, with guts and gore aplenty. Not to mention the suicides that begin and end the film, with lingering shots of the bodies.

Along with "Jaws" and "Poltergeist," these films must form the trio of the hardest PG-rated flicks of all time.

While the depiction of their young bodies is mostly non-sexual, Roeg has the habit of having his camera zoom in closely on the most intimate parts of people's bodies -- breasts, anal clefts, Agutter's nethers as she repeatedly summits the surface of the pond where she's enjoying a swim.

I think he's going for an organic verisimilitude -- these are bodies in nature; deal with it -- but to 2015 sensibilities it still registers as pervy leering at underage kids.

The story is straightforward. A British businessman (John Meillon) living in Australia with his family drives his two children out to the middle of the outback for a picnic. Seemingly at random, he pulls out a pistol and starts firing at them.

The boy, who's maybe 6 years old, doesn't understand and thinks his dad is playing a game. But the sister gets them behind cover. Frustrated, the man sets his black Volkswagen Bug on fire and then shoots himself in the head. Sister refuses to let brother see the aftermath, and they begin walking away and are soon lost in the brutal hardpan.

They never discuss his death until the end of the film, and not a tear is shed for dear old dad.

From there, the movie becomes just what the title says: walking, walking, more walking, while trying to survive and make their way back to civilization.

(Of course, the smart thing to do would be to stay right where they are and wait for the black smoke of the vehicle fire to attract somebody -- which it soon does, drawing an Aboriginal family who loot the scene. They paint the man's body and hang it in a tree, which -- based on later events and a little Googling -- I take to be a cultural rite.)

Gulpilil's character helps the siblings out by showing them how to use a reed to suck water out of a dried oasis bed, and they more or less begin following him after that.

From fairly early on after their meeting, it becomes clear that the Aborigine is attracted to the girl, and she on some level returns the sentiment. She gazes intently at his beautiful lean body, charcoal-black and essentially nude except for a modesty cloth wrapped over his loins.

Later, while resting at an abandoned settlement, he catches her in a state of undress that causes her distress. It's a bit unclear why, since he already would have seen her nude on several occasions during their journey. (Indeed, the final image of the film is her character, years later, wistfully recalling the three of them skinny-dipping together.)

He misinterprets her intentions and begins a traditional mating dance. She, unfamiliar with such things, think he's just acting strangely and lets the ritual go one for hours without any response, which he takes as rejection, leading to tragic results.

Roeg himself dubbed "Walkabout" "a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability." Roger Ebert opined that the movie was about "the mystery of communication," something I think underscored by my paragraph above.

Perhaps it's a bit of many things. Some movies are mysteries to their audiences, while others are mysterious even to themselves. I think "Walkabout" falls into that latter category.

It's a film of wondrous craftsmanship that is content to just exist in itself without trying to impose a grand 'meaning of it all.' In doing so, though, it presents characters who do not behave as real humans would. As such, they remain lovely cardboard cutouts -- they catch the light beautifully, but cast little shadow.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Video review: "Hot Pursuit"

A screechy, overtly “broad” comedy -- in both senses of that word -- “Hot Pursuit” did a grave disservice to buddy cop movies. And films starring women. And female directors. And… well, pretty much everything involving law enforcement, women or cinema.

An unimaginative amalgamation of “Midnight Express” and “The Heat,” “Hot Pursuit” teams up Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara as a cop and fugitive on the lam. The bad guys are after them, the good guys are after them, some of the good guys might actually be bad guys -- you get the picture. They spar, they kvetch, they bond, they double-cross, they re-bond, etc.

They’re each playing caricatures close to their star personas: Cooper (Witherspoon) is a pint-sized officer with a Southern-fried accent and a penchant for falling into hyper, rambling snits. Daniella Riva (Vergara) is the wife of a Colombian drug lord who flaunts her bountiful natural assets, working that whole excitable Latina thing to the nth degree.

Somewhere, Charo is filing suit for identity theft.

Director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”) keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, so the jokes that thud -- there are many -- don’t lay there too long. Screenwriters David Feeney and John Quaintance are television veterans, and their slavish devotion to the setup/punchline rhythm is absolute.

Cheesy, unfunny, braying and, in its own way, deeply misogynistic, “Hot Pursuit” is the commanding front-runner for worst movie of the year award.

Extras are short and sour. The DVD comes with one featurette, “The Womance,” focusing on on-set mugging by Witherspoon and Vergara. On the Blu-ray combo pack, you also get “Say What?” -- devoted to the stars’ English/Spanish mangling – and “Action Like A Lady,” a look at creating the action scenes.



Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

Brisk, daring and deliciously sexy, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is the end-of-summer surprise we've been waiting for.

Let's face it, August has historically become the summer movie season's dumping ground. Many kids are already back in school, vacations are mostly wound down, and films with lower profiles and stars of lesser wattage don't want to compete with the behemoths of May and June. I get it.

So it's always a thrill to encounter a flick that shakes off expectations and bounds over the doldrums. "Man," based on the TV show from the 1960s and set during that same period, is the best August time at the cinema since 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Both were based on moldy franchises that went from moribund to magnificent under the spell of energetic filmmakers and an electrifying cast.

Director Guy Ritchie did much the same to rejuvenate the "Sherlock Holmes" movies, though not to my liking. The dim steampunk streets and slo-mo chop-socky quickly grew tiring. Perhaps I like "Man" so much because it is those films' total opposite in tone and hue.

It's a gorgeous-looking movie, with vibrant primary colors and crisp focus. Henry Cavill's blue eyes, black forelock and incisor-sharp jawline practically seem to leap off a clothing designer's onionskin. Of course, he's helped by the splendid full-chested suits he wears. With a lavish production design, it's a world where even the thick glass tumblers the characters grab to fill with scotch look expensive and just-so tasteful.

Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, who if you'll recall is the rakish thief who got caught by the C.I.A. and threatened with jail if he didn't join their ranks. His opposite is Illya Kuryakin, a cold-blooded KGB tough who gets thrown in with him as his enforced partner. (He's played by Armie Hammer, who somehow wrangled top billing out of Superman's hands.) They form a ying-and-yang duo, the smooth operator and the psycho ready to snap, to get the job done.

"The job" is a nearly comprehensible MacGuffin of the classic order: some bad people have gotten their hands on nuclear technology, are building a bomb and trying to sell it to the Nazis, who somehow haven't heard about their surrender 18 years earlier. Don't worry about following the plot; it's just an excuse to set up big action spectacles, face-downs and hiss-able villains.

Cavill and Hammer are just about perfect in their respective parts. Cavill has got a Bond-esque thing going, cherishing his own unflappability, and he speaks his lines in a distinctive way that's somehow both charming and condescending. You've heard of "mansplaining"? He's spysplaining.

Since his breakout in "The Social Network," Hollywood really hasn't figured out what to do with Hammer, casting him as a hapless prince ("Mirror Mirror") or suffering the humiliation of making him the Lone Ranger and then having the cowboy icon usurped by his sidekick. He's flat-out terrific here, playing it straight and finding comedy by never winking at the camera. His Illya is simultaneously chilling and touching, a resentful lost boy in a superman's (small "s") body.

Alicia Vikander is Gaby, an East German mechanic who gets smuggled across the Berlin Wall because her dad was a nuke scientist for the Nazis, and is now suspected of helping some Italian aristocrats with the aforementioned bomb. The expected thing here would be to have her ensorcelled by the suave Napoleon, but she seems to only have well-mascaraed eyes for the sullen, withdrawn Russian.

Elizabeth Debicki is slithery and seductive as Victoria Vinciguerra -- just try saying that name, you'll love it -- who regards Napoleon like some viperous insect, something with which to copulate and then consume. Hugh Grant pops up as a likeable Brit harboring a secret agenda.

Ritchie pulls all the tricks out of his considerable director's bag: backward time jumps, split screens that keep splitting different directions, letting the music swell up and take over the movie for a moment, etc. Here the fancy stuff complements the material, rather than trying to dazzle us for its own sake.

But dazzle "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." does. It's a fresh cut on an old suit that plays its cards as they lay, and plays them with panache.

Review: "Straight Outta Compton"

Even for a total rap agnostic like yours truly, it wasn't hard to recognize the power and brutal honesty of N.W.A. and the other early driving forces of what came to be known as "gangsta rap."

Exploding on the staid late 1980s music scene like a Molotov cocktail at a cocktail party, N.W.A.'s 1988 album, "Straight Outta Compton," gave voice to a generation of young black men who grew up feeling like they had the boot of society in general, and law enforcement officials in particular, pressed up against the back of their neck.

Their music was loud, proud, rude, crude, defiant and energetic. Shocking to mainstream white ears, these were the true life stories of urban youths surrounded every day by violence and drugs.

The movie about them, directed by F. Gary Gray from a script by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, traces the quick rise and quicker fall of N.W.A., but also aims for more. It's essentially the history of the first decade of a new art form and the seedy, frequently violent business that sprung up around it. We witness the rise of the East Coast-vs.-West Coast rap war, and watch artists pushed aside by thugs.

Keep in mind, this is essentially the "authorized biography" version of N.W.A. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, the two main driving forces of the group, serve as producers on the film and Cube's real-life son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., plays him (and is a charismatic dead ringer). Not surprisingly, they come off looking the best in the movie.

Dre (Corey Hawkins) is portrayed as the artistic purist, the music producer and idea man who comes up with the beats and polishes the sounds. Cube is the surly, beating heart of the group, who pens rhymes about his young life of struggle and spits them out angrily at an uncaring world.

Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is depicted as the accidental front man, a drug dealer who put up the money for N.W.A.'s first album and got recruited to lay down some of the lines others had written. He becomes the overnight mogul of Ruthless Records, and hoards much of the fame and cash for himself. Eazy died of AIDS at the age of 31, and his passing serves as the denouement of rap's innocence.

Other group members DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.) are essentially shunted off to the side. Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti, is the Svengali whispering in Eazy's ear. He's quite a conniver in the film's depiction, a money grubber who pitted the N.W.A. crew against each other, convincing them to leave the "paperwork" of the business side to him -- and always made sure his end was covered first.

Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) wades into the film about halfway through, a brutish bodyguard who muscles his way into the management side of the rap game, promising protection but offering servitude. The real Suge is currently jail after allegedly running down two men with his car, one fatally, after leaving the set of this film.

The music of N.W.A. is the centerpiece of the film, and Gray grandly captures the vibrancy and anger of their lyrics. White suburban kids like me might've been shocked by songs with (cleaned-up) titles like "Eff tha Police," but then I didn't get thrown onto the hood of an LAPD squad car while walking home and have my homework rifled through for drugs.

The middle section of the film is predictably fat, with an over-emphasis on the hard-partying ways of N.W.A., with a lot of bouncing female flesh on display for little reason. One of the key criticisms of rap, and this cinematic reflection of it, is how it objectifies women.

At nearly 2½ hours, the film is too long and too self-indulgent for its own good. But it captures the excitement and danger of N.W.A. and the cultural movement it fostered.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Video review: "Unfriended"

Horror films often play the plucky underdogs in the Hollywood game, scary movies that appeal to a small but ardent fan base. Most horror flicks these days are made pretty cheaply, like “Unfriended,” which cost a million bucks and sold $54 million worth of tickets.

I’m no accountant, but I believe that’s what you call a good return on investment.

It’s a clever and original flick, in that it takes place entirely via the computer and smartphone screens of a bunch of overpriviliged teens. They engage through social media, text message and Skype the way previous generations used cars or malls as platforms for gathering and interacting.

A bunch of smart, popular kids jump onto a private video chat and discover a stowaway: a “ghost” user by the name of billie227 – who claims to be their friend Laura, which is impossible because she killed herself a year earlier. It seems Laura/billie believes one or more of her pals were responsible for the humiliation that led to her suicide. She takes control of their computers and starts killing off the teens, one by one.

Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves have come up with an ambitious approach to the horror genre, in much the same way “The Blair Witch Project” did a cinematic generation ago. It doesn’t have quite the raw scare factor of “Blair Witch,” but then few films do.

Special features are, well, essentially nonexistent. The blu-ray comes with only a digital copy of the film for loading on your mobile device. And that’s it.



Thursday, August 6, 2015

Review: "Ricki and the Flash"

I could've done with less singing.

That may be seem a strange criticism for a movie about a rock star. (Well, a rock musician, anyway.) But that was my main takeaway from "Ricki and the Flash": it spends way too much time with Meryl Streep and her eponymous band doing covers of (mostly) classic rock songs.

We all know how it goes with musical montages: the band will start playing, the scene will build energy as the song rises, the high point is the chorus, and then movie cuts away to a series of images that let us know they kept playing, but they're not going to show all of it. Director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody don't do this: we hear the whole song from beginning to end, just about every time.

The would be fine if the five, six minutes or whatever of song propelled the plot and advanced the characters. Or if it was just good to listen to. But the complete tunes seem more like an excuse to let Streep stroke her ego and play rock god. And, frankly, Ricki and the Flash sound like what they are: a third-string cover band. We know Streep can sing pop ballads and folk music from other movies, but here she's trying to do that husky-voiced rock voice, and it's just not her bag.

They're going for Bonnie Raitt, but it sounds like Meryl Streep after gargling Wild Turkey and thumb tacks.

Ricki bailed on her Indianapolis family a quarter-century ago or so to pursue her rock 'n' roll dreams in Los Angeles. She never made it but never left, spending days as a cashier at Total Foods while working the Salt Well bar as the house band for the aging clientele who want a little shake with their suds.

Then Ricki gets a call from her former husband, Pete (an ill-used Kevin Kline): their daughter Julie has just been dumped by her husband and is in an emotional spin. Pete's second wife, Maureen, is off dealing with her own family problems. Can Ricki (real name: Linda) come back and be a mother to her kids again?

Things play out much as you'd expect. The children -- they also have two sons -- are stupendously resentful of the parent who walked out on them so long ago. There's a lot of screaming and recrimination at first. But slowly, Ricki starts to ease her way back into their lives.

As usual, Streep is the best thing about whatever movie she's in. Her Ricki is frayed and strained, riddled with guilt but also justifiably proud of the fact that rolled the dice on her dreams. She sports a weird braided hairdo, omnipresent necklaces and makeup that looks like it was applied with a bricklayer's trowel. Everywhere she goes, people stop and stare.

Julie is played by Streep's real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, and it's no small thing for a movie to feature people playing relatives who actually resemble each other. Their early scenes together crackle with energy. Julie has become despondent and suicidal, with a convincing rat's nest hairdo and lips curling with ready insults for her wayward mom.

Cody, who took Hollywood by storm with her script for "Juno" and then has been unable to follow up with anything approaching it, goes for the kitchen sink approach to story construction. Just Ricki coming home, healing the rift with her daughter and negotiating a dance around old resentments with her ex is enough. But then Cody throws in other entanglements: her son's pending marriage; her other son's coming out; her bandmate and bedmate (a soulful Rick Springfield) desiring something more concrete; the stepmom (Audra McDonald) returning just in time to lay down the law and ruin the party.

Characters and subplots dance in and out of the foreground, some staying too long and others exiting the stage too soon. The emotionally resonant reunion between mother and daughter gets sort of... misplaced. Julie literally disappears for most of the second half. Wasn't she the entire reason for Ricki's homecoming?

I admit I had been eagerly looking forward to this movie, and came away disappointed. It's not a bad flick by any stretch, and I'm of the opinion that anything with Streep is worth the price of admission. Ricki comes into clear focus, but everything around her stays fuzzy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review: "Irrational Man"

I’ve liked a lot of Woody Allen’s stuff over the past decade, as he got out of his comfort zone and did crime dramas, period costume trifles, romantic European adventures -- anything besides self-involved New Yorkers spinning in their own delusions and neuroses. For a guy nearly age 80, I think the last 10 years been his most fertile period since the 1980s.

(Most people consider the ’70s his heyday, but really aside from “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” his flicks of that era are rather overrated.)

“Irrational Man” is the dry, tasteless chaser at the end of a long and exquisite banquet. This morality-play-cum-murder-mystery is flat and stale, playing out like fourth-string Dostoevsky warmed over with postmodern irony and angst.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a rock star philosophy professor – such persons exist only in the movies – who’s come to a tiny provincial liberal arts college in Rhode Island to teach for the summer. His reputation precedes itself: he’s a boozer, womanizer, moody rebel and suicidal free-thinker. Half the campus is gabbing about him even before Abe anticlimactically pulls up in an aging Volvo, his untucked shirt swaddling a protruding beer gut.

It’s an insular community where everybody knows everyone else’s business. Rita (Parker Posey), a fellow professor whose mid-life crisis seems to ooze from her very pores, has soon wrangled Abe into her bed. But his deepest relationship is with one of his students, a smart and discerning lass named Jill (Emma) whose parents are both music professors at the college.

They strike up a friendship that soon becomes more, at least to Jill, though Abe goes to great lengths to deny it. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley), practically vibrates with jealousy toward his older rival, though he labors to make a joke of it.

Abe is searching for a reason to go on living, and he thinks he’s found it by stumbling upon the idea of ending another person’s life. He and Jill overhear the tale of a corrupt judge ruining an innocent woman’s life. Abe becomes obsessed with the idea of pulling off a Hitchcockian murder. The fact that he has no attachment to the victim and no motive for killing him will ensure the perfect crime.

It doesn’t, of course, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Things go on, with Abe moralizing his act to himself while Jill plays Nancy Drew, slowly circling a corkscrew of clues that inevitably leads back to the man she (thinks she) loves.

Allen’s storytelling method is to have Abe and Jill pass the narration back and forth between them, so we perfectly understand their thought process and interior monologue. The problem with this approach is that neither character ends up holding any mystery. How much better to make it a game about the impressionable student trying to suss out if the professor she’s sleeping with could be a murderer, or the morally compromised teacher worrying about being bested by his pupil.

In the end “Irrational” is more an exercise than a movie, a bunch of smart, educated people engaged in a grand game of deception – of each other, their moral posturing and, mostly, of themselves.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Review: "Shaun the Sheep"

The appealing thing about Aardman Animations, the gang behind "Wallace & Gromit" and other stop-motion gems, is that their films operate on a simultaneous high/low level. For the kids, there are a lot of cute animals, spirited but not violent hi jinks, and a fair amount of gastrointestinal emissions and other similar stuff aimed to delight wee ones.

(And, truthfully, adults who didn't grow up into mortal stiffs.)

But the Aardman movies also have a decent sprinkling of hip jokes and pop culture references if you're open to recognizing them -- even some gentle social commentary.

For instance, in "Shaun the Sheep," we follow a flock (gaggle? murder?) of sheep who adventure from the quiet English countryside into the big city in search of their farmer, who ended up there through a convoluted series of events initiated by sheepish folly. What they don't know is the farmer got conked on the noggin, lost his memory and escaped from the hospital, wandering around town in a gown stained with food drippings.

He stumbles into a frou-frou hair salon and is confronted by one of the snotty stylists, who's wearing an artsy shirt decorated with little random globs of color. The amnesiac agrarian is immediately taken to be one of their own.

When the farmer headlocks a celebrity client and roughly shears him down the same way he did his sheep, leaving only a poufy pillow of hair on top, he's anointed the next highfalutin master of barberism.

Children will laugh at the energy and antics, while their parents can chuckle at the wry note about our celebrity culture.

Shaun the Sheep (voice by Justin Fletcher) was a minor character in the Wallace & Gromit shows who was given his own gig. He's got a good life at Mossybottom Farm, but he's bored with the unchanging routine: wake up, get rousted by the bossy farm dog, Bitzer (John Sparkes), spend the day in the field, getting watered, fed and occasionally sheared by the farmer (also Sparkes).

So he and his fellows dream up a plan for a "day off." One thing leads to another, the farmer gets lost, and Shaun and his crew team up with Bitzer to bring him back. They're able to pass as human by dressing up in heavy surplus clothing, posing as foreign tourists.

The heavy is A. Trumper (Omid Djalili), head of the Animal Containment Unit. He carries around a nasty clamp/weapon thingy and a seriously bad attitude. He enjoys scooping up wayward critters -- his HQ is an unlikely menagerie of species -- but discourages adoption.

As with other Aardman features, it's a delight just to look at all the eye candy and realize virtually every bit of it was sculpted and moved, by hand, an infinitesimal amount for each frame of film. The people and animals have a slightly textured look to them, and the surrounding world is a delightful mix of cartoon-y and realistic.

Writer/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak are both Aardman veterans who grasp the ethos and impish humor of the studio instinctively. My 4-year-old howled with delight. "Shaun the Sheep" isn't the best that Aardman has to offer, but it's enjoyable and wittier than first glance.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Black Sleep" (1956)

"The Black Sleep" is an interesting if not particularly entertaining mix of high and low horror elements.

It's got Sherlock Holmes himself, Basil Rathbone, in the leading role as a high-minded scientist, spouting dialogue in his signature clipped British accent. Classy Hollywood character actor galore John Carradine is here, too. And it's got the generally higher production values associated with an "A" picture, released as the top half of a double bill with "The Creeping Unknown."

But the story is a derivative Dr. Moreau knockoff, complete with a late-arriving menagerie of twisted creatures to terrify the distressed damsel. The other lead, the idealistic younger doctor recruited as the assistant, is a mortal stiff.

Perhaps its most intriguing aspect is the inclusion of several famous "creature feature" actors, now running out the string as their careers wind down: Lon Chaney Jr., Ed Wood favorite Tor Johnson. And it's got ol' Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, in his final film role. Sadly, he plays a mute and doesn't actually speak any lines; his lips quiver with the effort of communication, as if frustrated by his lack of dialogue.

(Lugosi's "appearance" in Wood's (in)famous "Plan 9 from Outer Space" three years later actually consisted of test footage shot outside of his home shortly before his death in 1956.)

This is one of those old-school horror films that has several genuinely chilling moments, but they're interrupted by long dialogue scenes where the characters explain quite obvious expository information to each other.

"You mean that shambling madman used to be the brilliant Doctor Monroe! How could that be?!? Oh, yes, that huge scar on his skull, and the fact we're in the castle of a famous but maniacal brain surgeon, may have something to do with it."

Things start off well enough, with some narration about the mysterious drug "nind adhera" from the furthest reaches of India, also known as "the Black Sleep" for its ability to put people into a death-like slumber -- from which they can be conveniently awoken with the proper antidote.

It seems Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) is to be hung from the gallows for murdering a moneylender named Curry. On the night before his execution, Sir Joel Cadman (Rathbone), a former instructor of his, comes to offer his condolences and slip a mickey of the black sleep into Ramsay's drink, telling him it's a sedative that will ease his death.

Ramsay is astonished to wake up two days later in his own coffin, with Cadman and his obsequious gypsy toady, Udu (Akim Tamiroff), leering over him. In return for saving his life, Cadman requires Ramsay to assist him in his dark experiments upon the human brain.

The science of the film is pretty goof even for its day, with Cadman attempting to map the functional areas of the brain one at a time by performing surgery on perfectly healthy specimens obtained via Udu. They've all been failures, leaving the patients with serious disabilities or deformities. Cadman is tuning up his skills so he can remove a brain tumor from his suspiciously young and beautiful wife, who now resides in a (normal) coma.

Ramsay goes along for awhile, until it becomes obvious that Cadman is just using humans as guinea pigs for experiments. He joins forces with pretty assistant Laurie (Patricia Blake), who is later revealed to be the daughter of one of the early surgical failures, Mungo (Chaney), an oafish strongman who goes into a murderous rage whenever he sees his daughter.

Phyllis Stanley has a neat, underwritten role as Daphnae, Cadman's nurse and right-hand woman, who appears to harbor a secret, unrequited affection for him. I was hoping this would build up into a full-throated love triangle, with the devoted servant ultimately betraying her undeserving romantic object, but it was not to be.

Johnson turns up almost at the very end as Curry, Ramsay's supposed murder victim, still very much alive if blind. Carradine plays Bohemund, an apparent amnesiac who fancies himself a Holy Crusader who encourages deadly vengeance against the Saracens, his famous stentorian voice booming through Cadman's dungeons.

Sally Yarnell plays an unnamed female patient who's left with a head that's half-bald and a body covered in patchy fur. (I guess it was the hair-growing part of her brain that got trashed.) George Sawaya plays a handsome young man who gets turned into a gargoyle.

I'm not sure how audiences in 1956 took "The Black Sleep." It seems pretty silly and contrived now, prime material for a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" type of spoof. Merely watching it for what it is, or at least what it wants to be, seems a gross experiment.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Video review: "The Divergent Series: Insurgent"

"The Divergent Series" may just be a cut-rate rip-off of "The Hunger Games," but I still prefer it to the original YA dystopian future where photogenic teens hold the key to salvation.

The Divergent movies seems less self-serious, throwing you winks that it understands how goofy this all is -- contrasted with the unrelentingly grim "Games."

In this second installment, Tris (Shailene Woodley) has emerged as the face of the rebellion against the Erudite faction that rules a post-apocalyptic society centered around the remnants of Chicago. She's divergent, meaning she contains more than one of the attributes of the five different factions.

For the crime of being different, Tris and her friends are being hunted down, on the lam and hiding out with the pacifist Amity clan. Needless to say, trouble soon catches up with them. Tris is forced to undergo a series of trials designed to break her will. It's essentially a series of technology-induced nightmares in which she must overcome impossible odds.

Very Matrix-y.

Four (Theo James), Tris' fellow divergent and dreamy boyfriend, is along for the ride again. Kate Winslet huffs and puffs as the evil Erudite leader.

"Insurgent" won't win any awards for originality, but it's fun and fast-moving.

Bonus features are good, though you'll have to go for the Blu-ray combo pack to get most of them. The DVD comes with a feature-length audio commentary track by two of the producers -- producers? who cares? -- a making-of featurette and photo gallery.

With the combo pack you add four more featurettes, concentrating on things like the fight choreography and training, casting, etc. You also get "Insurgent Unclocked," a feature-length documentary on the making of the film.