Thursday, March 08, 2012

I've been watching a bunch of DVDs of late. Here are some!

J. Edgar

Director Clint Eastwood's low-key biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, the founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), probably surprised some people. Some audiences may have thought Eastwood — known for his more conservative politics — might have presented a whitewashed vision of the man who held onto power by having private files on Washington players.

Instead, Eastwood presents story of a very conflicted person and does so in a non-exploitative way. Perhaps this approach wasn't also satisfying to people who see Hoover as a villain.

What I liked about the film is that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black succeed in showing a portrait of an undeniable patriot and an uncontrollable paranoid; a man who was concerned about his image, more than his accomplishments; and a man who fought to create a federal policing agency, but also abused it.

Ultimately, "J. Edgar" is about a man who fights against many personal odds to achieve a goal, but the very nature of how he achieved those goals destroyed the legacy he so desperately wanted to have.

From capturing bank robbers in the 1930s to fighting Nazi spies in the 1940s, Hoover found himself unable to change with the law enforcement challenges of the last 20 years of his career. He fought acknowledging the existence of organized crime and looked for communist ties in anyone whom he believed was questioning the status quo.

Leonardo DiCaprio is amazing in the role. Although he looks nothing like Hoover, DiCaprio, with the help of minimal makeup, transforms himself into the stubby bulldog.

DiCaprio's performance is matched by Dame Judi Dench, who plays Hoover's controlling mother and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover's second in command at the FBI and his lover.

Eastwood doesn't shy away from the issue of Hoover's homosexuality, but nor does he allow it to become the central theme of the movie. He effectively conveys the irony that Hoover sought to find out secrets about potential political opponents in order to protect his own secret.

The film has a washed-out look, which adds a certain documentary feel to it. Eastwood effectively hops back and forth to different times in Hoover's life, but manages to keep the narrative from becoming confusing.

It's a shame the Academy ignored the film. DiCaprio certainly deserved a nomination, as did Eastman. It's a fascinating drama, especially for those of us who remember J. Edgar.

Bounty Hunters

If I was teaching a class in film as I did for years at Western New England University, I would be tempted to screen this new release as an example of how to make a low budget action exploitation film.

"Bounty Hunters" is a modest Canadian production starring former wrestling star Trish Stratus. Rule number one: have at least one person in the cast with some sort of name value who would appeal to the intended demographic.

The story is straight forward: a team of bounty hunters must decide if they are going to accept a bribe of $1 million to return a gangster to the local crime boss who wants to kill him so he can't testify against him. Rule number two: keep the story simple.

Rule three: give the audience what they want to see. Stratus can convincingly say a line and is quite beautiful, but she also can deliver the goods in the numerous fight scenes. That's what the audience of this film wants to see.

So is there violence, is there some gratuitous nudity? The filmmakers respect the expectations of the audience, as there is a brief scene in a strip club. Stratus, though, keeps her clothes on.

Rule five: keep it brief. This film keeps rolling straight ahead and doesn't try to add more exposition than need be. Again, they know their audience.

Rule six: will it rent at the Red Box? Oh, yes. Stratus will sell.

Is the film watchable? I didn't hit the fast forward button once. Would I ever watch it again? No. Is it groundbreaking in some way? Oh, no, but that is not the intent.

This film is all about watching a former WWE star kick some backside and shoot some guns. If that's your standard in entertainment, then rent this one today.

London Boulevard

Generally, I like the recent spate of British crime films — such as the Guy Ritchie movies and "Layer Cake," to name several — and I had high hopes for "London Boulevard."

The film marks the directorial debut of William Monahan, the writer of "The Departed," and is based on a well-received crime novel.

Colin Farrell plays Mitchel, a man who has just been released from prison after a three-year term. We're not sure what he did to get into prison except it was violent, but we do know that he doesn't ever want to go back. Despite a reunion party for being a stand-up guy, Mitchel simply wants to live his own life outside of organized crime.

That isn't going to be easy as Gant (played with intensity by Ray Winstone), a local crime boss, sees potential in Mitchel and wants him to lead a loan shark operation.

As Mitchel tries to keep Gant at bay, he struggles to deal with his sister, a multi-level addict, and a new job he has fallen into: helping Charlotte, a reclusive movie star (played by Keira Knightley) with odd jobs and keeping the paparazzi away.

The conflict with Gant and a growing love affair with the actress come to their respective heads and Mitchel puts forth a violent plan to rid himself of the crime boss permanently to start his new life.

As a director, Monahan gets a lot of things right, but there are details that color the story that are obscured, such as Gant's sexual identity and if Mitchel was raped in prison. Part of the reason American audiences may not fully understand such plot points is due to the English accents and colloquialisms. I had a hard time following the dialogue in some scenes.

The irony about Knightley's character is that Charlotte complains she has been receiving movie roles in which she is there simply to tell more of the hero's story and that is exactly what happens in this film. There is not much of an opportunity for Knightley to develop her character and instead Charlotte comes off as self-indulgent and wacky, instead of sympathetic.

Farrell carries the film, though. At his core, his character is an essentially decent man who wants to take care of his sister and protect Charlotte and Farrell reveals his character's intentions in an effective, low-keyed manner.

So despite the flaws, I was enjoying the film until the end, which was very unsatisfying. There is a difference between a movie with film noir aspirations and a clunky bummer, but Monahan apparently doesn't understand the difference.

"London Boulevard" is an interesting film, but not a successfully told story.

Devil's Rock

OK, the trailer looked pretty damn intriguing and I was in the mood for a solid horror film. Alas, the budget limitations kept this New Zealand horror film from being a satisfying guilty pleasure.

The premise, in true exploitation film tradition, is a riff off a successful film property — in this case, "Hellboy." In the "Hellboy" films, Ron Perlman plays a demon who had been summoned by the Nazis during World War II but was rescued by the Allies and fights evil.

In this film though, two New Zealand commandos accidentally discover that Nazis have conjured up a demon they intend to use as weapon against the Allied invasion. The only problem is that our two heroes find it's not going so well for the Nazis.

The demon, who appears as the woman a person loves, has killed and eaten the unit with the exception of its commander.

The film takes place primarily on two sets and quickly becomes a three-character enterprise: a commando, the Nazi and the demon. Although there are some good performances, the movie's thin budget shows through by a lack of action and special effects.

It is also another film that ends in a way that is scarcely satisfying.

With a larger budget, the film might have gone places far more interesting. Director Paul Campion, who also co-wrote the script, shows some ingenuity in his staging of the film, but the cheap claustrophobic nature of the production ultimately defeated him.

The Ides of March

With Americans finding themselves knee-deep in this year's presidential race, George Clooney's latest effort as a director certainly hits home with a powerful look at how campaigns are run and the morality of those who run them.

Clooney plays a sitting governor, Mike Morris, who's running for the Democratic nomination. He is facing a tough race in the pivotal state of Ohio. If he can win that state, he will be the frontrunner and an almost cinch for the nomination.

What we start to learn is that it doesn't matter what ideas Morris presents to voters, but how his campaign manager Paul Zara (played with a realistic combination of competitiveness and fatigue by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his second in command, Stephen Meyers, (Ryan Gosling) do behind the scenes.

Where Zara is the seasoned hand, Meyers is still the idealist, who declares he wouldn't work for Morris if he weren't ethical and moral. Morris shows early on a willingness to buck conventional wisdom to stick to his philosophical guns.

Something happens, though, and I'm reluctant to provide too many details — so I won't — that causes Meyers to question his own beliefs and descend to a level to which he never thought he would go.

Clooney is not the central character in the film. It is Gosling's picture and he does well portraying a guy whose life and livelihood is very much hanging in the balance. Like Clooney, much has been made about Gosling's looks, but also like Clooney, he can carry a film well.

"Ides of March" features a tight script, co-written by Clooney, as well as effective direction. There is a ring of truth throughout the film including the central theme: should you support a flawed man who would do the right thing as president?

Although I though the ending of the film was premature — there was the potential for more of the story — I did think this was one of the finer political films I've seen in a long time.

Dr. Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

Dr. Who: The William Hartnell Years

Dr. Who: The Peter Davison Years

BBC Home Video has recently released not only the most current Christmas special for the venerable British science fiction series but also two other DVD collections of two of the other 11 actors who have played the time lord.

If you're not familiar with Dr. Who, summing up more than 40 years of programs, movies and specials will be a somewhat difficult task, but I'll do my best. The Doctor is the last of his kind, an alien from a destroyed world who can travel through time and space in a vessel known as the Tardis, but looks like a British policeman's box.

Always eccentric in his dress and demeanor, he is accompanied by at least one human companion and is often at odds with a number of reoccurring villains, perhaps the most notable are the Daleks, creatures who live inside robotic bodies and bent on universal domination.

"Dr. Who" has the most original and handy plot device to explain the change of the actor in the lead role. The Doctor changes into a new person — with residual memories — every time he dies.

Although originally designed for children, since the series revival in 2005, the emphasis has been on more adult stories resulting in a new audience, some of whom were fans as children and some who have discovered the show recently.

"Dr. Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe" is the latest Who production, broadcast this past Christmas. Matt Smith plays The Doctor with a lot of humor, but at the same time, the ability to express anger as well. In this show, set in the midst of World War II, he attempts to make the Christmas of a widow and her two children as happy as he can by constructing a time and space portal to a world where the snow-covered trees look like an image from a Christmas card.

The curious little boy opens the package early and The Doctor finds out more is happening on this planet than meets the eye.

Like any great pop culture property — Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Lone Ranger — there is no effort to explain who is The Doctor, which might put off some new viewers, but this production is well worth the time of neophytes.

Although I'm not a great "Dr. Who" fan, I do enjoy many of the episodes I've seen and this one was first-rate with an interesting premise and some heart-felt emotion.

The other two collections feature the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, and the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison are for dedicated fans. The slow-moving black and white Hartnell shows are short on action and on budget, while the show selected for the Davison collection shows a marked improvement in budget and technology, but is a little confusing.

Nostalgia probably helps the viewing of these collections.

Wake Wood

Years and years ago, it was possible to make a very good guess what studio made a particular film just by watching it and looking at the credits — no peeking allowed at the studio logo.

Hints were in the form of the cast and crew, the look of the film and its subject matter. Fans of 1930s movies can tell you what the difference was between a film from Paramount and Warner Brothers, for instance. In the 1960s, it was easy to spot many films released by American International Pictures.

Hammer Films from Great Britain certainly had identifying markers. The studio excelled in period horror films from the late 1950s to its demise in the late 1970s. It launched the career of Sir Christopher Lee in roles such as Dracula and furthered the stardom of Sir Peter Cushing, who came to the studio as a significant television star.

Not every Hammer film was a gem, but it produced enduring classics such as “The Horror of Dracula,” “Kiss of the Vampires” and “The Devil’s Bride,” just to name three.

The art direction always made full use of its budget and the studio had talented, if under-appreciated, directors such as Terence Fisher. Hammer films were noted as well for their lush musical scores and a repertory company of character actors.

Hammer was one of the last studios to establish and maintain a style and one wonders if the new Hammer is going to do the same. Film fans around the world recognized the old Hammer brand.

I was one of those fans who knew that a film made by Hammer had a good chance of at least being an enjoyable throwaway film, if not something I’d want to see again.

A newly reconstituted Hammer — not unlike one of the creations Cushing labored over in his “Frankenstein” series — has reemerged and in the last two years has released several films with its newest production, “The Woman in Black,” starring Daniel Radcliffe about to hit American movie screens.

I certainly intend to see “The Woman in Black” next month and I recently received the DVD release of one of the studio’s new films, “Wake Wood.”

“Wake Wood,” would have broken the old Hammer mold if the previous studio bosses had considered making it. It’s a contemporary film set in Ireland with an appropriate use of bloody scenes but no sexual tease. It doesn’t star anyone associated with the horror genre, although the superb character actor Timothy Spall, who had a reoccurring role in the “Harry Potter” series, is prominent in the cast.

Nor is the film directed by someone with experience in the horror genre.

“Wake Wood” is the story of a married couple, Patrick (Aiden Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle), a veterinarian and a pharmacist, whose daughter is killed in a dog attack.

The couple is overwhelmed by grief and leave their urban home for the small bucolic village of Wake Wood to start over.

By accident they discover a secret: Wake Wood is the home of a group of pagans who perform a ritual that allows a dead family member to return to the living for three days. It is used to allow the grieving to say a final goodbye and find some peace.

Louise is desperate to see her daughter again and the couple agrees to take part in the ritual, but when their daughter Alice returns, there is something dreadfully wrong.

The script is, at least initially, pretty formulaic. Director David Keating tells the story in a competent straightforward manner with a sure hand on the shock sequences, but the story itself is predictable. It only starts to change gears a bit in the last third.

The conclusion is a surprise, although it violates the logic of the story.

A fairly effective film, especially if you’ve never read or heard of the story “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Wake Wood” falls into the category of enjoyable timewaster, rather than classic.

It will be interesting to see how this new Hammer builds its brand and if such a thing is possible in the motion picture industry of today.

Brighton Rock

The British gangster film has been defined by director Guy Ritchie in the last few years with movies such as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” and “Snatch,” but this adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel is more old school.

You won’t find flashy editing or grimly humorous characters in “Brighton Rock.” This film owes more to the British social dramas of the 1960s and American film noir.

At its heart, the film is about whether or not the central character of Pinkie, an ambitious thug willing to ignite a gang war in the English resort community of Brighton, is beyond redemption.

Many classic gangster films are about the rise — and fall — of a powerful criminal, such as “Little Cesar,” “Public Enemy” or either version of “Scarface.” This film follows that format to a certain degree, but Pinkie never makes it to the heights of the title characters in those films.

Pinkie is the junior member of a threadbare gang who kills, instead of scares, a rival gang member. His situation is complicated by the fact there is a material witness to the crime, Rose, a very innocent waitress working in a restaurant on the Brighton pier. He knows that he has to keep her quiet somehow and decides to woo her.

Ida, Rose’s boss, knew the murdered man and she starts to realize who Pinkie is and that Rose plays a role in the affair.

As events and the rival gang boss start to close in on him, the question is whether or not Pinkie sees Rose’s love as his redemption or if he plans to just kill her.

This is the first feature film for director and writer Rowan Joffe and it’s an auspicious start. Although it is a period film, it’s not set in 1938, but moved to 1964 when the clash between British youth groups were at their height.

Sam Riley gives an award-worthy performance as Pinkie, a kid who is trying to prove himself, while Helen Mirren shines as Ida. Andrea Riseborough strikes the right notes as Rose.

If film noir and crime films are of interest to you, check out “Brighton Rock.”

Don’t be Afraid of the Dark

I think the best horror films are those that strip any adult logic from you and return you to a child-like state in which simple noises and shadows can cause gooseflesh, much less ideas and images.

This film does pretty well in making its audiences remember what it was to be a kid and scared of things that logic and common sense should discount.

It does so without a big serving of gore but with a fairly sympathetic central character and a really good monster — or monsters.

Alex (Guy Pearce) is an architect who has moved into his new project — renovating the home long closed that once belonged to a distinguished artist. All is going well until his daughter, Sally, shows up. It seems her mom has other priorities and has dumped her on her ex.

The only person who welcomes Sally’s arrival is Kim (Katie Holmes), Alex’s girlfriend and designer. Sally (Bailee Madison) rejects her attention and retreats to her room where she hears voices telling her things she wants to hear.

Although there is a sizable logic problem that happens during a key section of the film, first time feature film director Troy Nixey did an admirable job with a script by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, which is based on the original film of the same name made for television in 1973.

For horror fans who like their films moist with blood, this film might be weak tea, but for those of us who like a little more subtlety, “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” is quite good.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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