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.



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: "Infinitely Polar Bear"

(Don’t ask me about the title, because I don’t know.)

“Infinitely Polar Bear” is writer/director Maya Forbes’ semi-autobiographical account of her challenging childhood. It’s less about the kids, though, than an adoring portrait of parents seen from a distance of years, when all the heartache and anger has faded and the love shines through the memories like summer sun at twilight.

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana play the parents. It’s 1978 and their interracial marriage has nudged them to the fringes of polite society in Boston. They’re not quite outcasts, but it’s hard for Maggie (Saldana) to get a good job and Cameron (Ruffalo) is the black sheep of his well-to-do family.

Also, Cam is a manic-depressive whose high highs and low lows tend to render a normal family life difficult. An educated guy who can’t keep a job, he mostly just putters around, shooting photographs and video, fixing things that are broken, and acquiring broken things that he intends to fix.

Imogene Wolodarsky (Forbes’ real-life daughter) and Ashley Aufderheide play their children, strong-willed kids of about 14 and 10, respectively, who are left to craft their own little support system to replace the missing pieces of the primary one.

As the story opens, Cam has gone on one of his bipolar sprees and is just coming out of a psychiatric hospital and seguing into normalcy. Maggie has to be the strong, stern one, insisting that they maintain separate apartments and lives as he recovers.

But then Maggie is presented with an opportunity to get her M.B.A. from Columbia University. It means 18 months in New York, so Cam will have to take care of the girls by himself. It will give him structure and a sense of importance. Then she can return to them, get a better job and hopefully the family can reassemble itself.

The relationship between Cam and the girls is affectionate but complicated. They’re embarrassed to death by their dad, who has a tendency to do things like forget to wear pants, and don’t want their friends to see the detritus-filled “hellhole” of their apartment. Cam will occasionally clean up his act, clean up their home, everything seems great, and then their momentum will just sort of… fade.

Maggie returns regularly on weekends, checking in while feeling remorseful about having checked out, even if it’s temporary and for the greater good. Cam is needy, resentful, proud, and desperately wants to resume their romantic relationship. Wisely, she sidesteps him.

Ruffalo gives a masterful performance, with precise little movements and mannerisms contrasted with wild ravings and thoughts. He puffs cigarettes madly, buys and sells jalopies every couple of months, loves his family the same way he does everything else: with total abandon. He doesn’t give any big “Oscar clip” speeches because Cam couldn’t concentrate on anything long enough to summon up a soliloquy.

Saldana has a challenging part, too, in what is essentially the Meryl Streep role from “Kramer vs. Kramer.” In this case, though, the mother doesn’t simply disappear but steps aside for a combination of altruistic and personal reasons. We witness her anguish and guilt, and appreciate it.

This is the first film directed by Forbes, a veteran screenwriter and television producer. She’s clearly got a future behind the camera. “Infinitely Polar Bear” is a highly personal story with a universal theme: parents don’t just raise children; the kids participate in the parents’ own growth, too.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Video review: "Home"

We are living in a second golden age of animation, which means there are a lot of really great cartoon films out there at any given time. But it also means there's a higher standard to meet. So even movies like "Home" that are merely good have a patina of disappointment about them.

This tale of a friendly alien who gets estranged from his kind and lost on Earth just doesn't have that spark of extra magic from, say, "Finding Nemo," "Up" or the first couple of "Shrek" movies. It's great-looking... but then, aren't most animated films great-looking these days? Again, it's a matter of our standards having gotten so inflated that the formerly dazzling is barely noticed.

Jim Parsons provides the voice of Oh, a member of the notoriously cowardly Boov people. When I call them cowards, it's not an insult; they consider it the highest praise, actually. Creatures who actually stand their ground and face their problems are considered weird.

Currently they're fleeing from their arch-enemy, the Gorg, and using our planet as a hideout. Of course, this means the pesky humans have to be rounded up for their own good.

Even by Boov standards, Oh is something of a timid fellow. Like the others he looks like a little purple land octopus, who changes color and jitters according to his current emotional state. Talk about wearing your emotions on your sleeve... or your face.

After getting the boot from the other Boov, Oh hooks up with Tip Tucci (Rihanna), a human girl who's also been displaced by all the alien activity. Together they go on a road trip quest, except in a hover car. Along the way are the expected hi jinks, musical interludes and unsubtle life lessons.

Look, "Home" is a fun, fun flick. It's sure to delight little kids and keep their parents modestly entertained as well. It's just second-tier entertainment in comparison to the field.

Bonus features are quite good, and like the movie itself geared toward the wee set. There are a number of games and interactive music features, such as "Oh's Shake Your Boov Thing" and "Oh's Boovy Jukebox." There are also deleted scenes, interviews with the voice cast, a drawing tutorial, music videos and more.



Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review: "Southpaw"

You go to see a movie like "Southpaw" for the gritty performances and slam-bang boxing scenes. From a story standpoint it's a pretty generic boxing plot, with our scrappy champion rising and falling, falling and rising, from the mat and metaphorically.

The screenplay by Kurt Sutter is original only on a technicality, liberally cribbing its plot from the "Rocky" movies and other boxing flicks. (He reputedly wrote the script with Eminem in mind, basing it loosely on the rapper/sometime actor's life story. Em doesn't appear, though he supplies a couple of punchy songs.)

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the protagonist with the not-at-all-subtle name of Billy Hope, who rose from the hard streets of New York City through dint of hard work and an unmatched ferocity in the ring, an unwanted orphan who became light heavyweight champion.

Then through a succession of senseless disaster and self-destructive behavior, Billy loses it all, including custody of his 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). He's forced to reinvent himself as a fighter and as a man, starting from the bottom again and earning his way back to glory and redemption.

This is Boxing Movies 101 stuff. Check that; it's actually 201. Boxing 101 is "Rocky" and "Rocky II," where an unknown pug rises to the championship. "Southpaw" is "Rocky III" and "IV" -- they're virtually interchangeable, really -- where the reigning champ takes things for granted, gets knocked down a peg or seven, and has to scrap back to former heights.

There literally isn't a single surprise along the way, including the inevitable final match. You've got the familiar nemeses along the way, including a black-hearted young boxer (Miguel Gomez) who was responsible for Billy's fall, and the mercenary boxing promoter/manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), who tells Billy they're family but saves his deepest love for the hottest prospect.

It's an interesting role for Gyllenhaal, who jumped off the traditional Hollywood star train a few years back to pursue smaller, more personal projects like "Nightcrawler" and the excellent "End of Watch." He's fought against his blue-eyed prettiness during this time, and in "Southpaw" he really works the scarred, stumblebum angle, muttering his lines and cocking his one good eye.

After losing a bunch of weight for "Nightcrawler" he packs on the ripped muscles for this role, and director Antoine Fuqua obligingly sweeps his camera and lights across Gyllenhaal's torso to emphasize the craggy wall of his abdomen. (I'm not really sure when abs became a thing; you'd think a boxer would want a little padding there to better absorb blows.) The actor's body becomes this strange mix of revulsion and fetishized object; we linger over his spent blood and abused flesh like a latter-day Lazarus.

The fight scenes are well-choreographed and energetic, though in the commonplace failing of Hollywood boxing movies, the fighters absorb more solid blows in a single round than most pugilists encounter in a year. Billy's strategy, if you can call it that, is to let opponents wallop him until he gets furious enough to uncork his pent-up rage.

Forest Whitaker is terrific as Tick Wills, an old-school trainer who teaches kids at an inner-city gym. Billy comes to him at his bottom, after lost having his wife (Rachel McAdams) to tragedy, his daughter to social services and his fame and fortune to his own self-hating spiral. Tick is old and tough, has taken his own cuts, and retrains Billy as a defensive fighter. "Protect yourself" is his mantra, underlined by one cloudy eye.

Just as the two men begin to trust one another, the filmmakers shortcut the journey and we're back to the ring again for Billy's deliverance. A smarter, better movie would've had Billy turn down the offers of quick money and a shot at the title, realizing that when you've gone down the path of destruction you can't just back up to solve your problems.

But who wants to see a boxing movie about a boxer who doesn't want to box anymore? Me, but apparently few others.

Review: "Pixels"

"Pixels" is the dream revenge movie for pretty much every kid who came of age post-1980: the world needs a hero, and it can only be someone who wasted countless hours and a Smaug-sized pile of quarters playing primitive arcade games at the Electric Dreams Factory (or whatever it was called in your town).

Isn't this the ultimate geek fantasy? To have the skills that were laughed at as a kid suddenly become valued in society the same way throwing deceased porcine hide is?

Since this is a geek movie, we've got to have some geeks to cheer for. Enter Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Kevin James and Peter Dinklage. All were video game superstars circa 1982, culminating in a championship marathon in which one emerged as the victor, his exploits recorded on video for posterity and sent into space.

Unfortunately, alien boogums found the video and mistook the old-school games -- Pac-Man, Defender, Centipede, Joust, Frogger, Q-bert, etc. -- as a challenge. They whipped up some versions of these digital "warriors" and sent them to Earth to do battle with humans.

They even look like the old 8-bit versions of the arcade characters, crude and seemingly pixilated when blown up to giant size. Though not as big as you might think: the poster shows a behemoth Pac-Man slurping up San Francisco in one gulp, but in the movie he's about the size of a smallish RV.

It's a goofy premise, courtesy of screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, based on a short film by Patrick Jean. It's kind of a rip-off of "Ghostbusters," with brainy losers vaulted into champions, but the notion still holds appeal.

Directed by hitmeister Chris Columbus, "Pixels" is breezy, dimwitted, action-filled and goofy. I certainly was never bored, though some of the gags and story threads were better left snipped on the editing room floor.

For instance, we're supposed to believe that James' character, Cooper, has grown up to be the President of the United States. Except he's not some competent, savvy politician, but the standard doofus Kevin James character he plays in every movie. Not surprisingly, his POTUS has become a laughingstock.

It's hard to believe anybody would ever vote such a guy into the highest office in the land... though I should note as I write this, Donald Trump is leading in the polls.

Brenner (a bored-looking Sandler) had the most natural talent of any gamer, but his confidence was shot when he lost the championship. Now he's become a Geek Squad-like drone who sets up tech for other people. Getting tapped by his best buddy in the White House to lead the fight against the invaders starts his underachiever-cum-savior journey.

Gad plays Ludlow, a wallflower who grew up to be a conspiracy theorist. He gets some of the best lines in the picture, and the "Book of Mormon" star also gets to belt out a tune for no good reason, other than it's nice to listen to.

Michelle Monaghan shows up, because the studio honchos felt we needed a pretty girl to look at. She's a military officer who takes an instant shine/dislike/maybe love? attitude toward the Sandler character.

Dinklage steals most of his scenes as Eddie, aka "Fire Blaster," an egocentric gamer who won the '82 championship (and also gave himself that nickname). Sporting a ferocious mullet and Southern-fried patter of quips about how awesome he is, Eddie is a despicable hoot. Actually, with the hair and self-puffery he reminds me of Donald Trump, though reportedly Dinklage based him on a real-life jerk seen in the excellent video game documentary, "The King of Kong."

Arriving as the summer movie season is cooling down, "Pixels" is clearly third-string fare, the sort of thing you go see while waiting for the movies that came out in May to hit video. It's decently entertaining, though it needed less Sandler and more mullet for the win.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: "Paper Towns"

"Paper Towns" is one of those films that starts out well, grows steadily stronger, makes you think it's going one way and then head-fakes in the other. When it reaches its destination it's a refreshing surprise, smarter and subtler than we'd imagined, and yet as we think back on the journey we realize it couldn't have arrived anywhere else without seeming false and forced.

Like last year's "The Fault in Our Stars," also based on a book by Indianapolis author John Green, it is keenly observant of teens not as we would like them to be, but closer to the actual neurotic, self-doubting, self-aggrandizing, glorious young adults they are.

Oops, I used "the words" -- young adult, abbreviated to YA, employed to describe, and often dismiss, an entire sphere of literature. Green is known to despise the term, with some justification.

All I'll say is that these young adult characters are believable, approachable and relatable.

Perhaps that's not a surprise, since the same screenwriting team behind TFIOS, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, penned this script as well. They also wrote "The Spectacular Now" and "(500) Days of Summer," which, along with the Green movies, pretty much comprises the list of the best films about young people of the last few years.

(I'd add "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," too.)

Nat Wolff plays Quentin, a dweeby band geek and academic overachiever who hasn't really stretched his wings his entire life. He grew up next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), an adventuress with a zest for mischief and boundary breaking.

But he resisted her siren call, and as their senior year of high school unfolds, she's become the popular wild girl and he's become... rather invisible. He mostly hangs out with fellow nerds  Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), commiserating about the suffering existence they can't wait to leave behind.

Then one night Margo shows up at his window, and urges him to join her for an evening of revenge-taking and thrill-seeking.

"Tonight we are righting some wrongs. And wronging some rights. Basically, this is going to be the greatest night of your life," she insists. Margo insists a lot, and people generally go along with it. She also believes in random capitalization within words, lIke tHis, because "it's so unfair to the letters in the middle."

The proceed so have the promised night, which I won't spoil. Quentin is, needless to say, deeply smitten. But then something strange happens: Margo disappears. Days go by, no one has a clue where she is, her parents are used to this sort of nonsense and dismissive. Quentin is left to deal with the consequences of their antics, including Margo's best friend Lacey (Halston Sage), who feels wronged.

They launch an amateur Hardy Boys expedition, seeking out clues the mystery-loving Margo may or may not have left them as to her whereabouts. Eventually Quentin and his two buddies resolve to go on a road trip halfway across the country in search of her. Lacey tags along, as does Radar's girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair). (This is the sort of movie where even band geeks sometimes have girlfriends.)

None of this makes a terrible lot of sense for smart, ambitious young people who want to go to college and become oncologists and such. But it is good for them to occasionally get out of their comfort zone, especially the self-limiting Quentin.

The title comes from a real thing map-makers did, creating fake towns to prevent forgers from copycatting their work. It's also a knock at Orlando, the place where the characters live and also my own hometown, which often gets dismissed as ersatz and artificial -- usually by tourists who never make it far enough away from Disney and Universal Studios to glimpse O-town's actual downtown. Margo sees paper everywhere, searching for something authentic in life; like Holden Caulfield, she has a tendency to see phonies all about.

Director Jake Schreier, helming his second feature, elicits layered and effusive performances out of his young cast. Wolff is slyly charming, while Delevingne has the unenviable task of having to seem larger than life, and does.

But legends are embellishments of the truth, and in the end "Paper Towns" is more about busting myths than building them up. This is an intelligent, funny, sad yet hopeful take on the folly of waiting for big miracles, instead of creating small ones of our own.