Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Notebook

3.5/4

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Sam Shepard

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexuality

"The Notebook" is one of those sappy romances that spoof movies and MAD magazine love to make fun of.  It's sappy, melodramatic, and predictable.  It also works wonderfully.  The two leads have smoldering chemistry, the story is very romantic, and the setting is superb.  I may be a guy, but I loved this movie.

Allie Hamilton (McAdams) is a young rich girl vacationing in Georgia with her family.  One night at the carnival, a young man named Noah Calhoun (Gosling) walks up to her and asks if she wants to dance.  She rebuffs him, but after propositioning her again while hanging from a Ferris Wheel, she agrees.  It's not quite love at first sight, but they fall for each other.  Unfortunately, Noah is not rich, and Allie's parents (especially her mother) do not approve.  They break it off when Allie has to go back home.

Meanwhile, an old man who calls himself Duke (Garner) is reading this story to an elderly Allie (Rowlands).  Allie is suffering from dementia, but Duke reads this story to her over and over again hoping to bring her back.  But is Duke really Noah, or Lon Hammond (Marsden), the hot soldier to whom Allie becomes engaged?

In all honesty, it's not hard to guess the answer, and director Noah Cassevetes (Rowland's son) wisely doesn't try to make it so.  Instead, he concentrates on the romance between Noah and Allie, with brief interludes featuring Duke and the elderly Allie.  These dual storylines work equally well.  We feel for Duke and older Allie as much as we do for Noah and young Allie.

The acting is flawless.  Ryan Gosling is a strange choice for Noah, considering his resume at the time: he played a boy accused of murder in "The United States of Leland," a psychopathic murderer in "Murder by Numbers," and a Jewish neo-Nazi in "The Believer."  Not exactly the kind of actor you'd go to to play a romantic lead.  But Gosling is brilliant actor, and while Noah is a traditional romantic lead, Gosling plays him with a little aloofness and darkness that gives him more layers.  Likewise, Rachel McAdams is very good as Allie, the independent rich girl who falls for him.  But she is torn between Noah and Lon, and we feel her indecision.  As Duke, James Garner is terrific; he's kind and gentle, and stubbornly optimistic.  Gena Rowlands is also quite good as a woman who is struggling to find her memories.

The supporting cast is top-notch as well.  Joan Allen plays Allie's mother, who is not nearly as shrewish and stuck-up as she seems to be.  Kevin Connolly plays Fin, Noah's happy-go-lucky friend, and Sam Shepard plays Noah's supporting father.  Also interesting is Jamie Anne Allman; she plays Martha, a lonely war widow who finds company with Noah.  The weak link is David Thornton, who plays Allie's father.  He's supposed to be a fine Southern gentleman, but Thornton can't act (he's not good in the recurring role of attorney Lionel Granger in "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit").  Fortunately, he's not onscreen for very long.

The most surprising performance doesn't come from either Gosling, McAdams, or the two proven thespians, Allen and Shepard.  Instead, this distinction goes to James Marsden.  Although the actor has a very limited range, he's very good as Lon.  A joker and a war hero, Lon is just as much in love with Allie as Noah is.  He's charming and kind, and he's a good romantic "rival" to add a little mystery to the plot.  But Marsden never overplays his hand.  He's not sickeningly sweet or jealous.  Lon is a stand-up guy, and makes Allie's indecision very believable.

The setting is superb.  The cinematography, credited to Robert Fraisse, is gorgeous, and the musical score by Aaron Zigman compliments it perfectly.  Watching "The Notebook" is like watching old personal movies. It's loaded with nostalgia.

Although some of the mystery stuff doesn't hold up upon reflection, and Cassevetes sometimes allows his actors to go over-the-top, he has still crafted an good old fashioned romance.  Even guys will love it (whether they will be man enough to admit it, I cannot answer).

Play Misty for Me

2/4

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills

Rated R for Graphic Violence (I guess)

Celebrity stalkers are not a new thing.  Many celebrities, from TV news reporters like Kathryn Dettman to Steven Spielberg, are victims of stalking by obsessed fans.  Clint Eastwood's directorial debut, "Play Misty for Me" is about a late-night disk jockey who is terrorized by a psychotic fan, but unfortunately, it's not nearly as realistic or exciting as it sounds.

Dave Garver (Eastwood) is a late night radio host known for his smooth voice and the soft jazz records that he plays.  Every night, without fail, a woman calls and asks the same thing: "Play 'Misty' for me."  Dave obliges, and one night at his favorite waterhole, he runs into a beautiful woman named Evelyn (Walter), who sounds an awful lot like the girl who calls his show every night.  He goes to her place, they have sex, and he says goodbye.  He thinks it was just a one night fling, until she shows up the next morning with a bag of groceries.  She begins to act stranger and stranger, and he eventually tells her to get lost, but Evelyn won't take no for an answer.

In general, I love these kinds of thrillers.  Done right, they can be a lot of fun.  Instead of quick cuts and gratuitous special effects, they rely on character development, acting and the slowly rising level of tension established by the director.  The most famous one, "Fatal Attraction," was about a similar situation, and it shocked audiences worldwide in 1987.  That's because Alex Forrest was a well-drawn character (she had de Clerambault's Syndrome) who was well-acted by Glenn Close (who should have gotten an Oscar for her performance).  As the psycho-stalker, Evelyn is neither credible nor well-acted by Jessica Walter (although she somehow managed to score a Golden Globe nomination).  She's way too over-the-top, which is saying something for this genre.

Clint Eastwood's movies are slowly and deliberately paced.  That's great for a drama like "Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil," but not for a thriller like this.  There are times when I was wondering what kind of movie he thought he was making.  There's a scene at a jazz concert that belongs in a concert movie, and a sex scene that appears to be straight out of a porno.  A thriller, especially a one like this, demands flawless pacing.

As Dave, Eastwood is quite good.  He's got the smooth voice down pat, and he's a pretty stand-up guy, which makes him easy to like.  Unfortunately, the script calls for him to do some very stupid things, and while movies of this ilk must have the heroes constantly put themselves in danger, rarely has lack of intelligence been so obvious.

Obsession is a dangerous and terrifying thing.  It causes people to act irrationally and can be deadly (both Dettman and actress Rebecca Schaeffer were murdered by their stalkers).  This kind of situation is ripe for a thriller.  But ignore "Play Misty for Me."  Rent "Fear," an infinitely superior thriller of the same ilk, instead.

Friday, December 30, 2011

30 Days of Night


2/4

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence and Language

“30 Days of Night” is Stephen King’s “Storm of the Century” with vampires standing in for the monster Andre Linoge.  Unfortunately, while Josh Hartnett is an adequate stand-in for Tim Daly, the same cannot be said for Danny Huston, who next to Colm Feore, is as frightening as Robert Pattinson in “Twilight.”

Once a year, the small town of Barrow, Alaska has a night that lasts for thirty days.  It’s getting to be that time of year again, and some strange things are happening.  A number of cell phones have been burned in a pit, all the sled dogs in the town have been slaughtered, and a mysterious man (Foster) shows up bringing warnings of death.  That’s when vampires, led by Marlow (Huston), show up and start slaughtering everyone who hasn’t fled for warmer weather.

The first 30 minutes are rocky.  The little scenes that are meant to build a sense of unease while introducing us to the characters are inelegantly woven together.  Things get better once the survivors band together in an attempt to make it through the next month without ending up a snack for some bloodthirsty creatures.

The acting is effective.  Josh Hartnett may not have a broad range, but he’s an effective straight man, and it doesn’t take long to start caring about what happens to him.  Melissa George is adequate as his estranged wife, but she’s still likable.  Underrated character actor Ben Foster (who deserved an Oscar for his role in “The Messenger”) digs into his bag of tricks to play the loopiest freak he’s ever played.  Danny Huston isn’t particularly chilling, but that’s not really his fault.  He just has to walk around with his mouth agape showing his sharpened pearly whites.

This is David Slade’s sophomore feature after his ballsy debut, “Hard Candy.”  Any storytelling skills he had with that film have apparently evaporated since then.  This is a shoddy, tension-less gorefest (at least the studio allowed him an R-rating…without it, this movie would be completely worthless).

Although the cinematography is great and the shaky cam is used to good effect, there are just too many problems with this film to allow me to recommend it.

Kung Fu Panda 2


3/4

Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen

Rated PG for Sequences of Martial Arts Action and Mild Violence

2006’s “Kung Fu Panda” was an amusing but slight motion picture that was diverting, but little else.  In a rather strange turn of events, “Kung Fu Panda 2” has expanded just about everything, although with mixed results.

At the end of the first film, the fat panda Po (Black) proved himself to be the legendary Dragon Warrior and defeated the evil villain Tai Lung.  In this film, Po has joined with the Furious Five in kung-fu-ing everyone who causes trouble in the Valley of Peace.  But something is afoot!  A vicious peacock named Shen (Oldman) has come up with a machine that may make kung fu a thing of the past.  Meanwhile, events lead Po to wonder what really happened to his family, and why he was raised by Mr. Ping (James Hong), who is a goose.

All of the cast members from the previous film (excepting Ian McShane, whose Tai Lung was defeated) return, and because Po was fully fleshed out in the original, that leaves a lot of room for others to follow suit.  We see more of the Furious Five (specifically Tigress, played by Angelina Jolie).  That’s a good thing because in the first film, all the star voices added for about two lines each seemed to make the film like a game of “spot the star.”  Here, they’re put to good use (at least Jolie is, but unfortunately, her vocal performance is lackluster).

I appreciated the depth and invention of the story.  Nothing is especially original, but it’s told well by director Jennifer Yuh.  There’s also a lot more action, which unlike many live-action films, is actually exciting.  There’s also a fair amount of successful humor in the film, some of which is laugh-aloud hilarious (such as Mr. Ping’s baby paintings).

There are problems, however.  The film feels like it’s too long, even though it’s only 90 minutes.  The first time Po meets Shen, I thought that would be the end of the film, but it isn’t.  While there is more of the story to be told, it feels like a climax, and that’s not good.  Additionally, some of the action scenes are a little hard to follow.

I saw this in glorious 2-D, and believe me, that’s the way to see it.

The Last Song


2/4

Starring: Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth, Greg Kinnear, Bobby Coleman

Rated PG for Thematic Material, Some Violence, Sensuality and Mild Language

Let me begin by saying I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.  I hate to admit it, but shamelessly manipulative tearjerkers frequently get to me.  Maybe it’s because, at heart, I’m a romantic.

Be that as it may, “The Last Song” doesn’t work for a number of reasons.  For one thing, the script is shallow, and although the two leads have chemistry (something that can’t be faked), they can’t act.  Only Greg Kinnear and Bobby Coleman escape unscathed.

Ronnie Miller (Cyrus) is a musical prodigy who has stopped playing and has become a rebellious and uncommunicative teenager.  She and her brother, Jonah (Coleman) have been shipped off to Georgia to visit their father, Steve (Kinnear) for the summer.  Ronnie doesn’t like the idea and makes no secret of it.  Shortly after she arrives, she attracts the attention of a stud named Will Blakelee (Hemsworth).  Ronnie rebuffs him, but eventually she warms up to him and they fall in love.  But then something happens that could shake the fragility of Ronnie’s healing.

To say that Miley Cyrus is a pop sensation is to understate matters.  She’s more famous than Britney Spears and the Spice Girls ever were.  Following them both, she has tried her hand at acting (although she does have her own show on the Disney Channel, so this isn’t a first for her).  Unfortunately, her acting is a little stiff.  Cyrus can deliver dialogue convincingly, but at communicating through body language, she’s horrible.  When she’s a pouty rebel in the beginning, it’s almost unintentionally funny.  She does get better once she breaks out of the gloom, however.  Likewise, her studly boyfriend is similarly acting challenged.  His brother Chris was wonderful as Thor, but apparently talent isn’t genetic.  He’s a little stiff as well, but we like him anyway.  The film’s saving graces are Greg Kinnear and Bobby Coleman.  They’re funny and sympathetic.  The subplot about them and the stained glass windows they make is almost more compelling because of it.  Kinnear is especially good; we feel for him more than anyone else in this story.

To be fair, it’s not completely the actor’s fault that they’re so stiff since they’re saddled with a script like this.  The movie doesn’t have the guts to let them be their characters.  All we get are little scenes and montages showing them falling in love.  That may work once or twice, but it’s not a substitute for character development and interaction.  This causes the plot to move along in an unconvincing manner.  The film could have been a lot better had the script given them the chance to get to know each other.

The film looks great (that sort of thing is a must for this kind of a movie), and the manipulation is shameless (again, a given), but ultimately, there are too many problems for me to recommend this film other than to die-hard Cyrus or Nicholas Sparks fans.

Zoolander


2.5/4

Starring: Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Jerry Stiller, Milla Jovovich

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content and Drug References

“Zoolander” is a satire of the fashion industry (which is an easy enough target) and spy movies (ditto).  The problem is that few of the jokes have any edge or sense of being fresh, and that means boredom.  It is a testament to the talent of the actors that this film is more consistently amusing than it is boring (although it is also that at times, too).

The intrepid hero of this film is an exceptionally dim-witted model named Derek Zoolander (Stiller).  In comparison, Bill and Ted are MENSA members (it’s probably unfair to compare him to Borat, because in all honesty, Borat was oblivious and naive rather than stupid).  Once at the top of the modeling world, his star has been replaced by the blond-locked Hansel (Wilson).  After his best friends are killed in an accident, he decides to leave his modeling life behind.  Then his agent (Jerry Stiller) calls and says that fashion mogul Mugatu (Ferrell) wants him to head his new Derelicte line (inspired by the homeless).  The problem is that Mugatu is going to brainwash Zoolander to kill the President of Malaysia, who has promised to crack down on child labor (which provides most of the work for the fashion industry).

“Zoolander” is a family affair; Stiller, his wife Christine Taylor, his father Jerry and mother Anne Meara (in a cameo as a protester) are all in the cast.  The film is littered with cameos as well, including everyone from Natalie Portman to Fabio.

The humor is hit and miss.  When it works, it’s worth a few giggles, but there are many moments where the humor falls flat, either because Stiller hammers the joke in long after the humor has worn itself out or because it just wasn’t funny in the first place.

Much of the success (and failure) has to do with Stiller.  Not only is Derek present in almost every scene, he also directed, produced and co-wrote the script.  Stiller can be very funny when he’s given good material, and a lot of the reason why the material that’s not particularly funny is worth a grin is because of how far Stiller pushes the character.  Zoolander is really, REALLY dumb!  It’s certainly not because his co-stars are any good.  Christine Taylor may be Stiller’s wife, but she can’t act (at least not in a comedy…I could see her in a drama).  Owen Wilson plays one character, and it’s gotten pretty old.  On the contrary, this is one of the few instances where Will Ferrell is actually funny.  When he’s on the money, Ferrell can be hilarious (but only in small doses).  When he’s off or forced to carry his own picture, he’s excruciating (I count “Anchorman” as one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen).

All in all, I can’t quite recommend the film, but I will say I know people who love it, so I won’t try and stop you from giving it a try.  It is, after all, only 89 minutes long.

Alien vs Ninja


0.5/4

Starring: Mika Hijii, Ben Hiura, Shuji Kashiwabara, Masanori Mimoto

Unrated (contains violence and gore)

Watching movies for camp value is always a risky thing, especially because everyone’s sense of humor is different.  When it works, it can be funny, but unlike in regular comedies which have solid acting, plots and production values, a campy movie that falls flat is agonizing.  “Alien vs. Ninja” is a hit-and-miss campy horror flick, but unfortunately, it misses more often than it hits, and even when the gags work, they’re not particularly funny.

A group of ninjas have just returned from some battle, when they are sent out again to investigate a mysterious comet that has fallen to the ground.  Unfortunately for them, the comet contains a few really nasty aliens.

Admittedly, you don’t go into movies like this for plot or characterizations, which is why it’s pointless to criticize a film by rules that do not apply.  That being said, this is still a really shitty movie.  It has all the materials to be a good campy movie (a horrible, simplistic script, over-the-top acting, cheesy production design, a monster that is obviously a guy in a suit, etc), but it commits the one fatal sin that befalls campy movies that don’t work: it’s boring.

I can’t comment on the acting because I don’t know who played which part (the roles in the credits were in Japanese, and the actors were not identified by character on iMDb).  Be that as it may, I will try to address which of the performances work and which don’t.  The lead hero appears to be aping Jackie Chan, and fails miserably at it.  The girl looks a little like Lucy Liu, only without the talent.  The only one who sort of works is the fat blond ninja who’s really a coward.  The actor playing him has a gift for physical comedy, but he’s irritating as often as he is funny.

Seiji Chiba wrote and directed this piece of garbage (which, thankfully, is quite short).  It’s easy to see what he’s trying to do, but he fails.  This might have worked better as a 20 minute short, but at four times that length, it’s a shade above painful.  Although there are too many small chuckles for me to give it a zero star rating (which is the only reason why I watched this movie---I need a zero star rating for my archives), but it’s close.

Monster


3.5/4

Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Anne Corley

Rated R for Strong Violence and Sexual Content and for Pervasive Language

“Monster” isn’t so much a serial killer movie as it is an American tragedy.  One of the main themes of the movie is that you have to play the hand you’re dealt; Aileen Wuornos just got dealt a really bad hand.  All she wanted was her share of the American Dream.

At the beginning of the film, Aileen (Theron) is about to kill herself.  But she wants to spend the last 5 bucks she got from a john on a beer (because not spending it would be like doing it for free), and it is there that she meets Selby (Ricci), a young lesbian that shows an interest in her.  They get drunk, and although Aileen isn’t gay (or at least she claims not to be), they fall in love.  But money is running out, and Aileen is forced to return to prostitution, but she ends up killing the johns and taking their money.

Writer/director Patty Jenkins wants us to understand Aileen, but not sympathize with her.  This is a tricky line to straddle, and Jenkins accomplishes this.  We feel sorry for Aileen because of how bad her life has been and how bad it’s becoming.  But Jenkins never asks us to look past the murders or attempts to say they were for a reason.  We know why she kills, but we never root for her to get away.

Much of the reason this film is so good is because of the breathtaking performance of Charlize Theron.  Before this role, Theron was cast in “token” female parts in blockbuster movies.  Although she gave terrific performances in those films (particularly as Keanu Reeves’ wife in “The Devil’s Advocate”), I was blown away by her performance.  Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, said, “What [she] achieves in [the film] isn’t a performance, but an embodiment.”  He was right on the money.  Even in the best performances, it’s typically possible to see facets of the actor playing the role.  Not here.  Even apart from the radical physical transformation (that is completely credible), it took me less than a second to stop seeing Charlize Theron and instead see Aileen Wuornos.

The other main character in this American tragedy is Christina Ricci.  Although the role isn’t as flashy or intense as Theron’s, neglecting her contribution to the film is unfair.  Ricci has always been a strong actress, typically veering to obscure independent films that allow her to act than your typical mainstream fare.  But Ricci is convincing as the needy Selby.  Selby is not as damaged as Aileen, but they find solace in each other, and the chemistry between the actresses’ is completely convincing.  Ricci should have gotten a long-overdue Oscar nomination for her performance, although it’s probable that she was overlooked due to the force of Theron’s acting.

The film has some similarities to another tragedy set in small town America, “Boys Don’t Cry” (which incidentally also garnered an Oscar for its leading actress).  The setting is similar, and the outlook for the characters is just as bleak.  Both films revolve around female social misfits who met untimely ends, and whose futures may have been different had they received a different life.

There is no denying that “Monster” is a tough movie to watch.  But it is a must-see for anyone who likes peerless performances in intense dramas.

The Red Baron


2/4

Starring: Matthias Schweighofer, Til Schweiger, Lena Heady, Joseph Fiennes

Rated PG-13 for War Violence, Some Disturbing Images, and Brief Suggestive Material

Manfred von Richtofen, better known as “The Red Baron,” was the most famous and feared fighter pilot in World War I.  Racking up more enemy kills than any other pilot in the war, he became a symbol of nationalistic pride for Germany and a mortal enemy for the Allies until his death in 1918, shortly before the end of the conflict.  While his story is certainly interesting, Nikolai Muellerschon’s film is not the one to tell it.  This is a bare bones telling of the story with only the important moments and no character or story development.  It’s as if the running time meant more than telling a complete story.

Rich kid Baron Manfred von Richtofen (Schweighofer) is already the pride of his unit when the film starts.  He’s a skilled fighter pilot who views dogfighting as a hunt; to him, this is merely a life and death game of jousting.  He has his honor (at one point he chastises a comrade for killing an enemy when his plane was already falling to the ground).  Then he meets a pretty nurse named Kate Otersdorf (Heady) who shows him the true horror of war, which those without means are forced to witness.  After that, his taste for battle loses its flavor, but by this point he is already an icon and cannot simply back out.

Or so the iMDb synopsis says.  The film is nowhere as clear as this.  There’s no development of the story, and anything that could build our understanding and sympathy for the characters seems to have been cut out.  It’s a shame, because there are some effective performances and some very exciting scenes of dogfighting.

Matthias Schweighofer is effective as Richtofen.  He has the pride and the ego, but other than that, we don’t know much about him because the script doesn’t allow him anything to work with.  Under the circumstances, it’s the best that any actor could do.  Lena Heady is also effective as Kate, who gives him a hard dose of reality.  Although her accent is forced and she shares no chemistry with Schweighofer, it’s not really her fault.  Til Schweiger provides solid support, as does Joseph Fiennes (who, surprisingly enough, gives a decent performance).

This film could have been so much more, but because this was edited down so much it’s hard to appreciate much from it.  Many of the supporting characters are so undeveloped I had trouble figuring out who was who; there were a number of instances when a character died, I was left wondering, “Who was that?”  This film demanded at least a half an hour more of character development, if not more.  And a script rewrite could have only helped things.

There are some laudable qualities about this film.  It looks great; the cinematography is gorgeous, and the dogfighting scenes are well-executed and thrilling to watch.  With a good script and editor, Muellerschon could make a great film.

I was going to give the film a 2.5 star rating, except that the ending is a huge cheat.  Had I actually been involved in the story, I would have been angry.  We don’t have an ending; we just have a quick scene and short biographies of the characters.  It’s obvious what Muellerschon was going for (in different circumstances this sort of thing can work), but here it’s a cheap cheat.

What’s so frustrating about the film is that it feels like it could have been great.  It’s as if they had a good, epic script, but realized that they didn’t have the money to make it as written so they only filmed the most important scenes.  “The Red Baron” feels more like a greatest hits album than a complete movie.

I would love to see the director’s cut of this movie.  Now that would be something.

The Harmonists


3/4

Starring: Ulrich Noethen, Ben Becker, Heino Ferch, Heinrich Schafmeister, Max Tidof

Rated R (inexplicably) for Some Nudity

“The Harmonists” is closer to a misfire than it is an unqualified success, but the problems that hamper the middle portion of the movie are outweighed (albeit barely) by the film’s successes.  The film tries to be more than a typical “history of a band” film like “That Thing You Do!” but the content that it adds to flesh out the characters is clich├ęd and uninvolving.  Still, the music is great, and the final act has real power.

The film details the history of The Comedian Harmonists, an acapella harmony music group that soared to popularity all over Europe before it disbanded due to persecution by the Nazis.  Out of work actor Harry Frommermann (Noethen) gets an idea to form a vocal harmony group.  He casts auditions and shortly thereafter ends up with five other singers, and they form The Comedian Harmonists.  The difference between them and The Revelers (who influenced Frommermann) is that the Harmonists used their voices to mimic the sounds of instruments and used comedy and irony in their songs and routines.  Soon after they were formed in 1928, they became famous all over Europe, but the persecution by the Nazis (three of the six members were Jewish) forced them to disband.

The performances are all fine.  Ulrich Noethen is a good leader and a sympathetic person, while Ben Becker has great presence and appeal as Robert Biberti, the other head of the group.  Meret Becker is a solid love interest as well, displaying chemistry with both Noethen and Becker.

The problem with the film is that the middle portion is about the romantic rivalry over Erna (Meret Becker) between Harry and Robert.  For such a unique musical group the decision to spend most of the running time detailing this romance would be a letdown even if it wasn’t dreadfully boring (which it is).  I’m positive there would be more worthwhile material that director Joseph Vilsmaier and his screenwriters could have explored while still accomplishing the goals of fleshing out the group members (actually, only Harry and Robert are fleshed out…we hardly know anything about the other group members).

The film picks up in the third act, when the rise of the Nazis threatens the band.  The material is more propulsive, and the film is better focused.  The decision that the band members must make of whether to stay in America or go back to Europe is compelling.  There’s also a tinge of sadness at the end.  Ultimately, the power of the final act redeems the lackluster middle portion.

The music is great, but the using the real Comedian Harmonists’ music to dub over the actors is not done particularly well.  There are times when the dubbing is obvious; that being said, considering the complexity of the music, it was unavoidable.  But the song choices don’t highlight the band’s uniqueness.  The songs have little irony and there are only a few instances where they are allowed to imitate musical instruments.  Also, the film doesn’t effectively portray their popularity.  We hear them talk about how popular they are, but we never see it.

This film is difficult to review.  While there are some laudable qualities to the film, there are also some big problems.  Yet, ultimately, I think the final act is strong enough that the film warrants a mild recommendation.

Possession (2007)


2/4

Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Lee Pace, Michael Landes

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Imgaes, Some Sexuality and Language

Not to be confused with the 2002 Neil LaBute dud

In many ways, “Possession” is especially disappointing because it had the potential to be so much more.  The premise is dynamite, and it could be used for just about any genre of movie.  Unfortunately, the script contains no character development and by trying to be both a romance and a horror movie, it fails at both.

Jess (Gellar) and Ryan (Landes) are a happily married couple celebrating their one year anniversary.  They love each other deeply, but unfortunately, they are forced to live with Ryan’s brother Roman (Pace), who’s an ex-con on probation.  Suddenly, Ryan and Roman are in a terrible car crash, and they both end up in comas.  Weeks pass, but then something strange happens: Roman wakes up believing he’s Ryan.

Like I said, the premise has potential.  For a while, it looks like it’s going to take the romantic mystery route, which is the right decision.  Unfortunately, once everything is revealed, it turns into a horror movie, which while moderately suspenseful, feels like a cheat.

I like Sarah Michelle Gellar.  I’ve never seen “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but she was terrific in “Cruel Intentions.”  She’s rather stiff in this role, but there’s not much that she can do with a paper thin role like this.  The same goes for Lee Pace.  Both are capable actors (but share no chemistry), but not even Meryl Streep could elevate this film with a paper thin script.  Only Michael Landes is noteworthy, but he’s only on screen for 20 minutes.

The problem with the film is that there’s no real character interaction.  The characters do occasionally talk to each other, but the conversations are superficial and last only a few moments.  It’s as if the script is afraid of any sort of character development at all.  Superficial characters may be okay for a horror movie, but in a movie like this, it’s crucial.  Part of the reason is that the film is directed like a music video: lots of cool images (including some very beautiful shots of the Golden Gate Bridge) and atmosphere (or attempt at atmosphere), but no real character interaction.

The movie is also has a few glaring plotholes.  Directors Joe Bergvall and Simon Sandquist try to establish some sort of mysterious connection between Ryan and Roman, but the ending of the film makes this irrelevant.  Additionally, it raises questions about the mysterious disappearance of Roman’s girlfriend, Casey (Tuva Novotny), but it’s undeveloped, and it’s tied up so quickly that if you blink, you’ll miss it (and it doesn’t even give a satisfactory answer).  There’s also the matter of names.  When Roman wakes up thinking he’s Ryan, he still calls himself Roman.  If he thought he was his brother, wouldn’t he call himself Ryan? Worse, the film ends on a bleak note that it doesn’t earn.

It’s a really sad thing, this film.  It could have been so much more.

13 Assassins


2/4

Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseda, Goro Inagaki

Rated R for Sequences of Bloody Violence, Some Disturbing Images, and Brief Nudity

“13 Assassins” is to “The Seven Samurai” what “Takers” was to “Heat.”  The plots are very similar, and the later versions were both major steps down for virtually the same reasons: almost no character development, acting deficiencies, and distinct lack of tension.  But while “Takers” had the earmarks of a guilty pleasure, “13 Assassins” is an overlong and often confused bore.

The Age of the Samurai is coming to a close.  But a long era of peace is about to be broken by a sadistic ruler named Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki).  Because he is the half-brother of the Shogun, he can’t be touched without dire consequences; even worse, his inevitable ascent to a more powerful role in the shogunate could spell doom for all of Japan.  So Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), a member of a different clan, gives his trusted samurai, Shinzaemon (Yakusho), an unofficial order to kill Naritsugu.  Shinzaemon gathers up eleven of his comrades to attempt to kill the well-guarded ruler, something they all know will probably cost them all their lives.

I know that action movies are not known for high-quality acting and characterizations.  Most actioners leave that stuff for the Oscars.  But a certain degree of individuality is necessary.  That’s not what we have here.  The characters here are so undeveloped that it’s impossible to tell one from the other, much less care about them or their fates.  This is especially disheartening because Koji Yakusho is an excellent actor, having given a deep and heartfelt performance in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”  The only marginally interesting character is Naritsugu, but that’s only because of how the character is written (Inagaki isn’t vicious enough to do the character justice).  The movie pulls no punches in demonstrating Naritsugu’s sadism.  He loves death and violence, and rapes and kills without batting a brow.  He massacred a village after they tried to revolt, and slowly killed a group of men and women in front of a little boy before killing him as well.  This is Caligula on a bad day.  I suppose Yusukey Iseda is okay as the flaky Koyata (the thirteenth assassin who joins up later), but he’s not funny or weird enough to emerge from the background.

The lack of characterization might be forgivable if the action scenes were exciting or the plot made any sense.  Unfortunately, neither is the case for “13 Assassins.”  The script is seriously confused.  There are many moments where a character says they cannot do something, yet moments later, they do just that.  It feels like a Paul McGuigan film at times.  The action scenes (which are sparing until the violent climax) are okay, but I’ve seen better.  It’s like a hack and slash video game.  There are a ton of bad guys (more than 200 to be exact) who run at our intrepid heroes, who in turn mow them down with astonishing ease.  It helps that the aforementioned assassins are like Energizer bunnies: they keep fighting until it is no longer physically possible given the amount of blood they lose.

When it comes to Japanese samurai movies, stick with the classic.  It may be longer, but it is unquestionably better.

From Hell


3/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm

Rated R for Strong Violence/Gore, Sexuality, Language and Drug Content

With a movie about Jack the Ripper, it’s easy to assume that the film would be grim and bloody, and you’d be right on both counts.  Compared to this, “Seven” is a lighthearted caper.  The Hughes’ Brothers stylishly directed adaptation of the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell graphic novel is positively dripping with atmosphere and is the perfect place where the utmost evil can breed.

Inspector Frederick Abberline (Depp) is a detective who by using opium is able to see grisly murders.  This comes in handy when a serial killer is viciously killing and dissecting prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London.  With the help of his good friend Peter Godley (Coltrane) and a lovely prostitute named Mary Kelly (Graham), Abberline learns that there is more to this case than initially meets the eye.

The Hughes Brothers have a superb sense of atmosphere, which helps the film immensely.  This is something David Fincher might have made in his early days.  It’s dark, grimy and wet; not the kind of place any sane person would want to go on a Sunday evening stroll.  I loved the representation of the medical presentations; they’re both creepy and Dickensian.  The suffocating atmosphere also helps camouflage the story’s deficiencies (of which there are quite a few).

The acting is strong.  Johnny Depp presents what may be his least weird personality to the screen, but he’s still a strong guide in this descent into madness.  Heather Graham is also good as Mary Kelly, the prostitute who may be on the killer’s hit list.  She’s spunky, but not stupid, and she has a nice chemistry with Depp.  Solid support is provided by the always reliable Robbie Coltrane and Ian Holm, as Abberline’s scientific advisor.

The problem with the film is that the story is at times very confused.  I had to watch the film a number of times before I figured out just where everyone fit into the story, and even now I’m not 100% sure.  The scene where all is revealed in particular doesn’t work.  The explanation is poorly written and full of holes.

The film does not shy away from gore.  There’s more blood and guts here than in most slasher movies (which, despite the subject matter, cannot count “From Hell” as one of their number), but the film mainly relies on the power of suggestion and imagination.  This, of course, will be running on hyperdrive.

Enjoy it, but those who don’t like their movies served with lots of blood and guts best stay away.

Bridesmaids


3/4

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd, Jon Hamm, Melissa McCarthy

Rated R for Some Strong Sexuality and Language Throughout

“Bridesmaids” is being marketed as a female version of “The Hangover,” and that’s not exactly true.  Although it does deal with a wedding, this is part romantic-comedy and part raunchy comedy.  It’s really two movies in one, and while they are not-so-elegantly wed together (the film is way too long), the film works.

Annie (Wiig) is down in the dumps.  Her bakery business went belly up, she has bills (that she can’t pay) up the wazoo, and the man she’s sleeping with (Hamm) only wants her for sex, not a relationship.  Things are going to get a whole lot worse when she agrees to be the maid of honor for the wedding of her life-long best friend, Lillian (Rudolph).

The most important thing a comedy must do is make the viewer laugh, and this does it.  There were a number of sequences where I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe.  And although these big laughs are pretty spaced out, it’s not because they fall flat (although there are a few clunkers).  It’s because the film focuses on the dramatic aspects of Annie’s life (in the beginning of the movie) and her budding romance with a cop (a wonderful Chris O’Dowd).

Kristen Wiig is an adequate comedienne, but she’s a far more effective dramatic actress.  We really feel for her when she’s down in the dumps.  She’s been screwed over so many times that it’s no wonder she’s given up.  Adding more stress to the mix is the fact that Lillian’s soon-to-be sister-in-law, Helen (an unrecognizable Rose Byrne) is Miss Perfect, and tries to prove it every chance she gets.  Melissa McCarthy is hilarious as the token friend without any care for social graces, and Jon Hamm has no problem proving that he’s a cad.  The film’s biggest surprise is Chris O’Dowd as Rhodes, the cop who has an interest in Annie.  Not only does he have burning chemistry with Wiig, he’s impossible not to like.  The spaces between the raunchy bits are worthwhile because he’s so good.  I hope that he gets more roles in the future.

The problem with the film is that it’s way too long.  Many of the scenes in the beginning that show how miserable Annie’s life is could have been cut without us missing the point.  There are also a few comic set pieces that just aren’t as funny as the filmmakers think they are (the first scene of when Annie and Helen try to get the last word in is a case in point).

Still, there’s enough sidesplitting comedy, good natured drama and effective romance that I have no qualms about recommending this film.

Face/Off

4/4

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Alessandro Nivola

Rated R for Intense Sequences of Strong Violence, and Strong Language

This movie could have gone wrong in so many ways, yet it doesn’t.  In fact, this is an example of the perfect action movie.  The plot is intriguing and it never takes the easy way out, the action scenes are exciting, and the performances are first rate.  What more can an action movie lover ask for?

Sean Archer (Travolta) is a government agent obsessed with capturing the international criminal named Castor Troy (Cage).  In addition to being behind numerous bombings, murders and other kinds of assorted mayhem, Troy killed Archer’s son five years ago.  At long last, Archer has apprehended Troy, but there’s a problem.  Troy has placed a bomb somewhere in downtown Los Angeles, and he’s now a vegetable.  Archer has no choice but to undergo a top-secret procedure where he will literally change faces with Troy in order to interrogate Troy’s paranoid brother, Pollox (Nivola), who is in prison.  The tables turn when Troy wakes up and puts on Archer’s face.

It helps immeasurably that the two leads are accomplished actors.  Travolta and Cage are clearly enjoying themselves (Travolta especially) mimicking each others’ mannerisms.  Travolta is especially good; no one plays a gleefully wicked villain like him.  Cage is also good as the man trapped in his mortal enemy’s body, bringing a sense of desperation and poignancy to the role.

You know you’re in for a treat when an Oscar nominee and noted character actors play second fiddle in an action movie.  Joan Allen is good as Archer’s loving wife whose suspicions arise fairly early (though she never suspects the truth…how could she, really?).  Alessandro Nivola is very good as Pollux, creating a unique voice and mannerisms as the shuffling kid brother of Troy.  Gina Gershon and Nick Cassevetes are terrific as members of Troy’s old crew.  Also making brief appearances are Colm Feore and CCH Pounder (two of my favorite character actors).

John Woo is to action movies what Alfred Hitchcock was to suspense.  He is a master.  Woo directs action scenes with such tenderness and care that it is clear that they are a labor of love.  Not only are they terrifically exciting, they are far more aesthetically pleasing than those by any other director.  Woo is also a superb storyteller.  He makes the preposterous seem plausible, and keeps things from ever becoming confusing.  Not many directors can make that claim, especially with a script like this.

There’s no doubt that “Face/Off” is big, bold and dramatic (at times approaching operatic), but it’s also a lot of fun, and not to be missed by any action lover.

Secretary


1/4

Starring: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies

Rated R Strong Sexuality, Some Nudity, Depiction of Behavioral Disorders and Language

“Secretary” is one of those annoying indie flicks where the director is so obsessed with trying to be hip and deep to impress critics that he forgets why he is making the movie in the first place: to tell a story.  The story, a sado-masochistic romance, has promise, but director Steven Shainberg drains every last bit of life and energy from the screen.

Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) is a young woman who has just been released from a mental hospital for a suicide attempt (that was really an episode of self-mutilation gone wrong).  She gets a job with a lawyer named E. Edward Grey (Spader).  But their professional relationship ventures beyond platonic when the sexually sadistic lawyer realizes that his new secretary is a masochist.

“Secretary” is a bad movie of the worst kind.  It’s slow moving, pretentious, and worst of all, boring.  I didn’t care about anyone in this film, and I certainly couldn’t care less about whether Lee and Edward ended up together (although, true to Hollywood form, the answer is obvious).  Despite director Steven Shainberg’s attempts to flesh out Lee and Edward, they remain strictly two-dimensional.   The energy level isn’t the only problem with this film.  The film is way too long; whenever Shainberg gets a new idea, he spends five minutes repeating it just to make sure we get it.

Nothing irritates me more than when a director keeps the energy level on mute.  It serves no purpose and only hurts the film.  There’s a difference between subtlety and lifelessness, and not only does Shainberg not know the difference, he doesn’t realize that his film needs energy to work.

The only good thing about this film is Maggie Gyllenhaal.  She gives a delightful, fully realized portrayal of the mentally ill Lee, but there’s only so much she can do before the film becomes deadly dull.  James Spader is horrible as Edward.  He speaks so quietly and mumbles everything.  Spader can act, which is why I lay the blame at Shainberg’s feet.

To be fair, Shainberg treats these characters with dignity.  He doesn’t go the Wes Anderson route and make fun of them.  Although this in no way saves the film, at least we can be thankful for small favors.

It is so ironic that this film is about sado-masochism.  This film is made by a sadist and is for masochists only.

Lost in Translation


2/4

Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris

Rated R (Inexplicably) for Some Sexual Content

Slow movies are fine.  Another romance, “Brokeback Mountain,” is a good example.  That movie moved at a slow yet deliberate pace so we could really get to know the characters and experience them falling in love.  “Lost in Translation” attempts to do the same thing, but it fails miserably and thus becomes an overlong bore.

Bob (Bill Murray) is an actor at the end of his career.  He’s in Japan being paid $2 million to advertise a whiskey.  But he is bored and doesn’t know anyone or the customs, hence the term “lost.”  He runs into another person in the same position, a woman named Charlotte (Johansson).  She followed her husband to Japan where he is doing a photo shoot.  Since both of them are bored out of their minds, they start hanging out together and a friendship blossoms.

It’s easy to understand what writer/director Sofia Coppola is trying to do, and to an extent, she achieves it.  The atmosphere is warm and dreamy, the perfect place for a story like this to germinate.  The shots of Tokyo are gorgeous, and give a great sense of the city.  But the film never takes off.  Why?  Bill Murray.

When I heard Bill Murray was starring in a drama, I winced.  He can be a hilarious comedian in the right role, but lately he has been appearing in Wes Anderson’s films and offbeat dramas.  There’s nothing wrong with the latter (many comedians attempt to branch out into dramas, some, like Robin Williams, do it quite successfully), but I have a problem with the former.  To say that I hate Wes Anderson is a massive understatement.  I HATED “The Royal Tenenbaums.”  It’s boring, pretentious and it tries to be too “cute”.  I was worried that “Lost in Translation” would be in the same vein.  Thankfully, it’s not, but I almost wish it were so I’d have some kind of opinion about it.

But I digress…the problem with the film is that Bill Murray has almost no range.  He does the same schtick over and over again, and while it’s funny in an openly comedic context, it doesn’t work in a muted form because Murray has no capacity for drama.  Bob is simply Bill Murray being intentionally low-key.
There is a bright spot in the film, and that’s Scarlett Johannson.  The success of this film caused the gifted actress to break out into the mainstream, and it’s not hard to see why.  She gives a terrific performance as Charlotte, bringing some desperately needed dramatic heft in every scene in which she appears.  Unfortunately, she’s strictly a supporting character, so we’re left with a miscast Bob, who’s present in every scene.

Sofia Coppola has the skills to be a great filmmaker.  She is a master at tone and atmosphere, but character development is minimal.  In this case, where the characters’ understanding of each other is supposed to be fleeting, it’s understandable.  But we need something more substantial to carry us through the film.  The plot is minimal, and there is so little character development that there’s not much that any of the actors can do.  It helps immensely that Johansson is skilled at non-vocal communication and has screen presence.  Bill Murray has neither, and his attempts to convey the feelings of the sad sack that his character is come across as forced.

In short, the film deals itself a real blow by the miscasting of its lead.  It takes more than Bill Murray can do to play a character where non-vocal communication and screen presence are crucial.

Valkyrie


3/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, Christian Berkel, Jamie Parker

Rated PG-13 for Violence and Brief Strong Language

It takes true skill to make an effective thriller about which the ending is already common knowledge.  But by taking the perspective from the point of view from the characters and making this about them rather than the plot, our foreknowledge becomes an asset rather than a detriment.

1944.  World War II is in full swing, and things are not looking good for Germany.  Many high ranking officials are have lost faith in Hitler, and think him more and more as a danger to Germany rather than a leader.  Previous assassination attempts have failed, but a group of high ranking Nazi officers and politicians have come together to pull off the impossible: kill Adolph Hitler and take control of Germany.  The question is, can they do it, and will everyone have the guts to see it through?

The film is divided into two parts.  The first half is the planning stage; we meet the players and learn how they fit together.  There’s a lot going on here, and it is sometimes slightly confusing.  The second half is the execution of the plan, and it’s loaded with suspense.  We see what goes wrong and how close they all came to pulling it off.

The performances are all solid, but this is not an actor’s movie.  There’s too much plot for any real focus to be placed on character development.  That being said, Tom Cruise gives a nicely understated performance as the disillusioned von Stauffenburg.  He’s already lost faith in Hitler and the war, and this assassination plot gives him something to believe in.  Bill Nighy is his usual reliable self as Olbricht, the general who recruits him, and so is Terrence Stamp.  Jamie Parker, Christian Berkel, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, and Kenneth Branagh are good in supporting roles.  Carice van Houten has little to do as Nina, von Stauffenburg’s wife, but at least she’s getting a chance to cross over into American films after her stunning debut in “Black Book,” another great WWII thriller.

Speaking of “Black Book,” “Valkyrie” shares four members of the cast with Paul Verhoeven’s film.  Christian Berkel, Waldemar Kobus (as a police chief who is a part of the cause), Halina Reijn and of course van Houten are all present in the film.  Berkel and Kobus are especially interesting cases because they play characters that are polar opposites of the ones they played in “Black Book.”

Bryan Singer is a good choice for directing this film.  He’s a good storyteller, and has a keen knowledge of suspense.  He’s also very organized, and we always remember who everyone is and how they fit into this story.
For those who like suspense or are fascinated by World War II history, this is a solid choice.

The Resident


1.5/4

Starring: Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Christopher Lee, Lee Pace

Rated R for Violence, Language and Brief Sexuality/Nudity

“The Resident” is a “stranger within” thriller, and its utter failure makes you appreciate what Barbet Schroeder (“Single White Female”) and James Foley (“Fear”) accomplished.  Those were terrifying thrillers because of the skill of the actors and the directors.  “The Resident” is easily the worst thriller of this ilk, beating out the laughably silly “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.”

Juliet (Swank) is an ER doctor who followed her boyfriend, Jack (Pace) to New York City, only to have him cheat on her.  Looking for a new place to live, she finds an amazing apartment for a great price.  The landlord, Max (Morgan) is nice, good looking and interested in her.  Unfortunately for Juliet, his interest in her goes far beyond a bouquet of roses and a kiss on the cheek.

Hilary Swank is one of the most talented actresses around.  Her performance as a transgender man in “Boys Don’t Cry” is legendary, and her other performances are strong as well.  But even an actress of her talent can’t save this snoozefest from sinking like a rock.  Part of the reason is that the villain is so miscast.  I’ll buy Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a lead in a romantic comedy or some other kind of light fare, but as a psycho stalker/rapist, he’s laughable.  Christopher Lee makes an appearance, but his role is small.  As nice as it is to see Lee Pace, he’s on screen for such a short amount of time that it’s easy to forget he’s even in it.

Antti Jokinen has absolutely no sense of what it takes to create suspense.  Dark lighting and “creepy” images do not generate terror by themselves.  It takes atmosphere, rhythm and solid technique to do that.  It’s surprising that Jokinen isn’t able to create any sort of tension whatsoever.  The formula of the “stranger within” movie is almost foolproof.  Even the silliest movies of this ilk (“The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” for example) are able to create some sort of tension in the climax.  Not here.

The film’s look is dark and creepy (or at least it tries to be), so it’s kind of obvious that this isn’t going to be the romance that it starts out to be.  But you’d never suspect a movie with a two-time Oscar winner, an acting legend, and two talented and up and coming actors to be this bad.  Still, I should have been prepared.  A movie starring actors of this status that goes directly to DVD means there are some pretty substantial problems with it.

For those who want to see a roommate from hell thriller, rent “Single White Female” instead and leave this one to the dogs.

Once A Thief


2/4

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Chung, Kenneth Tsang, Kong Chu

Rated R (inexplicably) for Violence

Every now and again, an artist gets the urge to expand his body of work and do something outside of his comfort zone.  Sometimes this works…Steven Spielberg was primarily known as an action film director until he blew the world away with “Schindler’s List.”  With “Once a Thief,” action film master John Woo has attempted something similar, only with much less satisfactory results.

Three art thieves, Joe (Yun-Fat), Jim (Cheung) and Cherie (Chung), have been raised together since they were young by Father (Tsang) to become masters at the art of the steal, and they are as close as siblings.  However, they are in a tug of war with Godfather (Chu), a cop who wants them to go straight.  It’s not as easy as it sounds, but when they make the decision to go legit once and for all, there are dire consequences from Father.

This is John Woo’s attempt at making a caper comedy, which is fine, except the characters are two-dimensional at best and the comedy isn’t especially funny.  Even worse, there are long stretches of the film when it’s flat out boring.

I can’t blame the actors.  Chow Yun-Fat has worked with Woo many times, but he is misused here.  In addition to being completely at home in action movies, he’s also a fine dramatic actor (his performance in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” should have garnered him an Oscar) and based on the evidence, an able comedian.  The sad thing is that the material he is given is too lame for a sitcom; it’s a testament to the actor’s talent that he’s able to get a few grins with material that’s this bad.

It’s kind of odd to see Leslie Cheung in a movie like this, or at least I thought so.  Cheung nailed his portrayal of a seriously conflicted gay character in “Farewell, My Concubine,” so to see him in an action movie is akin to seeing Meryl Streep in a role made for Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Cheung is fine, although there’s not really anything for him to do.  I haven’t seen Cherie Chung in anything, but based on her performance here, she’s a capable actress as well.

As much as I hate to admit it, the failures of this film have to be laid at the feet of John Woo.  He co-wrote the bland script, and the story makes little sense in the final hour.  Even the action scenes, something Woo is famous for, are limp.  Woo has no sense of comic timing or skill in writing jokes and gags that are actually funny.  It’s not for a lack of trying though, but it rarely works.  The final scene, which is sped up like a Looney Toons cartoon, is especially bad.

There are some nice scenes, though.  The first heist scene is reminiscent of “Entrapment,” and there’s a dance sequence that can only be described as unusual.  Still, it’s not nearly good enough for me to recommend it.

Grumpy Old Men


2/4

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, Kevin Pollack, Daryl Hannah, Burgess Meredith

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexual References

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were the ultimate odd couple (ironic because they were good friends in real life).  The comic chemistry between them was electric, and when director Donald Petrie concentrates on that, the film is hilarious.  Unfortunately, the film is more about the would-be tender romances that the Lemmon and Matthau have with the flighty new neighbor.  That would be fine, if it were funny (which is isn’t) or if Ann-Margret had any chemistry with either of her co-stars (she doesn’t).  Sadly that means a lot of boredom between the laughs.

John Gustafson (Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Matthau) have been rivals for the last 50 years.  Pranks and name-calling are just two of the ways these two old codgers try to drive each other nuts.  But the private war going on between them has taken an interesting turn when a beautiful new neighbor, the flighty Ariel Truax (Margret) moves in across the street.

There are times when this movie is laugh-aloud funny.  The scenes when John and Max are at each others’ throats are hysterical.  But there just aren’t enough of these moments, and the romantic aspect of the film is dead in the water.  Even if the leads had chemistry, it still wouldn’t work because 90 minutes is not enough time to sufficiently develop two romances, even if they share a character.

I can’t blame the actors.  Lemmon and Matthau do what they can with the material they are given, but their characters are paper thin.  Ann-Margret is too flighty to be believable.  She may be a stunner to a pair of guys who debate on how they want to die, but once we’re introduced to her, we can’t understand why they are still interested in her.  The two supporting actors, Hannah and Pollack, have more chemistry than the three leads combined (at least romantically).

Donald Petrie is not exactly a name director, and this is why.  His films are perfectly vanilla with a few yuks along the way.  They’re typically not disasters, but there’s never anything special about them either.  But the decision to concentrate on the romantic aspect is a disaster.  With better realized characters and a less superficial script, it might have worked (the actors certainly have the talent to pull that sort of thing off), but as it is, it’s a real blow.  Pity, because there are some solid laughs in this movie (including the outtakes, which are, of course, hilarious).

Child's Play


3/4

Starring: Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Brad Dourif, Alex Vincent

Rated R for Horror Violence and Language (I guess)

It’s “Toy Story” from hell: a slasher movie where the villain is a possessed doll.  There’s no way anyone could take this movie seriously, but for the most part, director Tom Holland takes things mostly straight.  And you know what?  It actually works.  “Child’s Play” is a surprisingly creepy movie, with a few laughs along the way.

Facing imminent death, serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) performs an act of voodoo to transfer his soul into that of a Good Guy doll, a hot new toy.  Hard working mom Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) is desperate to find a Good Guy doll for her young son Andy’s (Alex Vincent) birthday.  As luck would have it, her friend Maggie (Dinah Peterson) found one cheaply that’s being sold by a homeless guy outside her work.  The problem is, the one she found is the possessed toy, and it isn’t long before Chucky (as he calls himself) makes her take a header out the window.  Andy knows the truth, but will he convince everyone that his Chucky doll is a serial killer before it’s too late?

The beauty of “Child’s Play” is that it’s as scary as it is funny.  Although there aren’t as many one-liners as there are in future installments (I assume), the sight of a doll running down a hall with a snarl on his face and a pocket knife in hand is hilarious.  It’s also creepy.  Director Tom Holland also knows how to capture the general eeriness of your average doll.

The acting is rather strong for your average slasher movie.  I liked the characters, especially Karen.  She’s your average loving mom who will do anything to protect her son.  Her performance gives the film a lot of its punch because we care about her and Andy.  Chris Sarandon is adequate as the cop, but he gets the job done.  Of course, much of the acting honors have to go to veteran creep Brad Dourif.  Not only does he know how to get the blood pumping using only his voice, he understands the concept of comic timing (his utterance of “Fuck You” to a little old lady who calls him ugly is laugh-aloud funny).

The script is a little underwritten and the film plays dumb for too long, but it is what it is, and it does that rather well.  You can bet that I’m going to see the sequels.

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer


3/4

Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Brandy, Mekhi Phifer, Matthew Settle

Rated R for Intense Terror Violence and Gore, Strong Language, and Some Drug Use

The lower your expectations are, the more you’ll enjoy “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer,” which as everyone seems to have already pointed out, should be called, “I Still Know What You Did Two Summers Ago.”  I’ll admit, also like everyone else, that the title that was used sounds better.

Like most sequels, it’s inferior to its predecessor (a film that I found to be a lot better than I thought it would be), but not by much.  The production values are a lot better, the acting is stronger, and it has an ending that, while sort of a cheat, is unexpected.

One year after most of her friends were brutally murdered by Ben Willis (Muse Watson), Julie James (Hewitt) is still having nightmares.  But when her best friend Karla (Brandy) wins tickets to the Bahamas on a radio show, she knows that this is exactly what Julie needs.  Of course, when they get there, not everything is what they expected.  Everyone is leaving due to an imminent storm and they’re the only ones there.  Things couldn’t get any worse…until someone is picking off everyone that's left.

The two surviving members of the first film are back, although Ray (Prinze, Jr) spends most of his time trying to get to the island that Julie is on to warn her that the Killer in the Slicker is back.  Jennifer Love Hewitt is not only gorgeous and can let out of a great scream (the only two real requisites for being a horror movie heroine), she’s a decent actress.  She makes Julie real, which considering the material, is rather impressive.  Brandy is quite likable as Julie’s supportive best friend, and Matthew Settle is VERY good as Will, the handsome hunk who is in love with Julie.  The only who sticks out is Mekhi Phifer; Phifer can act (see “ER” and “O” for evidence of this), but his performance as Karla’s jerk boyfriend feels forced.  And it’s kinda cool to see a respected comedian like Bill Cobbs in a slasher movie, and it’s always great to see Jack Black (in an uncredited cameo as the pothead recreations director).

The problem with the film is that it’s not very scary.  Director Danny Cannon can’t even get a jump scene right.  But the film looks great and it is watchable.  And, on some level, enjoyable.

Then there’s the ending.  Although someone had given it away to me years ago, I loved the audacity of it.  True, it doesn’t make much sense coming after everything else (the first film had the same problem), but the sudden bleakness of it is unexpected in any movie, especially in the slasher genre.

Do I recommend it?  If you liked the first one, give it a shot.  If not, you’re not missing much.

Passionada


3/4

Starring: Jason Isaacs, Sofia Milos, Emmy Rossum, Lupe Ontiveros, Theresa Russell, Seymour Cassel

Rated PG-13 for Some Sensuality and a Conversation About Drugs

“Passionada” is everything a good romantic comedy should be.  It’s funny, well-acted and reasonably short.  But more importantly, we like the characters and even more so when they’re together.

Charlie Beck (Isaacs) is a card shark who is running out of places to go where the casinos don’t have his name on their “do not enter” list.  One night when he is out with a friend, he sees Celia Amonte (Milos) sing, and Charlie is instantly smitten.  His attempts to get a date with the widow are rebuffed, but Celia’s daughter, Vicky (Rossum) makes him a deal: if he teaches her to count cards, she’ll give him tips on how to woo her mother.

Jason Isaacs is one of my favorite actors.  Although he is known for playing utterly evil villains (most notably Col. Tavington in “The Patriot” and Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies), I’ve seen him in other, less antagonistic roles and have been impressed by his talent and versatility.  Isaacs can add his role as Charlie Beck into his repertoire of terrific performances.  There’s nothing particularly original about Charlie, but Isaacs makes him likable and he knows the concept of comic timing (something he hasn’t been able to show off before).  He also has a nice, understated chemistry with his co-star, Sofia Milos.  I don’t believe I’ve seen Sofia Milos in anything else (although she was a one-time regular on “CSI Miami”), but while her range appears to be a little on the limited side, she’s mostly effective here, and makes what is really a character out of a cheap romance novel into a living, breathing woman.  And she’s also quite beautiful, making it easy to believe how Charlie could become so infatuated with her.  Seymour Cassel and Theresa Russell (in a far cry from her role in “The Believer”) provide solid support.  Lupe Ontiveros has some very funny moments as Celia’s feisty mother-in-law.

To my surprise, the actor who got my attention the most was not Jason Isaacs.  That distinction goes to Emmy Rossum.  The young actress has been on the rise for quite some time, and while she had the lead in “The Phantom of the Opera,” she hasn’t made it to the A-list yet.  Be that as it may, Rossum is delightful as Vicky.  She’s smart, funny and isn’t going to let Charlie get his way easily.  Some of the film’s best laughs are because of her.

While this is certainly a good movie, and I don’t hesitate for a second to recommend it, there’s nothing that special about it either.  Nothing truly sets it apart from every other good romantic comedy.  Part of the reason is because the relationship between Charlie and Celia moves too fast.  Romances need to burn slowly then catch fire; director Dan Ireland uses gasoline.  One more scene that shows Celia slowly letting down her guard would have helped things immensely.

Still, despite its few flaws, “Passionada” is a good choice for those in a romantic mood.

Saved!


3/4

Starring: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Martin Donovan, Patrick Fugit, Mary Louise Parker

Rated PG-13 for Strong Thematic Issues Involving Teens-Sexual Content, Pregnancy, Smoking and Language

“Saved!” is a much needed satire of the Christian Right, and while some of the barbs are sharp, it’s mostly a character piece, and it has a heart.  Sure, it’s kind of schmaltzy, and many of the laughs aren’t as successful as the filmmakers would have liked, but is enjoyable nonetheless.

Mary (Malone) is a good Christian.  She’s one of the Christian Jewels, the sort-of club of popular girls at American Eagle High School.  Her best friend is the uber-Christian Hilary Faye (Moore), and together they rule the school as the best Christians.  But one day her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) confesses that he’s gay, and when she knocks her head on the pool ladder, she thinks she sees Jesus (it’s really the pool guy).  Jesus tells her that she has to do whatever she can to save Dean.  So she sleeps with him, hoping to cure him of his gay-ness, but it backfires; Dean is still gay and she winds up pregnant.  How long can the school's pride and joy keep her secret?

The film isn’t as funny as it thinks it is, but this isn’t a no-holds barred satire.  It’s really a character-based comedy where everyone rethinks their religion (so to speak).  Sometimes it is funny (there’s nothing better than when Hilary Faye crashes her van into a huge statue of Jesus), but it’s also likable because we like the characters.

Jena Malone is a good choice for the pensive Mary.  When she becomes pregnant, she starts questioning God because she thought he would restore her virginity.  She finds sanctuary in the school outcasts, which include Roland (Culkin), Hilary Faye’s crippled brother, and Cassandra (a delightfully nasty Eva Amurri), the Jewish rebel.  In some ways, these two characters are the most interesting in the film.  Roland has a cracking wit and Culkin has nice chemistry with Amurri.  Speaking of Culkin, he makes a nice return in his second movie in a ten year absence from the screen. 

The real star is Mandy Moore.  Originally a pop star, Moore has shown herself to be a better actress than a teen singer/marketing icon.  Hilary Faye is so blinded by her faith that she doesn’t realize what a hypocrite she is for alienating everyone who isn’t, in her eyes, a perfect Christian.  Moore is a real surprise; she goes so far over the top that it’s hilarious.

The film has its problems.  The film could have used a little more bite and a little less schmaltz, and some of the lines at the end make you want to roll your eyes.  But ultimately, it’s a fun way to spend 90 minutes.

Copying Beethoven


2.5/4

Starring: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode, Joe Anderson

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexual Elements

“It has promise.  Let me develop it with you.”—Beethoven, “Copying Beethoven.”

Too bad no one helped develop this film.  It indeed has promise, although it doesn’t completely come together.  Due mostly to a lackluster script, what could have been the second coming of the classic Mozart biopic “Amadeus” ends up being a forgettable film with an amazing 15 minute concert scene.

The film details the fractious relationship between Ludwig von Beethoven (Harris) and his copyist, a conservatory student named Anna Holtz (Kruger).  Their relationship is tumultuous; sometimes they work well together, other times they can’t stand each other.  But their work leads to one of Beethoven’s many masterpieces: his ninth symphony.

The problem with the film lies not with the acting.  Ed Harris is wonderful as the fiery Beethoven.  He gets everything right: the ego, the deafness, the runaway creativity that all artists get from time to time.  Harris may lack the screen presence to really pull this off, but he does an amazing job.  As Anna, Diane Kruger shows once again why she’s near the top of today’s up and coming actresses.  There are times when Beethoven is rude or downright cruel to her, and yet she still remembers that there is a softer, more human side to him.  The actress manages to hit all the right notes despite being saddled with a character that’s paper thin.

The film is directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, and it’s about as well made as can be with this flat script.  She adequately portrays the ups and downs of the relationship between Beethoven and Anna, but there’s little that she, Harris or Kruger can do with a script that’s just not very good.

The film does take off during the 15 minute rendition of the Ninth Symphony premiere.  It’s superbly directed and filled with all the fiery emotion and soft humanity that makes up the composer’s work (and for a sampling of the whole symphony, the segment is arranged well enough that the transitions between the movements are seamless).  The sequence occurs in the middle of the film, but since this is a fictional piece and not constrained by reality, it would have worked better as a conclusion to the film, with all the other material leading up to it.  I would be tempted to give the film a tentative recommendation because of this sequence, but ultimately I can’t.

Close, but no cigar.

Dolores Claiborne


2.5/4

Starring: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer, Judy Parfitt, David Strathairn

Rated R for Language and Domestic Abuse

Alcoholism and domestic violence, painful as they are, will never cease to compel because they have a deep relevance for everyone.  Whether it’s through first-hand or tangential means, we all know about alcoholism and spousal abuse (in many cases, the two go hand in hand).  In his film based on the book by Stephen King, director Taylor Hackford uses a mystery story as a means to examine both of these issues.

Selena (Leigh) is a reporter for the New York Times who returns to her small hometown after her mother, Dolores (Bates) has been arrested for the murder of her employer (Parfitt).   The two have been estranged for years, and this reunion is going to open some old wounds that Selena would much rather have been left alone.

With a cast like this, it goes without saying that the acting is strong.  Kathy Bates is very good as mother on trial.  The question is not just whether she killed Vera Donovan, the cruel woman whose house Dolores kept, but also if she was responsible for the death of her husband, Joe (Strathairn).  And if she was behind one or two of the deaths, was it out of cold blood, or did she have her reasons?  Dolores isn’t exactly a likable person; she speaks her mind when she really shouldn’t, and she resists all attempts to help in her own defense.  

As Selena, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a surprise (at least to me).  I have seen her in other roles, but she will be forever burned into my mind as the psychotic roommate in “Single White Female.”  But Leigh is such a good actress that it took me less than a second to see Selena St. George instead of Hedy Carlson.  Selena is resentful towards her mother, and she’s only back in town due to a sense of obligation rather than a genuine care for her mother’s well-being.  Judy Parfitt is good as the nightmarish employer, but who may not be as much of a bitch as she seems, and Christopher Plummer is perfectly slimy as the detective who seems to have it in for Dolores.

The problem with the film is that it’s way too long.  This is a 100 minute movie stretched out to over two hours, and there are times when the film drags way too much.  Once it finds its groove during the second hour, things get pretty interesting, but before that point, it’s pretty slow going.  The climax doesn’t work either.  It’s contrived and not particularly believable.

Watching this movie, I couldn’t help thinking of “Once Were Warriors,” a New Zealand film that dealt with the same issues in a much more compelling way.  That film was a brutal hit to the gut that will leave anyone reeling.  Although there are some qualities about “Dolores Claiborne” that bear mentioning, it doesn’t even come close to matching the impact of “Once Were Warriors” or any competently made mystery.

Stay Alive


3/4

Starring: Jon Foster, Samaire Armstrong, Frankie Muniz, Jimmi Simpson, Sophia Bush

The version of the film being reviewed is the Unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical version is rated PG-13 for Horror Violence, Disturbing Images, Language, Brief Sexual and Drug Content

I was not expecting to like this movie as much as I did.  True, the film is a rip-off of “FeardotCom” (which itself was a rip-off of “The Ring”), but there’s a lot of good ideas going on here, and there is actually a legitimate amount of tension in the proceedings.  It’s not perfect (there are some moments where it plays dumb, breaks its own rules, and the final scene doesn’t work), but I still liked it.

Hutch (Foster) is not happy.  His best friends, Loomis (Milo Ventimiglia), Rex (Billy Slaughter) and Sarah (Nicole Opperman) were just brutally murdered.  After his funeral, Hutch and a few friends get together and play the beta version of a game that Loomis was playing when he died.  What they don’t know is that when they die in that game, they die in real life.

The film does not get off to a strong start.  It opens in a conventional way, and there’s not much to differentiate it from your average horror flick (I did like the opening scene of a computer game, however).  When the characters start figuring out that the game is related to the deaths of their friends, things start getting really interesting, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the opportunity.  The rules for how the game can and cannot work are unique to say the least, and we figure them out as the characters do.

The acting is effective.  Jon Foster, the younger brother of the great character actor Ben Foster, is effective in a low-key portrayal as Hutch.  It’s not flashy, but it works.  Samaire Armstrong is also good as the flaky Abigail, as is Sophia Bush who plays the goth October.  The best performances go to Jimmi Simpson, who is very convincing as the obnoxious gamer Finn, and Frankie Muniz as the geeky Swink.

The visuals were really cool, and I especially liked how the computer game sequences were integrated in the computer.  It gives the filmmakers new ground to play in much like the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies did for Wes Craven.  There’s a good sense of atmosphere and the characters are worth caring about.

The film is not flawless.  For one thing, it ignores the most obvious rule about multiplayer gaming, and it sometimes breaks its own rules.  The final scene is a traditional twist ending, but it doesn’t fit with this movie.  It’s not scary or clever because, according to the movie’s rules, it can’t feasibly happen.

I saw the director’s cut, and apparently the studio forced the director to cut the film to earn a PG-13 rating.  The film was torn apart by critics and it’s not hard to see why.  There’s so much gore that’s a part of the story that to cut it out would render the film incomprehensible and emasculated.  This is one movie that needs its R rating.

Horror fans would do well to check this one out.

Man On Wire


3.5/4

Featuring: Philippe Petit, Jean Francois Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexuality and Nudity, and Drug References

It’s not hard to imagine why documentaries are the least popular film genre.  After all, we watch movies to be entertained, not to learn anything.  There’s a lot of truth to that; when I watch a movie, I want to be told a story.  If I learn something new, all the better.

And that’s exactly what James Marsh does with “Man on Wire.”  This is not Ken Burns.  Or Michael Moore for that matter.  He uses interviews, re-enactments and photographs to tell the extraordinary story of the man who walked on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

Philippe Petit has always been a climber.  Psychiatrists have posed theories as to why he has such a love for climbing things, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter.  Petit is who he is, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.  He is a master at tightrope walking, and he either has a deal with the devil or he is just an adrenaline junkie to the extreme.  Petit has tightroped across Notre Dame, the Sydney Opera House, and many other places.  He can’t explain why he is driven to do these things.  He only knows that he is.  Then he sees an ad in a newspaper about the World Trade Center towers being built, and Petit is instantly obsessing about tightroping across them.

We see interviews from Petit and his accomplices about how they planned the walk over two years, and how they recruited inside players and how some chickened out at the last minute.  Petit speaks with such passion that we understand and sympathize with this funny little man who we would otherwise think to be completely insane.  In fact, many of his friends think he’s nuts too, and they were with him when he did it!
This documentary is more suspenseful than about 99% of fictional films…primarily because it’s completely real.  

James Marsh uses our fear of heights to set us up at a tense level from the beginning, and because we begin to care about Petit, we get more and more tense with each time he and his crew are nearly foiled.

The film can be a little confusing at times and it’s really hard to keep track of who is who and how they all fit together in this extraordinary escapade.  Still, this is a superbly done documentary (I loved how Marsh had Petit use models and move around to make his point), and for anyone who is looking for some real suspense, they would do well to check this one out.