Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Man on a Ledge

3/4

Starring: Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Edward Burns, Titus Welliver, Genesis Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris

Rated PG-13 for Violence and Brief Strong Language

Excepting the Katherine Heigl stinker "One for the Money," 2012 has gotten off to a great start for Hollywood.  Only one movie out of the five that I've seen has been less than 2.5, which for the dumping month of January, is something of an accomplishment.  True, none of these have been great movies, but they're just as good as, if not better than, movies with budgets twice all of theirs combined.

A man has checked into the Roosevelt hotel and walked out onto the window ledge (what hotel has high story windows that open up that easily, I don't know, but never mind).  Naturally, the police are called, and he'll only talk to one woman: Lydia Mercer (Banks), a negotiator who made national news after she failed to talk down a rookie cop from jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.  It doesn't take her long to realize that this is anything but a typical suicide situation.

The man, an ex-cop named Nick Cassidy, has just broken out of prison to try and prove his innocence in the public's opinion.  But this is just a smokescreen.  While he is attracting people's attention by standing on a windowsill 20 stories off the street below, his brother Joey (Bell) and Joey's girlfriend Angie (Rodriguez) are breaking into the next building over, trying to prove that real estate mogul David Englander (Harris) set Nick up for stealing his $40 million dollar diamond.

People have likened this to "Inside Man," and it's an apt comparison.  Although inferior, "Man on a Ledge" shares many similarities with the Spike Lee feature, predominantly a tense situation that's not at all what it seems.  A film that this one shares a great deal with is F. Gary Gray's "The Negotiator."  The set-up is almost identical, and in a general way, shares a few (although not all) similarities in terms of plot.

The acting is effective, although no one stands out.  Sam Worthington is effective, although I doubt we'll be seeing him on a list of Oscar nominees any time soon.  Jamie Bell is terrific as the kid brother, and it'll make one  wonder why no one gives him any leading roles these days.  He was able to carry "Billy Elliot" on his shoulders at the age of 14, so there's no reason why he shouldn't be able to do it now.  Elizabeth Banks makes a nice turn in what is purely a dramatic role.  The rest of the cast do their jobs, although it should be mentioned that Ed Harris has never looked more gaunt.  Is he gearing up to play a cancer patient?

The film has it's share of flaws.  It kept me engaged, but I was wondering how they could pull this off (believe it or not, that added to my enjoyment of the film).  There are some plotholes, a few of which are fairly obvious.  All in all, I liked this movie.  It's a good time at the theaters, and it reminded me of when they used to make summer movies, not visual marketing ploys.

Daybreakers

3/4

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Willem Dafoe, Michael Dorman

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language and Brief Nudity

"Daybreakers" is a vampire movie that bears a stronger likeness to "The Matrix," "Children of Men" and, believe it or not, Norman Rockwell-ish sitcoms of the 50s than "Twilight."  Or even "Dracula."  The film is built upon ideas rather than special effects (although there are a fair amount of those) and blood and gore (and there's plenty of that).

The Spierig Brothers' film rests upon a unique foundation.  Ten years ago, a plague swept across the globe turning humans into vampires.  Vampires have adapted successfully and have thus become the dominant species on the planet...and caused homo sapiens to join the gorilla and the tiger on the endangered species list.  A businessman (or should that be business-pire?), Charles Bromley (Neill) is farming humans for sustenance while researching for a substitute.  Meanwhile, one of his researchers, Ed Dalton (Hawke) has tagged along with some humans who have found a cure for vampirism.

Unlike many movies with intriguing premises, this one rarely takes the easy way out and until the end, doesn't use action in place of a plot.  The action scenes come organically from the plot, not the other way around.  The story is filled with inventive little details about vampire society, which the filmmakers use as a commentary on our modern life (two politicians are involved on a heated debate on the ethics of farming humans, life stops during the day instead of night, and so on).

Sadly, the acting is not up to standard.  The two main characters, Ethan Hawke and Sam Neill (who, by the way, are usually impeccable actors), are flat.  Both appear to be doing it for the money.  Neither one is particularly bad, but with a bit more effort on their parts, the enjoyment level could have been raised.  Claudia Karvan and Willem Dafoe are terrific as the human survivors, and Michael Dorman is very good as Ed's soldier brother, Frankie.

The Spierig Brothers, a directing pair from Germany whose previous film, an Australian exploitation film called "Undead," didn't make much headway in the US, have made a film to be proud of.  It's a horror film that engages the mind as well as the adrenaline; there are some spooky moments and exciting action sequences in the film.

As good as much of the film is, there are flaws (apart from the flat acting by the two leads).  There are a few fairly obvious plotholes, and the Spierig Brothers give into temptation and have an action-packed ending.  Not that that's a problem in and of itself (it was a criticism flung unfairly at "The Matrix"), this ending isn't either scary or exciting; it's over-the-top macabre.

I recommend the film with barely a moment's hesitation.  It's a vampire movie that, despite its flaws, manages to intrigue.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mike's Musings: Art Film vs Independent Film

Film exists in various forms, from the short films that few people are able to see and the blockbusters that everyone sees.  But there are two types of films that are grouped together that are really two different types of movies: independent films and arthouse films.

Before I start, I'm going to say that even though it may seem like I'm bashing mainstream movies, that is not my intent.  I have very mainstream tastes; I love "Titanic," "Avatar," and most everything that Jerry Bruckheimer has produced.  Of course, there are mainstream movies that I hate (the recent "One for the Money," "Killer Elite" or "Soul Plane" for example), but just because it's shown in a multiplex doesn't mean it's a terrible movie.

Now...people group independent and arthouse films together when they're really two different kinds of films, and it's not fair to either one.  It's an understandable tendency, after all they do show in the same theaters.

Art movies are exactly what they sound like: art.  These films belong in museums like MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) rather than a movie theater.  Plot and character are of secondary importance to the images that director is showing on screen, either to illustrate some greater truth or because they look good.

Personally, I'm not a huge fan of these.  I'm sure some of them are good, but the few that I've seen are films that didn't care for.  "Hunger," "Far North," those are arthouse movies.

Independent films are simply movies that lack huge budgets or big stars (unless they are willing to work for less money).  Some of these are from countries not called the USA or Great Britain.  Rather than special effects or formulas, these films rely on acting, character development and storytelling.

Why do I find this distinction important?  Because I think a lot of people are turned off by the word "independent" or "foreign" because they think it'll be something extremely artsy like "Hunger," when it's really no different than any other movie they see.

The lesson is, when you're telling someone about a movie, be careful how you describe it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Paranoid Park

1/4

Starring: Gabe Nevins, Dan Liu, Jake Miller, Taylor Momsen, Lauren McKinney

Rated R for Some Disturbing Images, Language and Sexual Content

At the center of "Paranoid Park" is an interesting idea: a disaffected teenager coming to terms with his role in an accidental death.  Unfortunately, the direction by acclaimed director Gus van Sant is extraordinarily self-indulgent, and he turns this potentially provocative material into a nonsensical, pretentious mess.

Alex (Nevins) is a quiet skateboarder living in Portland, Oregon.  His parents are getting divorced, and he isn't sure if he likes his girlfriend (Momsen).  One day, a detectine (Liu) comes to the school asking questions about the recent death of a security guard who was run over by a train after getting hit with a skateboard.

It's clear that Liu has Alex in his sights from fairly early on, but the truth about what happened that night isn't revealed until about halfway through the film.  And when it is, it's a huge WTF.

The acting is solid all around.  Gabe Nevins, who was cast in the lead role after he attended a casting call on MySpace, is good as the alienated teen.  He doesn't talk much, and although he seems to regard everything with apathy, he is good at using his eyes to tell what he is truly feeling.  Liu is also very good as the detective.  He doesn't go for histrionics; he simply states the facts, and that's what makes him so authentic and threatening. Taylor Momsen, the only member of the cast with a substantial resume (she was Cindy Lou Who in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and had a recurring role on "Gossip Girl") is also good as Alex's needy girlfriend.  The best performance goes to Lauren McKinney, who plays Alex's earthy friend Macy.  She's refreshingly real.

So why the low rating?  Because van Sant's need to be "indie" completely interferes with his telling of the story. The plot is told in a more or less random order; while it can be argued that presenting the plot in a non-chronological order could be an asset, it's not done well here.  Second, there are far too many slo-mo scenes that serve no purpose and the musical accompaniments are badly chosen.

It's easy to figure out what van Sant is trying to do: he's trying to get inside the head of a disaffected teenager who is forced to confront a horrible incident.  But because of he constantly shows off, the director blows it.  Majorly.

Friday, January 27, 2012

One for the Money

1.5/4

Starring: Katherine Heigl, Jason O'Mara, Daniel Sunjata, Sherrie Shepard, Debra Monk

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Sexual References and Language, Some Drug Material and Partial Nudity

Is it a vote of confidence to say that the best thing about "One for the Money" is Katherine Heigl?  Didn't think so.  Heigl, the star of the inexplicably popular primetime soap "Grey's Anatomy" has comic timing, but is usually set on shrill.  Fortunately, director Julie Anne Robinson keeps her at less than alarm-clock level, although that by no means saves the movie.

Stephanie Plum (Heigl) is a young woman with no money and now, no job.  Her cousin is a bail bondsman, and right out of the gate, she gets a chance to nab an old flame.  Joe Morelli (O'Mara) took her virginity in a bakery shop at age 17, but then didn't call...and Stephanie can hold a grudge.  Now, she's on to him because he skipped bail on a murder charge, and she needs the 50 grand for bringing him in.  But Morelli claims he's innocent; he's a cop and claims it was self-defense.  Stephanie doesn't care since all she wants is the money and a little revenge.  But she ends up getting roped into the investigation anyway.

I'll never understand the appeal of Katherine Heigl.  She has almost no range, and most of her characters are shrewish harpies.  Stephanie Plum isn't so much because she's kept in check, but she's in a story that isn't particularly interesting and doesn't even make much sense.  Surprisingly, she outacts almost everyone in the cast.  Jason O'Mara may be hunky, but he's as wooden as a fence post, and Daniel Sunjata is terrible as Stephanie's CIA-wannabe mentor.  The worst of the lot is Debra Monk, who takes over shrew duty from Heigl.  Only Sherri Shepard is good as Lula, a quick-witted hooker.

Julie Ann Robinson is a TV director who was behind the Miley Cyrus/Nicholas Sparks vehicle, "The Last Song."  That wasn't particularly good entertainment, but it was better than this.  Her TV experience shows; lots of close-ups and undynamic shots.  This is a TV movie with a theatrical release.

I'll admit, there are a few laughs in this movie, and if anything good can be said about Heigl, she is beautiful and she has a great smile.  But much of the humor falls flat; for example, Leonardo Nam, who was the most annoying character in "The Perfect Score," one of the worst movies ever made, has a one scene cameo, in which he is exceedingly irritating instead of funny.

Lionsgate is clearly hoping for a new franchise (is there any mainstream movie that is made these days without goals of a franchise?  Whatever happened to a self-contained story?), and with Heigl's fame, they'll probably get their wish.  It's a pity that the movie isn't better.

Pandorum

3/4

Starring: Ben Foster, Dennis Quaid, Antje Traue, Cam Gigandet

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence and Language

When discussing "Pandorum," one word comes to mind: grim.  This is a seriously dark and bleak sci-fi horror movie, and that is it's best asset.  Being completely alone in deep space has taken on a new meaning.

A man wakes up inside a technological cocoon for no apparent reason.  He has no idea where he is or what he is doing there, and the only reason he remembers his name, Bower, is because it's posted on the door of the capsule he just stumbled out of.  The spaceship he finds himself on is completely deserted.  Other cocoons have been opened, but there's no one around.  Hours later, another man named Payton (Quaid) wakes up and together they work to figure out what is going on.  What starts out being a fight for their lives has turned into something much more desperate and precarious.

The best thing the film has going for it is its atmosphere.  It's like a mixture of "Event Horizon" and "The Descent."  Now, neither of those movies were particularly happy ("The Descent" especially so), but compared to "Pandorum," they're lightweight romantic comedies.

The acting is effective, but no one really stands out.  Ben Foster, an amazing character actor who is primed to hit the A-list, proves he has the screen presence to become an action hero.  Dennis Quaid, usually known for lighter material, is also effective as the commander who stays behind.  Antje Traue makes for a good Ripley-clone as well.  Unfortunately, Eddie Rouse is mildly annoying as Leland, the obligatory odd-duck survivor and Cam Gigandet is stretched beyond his limited range as Gallo, another survivor who may be suffering from the notorious Pandorum.

Speaking of the so-called Pandorum, this plot device (a rare syndrome in which space jumpers can lose their minds) is uniquely employed, but not effectively.  The film tries to make us question who, if anyone, is actually suffering from Pandorum, and Alvart's attempts to make us mistrust everyone fall flat.  The final scenes that deal with Pandorum are seriously confused.  Also, with the constantly moving camera and abrupt jumps in camera angles, the film is sometimes disorienting (but not in a good way)

The ending is also curious.  Although it does work, one has a right to expect something far different considering what came before (vague, I know, but I don't want to give anything away).

I liked "Pandorum," or should I say, "respected" it.  It is scary, and there is some great action and gore.  This is a science-fiction version of hell.

Dead Man Walking

4/4

Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston

Rated R for a Depiction of a Rape and Murder

There is no doubt that "Dead Man Walking" is an intense movie.  A film in which the lead character bears witness to the pain of parents whose children were murdered and the murderer himself is bound to leave anyone shaken.

Six years ago, Matthew Poncelet (Penn) and Carl Vitello (Michael Cullen) raped Hope Percy (Missy Yager) and then murdered her and her boyfriend, Walter Delacroix (Peter Saarsgard).  Vitello received life in prison, while Poncelet got a death sentence.  He writes a letter to a young nun named Helen Prejean (Sarandon), asking for spiritual guidance.  She visits him, but finds him to be an arrogant, hateful and racist young man.  But she sticks it out because she feels called to help this man.

Sarandon and writer/director Tim Robbins are widely known as anti-death penalty advocates, but based on the film, you wouldn't know it.  "Dead Man Walking" has no opinion about the act of condemning a man or woman to die (although it does admit that the system is highly flawed).  It examines the thoughts and feelings of the parents (Barry as Walter's father and Ermey & Weston as Hope's parents), who want Poncelet to die and Poncelet who is desperately hoping for his sentence to be commuted to life.  All viewpoints are given their due and are presented in ways that both pique the intellect and add to character.  For example, the Percy's welcome Helen into their home until she tells them that she is not in favor of executing Poncelet, at which time they run her out of their house.  Earl Delacroix, on the other hand, is a little more gray.  He despises Matthew, but still seeks out guidance from Helen.

The acting is superb.  Susan Sarandon has always been a versatile actress, but here, she owns the film; her Oscar was well-deserved.  She plays Prejean with a quiet strength filled with genuine goodness, and becomes the light guiding us through this grisly muck.  Unlike many films of this nature, Prejean is not a nosy reporter or someone looking for justice.  She is simply an observer, offering help to all that ask.  Likewise, Penn is mesmerizing as Poncelet, a man who beneath the hateful exterior, is a lonely and frightened man looking for a friend.  Celia Weston and particularly R. Lee Ermey are good as Hope's grieving parents who lash out at Helen.  Raymond J. Barry, a character actor known mainly for playing slimy villains, is also quite good as Walter's father, who takes to Helen with a guarded reserve.  No less important are Hope and Walter themselves.  Although their parts are largely non-speaking, Robbins develops them enough through others' dialogue and showing their pictures so that their deaths serve as an effective foundation.  Hope and Walter's presence is felt throughout the film.

Robbins has fashioned himself a difficult film, and he plays it out with the skill of a master.  There are a number of ideas and characters that make up the film, and by focusing on Helen, he is able to navigate through it all without losing us or the story.  He also peppers the film with a bit of gallows humor, which I thank him for.  After seeing "The War Zone," I wasn't ready for something that intense.

Both perplexing and deeply sad, "Dead Man Walking" is a must see for everyone who has questions about the death penalty or the act of forgiveness.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ladybugs

3.5/4

Starring: Rodney Dangerfield, Jackee, Jonathan Brandis, Ilene Graff, Vinessa Shaw

Rated PG-13 for Sex Related Dialogue

Like "The Mighty Ducks," "Ladybugs" is a family sports comedy about taking a ragtag group of inept sports players and turning them into champions.  But in place of hockey, you have soccer, and instead of Emilio Estevez, you have Rodney Dangerfield.

Chester (Dangerfield) is a salesman who is looking for a big promotion so he can marry his dreamgirl, Bess (Graff).  But while kissing ass, he ends up becoming the coach of the company soccer league--a sport which he knows nothing about.  And to make matters worse, the team is terrible.  Desperate (his boss says he'll get the promotion if he can win the championship), he gets his fiancee's son, Matthew (Brandis) to put on a wig and become their star soccer player.  But how long can he keep up the charade before he's caught?

"Ladybugs" is really more of a comedy than a sports movie, although we do have an investment in the ending.  The story is paper thin to make room for the jokes, which is the right decision because 90% of them hit the mark.  This is one seriously funny movie, mainly because Dangerfield is so good at self-deprecating humor.

Dangerfield is surrounded by a good supporting cast.  The late great Jonathan Brandis, one of the best young actors of the 90s, is terrific as the gender-switching kid.  His eyes and his voice (his two most noticeable characteristics) are used to good effect, and he makes Matthew/Martha (as he/she is called) a likable and endearing character.  Jackee adds some sass as Chester's feisty secretary and assistant coach, Julie, while Tom Parks provides some great conflict as Chester's highly competitive boss.

Sidney J. Furie directs the movie in what is really the best way possible: let Dangerfield take center stage and then build the film around him.  He is able to get us invested in the team's fate, despite the fact that almost none of them are developed.  They are likable, and that's what counts.

Some of the humor doesn't fly.  The "enemy" coaches are badly acted caricatures, Dangerfield runs his mouth a little too much at times and belabors the jokes, and the film runs out of steam towards the end.  Still, a movie this funny deserves a lot of recognition.

The Flock

1.5/4

Starring: Richard Gere, Claire Danes, Kadee Strickland, Ray Wise, Russell Sams, Avril Lavigne, Matt Schluze, Kristina Sisco

Rated R for Perverse Content involving Aberrant Sexuality and Strong Violence, and for Language

One of my favorite TV shows is "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."  It deals with horrendous crimes such as rape, incest, serial murder and torture, but it does so with intelligence, sensitivity and without ever exploiting the situation.  "The Flock" wants to do something similar, but if you watch one episode of "SVU," you'll realize how inferior the movie is.

Errol Babbage is a registrant administrator for the Department of Public Safety, which means that he goes around interviewing sex offenders and making sure they're staying out of trouble.  Because of his paranoia and penchant for brutalizing the registrants, he is being forced into early retirement.  His replacement, Allison Lowry (Danes), tags along to learn the ropes, but Errol's instability makes him a poor teacher.  Then Errol hears of a girl who's been abducted and he is convinced that one of his registrants is behind it.

"The Flock" is assembled out of all the gritty cop movie cliches, and internationally renowned director Andrew Lau is unable to breathe life into any of them.  There's the cop who walks on the dark side of the law, the innocent new recruit, the helpless victim waiting to be rescued, the climactic twist, yadda yadda yadda.  We've seen it all before, and Lau doesn't give us any reason to see it again.

Much of the reason this movie sucks is because Richard Gere's performance is so horrible.  In the right role, the ex-"Sexiest Man Alive" can be effective, but here he fails to bring any sort of individuality to the role.  Babbage is supposed to be burning with intensity and world weariness, but Gere is better known for low-key pretty boys.  In a gritty crime thriller like this, he's completely out of his element.  Claire Danes is adequate, although there are times when she gets shrill.  Kadee Strickland veers from low-key to foaming at the mouth, but at no time is she particularly convincing.  Rock star Avril Lavigne appears in a small role as an abused woman.

To be fair, Andrew Lau is working with a crappy script, but he doesn't know what he wants his film to be.  Is it a message movie, or an exploitation flick?  Is it a crime drama or a character study?  Is plot-based or a slice-of-life story?  Lau can't decide, and the reshoots by Niels Mueller don't help the situation.  By trying to be everything, it ends up being nothing.

Lacking in virtually every department (Lau can't even generate an acceptable atmosphere), "The Flock" is better left to fly away.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The War Zone (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

4/4

Starring: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton, Colin Farrell (as Colin J. Farrell)

Note: The version of the film that I saw was the unrated version.  For the record, the theatrical cut was rated R for Sexual Content, Some involving Molestation, and for Nudity, Language and a Scene of Violence

One of the good things about independent films is that there is little enough money at stake that directors are willing to take chances.  Certainly, no major studio (or their independent arms) would allow any filmmaker to come near this story with a ten foot pole, but even if they did, they would never have allowed them to go as far as Tim Roth does in his unbelievably powerful directorial debut.

Tom (Cunliffe) is a sullen young teenager who has just moved from London to Devon, a small English town in the middle of nowhere.  He is not happy about the move because he misses his friends.  Fortunately for him, he and his family are close knit: his older sister Jessie (Belmont) is about to go off to college, Mum (Swinton) is heavily pregnant, and Dad (Winstone) is a genial family man.  But one night Tom sees something that both horrifies and confuses him, and it will change all their lives forever.

Although rare, incest is not foreign to film.  But few (none that I've seen or heard of) deal with the subject matter head on.  The issue is too painful and too personal for almost all viewers.  Take a look at what happened at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival.  During one particularly intense scene, a viewer got up and screamed, "I can't take it anymore!"  He ran to the exit intending to pull the fire alarm, but fortunately Roth was in the audience and it took him 20 minutes to calm the man down).

Tim Roth confronts an issue that few of us would like to think about with a frankness and a tenacity that only a small number of films are able, much less willing.  Although the characters never address what's going on openly, we know excatly what they're thinking and feeling.  The beauty of the film is that every scene has hidden layers.  You can look into them as much as you want, and you'll always find a new interpretation of what's going on.

Take the film's most controversial scene.  Tom has seen his father rape Jessie in a bunker, and he gets a video camera to catch him in the act.  But look closer...is he a protector, or a voyeur?  The latter is not as hard to swallow as one might think; every time we see an accident while driving, we slow down to take a look.  If he's a protector, then why does he throw the camera off the cliff?  To save their "family?"

The acting is superb all around.  Freddie Cunliffe is terrific as the often silent and withdrawn teen.  At first you might wonder why he is angry at his sister for her relationship with their father, but isn't victim-blaming fairly common in these types of situations, especially for someone as young as he is?  How is he supposed to know what to think?  The first time I saw the film, I thought he was a weak performer, but now I realize that he's brilliant.

Laura Belmont, who like Cunliffe makes her film debut, is nothing short of jaw dropping in her performance as Jessie.  There is no better acting in the film and no character whos actions are more interpretive.  In the aforementioned rape scene, she tells her father what she likes as she undresses her.  Is she trying to appease him, or does she not understand what her father is doing is wrong?  There is another scene where she arranges for Tom to have sex.  But the woman she chooses is older ("I could be your mother," she tells him).  Is this a way for her to make sense of what is happening to her?  And when she calls it off, is she protecting him in a way that no one else would?

Ray Winstone, who is more than capable of portraying vicious villains and psychopaths, is brilliant here.  On the surface, he's an outgoing man and a good father.  But of course he's hiding secrets too terrible to tell.  And yet, we still feel for the guy.  He is remorseful, and most who commit incest were sexually assaulted as young kids as well.

Tilda Swinton, an exceptional actress in her own right, has the least showy role, but it is a necessary one.  As a character, Mum is completely oblivious to what's going on in her own home, but that's the point.  Incest is such a secretive crime that most people don't know it has actually occurred (or are in denial).  That's why it's so prevalent.

All the actors show extraordinary commitment to their roles, Swinton especially so.  A few weeks before filming, she gave birth to twins, and she was willing to bare her post-birth body before the camera to portray a woman who had just given birth.  Belmont and Winstone also appear in the nude, although Cunliffe only bares down to his underwear (going farther isn't really necessary in his case).

Tim Roth, who is an amazing character actor, makes a stunning debut behind  the camera.  This film is a true masterpiece; it's filled with brilliant performances from every member of its cast (including a young Colin Farrell who appears for two scenes as Jessie's boyfriend) and the story, as simple as it is complex, never missteps.  He also has more guts than most filmmakers who take on such a painful story.

I've heard people say that this film isn't for everyone, and there is definite merit to that thought.  This film is absolutely punishing to watch, and there are few films that are more difficult to endure.  But I still disagree.  I think it is for everyone.  It's supposed to be painful; incest always is.  If people see this movie, then maybe they will get their heads out of the sand and make it stop.

Raw to the point of pain, mysterious and strangely beautiful (the bleak cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is exceptionally good), "The War Zone" is a truly amazing film.

Red Tails

3/4

Starring:  Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Rated PG-13 for Some Sequences of War Violence

In many ways, "Red Tails" is as much George Lucas' baby as "Star Wars."  He put up all the money to make it (which, including marketing, comes to a whopping $93 million), since studios didn't think foreign markets would be interested in a movie with an all-black cast (my oh my, how far we've come...).  Although his only official credit is that of an executive producer, I wouldn't be surprised if he had a hand in both writing and directing; if it were my money, I would have done so.  The successes, and flaws, in Lucas' storytelling capabilities are as apparent here as they are in his most famous saga.

In 1942, the Tuskegee Airmen are an Army experiment: how do black pilots fare in combat.  The Army doesn't think much of them; the Airmen are given hand-me-down planes and sent on relatively pointless missions.  Colonel A.J. Bullard (Howard) has left his men and gone to Washington to beg for his men's chance to fight real battles.  Although they are met with some resistance, they are sent to cover the bombers, which are being decimated since their fighter pilot escorts are ordered to chase after enemy aircraft, leaving the heavies defenseless.  Are they up to the challenge?

The film is pure formula, and it's not very well done formula.  The problem is that the script, credited to John Ridley and "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder is weak, and the characters are not only reduced to cliches, but half developed cliches.  We have the jokester, the young one trying to prove himself, the heroic but self-doubting leader, the daredevil, and so on.  But they're so undeveloped that it is hard to tell one from the other.

There are other problems.  First is the tone.  The characters approach fighting like it's a fun-loving adventure.  Fifteen years ago, that might have been fine.  It is a summer action movie after all.  But after "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down," and other movies that showed the true horror of war, it doesn't really work anymore.  Second, for a film with the purpose of showing the courage and duty of the much aligned black soldiers, it does so in a slapdash manner.  The change of heart by the white soldiers in their views of their black compatriots is far too simplistic to be credible, and Smokey (Ne-Yo) is a crude racist caricature.

So why do I recommend the film?  It is well-acted and the action scenes are excellent.  In fact, the film will lose a lot of its luster on a smaller screen.  As for the performances, everyone does their jobs, but no one really stands out.  Well-known actors Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr (who because of bad choices and a terrible agent has been off the big screen for five years) are just supporting characters.

Look, great art, this isn't.  It's a good thing they released it in January, because it would get lost in the summer blitz.  But for what it is, it's a decent enough yarn.

Mike's Musings: The 2012 Oscar Nominations

The Oscars: Hollywood's favorite night of self promotion.  Officially, it's to recognize the best movies of the year, but because it's plagued by self-promotion (Harvey Weinstein, that means you!), it's really just a bunch of ass-kissing.  That being said, here are the nominees and my thoughts on them (because publicity and ego are such a huge part of what determines a win, it's too early to predict the winners).  Note: There are a few of these that I haven't seen, like "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," "The Artist," "Moneyball," "The Iron Lady," and "My Week with Marilyn."  I'll review those at a later date, but some won't be reviewed until they reach Blu Ray, like "The Artist" (silent movie in a theater with everyone munching on popcorn...no thanks).

Best Picture:
"The Artist," "The Descendants," "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "The Tree of Life," "War Horse"

As of right now, it's going to come down to "The Artist" and "The Descendants."  No other movies have been talked about more.  I saw "The Descendants," but because I had to go out and get a soda refill, I couldn't review it.  From what I saw, it was a 2.5; Alexander Payne is beloved by critics for reasons I do not know.  His movies are little more than feature length sitcoms, and even by those standards, they're still not very good.  "The Help" is this year's "The Blind Side," a solid mainstream drama to appease those who complain that only the artsy movies get nominated (they're not artsy...they're just made with smaller budgets and more intelligence).  I saw it, but didn't review it for some reason.  It was a 3/4.  "Hugo" was very good, but it lacks the defined audience to really wow market.  "Midnight in Paris" was lame, and while critics liked it and touted it as Woody Allen's comedy comeback ("Match Point" was well received by critics, but ignored by the Academy (it received a Best Original Screenplay nomination, and didn't win...hardly all that it deserved).  'The Tree of Life" was beloved by critics and anticipated by audiences, but it's reception was justifiably lukewarm by the masses.

Best Actor
Brad Pitt for "Moneyball," Demian Bichir for "A Better Life," Jean Dujardin for "The Artist," George Clooney for "The Descendents," Gary Oldman for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

There are two big surprises with the Best Actor nominees: the nomination for Bichir and the lack of nomination for Michael Fassbinder in "Shame."  Bichir appears to be the token nomination for the arthouse lovers, since few people have even heard of it (although the name of Chris Weitz from "American Pie" and "About a Boy" probably helped).  Michael Fassbinder's snub is curious.  He has been getting raves for his acting year round, from "X-Men First Class" to "A Dangerous Method" (another highly anticipated but weakly received movie this year).  The Academy loves movies that push boundaries, but apparently only safe ones.  The NC-17 rated "Shame" is apparently too controversial for them, which considering how screwed up our values are, isn't surprising (gotta protect the little kiddies who are staying up till 11 on a school night watching awards shows for movies they can't see...).  I haven't seen it, but I'll catch it soon (I LOATHED the director's previous feature, the utterly self-indulgent and artsy "Hunger").  The real wildcard is Gary Oldman.  Although long recognized by all for his acting prowress, he has been ignored by the Academy until now.  I haven't seen the movie, but he's been getting raves, so expect him to be a front runner.

Best Actress
Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady," Glenn Close for "Albert Nobbs," Viola Davis for "The Help," Rooney Mara for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Michelle Williams for "My Week with Marilyn"

Although Meryl Streep is being predicted for a third Oscar win (which is going to come along sooner or later…she’s too talented and too popular not to win a third), “The Iron Lady” is supposedly very weak, so that will hurt her chances.  Glenn Close has been nominated five times without a win and is very popular, but her passion project, “Albert Nobbs,” was not well received, so I think she’s looking at another loss.  Viola Davis was good in “The Help,” and she’s gathering some supporters after she hit it big with “Doubt.”  Ironically, Rooney Mara is the only nominated performance that I’ve seen, and she was terrific.  Michelle Williams is well-liked, but too the film is too low profile.  She may get the win…we’ll have to see.

Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Plummer for “Beginners,” Jonah Hill for “Moneyball,” Nick Nolte for “Warrior,” Max von Sydow for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” Kenneth Branagh for “My Week with Marilyn”

Christopher Plummer has been a well-respected actor for decades (“The Sound of Music” for example), but he’s becoming a known name, and he’s already generating Oscar buzz for “Beginners.” Jonah Hill is famous for comedies, but this could be a crossover, or “nominee by association,” which happens from time to time (Anne Archer in “Fatal Attraction…I rest my case).  Bergman favorite Max von Sydow is a great character actor, but not very famous.  And Kenneth Branagh is beloved for his Shakespeare films, and is long overdue for a win.  Nick Nolte is the long shot.  He was terrific in “Warrior,” which is the only one of the nominees that made my top ten list, but I don’t see him winning, despite his reputation and love by the Academy.  The film is just too low profile.

Best Supporting Actress
Berenice Bujo for “The Artist,” Jessica Chastain for “The Help,” Octavia Spencer for “The Help,” Melissa McCarthy for “Bridesmaids,” Janet McTeer for “Albert Nobbs”

Jessica Chastain is this year’s Jude Law.  The actress came out of nowhere and with five movies this year, and she was bound to get nominated for one of them.  If she’s not picked this year, than she’s going to get one down the road.  Berenice  Bujo has been lauded in “The Artist,” so don’t count her out.  Octavia Spencer is a hilarious comedienne who has been given tiny bit parts until now.  She won the Golden Globe, so she’s at the top of the running.  Janet McTeer has been nominated before, but she’s too low profile.  The most surprising nomination is for Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids.”  For the longest time, all out comedies were left out of Oscar attention: Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen’s acting (he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Borat,” but not for his acting) and so on.  The only comedies recognized were the ones with a heavy dose of drama and small internal chuckles.  Don’t get me wrong, Melissa McCarthy was hilarious in “Bridesmaids,” and deserves some kind of recognition.  But she’s a groundbreaker, and I don’t think the Academy is ready to recognize an openly comic performance with a statue.

Best Director
Alexander Payne for “The Descendants,” Michel Hazanavicius for “The Artist,” Terrence Malick for “The Tree of Life,” Martin Scorcese for “Hugo,” Woody Allen for “Midnight in Paris”

It’s really going to come down to Alexander Payne, Michel Hazanavicius and Martin Scorcese.  “The Tree of Life” was profitable, but again, too low profile.  Woody Allen is much beloved by the Academy, but “Midnight in Paris” doesn’t have enough buzz to be a serious contender (I could be mistaken though).  Again, “The Descendants” has been widely acclaimed by critics and it’s made a hefty profit at the box office, but for me, it shouldn’t have been nominated.  Alexander Payne isn’t very good (I did like what I saw of “Sideways,” though); the only good thing about it is the atmosphere.  “The Artist” has a whopping 10 nominations, and most films that win Best Picture win Best Director; there hasn’t been a mainstream silent film since the 30s and to have one this well received, don’t hold it against Hazanavicius.  Scorcese’s film was well received, but it majorly flopped (as of right now, it’s made $83 million against a $150 million budget).  Still, Scorcese is a powerful and well-respected filmmaker, and profits don’t always mean a lot when it comes to wins.

Well, those are the major awards, and the only ones that can be discussed at the moment.  I do really want to see “Chico & Rita,” the animated film that made a smash at some film festivals; hopefully with the Oscar nomination, it will become available on DVD.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Monsters

3/4

Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

Rated R for Language

Made for a slim 800 g's, Gareth Brooks proves one thing: it is entirely possible to make a good science-fiction movie for almost nothing.  "Monsters" is an effective little movie with some decent scares, likable characters and an affecting and low-key romance.

Six years ago, a satellite picked up on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  A probe that was sent to collect samples crash landed in Mexico, leading to about half of that country to be quarantined.  Photographer Andrew Kaulder (McNairy) is on his way to getting a big break when he is tasked by his boss to bring back his daughter, Sam (Able).  Things go wrong, and they end up taking a dangerous route to the US border.

The performances are effective.  I swear I've seen Scoot McNairy somewhere, although according to his iMDb profile, I haven't.  I'm sure I'll remember the actor that he reminds me of at some point and then kick myself for it.  In any event, the actor is very good in his low-key style.  He has chemistry with his co-star, Whitney Able, which helps things a lot.  Able is also good, being vulnerable without being a wimp.

The effects are as good as any modestly budgeted endeavor.  In fact, it's entirely possible to believe that it was made for the same amount as "District 9," a film that it shares a lot of similarities with.  Although there are a few special effects, the film mainly relies on set design (i.e. decrepit signs, bones and corpses).  But the special effects are well-integrated and mostly convincing.

Much of the success must be laid at the feet of Gareth Brooks, who wrote and directed the movie.  He was also the cinematographer and the the production designer.  Four big hats for one small movie.  That alone is worth congratulations, but the fact that the film is good is all the better.

There are a few flaws in the film.  One, the social commentary about immigration isn't particularly well conveyed.  It is there, but the idea isn't fully formed.  The film also takes a while to get going.  For a while, the premise and the plot are the same thing, and there needs to be a turn to involve us deeper into the story.  Also, while there is chemistry between the leads, it's a little too understated.

I liked the movie.  I'll probably watch it again sometime, mainly because I like the characters.

Note: the film is rated R for Language.  This is a curious thing, because I can't remember any use of profanity during the entire movie.  This should be rated PG-13 for some disturbing images.

Mike's Musings: In Defense of Tucker Max

I've been a fan of Tucker Max for a good few years.  I had picked up his book "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell" one day in the airport, and have been a die-hard fan ever since.  I remember one night in college where I was reading his story "Tucker Goes to a Hockey Game" out loud to a friend, and I was laughing so hard that I had to hand the book over to him so he could finish.  Every time I read the story, I crack up laughing without fail.

Max has been the source of a fair amount of controversy over the years, most of which is because he is accused of promoting a "rape culture."  Such accusations are not only ridiculous, but tantamount to slander.

Rape is an act of violence, not sex.  It is used to humiliate victims, both male and female, and for rapists to feed on their victims' fear.  At no point does Max do this or anything that can be considered such.  True, he and his friends make statements about women that are hardly virtuous, but one must consider the context in which they are presented.  We are not meant to agree with these comments.  In fact, we are meant to laugh at him and his friends because they are such morons.  Anyone who actually reads the stories will realize this right off the bat.

Consider his friend SlingBlade, who is consistently referred to as a geek who has a fear of women.  Some of his exchanges with girls are pricelessly funny, but not because we agree with what he says.  When he says offensive things to women, they routinely call him a jerk or something along those lines and leave.  Even Tucker regards him with derision at times.

Another source of controversy is the allegations of him making all the stories up.  I remember getting into a long argument on iMDb about this shortly before the film version of "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell" came out.  I still believe that the stories are mostly, if not completely true; they're too credible to be made up by some geek, and stuff this crazy at least has to have some element of truth in it.  If there's any doubt, it's because Max changed things to protect people he wrote about or himself (he admits this at the beginning of his book).

But the real question is not whether or not they actually occurred (for the record, I have given the trolls and I-hate-everything-mainstream-because-it's-mainstream hipsters far too much mention), but whether or not it is still funny if it didn't.  To me, it doesn't.  What matters is that it is credible enough to be believable (this is a case where truth is stranger than fiction) and whether or not it's funny.  The answer is yes on both counts.

I'll admit, one's confidence in the veracity of his stories might be shaken after viewing the film version of his book, since it took elements from a bunch of stories and stirred them all together in one batch, but many movies do this, like "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," which was based on two of Rebecca Hall's books.  For my money, the result turned out successfully, although of greater concern was Matt Czuchry's hideous turn as Tucker.

Look, humor is subjective.  Some people might find Tucker Max the work of a narcissist.  To each their own.  I find his works to be well-written and absolutely hysterical.  Apparently, Max is retiring from his wild nights of drunkenness and debauchery.  I'm going to miss his stories, but at least there's another book coming in February.  And who knows?  Max is a good writer.  I'm sure he can find humor in suburbia, particularly with yuppie neighbors that he is bound to run into.  Then of course he's almost required to write about his bachelor party (what he remembers of it).  Now that is something I am dying to read.

The Ninth Gate

3/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Emmanuelle Seigner

Rated R for Some Violence and Sexuality

"The Ninth Gate" is another religious thriller that came out shortly before the new millennium.  This one, directed by Roman Polanski, is a creepy and disturbing mystery with a plot that grabs you and keeps you involved until the end.

Dean Corso (Depp) is a shady rare book dealer who is contacted by Boris Balkan (Langella), one of his regular clients.  He owns a copy of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows," a book that is said to be able to summon the devil himself.  Only three copies are known to have survived, and Boris wants Corso to track down the others to find out which one is the real one.  Because Balkan is paying him a considerable amount of money, Corso agrees, even if he has to do some illegal things.  But when he starts seeing people following him, he wants out.  But Balkan tells him to find it...or else.

The acting is effective.  Depp, who can really do anything, is surprisingly good in the low-key Philip Marlowe-ish role.  He doesn't give the character any of his trademark oddities, which is the right decision.  Frank Langella is at his creepy best as Balkan, the man who may or may not be pulling strings.  Lena Olin is also good as Liana Telfer, the wife of the previous owner of Balkan's book.  The weak link in terms of acting is Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seinger.  She has screen presence and is excellent at using her eyes to show emotion, but she has a lot of trouble with the dialogue.

Director Roman Polanski, who has a dark past, is probably the best choice for directing this movie.  I couldn't help thinking of his other religious-horror movie, "Rosemary's Baby."  The two films have the same kind of atmosphere, which is key to this film.  Part of that his his trademark camera movements, in which he opens a scene where the camera looks around the room as the character notices them.  He has a good sense of atmosphere as well; you can feel the evil lift off the screen.

The problem with the film is two-fold: the tone seems to change from scene to scene, and the ending is on the weak side.  The change in tone is the film's biggest problem.  One scene the film is a disturbing horror show, the next it's a macabre thriller a la Hitchcock.  The tone changes so much that it's hard for the suspense to build as it should.  The ending isn't a particularly big problem, but it isn't well-motivated and it could have been handled better.

I don't know why this film got such poor reviews.  It's a good movie, and I really enjoyed it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Heartbreakers

3/4

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Gene Hackman, Jason Lee, Ray Liotta, Anne Bancroft

Rated PG-13 for Sex-Related Content Including Dialogue

"Heartbreakers" is a smart and clever comedy about two con artists who would give James Dobson something to rant about.  If he's so obsessed with protecting the sanctity of marriage, he's got a lot on his hands with these two.

Max (Weaver) and Paige (Hewitt) are a mother-daughter team who make boatloads of money by conning rich men.  Max seduces the would-be Mr. Right into marrying her after a brief courtship, and after they are married, Paige goes in to seduce the new groom.  In walks Max, who then gets boatloads of alimony.  Paige wants to go out on her own, which Max disagrees with.  But they're going to have to work together to pull off one last score in order to pay back taxes to the IRS.  Now they must work quickly to scam tobacco billionaire William B. Tensy (Hackman) in three months.  A hitch develops when Paige tries to pull off her own scam and ends up falling for the guy, a lovable (and rich) bartender named Jack (Lee).

This is a really funny movie.  It's also smart; the jokes are witty and the plot is often surprising.  In order to keep things from going stale by having Max play out the con (which would be redundant since it's explained in the first ten minutes), the writers keep having her run into Murphy's Law, which forces her to improvise constantly (often in surprising ways).

The two leads are well cast.  Sigourney Weaver is no stranger to doing comedy, and she devours the chance to let out her inner bad girl.  Scream Queen Jennifer Love Hewitt has never been sexier, and she demonstrates that she can time her jokes perfectly.  I really liked how director David Mirkin has them act like a real mother and daughter, with the same rebellious and protective instincts.  Weaver and Hewitt also have the chemistry to pull it off.

The men are good as well.  Ray Liotta spoofs his tough guy persona as Dean, aka Sucker #1.  Sucker #2, Tensey, is played by the always wonderful Gene Hackman, whose smoker's cough is the source for a fair amount of humor.  Finally, there's sucker #3, nice guy Jack.  Jason Lee is famous for playing potheads and morons, but here he shows that he has the talent to play a guy who is impossible not to like.

I wanted more from the ending.  It ties up a loose end, but there is comic potential that is unrealized.  Still, I liked "Heartbreakers."

An Education

3/4

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material involving Sexual Content and Smoking

"An Education" is a formula story told so well that it doesn't seem like one.  The acting and characterization is of the highest caliber, and the dialogue is well-written.  But for all of that, director Lone Scherfig can't get the film to connect with us on an emotional level.

Jenny (Mulligan) is a bright young student in 1960's England who is almost too smart for her own good.  Her father (Molina) has outlined her future at Oxford for her, but because she's a woman, her future is still grim.  Walking home one day in the pouring rain, she meets a man named David (Sarsgaard) who offers her a lift.  He's handsome, charming and intelligent, and they begin to date.  But is he really who he says he is, and is she willing to give up her future to be with him?

The best thing about the film is the acting.  Carey Mulligan is extraordinary.  She's an intelligent girl, but lacks emotional maturity and self-motivation.  She is going to school because it's expected of her, not because she wants to.  To her, David represents an escape.  She has brains, and she wants to expand her knowledge, but not by reading dry textbooks and listening to doddering old professors with the other nerds.  She wants to have fun, and David allows her to do that.  He and his friends love jazz, art and culture, and they explore it in a lively way.  But there are some things about David and his friends that she notices and is struggling to turn a blind eye against.  As played by Sarsgaard, who is usually given low key supporting roles, finally earns a leading role that allows him to actually act instead of play a version of himself.  Flawless accent intact, he every girl's dream: smart, devoted and charming.  Mulligan got a much deserved Oscar nomination for her performance, but Sarsgaard deserved one as well.

The supporting cast is good as well.  Dominic Cooper is good as David's friend and conscience, Danny, and Rosamund  Pike is very good as the ditzy Helen.  Alfred Molina is funny as Jenny's dad, who is afraid of everything, and Olivia Williams is excellent in the small but important role as one of Helen's teachers.

The problem with the film is not how director Lone Scherfig tells the story; she's a director with extraordinary talent, but in how the film deals, or does not deal with the relationship between David and Jenny.  Although it acknowledges that the relationship has sexual undertones, it doesn't attempt to fully deal with the age difference between them.  The sixties may be more innocent than they are today in terms of how suspicious we are of everyone else, but no parent would be so easily swayed by a charmer twice the age of his daughter.  Also, some scenes should have been expanded on, particularly at the end.

Don't get me wrong, this is a very good movie, and I nearly gave this film a 3.5.  It is well worth seeing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Belly

0.5/4

Starring: DMX, Nas, Taral Hicks, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Method Man

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language, Sexuality and Drug Use

And the lesson learned from "Belly" is, there's a big difference between making a music video and a feature film.

"Belly," which is a title that has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the film, is a terrible movie.  Like last years crapfest "Killer Elite," it makes so little sense that after twenty minutes I gave up trying to figure out what the hell was going on.  There are two reasons for why this movie is so confused.  First, there is so much slang that not only are subtitles mandatory, but a translator is needed.  Second, director Hype Williams throws every visual trick he can think of at the screen.  Unfortunately, none of them have any purpose, and many are downright cheesy.

As far as I could tell, the plot goes like this: Sincere (Nas) and Tommy aka Buns (DMX) are high rolling drug dealers who love their lives.  Shooting people up, robbing them, and dealing drugs are elements of a life well spent.  But when they hear of a new, more potent form of heroin hitting the market, they want in.  That's when circumstances force them to rethink their lives.

I'm sure the plot gets more complicated, but I may be wrong.  There are about a half dozen characters onscreen with significant screen time, but none of them are developed enough to know who they are or what they're doing.  That, and Williams' mistaken belief that he is making a music video means that it's 90 minutes of boredom.

I suppose the acting isn't bad, but it doesn't matter because it's impossible to understand what anyone is saying.  DMX showed promise in "Romeo Must Die," but the only compliment I can really give him here is that he has screen presence.  Nas is also effective, but again, I rarely knew what was going on (his voiceover narration is helpful, but there's not enough of it).  Taral Hicks and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins are the best of the bunch, and it helps enormously that I knew what they were talking about.  But it's little consolation since they're not particularly important characters.

Hype Williams is considered a music video pioneer and the ultimate hip hop music video director of the 90s.  For all I know, it could be true; the whole movie is essentially a rap music video with dialogue and what passes for a plot.  But what Williams doesn't get is that more is needed than visual tricks and desaturated cinematography to make a movie.  Intelligible dialogue, characterizations and a plot that is possible to follow are essential.

I was going to give the film zero stars, until I saw the ending.  It's not great by any means, and certainly not good enough to make it worth sitting through the rest of this mess, but there is some suspense at the end.  Williams tones down the trickery and is able to adequately set up a climax.  It's completely predictable, but he does generate a bit of dread.  After that, though, he does some serious sermonizing.

Please, avoid this movie.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Bloody Valentine 3D

2.5/4

Starring: Jensen Ackles, Jamie King, Kerr Smith, Kevin Tighe

Rated R for Graphic Brutal Horror Violence and Grisly Images Throughout, Some Strong Sexuality, Graphic Nudity and Language

Call "My Bloody Valentine 3D" a guilty pleasure.  It starts out being an unintentionally funny freakshow and ends up being a pretty freaky movie with a well-done climax.  I can't in good conscience recommend it, but for those who are looking for blood, gore, nudity and cheap shocks, this one will suffice.

Ten years ago, a mine in the town of Harmony collapsed, killing a few trapped miners.  The lone survivor, Harry Warden, was in a coma until he awoke and brutally murdered 22 people with a pickax before being killed himself in a mine collapse.  Now, ten years later, the murders have started again.  Three survivors of the first massacre, Tom (Ackles), Axel (Smith) and Sarah (King) are at the center of it, and are racing to stop the bloodshed.  But who is the killer?  Did Harry actually survive, or is someone else behind the murders?

"My Bloody Valentine 3D" is the first horror film in a long time to remember what a horror movie like this should be.  It's loaded from top to bottom with blood and gore, has a high body count, and contains a graphic sex scene with copious nudity.  These days, we're lucky enough to have a movie with an R rating, but sex and nudity are an endangered species in a genre that used to be full of them.

The acting is adequate for the film's purposes, but no one is crying out for Oscar attention.  As the hot hunky hero, Ackles is stiff as a corpse.  He can't act to save his life.  Jamie King is inconsistent.  In the beginning, she's hilariously over-the-top, but she gets better as the film goes on.  Kerr Smith is surprisingly effective.  He may never be known as a particularly good actor, but after his awful turn in "The Forsaken," this is a decent performance.  Character actor Kevin Tighe gives the best performance as Tom's old friend, Ben Foley.

The movie doesn't get off to a particularly good start.  The first half hour is pretty bad.  It's bad enough to be unintentionally funny, but not bad enough to be cringe inducing.  I'm not sure that this was director Patrick Lussier's intent, however.  The film does pick up in the second half, when the plot kicks into high gear.  It's not groundbreaking stuff, but then again, slasher movie plots never are.

I'm wondering if the film was made chronologically, since it gets steadily better from beginning to end.  My guess is no, since this is more the exception than the rule.  What I did like is how Lussier sets the scene.  He makes us really believe that the whole town is on edge, which gives the film a firm base upon which to generate tension.  Although it lacks effective atmosphere, Lussier is able to create some surprisingly tense scenes.  The best part of the film is the climax.  It's a traditional horror stand-off, but it is effectively executed.  Unfortunately, the explanation behind the killings is silly and unconvincing.

It's got its fair share of plotholes, and the film isn't exactly great, but for those who crave blood and gore, it isn't a bad way to get your fix.

Note: although I didn't see it in 3D, the camera angles allowed me to see what Lussier intended to project off the screen.  The 3D shots are effectively chosen, and may have given the film an extra kick.

Hercules

3/4

Starring (voices): Tate Donovan, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan, Rip Torn

Rated G

In 1989, Disney ushered in the new Golden Age of Animation with "The Little Mermaid."  It wowed both critics and audiences alike.  Two years later, "Beauty and the Beast" became the first animated film ever to receive a Best Picture nod.  In 1994, "The Lion King" became one of the most successful films of all time (the 14th as of 2012), and grossing nearly a billion dollars worldwide.  Sadly, that's when the films tapered off.  They're still good movies, but Pixar took over most of the thunder a year later with "Toy Story," and hand drawn animation went out of vogue a few years later.  "Hercules," release in 1997, was definitely profitable, but didn't reverse the trend in quality.  Actually, next to "Pocahantas," it's the closest Disney Animation has come to a misfire.

Hades (Woods) is steaming mad.  When his brother Zeus defeated the Titans eons ago, he was stuck as guardian of the underworld while the rest of the gods lounged about on Mount Olympus.  Now, he has a plan to take over, but there is a not-so-tiny hitch in his plan: Zeus' son, Hercules, will defeat him.  In order to prevent this, Hades has his minions, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer) feed the baby a potion that will take away his immortality then kill him.  But the plan fails; Hercules is mortal, but he keeps his godlike strength. He grows up to be an outcast as a teen (voiced by Josh Keaton with singing by Roger Bart), and the only way for him to rejoin the gods is to become a true hero.  To that end, he seeks out hero trainer, Philoctetes (DeVito) to help.  Meanwhile, Hades throws everything he has at Hercules in order to stop him.

The story bears nothing to any myth in Greek mythology.  Historians will have an apoplexy over what Disney has done to the Greek hero.  Disney can't really be faulted for this however, since the actual myth is hardly that of "family film" material.  To appease the scholars, they have thrown in dozens of references to Greek mythology, some of which are highly amusing.  Actually, the story is pretty fun as long as you don't think too hard about it.  Or try to find which myth it's based off of (there isn't one).

The voice acting is effective.  Josh Keaton makes for a good self-conscious Hercules; he's an average teenager with the awkwardness exaggerated.  Roger Bart also has a lovely singing voice.  As the older Hercules, Tate Donovan is also good as the adult Hercules; his muscles have grown considerably, but his maturity has not.  Danny DeVito is perfectly cast as the skirt-chasing Phil.  He's a good coach and mentor, and has a lot of fun with the role.  Rip Torn is also good as the mighty Zeus, and he doesn't choke on the clunky dialogue he is given.  Susan Egan is wonderful as the sarcastic Meg, Hercules' love interest.  Egan has a great voice (and is a wonderful singer), and few actresses can throw off one-liners like her (and she has plenty of them).

But the most interesting character by far is Hades.  James Woods is hilarious as the motormouth villain, and is able to both chill the spine and make us laugh.  Critics have likened him to Robin Williams voice acting in "Aladdin," and while there are some similarities, I kept thinking of Paul Giamatti in "Shoot 'Em Up."  Both of them grow increasingly irritated with their run-ins with Murphy's Law, and their throbbing veins (or in Hades' case, bursting into flames) are hilarious.  Woods enjoyed himself so much that he agreed to voice the character whenever he could, be it in TV or video games.

The problem with the film is the script is paper thin, and the dialogue is at times jaw-droppingly bad.  The former is easy enough to overcome; directors John Clements and Ron Musker throw so many details at us that it's hard to notice.  The latter, not so much.  Zeus's dialogue in particular is bad; he is often relegated to a plot device rather than an actual character.

The animation is also subpar.  Like all the Disney movies, the animation is inspired from its script (Greek art, in this case).  Those drawings are naturally edgy and linear, but the animation here is little better than a Saturday morning cartoon.  And the mixture of hand drawn animation and computer imagery is hardly seamless (even for 1997).

Still, I like this movie.  It's fun, and it's got some very catchy songs, most of which are sung by the gospel-like Muses.  Genius.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Joyful Noise

2.5/4

Starring: Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan

Rated PG-13 for Some Language including a Sexual Reference

"Joyful Noise" is for people who love musicals so much that they are willing to overlook more than a few fatal flaws: subplots that appear and disappear with alarming frequency, a complete lack of focus, and the presence of a truly creepy character.  Still, the musical numbers are well staged, and it's hard not to get caught up in the whole thing by the second half.  It also has the decency not to force Christianity down our throats.  It may be about Christianity, but it never preaches.

The choir director at a small town church (Kris Kristofferson in what is really a highly billed cameo) has died suddenly while on the way to the regional competition.  Surprisingly, the replacement is not his bereaved widow, G.G. Sparrow (Parton), who helped arrange the music.  Instead, the position goes to the official assistant director, Vi Rose Hill (Latifah).  Naturally, G.G. is quite miffed over this, and makes no secret of it.  The feeling is mutual, but Vi has her own problems.  Her husband (Jesse L. Martin) has just signed up for another tour in the Army, which she considers to be a desertion of his family, her son Walter (Dexter Darden) has Asperger's, and her daughter Olivia (Palmer) has fallen for G.G.'s grandson Randy (Jordan) a bad seed who has come down suddenly from New York.  Can Vi get everything together and take her choir to the national competition?

For the first hour, "Joyful Noise" is an utter mess.  There are a dozen little subplots running around with no organization, and the only connecting thread is that all the characters are members of the choir.  They're also all cliches.  The rivalry, the interracial romance, the mentally ill son, the daughter who is growing up too soon, the bad seed with a good heart, it's all here.  It's watchable, but little else.  Fortunately, when writer/director Todd Graff focuses on the journey to Nationals, the film takes off.  Unfortunately, it takes the better part of an hour to get there.

The acting is mostly effective.  Queen Latifah is one of the most likable and underrated actresses around, but she has a tendency to choose bad projects.  Methinks she needs a new agent.  Nevertheless, she's good enough that she keeps things at an acceptable level.  And she has a great singing voice.  Dolly Parton, in her first major screen appearance in 20 years, is adequate as the feisty G.G., but she is always overshadowed by her obvious plastic surgery and her famously large boobs.  The best performance is by the young actress Keke Palmer.  Palmer won raves for her performance in "Akeelah and the Bee," which is as of yet unseen by me, but she's terrific as the young girl who's struggling to get out from under the watchful eye of her mother and grow up.  The same cannot be said for her co-star Jeremy Jordan.  Randy is a misfire of epic proportions, and Jordan's performance does little to help matters.  Randy is meant to be the troublemaker who's not as bad as his reputation suggests, but the character misses the mark by a considerable amount.  Randy is a lecherous, homophobic creep; Vi has the right idea when she doesn't want Olivia to be around him.  He's a nasty individual who is completely unsafe for a young girl to be around.  The only good thing that can be said about Jordan is he has a decent set of pipes.  He's also a violent thug; when Walter mentions that he is unable to understand if a guy is coming onto him, Randy shoves him aggressively and then encourages the disabled boy like nothing has happened.  If Graff thinks that this is acceptable behavior for any character intended to be sympathetic, he is sorely mistaken.

Whatever problems Graff may have when it comes to storytelling and characterization, let no one say he can't stage a musical number.  Whenever the actors break out into song, that's when his direction shines.  The choir numbers are excellent and guaranteed to get even the most morose viewer's toes tapping.  But far more interesting are the quieter numbers, like Latifah's "Fix Me."  She sings it in an empty church with a ghostly version of her choir backing her up.  It's a stirring sequence that brings to mind Christopher Columbus' staging of "Seasons of Love" in "RENT."

I highly enjoyed the film's final act.  It takes off so well that I almost recommended the film.  But I can't.  The first half is too problematic.  I don't think I could really describe how messy it is.  It is that bad.  There is a shining light in the mess, however.  A sex joke (kind of odd for a film about gospel) that occurs about a quarter of the way through caused me to burst out laughing.  It is very, very funny.  Still, it's not enough for someone who isn't a die-hard musical lover to want to sit through.

Mike's Musings: Why the "NYPD Blue" Indecency Case is Pathetic

A few days ago, I read an article on my Time Magazine app by Erika and Nicholas Christakis concerning the Supreme Court case involving the nude scene in the TV show "NYPD Blue."  The show, and the controversial episode in which actress Charlotte Ross stripped on prime time TV, has long since gone off the air, but it has popped up in conversation again now that the case is before the Supreme Court.

Lots of people have raised questions about our seemingly hypocritical views on sex and profanity versus violence.  Film critics like Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli have written extensively about the subject many times, and a number of sociologists and psychologists have also written their views.  What's different about the Christakis' article is that they aren't coy about who they might offend.  They are blunt to the point where it's eye opening, and they are also right on the money.

Personally, I can understand a parents' skittishness about their 5 year old viewing a naked woman on Prime Time TV.  As liberal as I am, it's not something a little kid is ready to see.  But the show had a TV-MA rating, which is meant to tell parents that they shouldn't be watching it anyway, and it was also on late at night, when, at least in theory, kids that age would have been in bed.  Playing the devil's advocate, I'll ponder the likely comeback for people who agree with the FCC: what if a kid was up late and "accidentally" came across the show and started watching it?  True, it was a possible situation and undoubtedly happened from time to time.  But that's not the show's fault.  Their making it for adult audiences, and to fault them for a kid coming across it by accident is immature.  It's the parents responsibility to make sure the kids don't see something they shouldn't.  To deny adult audiences the pleasure of viewing a show that is meant for adults because of irresponsible parents is unfair.

But the controversy over profanity is something that I can't wrap my mind around.  Swear words are just words.  Damn.  Shit.  Bitch.  Bastard.  Fuck.  They're just letters arranged in a certain order that society has given meaning to.  They're no different from any other word.  The key difference is the meaning that society has given them.  Damn is a word that has a religious background, although the way it's used in normal conversation doesn't have that.  Shit is an exclamation and another word for feces.  Bitch is a female dog and a sexist term, but when preceded by "son of a" it becomes an insult or an exclamation.  Bastard is an out of date term for a son born out of wedlock, and is now merely an insult.  Fuck, widely considered one of the most offensive forms of profanity (for reasons I can't fathom), probably has more meanings and uses than any other word in the English language.  But why are they "bad" words?  Because we were told they were as kids.  No other.

Like all words, profanity has its uses.  In some cases, they have meaning.  Calling a female dog a bitch is not a use of profanity.  It's the appropriate term.  Bastard can be used in a historical context, but as an insult, it's really no different than calling someone an idiot; the flaw here is not the word, but the act of insulting a person.  Damn and shit are words used to describe something or an emotion; if someone hits their shin on the coffee table, they might cry out "Damn!" as a way of expressing their pain.  Profanity is appropriate because they add an extra emphasis to what someone is saying.  If you hit your shin on the coffee table, crying out "Fudge" (which is a funny substitute for "fuck") doesn't have the same impact.

Trying to protect our kids from hearing profanity is a futile endeavor.  They're going to hear it eventually.  Whether it's by accident or from someone who doesn't think it's that big of a deal, they will hear it, and they will use it.  Parents must accept this fact and tell them the truth about what the words mean.  If you think it's inappropriate for them to use profanity, tell them so.  But don't try to enforce your beliefs on others.

The emphasis on sex over violence is absurd.  If someone convincingly could explain to me how seeing a naked woman or two people having sex is more damaging to a kid than seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger shooting and killing a bunch of bad guys, I would love to hear it.  People have tried, but I haven't heard it.  I remember once going to Blockbuster and seeing a kid who couldn't have been older than 7 asking his dad to get "Pirhana 3D" for him.  I overheard him say that if they saw a sex scene that they would turn it off.  I told him not to get it for the kid.  It's awash in blood and gore from top to bottom, which could traumatize him.  His reply was that he could handle the violence and gore, but the sex was inappropriate.

My instinct was to think about the question honestly, but while there was sex in it, I should have lied through my teeth and said that it was wall to wall orgies.  I remember seeing Bruce Willis blow off Jack Black's arm in "The Jackal" at the age of 9, and got panic attacks from it.  I've seen sex scenes in movies ever since I can remember, and never had panic attacks from those.

The main theory behind this is that kids will get the idea to experiment sexually and it will destroy their innocence.  The first one is inevitable.  Kids will experiment sexually at young ages.  It's natural human behavior.  The real fears are that fourteen year olds will start having sex.  It is happening, and a lot of it is because they're not getting an honest education about sex and its consequences.  Hormones rage in adolescence, and they will have sexual urges.  It's a fact of life.  Some will resist them until they're ready to have sex, others won't.  Again, it's a reality of life.  All we can do is educate them about sex, their bodies and how to protect themselves against STDs.  One of the scariest things about this debate is the surge of abstinence-only sex education which denies kids almost all of this information and misleads them.  To believe that religious or moral beliefs will overcome hormones is painfully and dangerously naiive.

The idea about destroying their innocence...well, to each his own.  But movies and song lyrics aren't the only causes to blame.  Pop stars like Britney Spears are always dressing provocatively and dancing suggestively.  And parents buy their kids her songs and concert tickets by the truckload.  Talk about hypocritical.

The Christakis' claim that people obsess about the use of profanity and sex because they are trying to whitewash their own lack of parenting skills.  I think that's a little harsh, but there's an element of truth in it.  Parents try to do the right thing by their kids, but with so many outside influences with easy access, it's damn near impossible to protect them all.  Add to the fact that adults like mature content and the situation becomes even more complicated.  People want to be able to fix a problem, and we are a nation of quick fixes.  When I was in college, there were so many people going to the Emergency Room for alcohol poisoning that the ambulances could barely keep up.  But the police insisted on passing a bill that would ban everyone under 21 from the bars, and they never upped their arrests for public intoxication.  It sounds like a sensible solution, but it doesn't solve anything, and it creates more problems than it seeks to solve.  For one thing, underage students would simply go to house parties, which are unregulated and everyone is drunk; if someone does have alcohol poisoning, the drunken partygoers may assume that the person just passed out.  Secondly, it doesn't whitewash the situation that they created; where being outrageously drunk is okay while drinking underage is not.

So why do people seek to solve the little inconsequential problems instead of attacking the big picture?  Often times, there is no easy solution.  I don't envy the Supreme Court justices in this case.  They have to rule on a case that is going to make one side very unhappy.  In the case of Iowa City, it's partly laziness, but they are undermanned and underfunded and have to show results.  When there is a solution to a big problem, there's bound to be opposition across party or ideological lines, and even if not, big solutions require drastic, risky and often expensive endeavors.

And yet we have to convince ourselves that we are doing something.  Sitting idly by when something is wrong is not easy, even if you don't know what the solutions is.

The bottom line is that if we want to protect our kids, we have to think critically about what is really important.

Kissing Jessica Stein

3/4

Starring: Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Scott Cohen, Jackie Hoffman, Tovah Feldshuh

Rated R for Sexual Content and Language

Too often, we see movies that just exist.  They may be fun at best, but they're completely without purpose.  It is rare that we see a movie that is actually about something.  "Kissing Jessica Stein" is about love in its many forms.

Jessica Stein (Westfeldt) is a perfectionist New Yorker who is stressed about still being single in her thirties.  The guys she dates are your assorted gallery of freaks and losers that a person like Jessica wants to avoid.  Then she sees an ad in the personals that appeals to her, but there's a problem: the writer is a woman.  Still, Jessica meets this person, whose name is Helen (Juergensen) and they hit it off.  She's soon falling for this vivacious woman, except that she's straight.  Or is she?

The two stars, Westfeldt and Juergensen, adapted their play "Lipschtick" into a screenplay and as is often the case when stage actors come to film, the acting is terrific (you'd think that Hollywood would take the hint and get most of their actors from Broadway instead of modeling agencies) and the leads have chemistry (it doesn't burn, but it is there).  Westfeldt makes for a likable, if neurotic, woman.  Her turmoil is believable, and she's sympathetic enough that we like her instead of thinking that she's a manipulative bitch.  For her part, Juergensen is also very good as the lively Helen.  She knows what she wants, but she is patient with Jessica, despite the annoyance of one of  her friends.  But she's not a saint either, and eventually her patience wears thin.  Scott Cohen is very good as Josh, Jessica's ex-turned-boss, who's jerk-ish personality is hiding some buried feelings.  We feel for him, and he's not a typical romantic rival.  Jackie Hoffman and Esther Wurmfeld add some smart comic relief as Joan (Jessica's very pregnant co-worker) and Jessica's Grandma Esther.  Tovah Feldshuh is also quite good as Jessica's mother, who's role goes far beyond the "Jewish mother" character.  She may be Jewish, but she's just like any other mom.

The problem with the film is its pacing.  It's both too long and too short; some scenes drag on for far too long, while others could have used some beefing up.  The "three months later" captions feel like abrupt interruptions rather than necessary transitions.  Although director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld has a gift for directing actors and the script sufficiently opens up the play (to the point where it's hard to believe that it originated on the stage) but he seems unsure of what the film should be.  The pacing is really uneven, and that hampers our ability to get involved.

I did like the ending however.  It is a happy ending of sorts, but it is earned.  It doesn't feel like a tacked on addition by poor test screenings or nervous studio executives (the minimal budget of $1,000,000 probably has something to do with it).

I guess I recommend the film, although with some serious reservations.  Flawed though it may be, it's willingness to be about something, it's intelligent and honest approach to material that could have turned into a sleazy porno-wannabe, and its solid acting and characterization.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Simpsons Movie

3/4

Starring (voices): Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardly Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Albert Brooks

Rated PG-13 for Irreverent Humor Throughout

Ever since appearing on "The Tracey Ullman Show," "The Simpsons" has been a thread in the fabric of American culture.  Constantly poking fun at modern family dynamics and American life, it took the show nearly 20 years to make it to the big screen.  The film is worthy of the show's reputation.

Springfield is the most polluted city in America.  The citizens clean up their act, but the temptation to get free doughnuts overtakes Homer (Castellaneta), and he throws his silo of pig crap into Lake Springfield.  As a result, the head of the EPA, a man named Russ Cargill (Brooks) traps the city in a giant dome to protect the rest of the US from the sloppy Springfieldians.  The Simpson family escapes through a sinkhole and heads north.  But will they grow a heart and go back to try to save the town?

This is really a character study of Homer.  Not that anyone can accuse this movie of being deep or dramatic, but it's about the big dim bulb realizing what's important.  Castellaneta has voiced the character from inception, and easily slides back into it.  Ditto for the other cast members; everyone does their jobs, and there isn't a second that we don't believe that everyone is the character they are playing.  Speaking of which, there are so many characters from the show that make appearances--none of which, I might add, interrupt the running time. Nor does the presence of 11 credited screenwriters (and four more consultant writers) make the story less than perfect.  The rule of thumb is the more screenwriters a movie has, the more problematic the script is.  This is an exception.

The director is neither creator Matt Groening nor mega-producer James L. Brooks.  It's David Silverman, a directing and producing vet of the show.  Having produced over 200 hundred episodes and directed more than 30 himself, he knows what a Simpsons movie should be and how to get the cast to give it their all.  Instead of trying to be a laff riot like "Borat," Silverman elects to make the film more of a softer comedy.  It's consistently amusing, but the belly laughs are few.  In a way, this is more enjoyable because we get a chance to soak in the characters and spot all the references to the show (of which there are many).

The tone is Silverman's greatest accomplishment.  He constantly pokes fun at message movies (Springfieldians sink the Green Day concert barge when they try to spread a message about the environment) and coming of age movies in particular while still crafting a legitimate entry.  We laugh at the skewering of the stories conventions while still being involved in it.

You don't have to be a Simpsons fan to enjoy this movie.  You may end up getting the urge to watch the show though.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Steve Blum, Beau Billinslea, Wendee Lee, Melissa Fahn, Jennifer Hale, Daran Norris

Rated R for Some Violent Images

For the longest time, I was extremely anti-anime.  I hated it as much as I hated Wes Anderson.  With crappy animation, lame stories and cringe-inducing dialogue and voice acting, stuff like "Dragonball Z" was not something I enjoyed.  That all changed in high school, when one of my friends got tired of me associating real anime with the crap on Cartoon Network (which, by the way, he hated just as much as I did) and dragged me to his Japanese Pop Culture club at school.  There, I saw the TV show "InuYasha," and my eyes were opened.  I'm not a die hard, but I'm just as willing to see anime movies as any other kind.  I was fortunate that my friend did this for me; if he hadn't, I wouldn't have discovered Hayao Miyazaki or this under-the-radar gem.

Unlike most movies mad from TV shows, "Cowboy Bebop" the movie is separate from its source.  It's a stand-alone movie that fits in-between two episodes of the show (episodes 22 and 23 to be exact).  But you don't have to be a fan of the show to enjoy this movie.  I wasn't before I saw the movie, and I still haven't seen the show.

"Cowboy Bebop" details the exploits of four bounty hunters about 250 years from now.  They are: Spike (Blum), an instinctive and impulsive layabout who takes nothing seriously, Jet (Billingslea) a "strategist" ex-cop, Faye (Lee), the busty girl who doesn't care about anyone except herself, and Ed (Fahn) the loopy little girl with a savant-like ability for computers.

When Faye is tracking down a minor mark, a computer hacker by the name of Lee Sampson (Dave Wittenburg), a truck explodes on the freeway, killing dozens and unleashing a mysterious toxin.  With a record bounty being offered, the four are on the case.  It isn't long before they get tangled into something that involves corporate conspiracy, terrorism and high level cover-ups.

The voice acting is solid, although Miyazaki's movies do this a lot better (to be fair, they use big stars with bigger budgets).  Steve Blum nails the part of carefree Spike.  He's a low-key free spirit, and Blum understands the concept of comic timing.  Wendee Lee is amusing the superficial Faye; there are a few jokes at her expense, and they're pretty funny.  And Melissa Fahn is delightful as the odd-duck Edward.  The character could have been irritating, but Fahn is good enough that the character never becomes grating.  The weak link is Beau Billingslea.  He's one of those generic anime voices where even when he talks softly, he seems to be screaming.

The story is also intelligent.  It contains a few nice philosophical ruminations on the nature of life and death, that while intriguing, never let the film descend into arthouse psychobabble.  This is great entertainment at its best.

It also has a great villain.  I'm not going to say who it is, because discovering that is part of the fun (although it's not really a twist), but I will say that he is creepy.  He's a conscienceless monster with a sad past, and is intent on taking the whole world down with him.

The action scenes are great (although I'm kind of surprised at the R rating...it should be a hard PG-13), and the film is well-paced.  Not entirely immune from plotholes, but it is a great ride.  Oh, and the soundtrack rocks.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Contraband

3/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Caleb Landry Jones, Ben Foster, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi

Rated R for Violence, Pervasive Language, and Brief Drug Use

For once, Hollywood gets a year off to a solid start.  Although it's by no means perfect, Mark Wahlberg's new thriller, "Contraband" is a decent reason to head to the multiplexes, especially when the weather is this crummy.

Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) used to be a career smuggler who has now gone straight.  He has his own security business and is living a decent blue-collar life with his wife, Kate (Beckinsale) and two children.  But when his brother-in-law Andy (Jones) is caught smuggling drugs and forced to throw $700,000 worth of cocaine overboard, he is forced to return to his life of crime in order to save Andy from certain death at the hands of a nasty criminal named Briggs (Ribisi).

The film isn't so much plot oriented as it is detailing the ins and outs of pulling this kind of heist off.  Of course they run into Murphy's Law, so they have to improvise, which keeps us on our toes.  Director Baltasar Kormakur, who starred and produced (but did not direct) "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," the film upon which "Contraband" is based, is able to generate a significant amount of tension from a number of situations that the characters find themselves in.  It's interesting, although not particularly revolutionary, how these guys find ways to get around the law.

The acting is solid.  Mark Wahlberg is his usual reliable self, although the role doesn't really stretch his limited range.  He's an effective anchor which is all that really matters.  Giovanni Ribisi turns up the weird and nasty as the vicious Briggs; from the minute he appears on screen we know he's up to no good.  Ben Foster is his usual reliable self as Chris's best friend and the protector of his wife and kids.  Sadly, Kate Beckinsale is wasted.  An actress of considerable talent, she's stuck in the thankless role of the loving wife whose threats from the villain are used to generate tension.  Beckinsale does what she can with the role, and that's good enough.

For about 70 minutes, Kormakur keeps things relatively neat and tidy.  But in an attempt to tie up every loose end, things start to come off the rails.  He doesn't lose control of the film, but things do get a little messy. For example, when the big betrayal comes, we know who does what but not why or how.  Fortunately, it's not really enough to damage the film very much.

This is a decent flick.  The performances are solid, it's suitably gritty and twisted, and it contains some genuine thrills.  For a January dump, it's all that we can ask for.