Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Inception

3.5/4

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Tom Berenger, Dileep Rao

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action Throughout

Most big budget action movies are dumb fun at best, where the mind isn't exactly required to be used.  Despite having a $160 million price tag, "Inception" is different.  It doesn't just encourage thought; it demands it.  Christopher Nolan's film was described as a contemporary sci-fi action thriller "set within the architecture of the mind."  That hint is more descriptive than it seems to be for this puzzlebox of an action movie.

Cobb (DiCaprio) is a specialist of a unique kind.  He is able to journey into people's minds and steal their secrets.  Cobb is the best in the business, but an event from his past forced him to flee the US.  Now, a businessman named Saito (Watanabe) is in need of his services, but there's a wrinkle: he doesn't want to know a rival's hidden knowledge; he wants Cobb to implant an idea into his rival that will cause him to dissolve his father's company.  This is a next to impossible task, but Cobb has done it before.  And, if Cobb does this, Saito will arrange for him to be allowed back home.

"Inception" is an endlessly complex and imaginative thriller that makes sense even though there are scenes where it doesn't seem to hold up (this is a movie that has to be seen a few times before everything becomes clear).  There are dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams.  As the director, Nolan is one of those circus performers spinning plates on sticks.  In this case, he's spinning about a dozen of them, and there are times when it's clear that he's struggling to keep them all going.

One of Nolan's trademarks is being able to bring out strong performances from his cast members.  Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor of great range, was Nolan's first and only choice for Cobb.  His casting instincts were right on the money.  DiCaprio is terrific at playing intelligent men who are not as together as they seem.  Cobb knows what he's doing, but he's got some skeletons in the closet that are putting everyone at risk.  Ellen Page, taking a break from indie features to star in a big budget movie fits right in.  Ariadne, a college student that Cobb recruits, is our window into this (literal) maze.  Ken Watanabe is also very good as the mysterious Saito. Marion Cotillard is terrific as Cobb's wife, Mal, appearing as alternately dangerous and sad.  The rest of the cast provides solid support, although Tom Berenger's performance is flat (fortunately, he's only on screen for a short while).

The problem with the film is that it's at times difficult to keep track of all that is going on.  Nolan's script is perhaps too ambitious for its own good.  Toning down some of the subplots would have helped keep the confusion down.  That being said, it's mostly confusing in hindsight; Nolan keeps things clear for each scene at hand.  And, while it may be confusing at first, it's also clear that Nolan has established a set of rules and followed them (save for one minor, almost irrelevant, exception).  And it's always better to try to do more than take the easy way out and do less.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wanderlust

0.5/4

Starring: Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, Alan Alda, Malin Ackerman

Rated R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and Drug Use

"Wanderlust" is a terrible movie, easily the worst of this new year.  Tedious, unfunny and seemingly without end, it makes "One for the Money" look like decent entertainment.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are a happily married couple living in Manhattan when their fortunes take a turn for the worse.  George's company goes under after his boss gets caught in some unscrupulous dealings and HBO doesn't pick up Linda's movie.  Unable to afford living in the "micro-apartment" they just bought, the two head to Atlanta, where George's brother offers him a job.  But his brother (co-writer Ken Marino) is a lunatic so they flee to the commune that they stopped by on the way to Atlanta.  But are they ready to commit to this extremely open society?

It surprised me to learn that the duo behind "Role Models" was also the duo responsible for this disaster.  "Role Models" was a humorous and occasionally hilarious buddy comedy.  "Wanderlust" barely has two or three chuckle-worthy moments, and nothing close to a full-bellied laugh.  The jokes are tired, and Wain drags the worst of them longer than would be necessary if they were actually funny (which they aren't).

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are two able comedians, but they're flat as pancakes here.  They seem to realize that the material is crap and just take the money.  They do have chemistry as a couple, but the script doesn't give us any reason to care about them.  Justin Theroux is meant to be the comic star of the movie, but he's boring.  The role demands someone of Johnny Depp-like weirdness, and Theroux doesn't come close.  Alan Alda and Malin Ackerman are on hand, but like the rest of the cast, they're not given any good material.

The ineptitude of this movie is jaw-dropping.  It contains no edge, limp humor and boring characters.  How could anyone think that this script could work?  Wain and Marino take no chances and go for easy laughs.  Unfortunately the jokes and gags are too bland to elicit even grins.  Instead, they generate grimaces.

Wain appears to think that male nudity is hilarious (it's the new must-have in any R-rated comedy).  In the right context, it can be (just like anything else).  But merely showing fat old people in the nude isn't funny, it's gross.  You have to actually make a joke to make it funny.

I'll admit there are a few times when Wain actually hits the mark, but it's not often and none of the jokes are funny enough to warrant sitting through this crapfest.  Avoid it like the plague.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

G.I. Jane

3/4

Starring: Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Anne Bancroft, Jason Beghe, Scott Wilson, Daniel von Bargen, John Michael Higgins

Rated R for Language and Combat Violence

"G.I. Jane" is an action movie, although not in the strictest sense of the word.  There are stunts and violence, but it's not all gunfire and blowing things up (there is one traditional action sequence, but it's brief and comes at the end).  Actually, it's more similar to "Top Gun" than say, "Navy SEALS."

Senator Lillian DeHaven (Bancroft) is known for her push for gender equality in the armed forces.  In order to open up more jobs to women, she decides to have a woman undergo SEAL training, the most intense training known to mankind.  The woman selected is Jordan O'Neal (Moore), a tenacious young naval officer who doesn't want any special treatment.  But not everyone wants to see her finish; her squad, her commanding officer, nor the higher ups in the military.  But that just makes O'Neal fight harder.

Sometimes an actor is perfectly cast for a role.  Robert Downey, Jr. for "Iron Man," Anthony Hopkins for "The Silence of the Lambs," and Demi Moore in "G.I. Jane."  Moore considerably bulked herself up for the role, and  that combined with her husky voice and her fierce gaze, it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part.  O'Neal is a tough woman, and she's not going to let anyone stop her.  But in such a male-dominated profession, some friction is bound to occur.  She is subjected to sexual harassment (both subtle and obvious), and is constantly being singled out through various means.  But O'Neal soldiers on, becoming more and more determined to finish.  Strangely, Moore won a Razzie for her performance, but those are more influenced by social opinion than anything.

The supporting cast is also very good, but this is Moore's show.  Anne Bancroft is delicious as the tough-as-nails, upfront Senator.  Complete with a southern drawl, she's as tough as O'Neal.  Viggo Mortensen gives another strong performance as her brutal commanding officer.

Ridley Scott is a director who knows what he's doing when it comes to action movies.  He pays attention to character as well as setting up good action scenes (both of which, I might add, are crucial to get the blood pumping).  But he does pay more than lip service to the themes or sexual harassment without turning it into a message movie (save for one small scene).  He gets us to understand how tough this training is, especially for O'Neal.

The problems with the film mainly have to do with the addition of some higher ups who seem to be conspiring to make O'Neal fail.  The characters of Hayes (von Bargen) and the Chief of Staff (Higgins) are one-dimensional villains who are not only badly written but unnecessary.  The much more believable sexual harassment of her fellow trainees is much more credible, and that's all that's necessary.  Finally, the bookending scenes are filled with military mumbo-jumbo that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Still, this is solid entertainment.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

3/4

Starring: Matt Czuchry, Geoff Stults, Jesse Bradford, Keri Lynn Pratt, Marika Dominczyk,

The version being viewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Nudity, Strong Sexual Content including Graphic Dialogue Throughout, Language and Some Crude Material

As I have said before, I am a huge Tucker Max fan.  Few people can make me laugh that hard no matter how many times I've read/watched their material.  His stories are so outrageous and he's such a good writer that a movie was bound to happen.  The master of the outrageous, the crude and the ego, "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell" has forever cemented a place in my psyche.

Would that I could say the same thing about the movie.  It's not particularly great; the acting is sometimes shockingly stiff and the direction is often questionable, but despite everything, it is funny.

The plot is a mixture of a number of Tucker's stories (which considering the wealth and variety of the material is a good decision), and it goes something like this.  Dan (Stults) is getting married to his longtime girlfriend Kristy (Pratt).  And seeing as the wedding is the next weekend, it's time for the bachelor party, something that narcissistic party animal Tucker (Czuchry) is deliriously happy about.  But Kristy needs Dan to help with the wedding plans, so he agrees to stay in town instead of going to Salem (a few hours away).  This is of course a lie, but with Tucker, nothing comes between him and a party.

The acting is not the film's strong suit.  The worst of the lot is, surprisingly, Czuchry himself.  Czuchry, an actor of predominantly TV credits, is horrible.  He varies from hyper to low-key and boring; the casting of him in the lead role is a huge mistake (Tucker Max himself appears at the end as the best man and it's immediately obvious that Czuchry looks nor sounds like the real Tucker).  Jesse Bradford, who usually gives good performances, isn't much better as the geeky, woman-hating Drew.  More impressive is Geoff Stults, who plays Dan with sympathy and humor.  The girls win hands down in the acting department.  Keri Lynn Pratt, whose high pitched voice is her most noticeable quality, is an interesting choice for Kristy.  As written, Kristy is the conscience and the party pooper.  But Pratt is a good actress, and transforms the character into a real woman. Marika Dominczyk is also very good as the quick-witted stripper who sees past Dan's cynicism.

The direction by Bob Gosse is stale; there isn't a single dynamic shot in the movie.  But that's not a huge deal because he understands the concept of comic timing.  We expect a raunchy, hilarious story of drunken debauchery, and that's what he gives us.  It's way too long, but it's fun.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I, Robot

3/4

Starring: Will Smith, Brigette Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride, James Cromwell, Shia LeBeouf, Alan Tudyk (voice)

Rated PG-13 for Intense Stylized Action, and Some Brief Partial Nudity

Law I: A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.


Law II: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law


Law III: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law


These are the "Three Laws of Robotics" created by Isaac Asimov, and they form the foundation of Alex Proyas' film, "I, Robot."  Although flawed, one must give credit where it is due: this is a surprisingly intelligent action movie, and one that piques the mind as well as raises the adrenaline.

In the year 2035, robots are a permanent part of life.  They're everywhere, and many people own one.  They are so ingrained in society that people have come to rely on them absolutely.  One person, however, does not like them.  In fact, he hates them enough to be labeled as "robotophobic."  This man is Del Spooner (Smith) a Chicago homicide detective.  His distrust of robots is well known to everyone, and it's gotten him into hot water with his lieutenant, John Bergin (McBride).  But when lead robot designer Alfred Manning (Cromwell) has killed himself on the eve of the NS-5 (the newest robot) distribution, Del is convinced that a robot named Sonny (Tudyk) did it.  But how is that possible if a robot cannot break the Three Laws?

It's a perplexing question, and although "I, Robot" seems like a formulaic action movie, it doesn't take long to realize that it's not.  Distilled to its essence, this is a murder mystery with action scenes thrown in, but they are not carelessly grafted on.  The script, by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, is well thought out.  Additionally, they include some ideas about what it means to be human.

The acting is solid.  Will Smith, the world's biggest movie star, is perfectly at home as Del.  Del has some buried secrets behind his hatred of robots, but since this is a summer action movie, we know it's only a matter of time before he turns out to be right.  As his female sidekick, Moynahan is also good as "robot psychiatrist" Dr. Susan Calvin.  She lacks screen presence, but she's a decent actress.  She also has some comic skills, which are put to good use when she tries to use Del's stereo.  Alan Tudyk is very good as Sonny, voicing him with naivete and innocence (although since he is entirely rendered by CGI, computers help a lot in that regard.  Able support is given by character actors Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride, and James Cromwell.

Alex Proyas has directed a number of stylish action movies, like "Dark City" and "The Crow."  Both of those movies where covered in darkness and despair.  "I, Robot" doesn't really have any sense of style, grim or otherwise.  In fact, it looks pretty bland, especially when compared to another intelligent sci-fi action movie, "Minority Report."  That being said, the film does contain a plot that we want to see through to the end and some impressive action sequences.

In short, this is a good flick.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mike's Musings: I Believe in Harvey Weinstein!

Okay, that may be overstating things a little bit.  Weinstein, a producer whose talent is outmatched by the size of his ego, is a little hard to get behind.  This is the guy who split the "Kill Bill" movies in two (which led to an unfortunate Hollywood trend), and released an edited version of "The King's Speech," which shouldn't have been R rated to begin with.

But the film at the center of the controversy is a documentary called "Bully," about, naturally, bullying.  Bullying has always been a problem but it has never gotten more than token press after the suicide of Phoebe Prince and the catastrophic losses of LGBT teens.  So here is a chance to present a true face on bullying to people who are both victims and perpetrators.  So what does the MPAA do?  They give it a fucking R rating.

I haven't seen the film, so I can't judge it based on content.  But think about it.  A film that was meant to be shown in schools to students who are directly impacted by this aren't going to be able to (no teenager is going to see a documentary unless it's shown in school) because that self-righteous organization is so wrapped up in its own bogus system that it won't do what's right.

One could argue that the film contains things that pre-teens and teenagers shouldn't see.  Like I said, I haven't seen the film (it opens March 30), but you know what?  Teenagers are exposed to bullying day in and day out, and profanity (the MPAA gave the film an R rating for "Some Language") is pervasive in middle schools.  For those of you who don't believe me, have your kid record a walk down a hall, and you'll hear more swearing than in all of Quentin Tarantino's movies combined, I shit you not.  Additionally, having kids talk like real kids will make it seem more real and less like preaching (which would defeat the purpose entirely).

Another argument is that it could (and probably does) contain disturbing material.  You know what?  Bullying is disturbing.  It's disturbing to watch, listen to and hear about.  It's even worse to experience it.  I should know.  I was bullied mercilessly in middle school, so much so that I seriously considered switching schools, (and in retrospect, I wish I had).  The opportunity to make kids take a critical look at bullying has been snuffed out by the MPAA.  They've gone low before, but even for them, this is unpardonable.

Would the movie change anything even if it was shown to its intended audience?  I'm not sure, but if so, it would probably have to be pretty damn good.  Adolescents are pretty aloof to that kind of thing (enough "True Life" horror shows about drunk driving and unprotected sex will do that to you, not that there's anything wrong with showing them to kids).  But the chance that it might have an effect, even a tiny one, is something that should be seized upon, and it's been snuffed out by a group of people who are so concerned with their image that they are willing to take away the chance to change things.

Harvey Weinstein has left the MPAA for the forseeable future, and while I congratulate him, I realize that this is probably a publicity stunt (his marketing is widely regarded as the sole reason that "Shakespeare in Love" took home the Best Picture Oscar over the much more beloved "Saving Private Ryan").  That being said, I congratulate him anyway.  Someone needs to stand up to Hollywood's nanny police, and for all his flaws, filmmakers couldn't have picked a better person than Harvey.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Mike's Musings: Seeing it Again

I've heard of people who refuse to watch a movie a second time.  It makes sense, I mean, you know what's going to happen.  I'm not one of them.  There are a lot of movies that I watch more than once; some I've seen nearly a hundred times.  A movie has to be really good to be worth watching again and again.

So what makes a movie worth revisiting?  It depends on a few factors.  Action movies are the ones that are the most "rewatchable" because extravagant stunts and fight scenes can provoke awe after one or two viewings (at least in my opinion).  Consider "True Lies," which has been a family favorite for years.  The scene with the Harrier jet is awesome.  I mean, it's jaw-dropping.  The sequence is so well-executed by James Cameron that it still gets the adrenaline pumping no matter how many times you see it.

Sometimes it's because the story is so much fun.  I watch "Brotherhood of the Wolf" once every few months.  I know every scene and most of the lines of dialogue.  But the story is so good with so many juicy twists that the fact that I've seen it dozens of times is irrelevant.  I still find it highly enjoyable.  And like "True Lies," it has plenty of spectacular action scenes.

There are some non-action movies that are worth watching again and again.  Comedies are less impressive the second time around because shock and surprise are hugely crucial for a successful laugh.  Nevertheless, there are some comedies that provoke laughs when you know the jokes by heart.  Like "Tommy Boy."  That movie has also been a family favorite for years, and it's not hard to see why.  Chris Farley and David Spade have perfect chemistry, and both are highly skilled comedians.  One of my favorite  scenes takes place at a gas station.  Director Peter Segal builds the tension so well that when the funny event happens, I let loose with a big guffaw every time.  And Chris Farley's reaction shot is priceless.

Another reason to watch a movie a second time is to revisit the characters.  In addition to being great entertainment by itself, rewatching "Brotherhood of the Wolf" is like spending time with old friends.  Fronsac, Mani, Marianne, Tomas...it's fun to spend two-and-a-half hours with them.  Another movie that fits this description is "The Messenger."  The film is too sad to watch frequently, but Will Montgomery and Tony Stone are two intruiguing and likable characters.  They're so well-acted that
it's nice to see them again every once in a while.

Just because a movie is "good" doesn't mean it fits into this category.  I own "The War Zone," but believe me, I'm not going to be able to watch that movie again for a long time.  It's far too painful.  If someone asks me to watch it with them (and someone already has), I'm going to hand them the DVD and watch something else instead.  Am I going to see it again?  Yes.  A film that well crafted must be appreciated every once in a while, but not often.  I'm still hesitant about watching movies that are hard to watch, despite me loving them before I saw "The War Zone" for a second time.

Like all movies, what makes something worth watching again and again depends on the viewer.  Internet film critic James Berardinelli considers "A Fish Called Wanda" one of the funniest films ever made and a great pick-me-up.  I consider it to be a lifeless comedy that has been drained of energy by director Charles Crichton.  I'm sure there are some people who feel similar towards "Brotherhood of the Wolf."

The Third Miracle

2.5/4

Starring: Ed Harris, Anne Heche, Michael Rispoli, Charles Haid, Caterina Scorsone, Mark Huisman, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Barbara Sukowa

Rated R for Some Language, Sex-Related and Violent Images, and Brief Drug Use

One could argue that this film would work better for Catholics than non-Catholics (such as myself), but I don't think so.  Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland's film is only sporadically compelling because the mystery over whether a lay woman is a saint is well-developed.  The rest of the film, not so much.

Frank Shore (Harris) is a priest who has lost his faith.  His job was to investigate miracles, but being a skeptic, he was known as the "Miracle Killer," and after a previous case went sour, he lost it.  Now, the local bishop (Cahill) needs him to investigate the story of a woman named Helena O'Regan (Sukowa), a woman who people pray to.  She has reportedly already cured one girl (Scorsone), and there are rumors of another from when she was a child.  But is it real, or just another false hope for Frank?

Like all the best films dealing with religion, Catholicism is dealt with in a natural manner.  With one exception, there are no caricatures, and we really believe that these people are priests.  They devote themselves to God, but they have other interests, doubts and flaws.  The exception is Charles Haid, who plays the sleazy high-powered bishop.  I have no doubt that there are bishops like this (and this was probably intentional on Holland's part), but Haid's portrayal is so nasty that he's not credible.  He plays the part like it's a dime-store film-noir.

The acting is solid across the board.  Ed Harris is his usual low-key self, playing a man who wishes he had more faith than he actually does.  Anne Heche is also good as Roxane, Helena's atheist daughter who finds Frank attractive.  Michael Rispoli is good as Frank's friend John, and Mark Huisman is quite good as Frank's assistant.  The usually reliable Armin Mueller-Stahl is uneven.  There are times when he's effective, but there are also times when he goes over-the-top.

Holland's film is really about Frank's return to his faith, but unfortunately the script is not good enough to make this a compelling focus.  There's not enough depth to Frank for a whole film to be built around him, and that's what causes the film to drag at times.  Similarly, the romantic subplot between Frank and Roxane doesn't work.  Both are good actors but they have no chemistry.

The film really only takes off when Frank is investigating the possibility that Helena is a saint.  It's interesting material and Holland generates quite a bit of energy with it.  But on the whole the film is too uneven for me to say it's worth seeking out.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tropic Thunder

3/4

Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Steve Coogan

Rated R for Pervasive Language including Sexual References, Violent Content and Drug Material

If there's anything that deserves a send-up, it's Hollywood.  With all the ass-kissing, self-promotion and ginormous egos running around, it's high time someone gave it all a middle finger.  "The Player," which is as of yet unseen by me, did this in 1992, so I guess Ben Stiller thought it was time another round.  Ben Stiller and his screenwriters are intelligent in the targets that they attack; tabloids, cross-marketing and method acting are just a few of their targets.  Nothing about the MPAA, however, although one can understand their reluctance to openly attack that inexplicably powerful organization.

The plot has three actors: fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), Oscar-winning actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr) and comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) shooting a war movie called "Tropic Thunder."  Because of his stars' egos and the stress of coordinating the special effects, new director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) takes the advice of Four Leaf (Nolte), whose experiences are the basis for the film, and elects to shoot the movie guerrilla style.  But when the stars run into some nasty drug dealers, they think it's just part of the shoot.

Stiller has lit a powderkeg with this movie by putting one of his stars in blackface (well, sort of...it's not in the style of racist caricatures).  But there's a reason why it isn't offensive.  First, Lazarus is treated as an object of derision; he's so in love with himself and method acting that it drives his fellow cast members up the wall.  Second, there is a (real) black character who constantly points out the obvious.  Lazarus serves to make fun of actors who think they can do anything and studios who would rather have a big name than someone who's actually fit for the role.

The acting is on the money.  Ben Stiller is his usual reliable self.  Tugg is a fading star, and Stiller gets a fair amount of mileage out of being an action hero veteran.  Robert Downey Jr. is hilarious as Lazarus, especially since he becomes the very thing that he's parodying.  Jack Black also has some funny moments as the heroin-addicted comedian.  Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel and Matthew McConaughey (as Tugg's devoted agent) all provide solid support.  Only Nick Nolte is miscast.  His voice is so gritty to begin with that it's impossible for him to parody.

But the funniest performance goes to Tom Cruise, who plays the monomaniacal producer Les Grossman.  Although his voice is too distinctive enough for it to be much of a surprise, the makeup job is hilariously bad (he looks a lot like Paul Giamatti on a bad day), and Cruise is clearly enjoying himself in the role.

The flaw with the film is that it's so concerned with satirizing Hollywood that it almost forgets to provide humor. The comedy is more of a wit variety rather than belly laughs, although there are a few of those (Cruise's scenes are a case in point).  And some of the faux trailers at the beginning are cringe-humor, which I'm not particularly fond of.


The Net


3.5/4

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Jeremy Northam, Dennis Miller

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Some Sexuality and Brief Strong Language

During the mid-to-late nineties, few actresses were more in demand than Sandra Bullock.  After a star-making turn in the 1994 action/thriller “Speed,” Bullock was suddenly a hot commodity.  One of my favorite movies of hers is the underrated suspense-thriller “The Net.”  Hitchcock would have loved this; it’s “North by Northwest” in cyberland.

Shy and introverted computer analyst Angela Bennett (Bullock) is about to go on vacation when she is sent a program by a co-worker that contains a program with a very mysterious glitch: with a few keystrokes, she is able to access and alter any website…government, business, or the stock market, just to name a few.  But that’s just the start of it.  When she gets back to the US, she finds that her identity has been completely erased, and she is now known as Ruth Marx, who has a criminal record.  Worse, a cyber-terrorist group known as the Praetorians are after her because she has a disk that contains the evidence.

Although the plot is terrific and well-executed by director Irwin Winkler, much of the success has to do with Sandra Bullock.  Bullock has enough screen presence and appeal to match, if not surpass, Julia Roberts.  She’s so likable that we can follow her through anything, and she’s a perfect stand-in for Cary Grant in the “wrongfully accused” role.  She is supported by the smooth and cultured Jeremy Northam, a date who turns out to be an assassin working for the Praetorians, and Dennis Miller as her ex-therapist who is the only one who can prove that Angela is who she says she is.  But this is almost all Bullock, and the actress nails it.

The only problem with the film is that the computer mumbo jumbo often makes zero sense.  But then again, I’m incredibly clueless as to how this stuff works, so maybe it does make sense if you know what they’re talking about.  Or it could be the fact that the film is incredibly dated (it was made in 1995, almost 15 years ago, and everyone knows how far we’ve come since then in terms of computers).  Either way, it doesn’t really matter.

Director Irwin Winkler is clearly taking notes from ol’ Hitch, and under the circumstances, it’s the right decision.  Hitch may have died 30 years ago, but had he lived, this is exactly the kind of thing he’d have a ball with.  There are plenty of chases and lots of tension.  What more can you ask for?

Gangs of New York

3.5/4

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson

Rated R for Intense Strong Violence, Sexuality/Nudity, and Language

"America was Born in the Streets"

That's the tagline for Martin Scorcese's epic "Gangs of New York," and if you really think about it, it makes perfect sense for the film even though it's essentially a revenge story.

In 1845, New York City's Five Points was battled over by the Dead Rabbits, a group of (mostly Irish) immigrants led by 'Priest' Vallon (Neeson), and the xenophobic Natives, led by the sadistic Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis).  Vallon was killed, and his young son, Amsterdam (Cian Mccormack) was then raised by the Church.  Eighteen years later, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) is released, and he has one thing on his mind: kill Bill (no QT pun intended).

In a way, the film's plot is really second to Scorcese's tour of 1863 New York City.  We get fascinating insider information into how life was back then.  Corruption was widespread, and violence and murder were parts of every day life.  The mixture of immigrants and home-grown Americans resulted in a constant air of friction (something that Scorcese wisely uses as a metaphor for today).  But it isn't just how things are done there, but how it looks.  We are literally transported back a hundred and fifty years ago. Credit art director Dante Ferretti and set designer Francesca Lo Schiavo (both of whom received Oscar nominations for their impeccable work).

As with all of Scorcese's movies, the acting is superb.  After becoming a superstar with the release of "Titanic," Leonardo DiCaprio stayed relatively under the radar for the next four years (he released four films, only one of which was a lead, and another is unable to be show in the US or Canada because of a lawsuit brought by DiCaprio and friend/co-star Tobey Maguire).  He comes back in a big way as Amsterdam Vallon, a man of passion and contradiction.  Revenge is never far from his mind, but the more time passes the closer he gets to Bill, and the higher he rises in his ranks.  In order to save the murder of Bill for a very public setting, he has to pass by numerous opportunities to kill him.  Cameron Diaz plays Jenny Everdeane, a beautiful pickpocket whom Amsterdam falls for (which is underdeveloped).  Diaz is known primarily for her pretty face and her roles in romantic comedies like "There's Something About Mary" or "My Best Friend's Wedding."  To say that starring in a Martin Scorcese picture is a change of pace for her is to understate matters.  That being said, Diaz is very good in the role, conveying both vulnerability and toughness.  Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly and Jim Broadbent (in a wonderful performance as Boss Tweed) appear in supporting roles.

The real star of the show is unquestionably Daniel Day-Lewis.  The English actor is know for obsessively preparing for his roles, and for someone who could play Christy Brown in "My Left Foot" and Bill the Butcher in "Gangs of New York," it's easy to believe.  Bill is a ferocious psychopath, especially with his unblinking, piercing stare.  But he has a strict sense of honor, claiming that Priest Vallon was the "only man I killed worth remembering."  Like Amsterdam, he too is a man of contradictions.  As vicious as he can be, Bill is still capable of acts of kindness, especially when it comes to Jenny.  Day-Lewis is a magnetic actor; he can draw the camera's attention simply by standing there, and that's a quality that is crucial for Bill to be successful.  It's no wonder why Amsterdam is so torn when he's faced with a foe like this.

Martin Scorcese is usually at home with smaller and physically quieter productions like "Taxi Driver" or "Goodfellas."  A big budget endeavor like this is something that Spielberg might take on, but this is Scorcese through and through.  With simmering intensity and rich detail, Scorcese has left his mark on this picture.  This is a very good film from the master, but it's not perfect.  The climax is messily handled.  Although what it means is explained at the end, the sequence is full of nagging questions.

Scorcese has never attempted something quite as ambitious, and even though it's not an unqualified success, he hasn't matched it with anything since.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Galaxy Quest

3/4

Starring: Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Enrico Contaloni, Sam Rockwell, Tony Shaloub

Rated PG for Some Action Violence, Mild Language and Sensuality

Long live geekdom!  "Galaxy Quest" is an affectionate parody of "Star Trek" and its fans, and it does so without ever being mean.  It addresses the show with a wink and a smile.

Eighteen years ago, the cult sci-fi show "Galaxy Quest" was adored by sci-fi geeks.  But these days, the actors are only required to show up at sci-fi conventions and TV ads.  Some of the cast love the spotlight, like James Nesmith (Allen), who played the captain and has an ego to match.  Others, like classical actor Alexander Dane (Rickman) who played the much beloved Dr. Lazarus, would rather die than say their signature line.  Soon, however, they're going to find themselves playing their parts for real when they are transported by troubled aliens who believe that the TV episodes are "historical documents."

"Galaxy Quest" never takes the easy way out.  It would have been simpler to go for cheap laughs, but writers David Howard and Robert Gordon are very specific about what they target and how they go about it.  For example, they flesh out the cast squabbling and make up histories for the characters.  This results in a much funnier movie.

Like the writers, the cast works hard to create their characters, and they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.  Tim Allen is great as Nesmith, and isn't above looking like an idiot in the cheesy TV clips.  Sigourney Weaver emphasizes her considerable sex appeal as Gwen DeMarco, whose only purpose on the show was to talk to the ship's computer and repeat what it said.  Alan Rickman gets the biggest laughs as the increasingly irritated Dr. Lazarus.  He has all the best lines and some of his reaction shots are priceless.  Sam Rockwell plays an inventive character who is terrified he's going to be killed since he was offed early on in his guest spot on the show (this is the kind of specific humor that I was talking about).  Robin Sachs overacts to great effect as the villain Sarris, devouring his cheesy lines with relish.  Also worth mentioning is Patrick Breen, who plays Quellek, one of the aliens.  His earnestness really touches the heart.

Dean Parisot doesn't have an impressive resume, but the man's work is solid.  I'm sure he watched a lot of episodes of "Star Trek" to figure out what he was parodying, and he does so with affectionate glee.  The special effects are cheesy when they need to be and top-notch at other times.  He has a firm grasp of comic timing and gets us to care about the characters and the plot while we are laughing at it.  A lot of movies try this, but few succeed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and I laughed quite a bit.  That's more than can be said for most comedies these days.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cairo Time

3/4

Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig

Rated PG for Mild Thematic Elements and Smoking

The joy of watching a romance is falling in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other.  For that to happen, two things need to happen: character development and chemistry.  Often times, movies are too afraid of losing their audience that they fill the movie up with ridiculous and formulaic plot contortions instead of letting the characters be themselves ("How Stella Got Her Groove Back" suffered from this problem).  With "Cairo Time," writer/director Ruba Nadda employs a minimalist plot that serves only to allow her two leads to spend time together.

Juliette (Clarkson) is the wife of a UN diplomat who is meeting her husband in Cairo for a vacation.  When she gets there, a former co-worker of her husband tells her that he has been delayed in Gaza.  This man is Tareq (Siddig), who tells her to call him if she needs anything.  With her husband being away for the near future and not so subtle sexual harassment by the local men, Juliette decides to call Tareq.  They get along quite well, and it isn't long before a new, deeper bond forms.

Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country will be able to sympathize with Juliette.  Although you're surrounded by human beings, you still feel like an alien from another planet.  The feeling of being lost is inescapable.  I remember feeling like that when I toured Turkey and Macedonia a few years back.  It's not a very comfortable feeling, and it doesn't go away even if you're with people you know.  So it's helpful to someone like Juliette to have a nice, kind gentleman like Tareq as a guide.  He's polite, patient and chivalrous.  Juliette doesn't stand a chance.

Patricia Clarkson is sometimes called the "Indie Film Queen," and although she has gained some mainstream acceptance (courtesy of an Oscar nomination), she's more at home in small-budget movies like this.  Clarkson is the ideal "everywoman."  Juliette has no weird quirks or oddities; she's not an anti-social misfit and she doesn't mind going with the flow.  Despite its low budget, there's no sign of any Wes Anderson or his worshipful imitators.  Thank God for that.

I've never been a big fan of Alexander Siddig.  He's a character actor, and as such is relegated to bit parts.  I did notice him in "Vertical Limit," although for all the wrong reasons.  But in "Cairo Time," he is given a rare lead opportunity.  Not only is he excellent in the role, he causes Clarkson to fade into the background.  A very impressive feat.

The only real flaw with the movie is a poor choice of a cinematographer.  Luc Montpellier films the scenes in like a gritty crime movie.  Although it doesn't really hamper the romance, I couldn't help thinking it could have been a lot better if Nadda had chosen a warmer mood.

You know you're watching a good romance when you feel cheated by the montages.  The chemistry between Clarkson and Siddig burns nicely and it's carefully developed by Nadda.  The film contains no sex of any kind (the furthest the film goes is a misread cue that leads to a kiss), and the film is all the better for it. In this story, it's unnecessary.  Nadda focuses on the characters, and showing them making love would not only be out of character for the both of them, it would take away precious scenes of them together.  You know you've got a winner when you'd rather see the characters talk than sleep together.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

1.5/4

Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Vanessa Hudgens

Rated PG for Some Adventure Action and Brief Mild Language

"Journey 2" should be a lot more fun than it is.  It's got lots of action, wall-to-wall special effects, and the adventure of discovering a new paradise.  But the bottom line is that this movie couldn't be more bland if it tried.  I haven't seen the first film, but if this sequel is anything to go by, I should be glad.

Sean (Hutcherson) is a rebellious teen who has been forced to move because his mom remarried (I think...the movie doesn't explain this very well).  He's not getting along with his stepdad Hank (Johnson), but they have a bonding moment when he gets a coded message from his grandfather (Michael Caine) that points to clues to a mysterious island that is suggested in the book by Jules Verne (who is undoubtedly turning over in his grave at being mentioned in this stinker).  So they set out to find the island.

This movie is plagued with contrivances.  Not that action movies are known for being particularly intelligent, but the contrivances are so frequent and so obvious that even the most inattentive viewer could find them.  Like, what are the chances that a step-dad is going to fly with his kid, in his words "halfway around the world" (it's more like a trip to Cancun), to prove some menial thing, while the kid is grounded for breaking into a satellite facility and being chased by police?  Or, what cop is going to let a kid slide after said police chase?  And then there's an absurd bit featuring maps.

The acting is flat.  Ex-WWE star Dwayne Johnson (who dumped his WWE name--presumably to be regarded as an actor rather than a faux-sports star) may never be a good actor, but he's pretty bad.  His "funny scenes," such as the "pec popping" are more awkward than humorous.  Michael Caine is clearly just picking up a paycheck, but he's too talented to give a bad performance.  Disney tween-queen Vanessa Hudgens is flat.  Luis Guzman is awful here.  He's often hilarious, but he's given such bad material that it defeats him.  Josh Hutcherson, who is a reasonably good actor, is the only one who actually attempts to act, and as such, is the only one who gives a performance worth mentioning.

The problem is easy to identify.  Director Brad Peyton rushes through the movie so fast that there's no way anyone could possibly care about anyone.  The script is paper thin, so it's likely a desperate attempt to camouflage the weaknesses in the writing.  It doesn't work.  In fact, it backfires; the lack of attachment with the characters or the story makes one seek out the mistakes.

I won't say that this movie is boring.  I'll just say that it's a misfire on every level.

Friday, February 17, 2012

This Means War

3.5/4

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler, Angela Bassett

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, including References, Violence and Action, and for Language

Frequently in romantic comedies, it begins with the guy banging chicks left and right until he meets a girl who causes him to re-evaluate his life and settle down with her.  This time, it's girl's night (although it is suggested that this is how Chris Pine's character lives, but never mind).  Finally, a romantic comedy where the girl isn't a virginal saint.

Lauren (Witherspoon) is a young single who followed her boyfriend (Warren Christie) to LA, only to find him sleeping with his pilates instructor.  Now single, she is signed up for an internet dating service by her salty friend Trish (Handler).  There, she meets a handsome hunk named Tuck (Hardy), and they hit it off wonderfully (why people as good looking as Witherspoon and Hardy would ever need a dating service, but never mind).  Later that night, she meets FDR (Pine), a womanizer that she initially blows off, but ends up going out with.  Now, she can't decide who to stick it out with, and both of her respective relationships are getting more intense.  But what she doesn't know is that Tuck and FDR are best friends and CIA agents, and are letting her decide who she wants to end up with (they have an agreement not to interfere, but of course, neither one of them sticks to it).

Director McG must of had as difficult time directing this movie as screenwriters Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg had writing it.  Making this movie work requires a delicate balancing act between the characters personal, professional and love lives, and McG makes it work.  The characters are sufficiently developed, the chemistry is allowed to burn between them all (Pine and Hardy, Witherspoon and Pine, and Witherspoon and Hardy).  And above all it's funny.

With a cast starring three of the best young actors working today, you can bet it's going to be strong in the acting department.  Chris Pine makes for a lovable rascal, and Witherspoon is more at home in romantic comedies than anything else.  The real surprise is Hardy, who is known for creating intense and brooding characters (his performance in "Warrior" is a case in point).  But Hardy appears to be at home in a more lightweight setting and understands the concept of comic timing.  Gay icon Chelsea Handler gets some big laughs as Lauren's girlfriend Trish (who's salty language caused the MPAA to initially give the film an R rating--definitely want to see the unrated version), and Angela Bassett is channeling Lynne Thigpen.

If there's any flaw, it's that the film spends a little too much time on the action oriented subplot featuring a terrorist played by Til Schweiger.  Although it is fun and exciting (McG is primarily an action-oriented director), it takes attention away from the far more interesting romantic triangle.

Ironically, I expect this movie to build a sizable gay fanbase.  It stars Chelsea Handler, who is huge in the gay community, and the homoerotic innuendos are hard to ignore (there's even a sexual innuendo about this, and it's pretty funny).  Not that straight guys who are nervous about their sexuality will be turned off by it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Memoirs of a Geisha

3.5/4

Starring: Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho

Rated PG-13 for Mature Subject Matter and Some Sexual Content

I love stories that guide us through a new and foreign culture or way of life.  It is fascinating to learn how people of a different world live and what stories they have to share.  Arthur Golden's novel is a richly detailed and exquisitely crafted story of not only the life of a geisha, but a story of a spunky and intelligent heroine to guide us through this hidden world, all the while trying to be closer to her one true love.  Although it lacks a lot of the detail (time constraints have something to do with this) and depth of the book, the film version is about as good as one could hope for.

One of the difficulties screenwriter Robin Swicord faced when adapting the novel is that it is told from a first person perspective of a character with a very unique personality.  Parts of her personality have been smoothed down in the film version to make her more identifiable, but it still works.  The other main difficulty is that many of the actors had difficulty speaking English (which is a must for any mainstream American film), and neither Gong Li or Suzaka Ohgo knew how to speak English period.  The solution, having playwright Doug Wright stay on set to rewrite lines that the actors found difficult to say, yields mixed results (some of the lines are very clunky).

The story details the life of Chiyo (Ohgo), a young child sold by her parents to an okiya (a geisha boarding house).  She is separated from her sister, Satsu (Samantha Futerman), and forced to work as a laborer until she can begin geisha school.  But her beauty attracts the wrath of the full geisha at the house, a wicked and cruel creature called Hatsumomo (Li).  Her wrath leads Chiyo to trouble, but the young girl is taken under the wing of Hatsumomo's rival, Mameha (Yeoh), and becomes one of the most celebrated geisha in all of Miyako (where the film is set).  But Sayuri (Ziyi), as she is now called, is still pining after the Chairman (Watanabe), a powerful man who once took pity on her.

The film caused a bit of controversy because none of the actors are Japanese.  Reportedly, producer Lucy Fisher held an open casting call for Japanese actresses, but no one showed up (there is evidence to take this with a grain of salt, since many of the actors are known to at least the arthouse crowd).  That being said, all of the performances are top-notch.

The cast is filled with some of the best actors in Asia.  Zhang Ziyi, who made a significant inroad with her breathtaking performance in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is wonderful as Sayuri.  She has wonderfully expressive eyes (which are important for the character), and has immense talent to boot.  Ziyi portrays the character as naiive, but intelligent and determined.  As Mameha, Michelle Yeoh (who also starred with Ziyi in Ang Lee's masterpiece) is also excellent.  Mameha is a good teacher, patient and caring, but she's also a realist; she knows that her plan to destroy her rival could very well fail.  Respected actor (and one of two members of the main cast who is actually Japanese) Ken Watanabe is also very good as the Chairman.  He recognizes that the character is really a figure of idolization, like a beautiful model or celebrity, and yet Watanabe gives the Chairman personality and humanity; never does he become a cliche or a plot device.  Not to be forgotten is Japanese character actor Koji Yakusho, who plays the bitter Nobu.  Disfigured by war, Nobu is a man who takes no pleasure in life and despises geisha, and yet Sayuri gets under his skin.  Nobu doesn't know how to react to her attention; he adores her but hides behind a shield of anger and disgust.  Yakusho understand all facets of the character's personality and plays him with consummate skill.

But the best performance goes to international superstar Gong Li.  Rightfully called the Asian Meryl Streep by Rob Marshall (who directed her in this role) and Michael Mann (who would direct her in her next film, "Miami Vice"), Li is absolutely perfect in the role.  Despite saying some of the clunkiest lines in recent memory, she gives a performance that should have gotten her a long overdue Oscar nomination.  Hatsumomo is a beautiful but vicious woman who doesn't like competition (and is smart enough to realize off the bat that Chiyo is a real threat).  Li makes her thoroughly unlikable, but is good enough to make the character human (just a spoiled brat in a kimono).  There is a wonderful scene where she is caught doing something she shouldn't, and without saying a word, goes from smug to sad.  This scene is a testament to the actress's talent.

Stage director Rob Marshall came onto the Hollywood scene with his energetic and visually dazzling version of the musical "Chicago" (for which he received an Oscar nomination), and his visual sense serves him well here.  We are literally transported to pre-WWII Japan, and boy, is it beautiful.  As lensed by Dion Beebe, this is a place of dreams, but behind the facade, lies a place of pain and secrecy.

The problems (other than the occasional clunky line of dialogue) occur in the final act.  When World War II breaks out, the film turns into a romantic melodrama.  It's not bad, a little corny maybe, but still good.  But it doesn't live up to the promise of the previous two hours.  The mystery is gone, and the story of pining love is not as compelling as Sayuri's evolution into a geisha.

This is a superb, sprawling epic that is well worth savoring over and over again.  A word to the wise, however.  This film is rather sexually graphic, and deals with attempted rape and child prostitution.  The MPAA gave it a PG-13, and I'm not sure that that is appropriate.  If it is, it's pushing the limit.

Happy, Texas


2/4

Starring: Jeremy Northam, Steve Zahn, William H. Macy, Ally Walker, Illeana Douglas

Rated PG-13 for Language, Sexual Content, and Some Violence

“Happy, Texas” is a 98-minute long sitcom.  The script and the characters are paper thin, the humor is juvenile, and the plot is innocuous.  With a miscast lead and an unwillingness to take chances, “Happy, Texas” is watchable, but instantly forgettable.

In a Texas prison, con artist Harry Sawyer (Northam) and dim bulb car thief Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr. (Zahn) have just gotten lucky: the truck they are being transported in crashes and they escape.  Their luck gets even greater when they find a small town they can hide in until the heat cools down.  All they have to do is pose as beauty pageant instructors for two weeks, then rob the bank and get out of dodge.  The catch is that instead of being able to chase the skirts of the pageant contestants, they have to babysit them, and they also have to pretend they’re gay.

The premise is solid, but that’s it.  Every joke is tired, every character is a cliché, and every plot twist is predictable.  That’s three strikes for any comedy.  There are a few funny moments, particularly in the beginning, but there really isn’t much more.

Jeremy Northam is sorely miscast.  With his gravelly voice and false charm, Northam is more at home playing creeps and psychos (like in “The Net,” for example).  In a genial, light-hearted comedy like this, he sticks out like a sore thumb; his scenes rarely ring true.  Steve Zahn is a gifted comedian, especially when it comes to playing characters of very low intelligence.  But he’s only able to pull off about half the jokes.  Illeana Douglas is okay as the girls’ leader, but that’s it.  The only characters we really feel for are Joe (Walker), the bank owner who is unlucky in love (and the one Harry inevitably falls for) and Chappy (Macy), the sheriff who falls for Harry.  Both actors play their characters with both humor and pathos.

The most obvious problem is that the gags are not only unfunny, they are unfinished.  Each joke or comic set-piece feels incomplete.  They feel like trailers for larger, funnier scenes.  Subplots are half-developed, and scenes that strengthen the characters and the plot seem to be missing.  And while I realize that this was made twelve years ago, the idea of two straight guys having to pretend to be gay was just as tired then as it is now.  For once, can we get a straight guy who does not freak out when he is hit on by another man?  This is the 21st century; surely most men would be able to deal with that in a perfectly reasonable way.

Mark Illsley understands the concept of comic timing; he just needs better jokes to give his actors.  The script, which he co-wrote with Ed Stone and Phil Reeves, is in desperate need of a few rewrites and more imagination.  His direction isn’t sure, either.  The climax, which should be the comic apex of the movie, is messy and confusing.

This is not a terrible movie by any means.  But it’s not very good either. 

Safe House

2.5/4

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard

Rated R for Strong Violence Throughout and Some Language

There's no doubt that "Safe House" is intense.  This is a gritty and extremely violent film, so much so that it almost becomes a turn-off.  It's loud, aggressive, and brutal; the R rating is well-deserved.  But director Daniel Espinosa, in his American debut, resorts to the old standbys to create suspense: desaturated cinematography and frenetic shaking of the camera.  This is not to the film's benefit.

Matt Weston (Reynolds) is a "housekeeper" in South Africa.  He guards a CIA safe house until it needs to be used.  It sounds a lot more interesting than it actually is.  In his words, he just sits there and bounces a ball against a wall all day.  That all changes when Tobin Frost (Washington) walks into the US Embassy.  Frost used to be CIA, but he turned and went rogue nine years ago.  Now, he's come to escape a bunch of ruthless hitmen who are trying to kill him, and in no short order he and Matt are on the run trying to stay alive.

The acting isn't the film's strong suit.  Ryan Reynolds is miscast.  Reynolds' greatest attributes are his comic timing and likable personality, two things that have no place in a gritty thriller like this, and Espinosa mutes them as much as possible in order to facilitate the gritty tone.  More at home in this kind of movie is Washington, but this is the kind of thing he could do in his sleep.  Washington does his job, but this is just another paycheck to him (it is a testament to his talent that he is able to command the screen even when coasting through a performance).  Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga are on hand as CIA surveillance agents, but this movie is all about Matt and Frost.

You know, it's a real shame that Espinosa resorts to the now-cheap theatrics to raise the intensity.  He's got the style for creating intense violence and capable actors, so it would have worked just as well, if not better, had he  kept the camera off the cocaine.  As it is, it's often hard to understand what is going on, and distances us from the characters.  The film seems a lot more confusing than it actually is.

Let me be clear once again: this is a very violent film; absolutely not for the young or faint of heart.  It's graphic, bloody and brutal.  It even features a scene where Washington is waterboarded that is incredibly difficult to watch (methinks the Bush administration should watch this movie if only to realize that waterboarding is undeniably torture).  I can't recommend the film, but it is a welcome diversion from the neutered PG-13 movies.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Sandlot


3.5/4

Starring: Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, Patrick Renna, Chauncey Leopardi, Denis Leary, Karen Allen

Rated PG for Some Language and Kids Chewing Tobacco

Call it “The Pre-Wonder Years.”  The tone is quite similar (heavy on the nostalgia to the point of being fantasy), and if I may say so, a lot more fun.  It did, after all, originate one of the top catchphrases of the 90s (people still say “You’re killing me, Smalls!” to me all the time).  And what’s not to love about this movie?  It’s got more baseball than “The Natural,” a lot of good humor (that’s actually funny), and the overall experience is like hanging out with a bunch of friends.  Oh, and it features a dog so large it makes Clifford the Big Red Dog look like a Chihuahua.

Scotty Smalls (Guiry) is in the unenviable position of having moved two weeks before the end of the fifth grade.  It’s too late to make any friends, but at his mother’s prodding (“Get into trouble, for God’s sake!” she says), Scotty gets out of the house.  He finds his way to the Sandlot, a makeshift baseball field where a bunch of kids are playing ball.  His attempt to get in on the game ends in disaster, but fortunately, wannabe future pro-ball player and all around nice guy Benjamin Rodriguez (Vitar) is there.  His friends don’t want this talentless moron playing with them, but Benny reminds them that they need a ninth member to have a full team.  So, with his help, Smalls (as he is called) becomes a fine ball player and a member of their gang.

Much of the reason why this movie works so well is that we identify with all the characters.  We know what it’s like to be the odd man out, and we also know what it’s like to be a part of the crowd.  The characters go through the same experiences we all go through (more or less): the hormones just starting to rage, the obsession with sports, and the tall tales we tell our friends.  It’s all here.

The acting is quite good.  Tom Guiry has grown up to be a great character actor (his performance in the little seen “Black Irish” was amazing), and he shows his talent in as Smalls.  True, this kid can’t play baseball to save his life, but that’s why we identify with him.  Benny Rodriguez is too good to be true, but anyone expecting something resembling reality in this film is missing the point.  That being said, Mike Vitar is talented enough to make Benny seem refreshingly real.  The adult actors are great too, with Denis Leary being suitably intimidating and aloof, while Karen Allen makes a good mom.  And of course, no one can forget Patrick Renna as Ham Porter.  Not only does he say the now-classic line, he is so funny that he made me laugh just by standing on screen.

While the film gets repetitive from time to time (their adventures in getting a baseball back in the second half are a prime example), and some of the editing is a little haphazard, the film is still a real winner.

Mrs. Henderson Presents


3.5/4

Starring: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Kelly Reilly, Christopher Guest, Will Young

Rated R for Nudity and Brief Language

“Mrs. Henderson Presents” is a triumph of acting and storytelling.  The plot is nothing special, but the cast is top-notch and Stephen Frears is no hack director.  It’s a pleasure to spend 103 minutes at the Windmill Theater.

Mrs. Laura Henderson (Dench) has been a widow for all of a few days and she’s already bored.  Her friend, Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) suggests a few things that she can do to fill up her time, chief among them being to spend money.  She buys a rundown theater on an impulse, and hires a producer, Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins) to run it.  The two don’t get along, but the show is a success…until everyone starts copying their idea.  That’s when Mrs. Henderson comes up with a revolutionary idea: put nude girls on the stage.

Before I go on, I must address the film’s outrageous decision to give the film an R rating.  Almost every time a woman is shown topless, the MPAA slaps the film with an R rating.  Unfair in my view, but there you have it.  Apparently, the ratings board does not know the meaning of the word “context.”  The nudity here is presented in a way that is anything but sexual.  In fact, the film celebrates the female form, and encourages people to be proud of their bodies.  In an age where young people, especially girls, are bombarded with advertisements and media that tell them that they aren’t worth anything unless they’re hot and have an even hotter boyfriend (hack…hack…”Twilight”…hack…HACK!  Excuse me…), I can’t think of a better message to send to girls.  This movie should be PG-13.

Judi Dench is best known for playing M in the latest Bond movies, but that’s just a small fraction of her talent.  Mrs. Henderson is an eccentric old bat who voices her opinions without regards to the consequences and likens being 70 to being an adolescent.  Dench has great comic timing, and has the ability to soften an often-abrasive character to become a matron-like figure without missing a beat.  This is certainly one of her best performances.

Bob Hoskins plays the “straight man” in the duo.  As Van Damm, Hoskins exhibits both frustration and affection for his odd duck of a working partner.  Their relationship is often tempestuous, but there is a kinship there.  In a strange way, he’s almost like a parent to Mrs. Henderson.

Supporting roles are ably filled.  British pop star Will Young has a great set of lungs and screen presence, but his role is small.  Mary Reilly is strongly reminiscent of a very young Cate Blanchett as the young nude girl, Maureen; she has a wit that’s as sharp as Mrs. Henderson’s.  Christopher Guest and Thelma Barlow are funny in small roles.

Stephen Frears has shown talent in many genres, from horror (“Mary Reilly,” unseen by me) to romantic comedy (“High Fidelity”).  The reason is obvious; unlike most directors these days, he pays more attention to character than anything else.  A movie is only as interesting as the characters that appear in it.

The film is virtually flawless.  Although the use of archive footage of WWII is effective as a news reel, it is not effective at setting the stage (this was probably due to budget restrictions, however).  Still, this is a great little movie filled with comedy and drama.

Star Trek (2009)

3/4

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, Eric Bana, Zoe Saldana, Leonard Nimoy

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action and Violence, and Brief Sexual Content

Like "Star Wars," "Star Trek" has captured the imagination of geeks around the world (they even have their own nickname, "Trekkies," and two documentaries about them).  TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams rebooted the long-running TV and film franchise into a flawed, but entertaining two hours.  Paramount Pictures has created a solid start to a new franchise, and it's a welcome change from superhero movies.

It is the far away future.  The U.S.S. Kelvin has come under attack by a mysterious ship and has been badly battered.  The captain has been asked to come aboard to negotiate but is quickly killed.  The next officer in line, George Kirk (future "Thor" star Chris Hemsworth in a heartbreaking performance) sacrifices himself in order to get everyone, including his newborn son, off.  Years later, his son James (Pine), a brawling, drunken troublemaker joins Starfleet and ends up battling against the same opponent that took the life of his father.  Meanwhile, he has to deal with Spock (Quinto), who is half-Vulcan, and only cares about logic and frowns on emotion.

I've never seen the TV show "Star Trek," but I have seen a few of the movies.  The films are good yarns, but Abrams' film is most welcoming to non-fans.  The special effects are considerably better and fresh faces provide a new opening for people like me.

The acting is strong all around.  Chris Pine, one of the best, and lowest-profile, young actors out there these days, transforms the beloved character into a lovable rascal.  He's got the ego, the mischief and the wandering eyes (always to the closest beautiful woman...or the next best thing).  But when push comes to shove, he's the best hope anyone has.  Zachary Quinto is an amazing character actor (compare his performance in this to his in "Margin Call"), and he plays Spock with depth and feeling.  Although Pine is wonderful, Quinto steals the film.  Eric Bana makes for an okay villain, but his forced accent gets in the way.  And Leonard Nimoy returns in a role that is far more than an obligatory cameo.

The plot deals with time-travel, and that's where the film trips up.  The sequence that explains what really happened isn't flawlessly written, and it took me three times to really understand what they were talking about.  There's a ten minute sequence in the second half that will likely lose many viewers, especially those who haven't been paying attention.

Perfect, it's not, but it is fun.

Twister

4/4

Starring: Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Jami Gertz, Cary Elwes, Lois Smith

Rated PG-13 for Intense Depiction of Very Bad Weather

"Twister" is big time fun.  It's about as close to a perfect summer action movie as one can get.  It's got lots of action, plenty of special effects, moments that make you go "ooh" and "aah," and a few big laughs.  "Speed" director Jan de Bont has struck again.

On this summer day, the weather is going haywire.  Storms are sprouting over the Midwest and there could be a whole mess of tornadoes that occur relatively close to each other.  That's good news for Dr. Jo Harding (Hunt) and her ragtag group of tornado chasers.  But on this fateful day, her ex-husband and ex-partner, Bill (Paxton) is coming for their divorce papers so he can marry his fiancee, Melissa (Gertz).  But Jo has a surprise for him: their passion project, a machine named Dorothy (ha ha) that they're going to use to help predict tornadoes, is ready to be tested.  Now, Bill and Jo (with a panicking Melissa tagging along) are racing against their rival, "corporate kiss butt" Jonas Miller (Elwes) who also has a Dorothy-like machine, to get the data first.

Although it's pretty dated, "Twister" is worth spending time watching over and over again because the characters are so much fun to be around.  They're like a big group of friends that have been doing this for a long time, and that kind of chemistry is hard to nail down.  Somehow, de Bont does it, and he makes it a pleasure to spend an hour and forty minutes with these people.  This aspect of the film works so well that my favorite scene does not feature a tornado.  It's actually when the whole group is sitting around the table at Jo's aunt Meg's (Smith) table eating and laughing (it makes the movie pass Gene Siskel's test with flying colors).

The acting is top notch.  Bill Paxton is a great character actor, capable of handling both comedy and drama (two genres that "Twister" dabbles in).  Helen Hunt, known at the time for her TV show "Mad About You," is also a great comedienne, and is a capable dramatic actress (she won an Oscar for her next film, "As Good as it Gets").  The two have great comic and dramatic chemistry.  Cary Elwes turns up the slime factor as the egotistic yet dim-witted rival, and Jami Gertz is hilarious as Bill's increasingly terrified fiancee.  The best performance comes from respected character actress Lois Smith, who plays Meg.  She is a mother hen to the whole group, but particularly to Jo.  Smith is only in two scenes but she makes a permanent mark on the film.

Jan de Bont has a knack for summer action movie atmosphere.  He gives his films a sense of fun that it missing from many action movies.  They're exciting and intense without ever becoming too grim.  It was true of "Speed," and it's especially true here.  While "Speed" is the better film, "Twister" is more fun.  de Bont is once again pairing with composer Mark Mancina whose score not only helps establish the tone, but is one of the best motion picture scores I've ever heard.

If there's a nitpick, it's that there are some inconsistencies in the cinematography.  There are times when it's a little obvious that the clips were filmed at different times.  Not that you'll care.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Twilight

2.5/4

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Anna Kendrick, Peter Facinelli, Cam Gigandet

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence and a Scene of Sensuality

This review isn't going to endear me to either "Twilight" fans nor "Twilight" haters.  The first film in Stephanie Meyer's popular vampire franchise isn't very good, but it's not bad either.  It is entirely watchable, and on some level involving.  It's too long and there is some astonishingly bad dialogue, but it is what it is.

Bella Swan (Stewart) has just moved from Phoenix to the tiny town of Forks, Washington.  It's the middle of the school year and almost immediately she has a group of friends (ah, if we were all so lucky).  But there is one boy who intrigues her, a pale stud named Edward Cullen (Pattinson).  He's alternately meek & self-doubting and hostile toward Bella.  But she's curious, and it turns out that he and his "family" are vampires.  She doesn't have to worry, though.  They're "vegetarians," meaning that they don't snack on humans.  Of course, there are those that do, and they are after Bella in no short order.

The biggest problem with the film is dealing with the male lead.  It's easy to see what Meyer and director Catherine Hardwicke are trying to do, which is to create a "vampire with a heart of gold" who doubts his ability to resist his compulsions, but there's a problem: Pattinson.  Robert Pattinson may not be the worst actor around, but he clearly isn't able to handle a role this complex (and it's not very complex).  Therefore, Edward comes across as a bipolar drama queen (his soft voice doesn't help matters).

Apart from Pattinson, the acting is decent, which considering the script, is as good as one can hope for.  Kristen Stewart, who despite playing a character straight out of a Harlequin romance novel, manages to give Bella some spunk and personality.  Billy Burke, who was good in the cyber-serial killer movie "Untraceable," is awful as Bella's father.  He's trying to create a distant, gruff yet likable dad, but he's way too low-key.  No one  else has a large enough role to be mentioned, except Cam Gigandet, who is surprisingly vicious as a human-loving vampire.

Catherine Hardwicke is a good filmmaker.  She made the searing and disturbing drama about tween girls, "Thirteen," and here, she proves that she at least knows what she's doing.  She has a knack for atmosphere and the action scenes are moderately thrilling, but she has Edward do a little too much man-preening and exchange a few too many soulful looks with his beloved.

The romance aspect of the film (always the reason to love or hate a movie for some reason---just look at "Titanic") does work, although the hackneyed script by Melissa Rosenberg hampers the ability for it to develop effectively.  There is chemistry between Stewart and Pattinson (who become good friends during filming), but it's still catching fire when the film ends.  Thus, when Bella confesses her love to Edward, it seems a little soon.

Look, it's not great, but for what it is, it's not as bad as I thought.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mike's Musings: Why Blockbuster is Going Bye Bye

Blockbuster was once the premier place to rent movies.  Now, it's going out of business.  Why?  Netflix.  It offers a wider selection of movies, some of which can be streamed through the internet.  And, with a monthly fee, there are no late fees (at some stores, you can rent a movie and have a have a significant grace period before you "buy" the movie for an additional charge).  But there is hope for Blockbuster, a point which I will get to later.

It's unreasonable to ask a Blockbuster store to carry every movie ever made; each store would have to be the size of a Wal-Mart and prices would go through the roof.  But the problem is that the stores are filled with direct to DVD movies that no one wants (my guess is that smaller companies offer them at much cheaper prices than the big studios), and a few token foreign films.  Major new releases are guaranteed to be in stock, but there's a problem: everyone recognizes that movie quality is going down the drain, so they're looking to older movies to satisfy their hunger.  But people's tastes are different and not everyone is going to leave happy.  Netflix allows a person to watch any movie they want...provided that they're willing to wait a day or two.

That's where Blockbuster has an in: impulse renting.  Not many people go into Blockbuster looking for one specific movie, so it is a haven for browsers.  The company needs to publicize this need and target it.  I remember going to my local store and spending an hour looking through their selection and always finding movies that I hadn't heard of (admittedly a challenge) or hadn't realized was in stock.  It's a great alternative when you don't have anything on hand that you want to watch.

A far greater problem however is Blockbuster's crappy DVD quality.  Most of their old DVDs were wrecked, and they didn't seem to care about replacing them.  I've lost count of how many times I've been into a movie that suddenly started skipping and freezing.  And my Blu-Ray player was wrecked by their rentals.  I've only had one instance when a DVD from Netflix was scratched.  I notified them of the problem and they offered to send me a new copy.  While it would be expensive to cover the costs of replacing worn out DVDs on a frequent basis, they could charge a fee for a customer who brought back the scratched DVD.

Can Blockbuster reclaim its former glory?  Probably not.  Netflix has too big of an edge and saving a damaged reputation is a lot harder than keeping an image that's already held in favor.  But with some clever marketing and promises that are held up, Blockbuster can regain its footing and come out of bankruptcy.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Broken Arrow

3/4

Starring: Christian Slater, John Travolta, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Lindo, Frank Whaley

Rated R for Strong Action Violence and Language

"Broken Arrow" is everything a summer action movie should be (despite the fact that it was released in February for some reason): it's got a good hero, a villain bent on destruction for money, a spunky female, and lots and lots of action.  Although far from perfect, it is good fun.

Major Vic Deakins (Travolta) and Captain Riley Hale (Slater) are assigned to go on a stealth run with two thermonuclear weapons.  Along the way, Deakins goes homicidal and tries to kill Hale.  Failing that, he ejects his comrade into the Utah desert.  Hale quickly finds out that Deakins has stolen the bombs and plans on detonating them in a US city unless he's paid big bucks.  The only thing that stands in his way is Hale, who knows him way too well, and a beautiful park ranger (Mathis).

The performances are top-notch.  Christian Slater makes for a sympathetic hero, toning down his crazy mannerisms.  John Travolta is clearly enjoying himself as the wicked Deakins.  He's bad to the bone and a total lunatic (something of which he is proud of), but Travolta never lets us forget that this man is dangerous.  Samantha Mathis is okay, but she's not really at home in action movies.  Another actor must be mentioned, although not for the reasons listed above.  Character actor Bob Gunton, who plays the operation's financier Pritchett, is incredibly irritating.  He's constantly freaking out and it gets pretty old fast.

John Woo is a master of action movies, specifically gunfighting.  Although he is great with explosions, choreographing gunfights is where he truly shines, and there's a lack of that in "Broken Arrow."  That's not to say that he doesn't do great work here, which he does, but that's one thing that's missing here.  "Face/Off," which was released a year later, rectified this.

The film isn't flawless. The script by Graham Yost, who wrote "Speed," could have used some tightening up, and even John Woo can't cover-up the contrivances needed to make everything go according to formula.  Still, this is a fun ride, with some great shots of Utah.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Stone Merchant

1/4

Starring: Jordi Molla, Jane March, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham

Rated R for Violence, Language and Some Sexuality

"The Stone Merchant" is a catalog of filmmaking errors.  It's poorly paced, lacks any kind of atmosphere, relies on characters being unreasonably stupid in order to move the plot along, and has little focus.  In fact, the only thing that the movie does right is hire actors who can act (although there's little they can do to salvage this movie).

After a terrorist bombing cost him his lower legs, Alceo (Molla) is convinced that there's an Islamic terrorist around every corner.  His wife Leda (March) is sympathetic, but it's getting old.  After she survives a terrorist attack herself, they go on vacation into Turkey.  Their car breaks down, and they are rescued by a man named Shahid (Abraham).  Shahid introduces them to a merchant (Keitel) who sells rare stones, and he is instantly smitten with Leda.

It isn't enough for this movie to be boring (which it is) and stupid (which it also is), but it's also offensive.  It's one thing to have a character be paranoid about Islamic fundamentalism; many movies have used our fears of this to great effect ("Rendition," "The Kingdom," just to name two), but this aspect of the film is ineptly handled.  As played out by the movie, director Renzo Martinelli seems to perpetuate the xenophobic thought that all Muslims are terrorists.

The actors do what they can, but they're stuck in a silly story with paper thin characters.  To be honest, it's a miracle that they're able to do anything with what they're given.  The dialogue isn't just flat, it's embarrassing.  Half the time, it seems like it was dubbed.

Director Renzon Martinelli has absolutely no idea what he's doing behind a camera, and since he also wrote the screenplay, he's not a good writer either.  The man knows nothing about pacing, which is key for a thriller (one minute Leda is wary of The Merchant, but after a few seconds of dialogue she's confessing her love to him...really?).  Second, The Merchant's pursuit of Leda isn't romantic...it's creepy.  No intelligent person would do anything but get a restraining order against this guy.  And the end features some criminals who don't have a single brain cell between them.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised with how bad this movie turned out to be.  I saw it for six bucks at a grocery store, and with Harvey Keitel's name on the top of it, that's a bad sign.  You'd think I'd learn...

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Stepfather (2009)

2/4

Starring: Penn Badgley, Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Amber Heard

The version of the film being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut was rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence, Disturbing Images, Mature Thematic Material and Brief Sensuality

Nelson McCormick's 2009 thriller is a remake of the 1987 film starring Terry O'Quinn (who would later go on to star in the TV show "Lost").  It was a wildly uneven thriller, capable of producing both chills and unintentional laughs.  This remake has turned what was originally a psychological thriller into a PG-13 slasher movie (the "unrated" label is a misnomer--there's nothing R-rated about it)...and not for the better.

Michael (Badgley) has just returned home from military school to find that his mother (Ward) has become engaged to a man named David (Walsh).  David appears to be the perfect guy; he's polite, charming, big on family and always helpful to everyone.  He's almost too good to be true, and when a batty neighbor mentions that David looks like a composite sketch of a guy on America's Most Wanted, Michael's suspicions are raised. Is David really who he says he is, or is he a serial killer who murders his family when they disappoint him?

There's no rule that when you remake a movie, you can't change the genre.  Quite frankly, with a few clever rewrites and a lot of atmosphere, this story could be a good slasher movie.  Unfortunately, "clever" is not a word that anyone is going to use to describe this movie, and there's not much atmosphere until the end.  McCormick, who directed the much maligned "Prom Night" remake (another PG-13 slasher movie), is in over his head.  He knows nothing about character identification or escalating tension, two things that are crucial for this kind of movie.

Surprisingly, the performances work.  Penn Badgley is good as the ex-bad boy (which we never see or hear about) turned all-American teenager.  Badgely has become a relatively hot commodity based on his role in "Gossip Girl" and, more importantly, his smoldering good looks.  But Badgley is good in the role, and it doesn't take us long to get behind him.  I was also pleased with Dylan Walsh's acting as well.  Based on his performance as a meek wusses on "Nip/Tuck" and "Congo" I thought casting Walsh as a psychopath to be laughable.  Actually, he's quite convincing.  Sela Ward is effective as the mom, but Amber Heard is a little stiff as Michael's girlfriend Kelly.

The thing that really gets me about this movie is that it's kind of sick.  I have nothing against violence in movies (they're a necessity in slasher movies), but by accident (he's too untalented for this to be on purpose) McCormick has tapped into something almost repulsive.  It's at times exploitative when it comes to murdered families (including shots of bullet ridden kids), and that makes some scenes uncomfortable.  Plus, the film is obvious in its obsessive quest to get a PG-13 rating.  Either make an honest R-rated slasher movie, or rewrite the movie so that it should be a PG-13 movie.

I'm not recommending the film (nor the original, which as I've said isn't very good).  The performances are wasted in the service of a movie that doesn't have the guts to be what it actually is.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Blind Side

3.5/4

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quentin Aaron, Tim McGraw, Jae Head, Lily Collins

Rated PG-13 for One Scene involving Brief Violence, Drug and Sexual References

Occasionally, a movie succeeds solely on the purposes of one performance.  While there may be other qualities to the production that are worth applauding, the main thrust of the film is a dynamic acting by a talented thespian.  It happened with Cate Blanchett's performance in "Elizabeth" and it happens here.  The performance is given by Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuhoy, the adoptive mother of future pro-football player Michael Oher.

Leigh Anne Tuhoy (Bullock) is the devoted Christian wife of a fast food franchise owner who prides herself on her charity.  One day, she sees a huge man walking home in the cold rain in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts.  Her son, SJ (Head) tells her that the man is Big Mike (Aaron), a new student at the school.  Not wanting to leave him in the cold, she insists on taking him to her house so he can spend the night there.  But one night of charity turns into a journey that will lead this soft-spoken young man to the NFL.

Bullock is nothing short of incredible.  She's always been a good actress, but she's never really been given anything to really show off her talents.  Leigh Anne is tough, tenacious and so upfront that she's often very funny.  She's also very stubborn, and when she's made up her mind, there's no arguing with her.  But Bullock finds her humanity, and that's what keeps her from becoming a caricature.  Although some may argue that it was only her fame that won her an Oscar (it does happen...Gwyneth Paltrow anyone?), I disagree.  Bullock is nothing short of incredible in the role.

The other central character, Oher himself, is also well played by relative newcomer Quentin Aaron.  As his coach, played by character actor Ray McKinnon, says, he's a marshmallow.  Oher is a large kid; he already looks like a NFL player.  But he's really shy and quiet, and wilts whenever someone talks to him.  He needs a lot of strong support to succeed, and that's exactly what Leigh Anne gives him.

The other cast members are solid, but none of them dominate the screen like Aaron and especially Bullock.  In fact, "solid" is probably the best way to describe the rest of this movie.  It's well written and directed by John Lee Hancock.  Hancock has set out to tell a true story to inspire and entertain, and he accomplishes this.  I also liked the fact that he didn't turn the Tuhoys into Christian Conservative caricatures.  Although the are Christian Conservatives, they are surprisingly real.  They're good people who try to be the best people they can be.

I really enjoyed this movie, and if you watch it, you will too.

Orphan

3.5/4

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Isabelle Fuhrman, Peter Sarsgaard, Aryana Engineer, Jimmy Bennett, CCH Pounder, Margo Martindale

Rated R for Disturbing Violent Content, Some Sexuality and Language

"Orphan" was the object of a fair amount of controversy when it was released and it's not hard to see why.  The film details how a family of four adopts a nine year old girl who turns out to be a psychopathic killer.  Not exactly encouraging for prospective parents.  Controversy aside, this is a scary thriller.  However I must admit that it made me feel unclean at times, and I have a high tolerance for this sort of thing.

The Colemans are about to adopt another child.  Kate (Farmiga), a recovering alcoholic, lost her daughter Jessica during pregnancy, and is still warming up to the idea of adopting.  They choose a girl named Esther (Fuhrman), a charming and sweet little girl.  Things seem to be going great, except that people have mysterious accidents whenever she's around.  Kate is getting suspicious, but her husband John (Sarsgaard) thinks she's being paranoid.  But for Kate, this is not about her.  It's about the safety of her other kids: Daniel (Bennett) and Max (Engineer).  But how can she protect her kids from her new daughter?

This is a very violent film.  Not so much in what happens, but in the circumstances in which violence occurs.  It's very disconcerting to see a nine year old kill someone, often brutally.  Many people will be turned off by the violence (for the record, the R rating is richly deserved.  This movie is absolutely not okay for kids).  But it does what it sets out to do, which is to create a scary "psycho from within" movie.

Much of the reason why this movie works so well is because the performances are all top notch.  Vera Farmiga, an actress who is well on her way to the A-list, is terrific playing the role of the only person who understands what is going on.  On paper, there's nothing special about her, but Farmiga is like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep; give her a script, and she'll take care of the rest.  Peter Sarsgaard, a character actor who usually plays creeps and psychos is good as the sympathetic husband.  He's likable even if he's so oblivious that you want to knock some sense into the guy.  He has great chemistry with Farmiga; it's easy to buy them as a loving couple.  As the demon child from hell, Fuhrman is excellent.  She acts so innocent that you know there's something really wrong with her.  The young actress studied the performances of Glenn Close in "Dangerous Liasons" and Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs," and it shows.  This is one scary kid.

But the best performance goes to young Aryana Engineer, who plays Max.  Although she doesn't speak, she is very gifted at using her face and body language to communicate.  Engineer is absolutely adorable without being sickening, and we care about her more than anyone else.

The film was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who made the utterly forgettable "House of Wax" remake, and he has a good understanding of what makes things go bump in the night.  He proves that with a good script, he can do wonders.

Look, I've described the film as it is.  This is a violent and disturbing flick, but it is well done and well acted.  You have been warned.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

2/4

Starring: Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman, Gretchen Mol

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

James Mangold's 2007 version of Elmore Leonard's short story "3:10 to Yuma" brings to mind two other westerns: The Coen Brothers' "True Grit" and "High Noon."  The former is because it's all about the beginning and the end; people talk, but they don't say anything of interest and nothing happens except for a few isolated gunfights.  The similarities with "High Noon" are much more general.  Both stories detail righteous men doing the right thing in the face of impossible odds.  It's nowhere near as good as "High Noon," and about as dull as the greatly overrated "True Grit."

Ben Wade (Crowe) is the baddest outlaw in the west.  Wade and his gang are responsible for nearly $400,000 in stolen goods and countless deaths, and he's finally been caught.  Now, a few lawmen and an indebted rancher (Bale) must take a day and a half long journey to put Wade on a train headed for prison (and execution).  But Wade's gang, now lead by the vicious Charlie Prince (Foster) is on their trail.

This movie is so frustrating because it has two great actors and a great director.  Bale, Crowe and Mangold do what they can, but there is a complete lack of material (one of the pitfalls of adapting a short story into a feature film).  Aside from the occasional gunfight (which are well staged), the movie's pretty dull.

It's not the actor's fault.  Bale makes Dan into an individual instead of the caricature that is in the script.  Russell Crowe can do this role in his sleep, but he seems to be enjoying himself nonetheless.  Ben Foster is okay, but he's much better suited for low-key roles rather than the villainous ones he's given (although he was good as a drugged out psycho in "Alpha Dog").  Logan Lerman is okay as Dan's son (whom Wade tries to seduce into a life of crime).  Gretchen Mol is good as Dan's wife, but she talks like a modern woman, which creates a disconnect.  Kevin Durand and Luke Wilson are incredibly annoying in small roles, but the key word here is small.

James Mangold knows what he's doing.  Both "Identity" and "Kate & Leopold" are good movies, but here his work is sloppy.  There are times when his shot selection is so confusing that it's hard to know what's going on until it's over.  One talent that Mangold does show is directing action scenes.  There are a few of them, and they are pretty exciting.

But the worst part of the movie is the ending.  Not only is it not credible, it's a cheat after cheat.  Had I been more involved in the movie I would have been angry, but since I didn't have any investment in the characters or their situation, it provoked little more than a shrug.

If Hollywood wants to rejuvenate the Western genre, they're going to have to make movies with better plots.