Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Muppets

2/4

Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, and the voices of Peter Linz, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, David Goelz

Rated PG for Some Mild Rude Humor

"Seasame Street." "Barney and Friends." "The Muppets." These are the three most beloved shows in children's entertainment.  Although not the longest lasting (that distinction goes to "Sesame Street"), the Muppets have the most crossover appeal with older viewers and it has a number of theatrically released movies.  But for the first time in 12 years, the Muppets are back on the big screen (well, small screen in my case).

Walter (Linz) is the world's biggest Muppet fan (although he is a Muppet himself, he's not a "real" Muppet).  They brought him comfort on bad days and when his older brother Gary (Segel) is going to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Mary (Adams), he is invited to come along to see the Muppet Studio.  Unfortunately, it's completely run down and about to be bought up by a greedy oil barron named Tex Richman (Cooper).  Now it's up to Walter, Gary and Amy to get the Muppets back together in order to raise $10 million dollars to save the studio.

Maybe it's because I'm not a die-hard Muppets fan and don't really have any memories of them, but I found this movie to be surprisingly bland.  As often the case, it's easy to see what the movie is trying to be, but it doesn't make it there.  It wants to be a heartwarming family comedy, but it's surprisingly lifeless.  No one's heart seems to be in it.  Maybe it's because the script, credited to raunch kings Segel and Nicholas Stoller (who created the overrated "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek"), is weak.  Writing an R-rated comedy is different than writing a family comedy.  Or maybe it's because the direction by James Bobin is pedestrian.

The actors lack enthusiasm.  Jason Segel appears to be coasting his way through the role, but there are moments when he's effective.  Ditto for Amy Adams, but she's more successful.  Peter Linz is surprisingly good as Walter; he tugged at my heart a little.  Frank Oz, who voiced a number of the Muppets, declined to appear because of disagreements over the script.  His replacements are nowhere near as good; Whitmire and Jacobsen feel like imposters.

"The Muppets" isn't completely devoid of value; there are a number of amusing sequences here and there, and kids might enjoy it, but on the whole I didn't particularly like it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

3.5/4

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Earl Boen, Joe Morton

Rated R for Strong Sci-Fi Action and Violence, and for Language

I have a confession to make.  I have not seen the original "Terminator."  Well, that's not strictly true.  My family and I started watching it a gabajillion years ago, but we turned it off because it was so boring (my brother and I were in grade school...how do you like that, MPAA?).  Actually, it doesn't really matter.  The first few minutes adequately bring the audience up to speed.  This may be a sequel, but it's a stand-alone sequel.

In six years, a new program called Skynet is going to become self-aware and commit genocide on the human race.  The first attack will kill half the world's population, and force the humans into declaring an all-out war against the machines.  The leader of the humans is John Connor (Michael Edwards), and in an attempt to destroy him, Skynet sent a machine called the Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill his mother, Sarah (Hamilton).  The attempt failed, and now the machines have sent a new machine to 1991 to kill John (Furlong) himself.  Older John sends back a Terminator to protect him from the T-1000 (Patrick), which is an unstoppable killer made from liquid metal.

James Cameron is a master storyteller, and he expertly weaves in time-travel paradoxes with the action scenes, and creates a host of well-acted and developed characters.  Known as a perfectionist (or as Cameron calls it, a "rightist"), Cameron gives his characters readily identifiable and sympathetic personalities.  As Sarah, Linda Hamilton gives a startlingly intense performance.  After the events in the first film, Sarah has been locked up in a mental institution (to be fair, her story isn't particularly believable).  But her quest to prevent the takeover by the machines has become an obsession.  She has become a total warrior woman, and the pressure to stop Skynet from being created has warped her psyche.  Also impressive is Edward Furlong, then a newcomer.  He lends a lot of dramatic weight to the film, portraying someone who is uncertain about his ability to perform the role he has destined to play.  Some of the scenes where he tries to teach the Terminator social skills are very amusing.  Robert Patrick is genuinely creepy as the lethal T-1000.  Patrick doesn't have a lot of dialogue, so he portrays the character mainly through body language.  His movements are subtly unnatural, such as his shoulders never move when he runs, and his face is always expressionless and unblinking.

People give Arnold Schwarzenegger a lot of flack for his range as an actor, and while it's true that he's no Daniel Day-Lewis, he's more talented than people give him credit for, especially when he's working for James Cameron.  Schwarzenneger gives the Terminator a surprising amount of humanity through body language and tone of voice, despite speaking in a monotone.  The emotional bond between the Terminator and John is surprisingly touching.

The film had a $94 million price tag, and every penny was put to good use.  The action scenes, of which there are quite a few, are spectacular.  If there's one thing that Cameron excels the most at, it's creating intense action sequences.  The adrenaline raises constantly during this film.  Some standouts are the chase between a motorcycle and an eighteen-wheeler, and the final showdown.  The special effects, while dated, are very cool to look at and still amaze because they are intelligently implemented.

"Terminator 2" is hardly flawless, but it's also an impressive thrill ride with intelligence and heart.  One can't ask for more.

Monday, March 26, 2012

They Live

1/4

Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower, Peter Jason

Rated R for Some Sci-Fi Violence and Terror

Horror movies are supposed to frighten you.  A good horror movie will get under your skin and crawl its way down your spine.  "Paranormal Activity" is a good example.  By having a strong sense of atmosphere and character identification, it was able to scare me so deeply that I was afraid to move.  The reverse is also true.  Bad horror movies, like "They Live," can be tedious, stupid and irritating.  John Carpenter's dud is all three.

A nameless drifter (Piper) has arrived in a nameless city looking for work.  He gets a job at a construction site but is living in a slum until he gets on his feet.  While there, he spies something odd happening in a church.  He goes to investigate and finds boxes of sunglasses that when worn show subliminal messages and people who are actually aliens bent on world domination.

The set up is so on target it's scary (no pun intended).  All the wealthy business people are aliens who are squeezing humans out of a job (well, those who don't sell themselves for wealth).  Gee, maybe Ken Lay and Richard Fuld (the ex-CEO of Lehman Brothers) were secretly aliens.  Call Mulder and Scully!

Unfortunately, that's the best part of the movie.  Everything else is the pits.  Roddy Piper is boring, and his character is developed as a mass murderer (yes, I know they're aliens, but the way Carpenter handles it is kind of sickening).  Keith David, reliable character actor that he is, does what he can, but in a movie where he and the lead get into a ten minute long fistfight (a lifeless one at that) over the simplest of things, there's not much that anyone could do.  No one else bears mention.

I can't believe that this was made by John Carpenter, who made the classic "Halloween," which by the way, I will never see again (I found it to be incredibly disturbing).  Carpenter knows what he's doing; he directed "The Thing" and "Village of the Damned," but here his heart isn't in it.  If there's any genre that's the absolute worst when done badly, it's horror.  The pacing is terrible, there's no atmosphere to speak of, and the score, credited to Carpenter and Alan Howarth, is a strange jazzy thing.

No doubt Carpenter would highlight the satirical elements, like selling out and how people will do anything for money.  They are there, but they're not especially enlightening  Trust me, skip this one.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Carriers

4/4

Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci, Chris Pine, Piper Perabo, Emily Van Camp

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Content and Language

The rules are simple.  At least that's how my brother sees it.  One, avoid the infected at all costs.  Their breath is highly contagious.  Two, disinfect anything they've touched in the past twenty four hours.  Three, the sick are already dead, they cannot be saved.  You break the rules, you die.  You follow them, you survive.  Maybe.
-Danny Green
The thing that always fascinates me about zombie movies is the question of what a person would do if they were the only ones left alive.  How would you survive?  What would it feel like?  How would your mind cope? Of course, in most zombie movies, this stuff is glossed over to make way for the scary violence and gore.  That's not the case with "Carriers," a perceptive and intriguing little film.

"Carriers" was marketed as being a horror film a la "28 Days Later" (an overrated film if you ask me), and this is simply not the case.  Although there are some suspenseful scenes, this is primarily a drama.  A bleak and sad drama.  It's closer to "Contagion" than "Dawn of the Dead."

A pandemic has devastated the planet.  The world has appeared to have stopped in its tracks.  Encountering a person has become a rare occurrence, although that may be a good thing since they may be infected.  Four people are driving across the country in hopes of escaping the plague and living out their lives in peace.  Danny (Pucci), was going to Yale before the plague hit.  His brother Brian (Pine), a self-proclaimed dipshit, is the leader of the group.  Bobby (Perabo), Brian's girlfriend, may be too nice for her own good.  Also along for the ride is Danny's maybe girlfriend, Kate (Van Camp).  Brian made the rules, but when it gets personal, are they going to be able to follow them?

The acting is terrific.  All four leads give great performances.  The best of the bunch is Chris Pine.  Brian is a total ass.  He's rude, crude and doesn't appear to care about anyone but himself.  But beneath that abrasive exterior lies a guy who is afraid not only of his own mortality, but that of he people he loves.  He says that everything is simple, but when he's up against the unthinkable, he realizes it's not.  It is a testament to Pine's talent as an actor that he makes Brian likable, no matter how much of a jerk he is.  Lou Taylor Pucci, who made a splash in the indie hit "Thumbsucker," unseen by me, is also very good.  Danny is struggling to come to terms with his new hell, where everything he knew is now gone.  Also good is Piper Perabo, whose compassionate nature threatens their lives.  Sadly, Emily Van Camp, who was very good in the little seen "Black Irish," is given little to do.  Also worth mentioning is Christopher Meloni, who became famous for playing Elliot Stabler on "Law and Order: SVU."  Meloni is very, very good as Frank Holloway, a father of a sick child who catches a ride with them.  He really tears at your heart (ironically, Meloni's background is in comedy).

Spanish brothers Alex and David Pastor direct this film with a firm hand.  They have a good sense for atmosphere.  This is not a happy movie.  We get a sense of the devastation of the plague (which, thankfully, is unnamed and unexplained).  There are a few missteps though.  There is a scene where someone seems to become a zombie, and it doesn't really fit (the scene, however, is brief and a throwaway).  And again, Emily Van Camp's character is under utilized.  She's mainly a silent tagalong until the end where she becomes someone's conscience.  The ending, however, is amazing.  It's both sad and strangely beautiful.

Still, this is a good little movie built upon some intriguing, but not revolutionary ideas.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Best Friend's Wedding

4/4

Starring: Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz, Rupert Everett, Philip Bosco

Rated PG-13 for One Use of Strong Language and Brief Sex-Related Humor

On the surface, "My Best Friend's Wedding" appears to be a standard order romantic comedy.  Some people who have seen it may think it actually is.  But there is more going on here than initially meets the eye.  It feels like it a traditional romantic comedy (a very good one, but a traditional one nonetheless), but there are some substantial differences.  Most obvious is the unpredictability of the ending.  In any kind of romance, the goal of the film is to bring two people together and allow them to fall in love.  Because this requires a match of character, plot can be a detriment.  We know they're going to meet, fall in love, break up, and get back together and live happily ever after.  That's why we go to these movies.  In "My Best Friend's Wedding," that may not be the case.  This adds a new wrinkle onto what is already a sparkling confection.

Julianne (Roberts) is a food critic who has been best friends with Michael (Mulroney) since college.  They dated, but Julianne dumped him.  That didn't make much difference when they agreed that if they were both single at age 28, they would get married.  As her editor, George (Everett), reminds her, she is 28, so when she gets urgent messages from Michael, she assumes that he's calling to honor their agreement.  But that isn't the case.  Michael met someone, the bubbly Kimmy (Diaz), and they're already planning on walking down the aisle...in four days.  Now Julianne, realizing her mistake, is on a mission to break up the wedding and convince Michael to marry her instead.

Not only was casting Julia Roberts, one of the biggest stars at the time a good move financially, it was a stroke of genius from a storytelling perspective as well.  Roberts is one of the most likable screen stars in history, with her big smile and warm demeanor.  I don't think it's possible for her to play a complete bitch.  Julianne does some really rotten things in this movie, but in order for the movie to work, we have to like her and root for her every step of the way.  If that doesn't happen the movie falls flat on its face.  With Roberts in the cast, the toughest obstacle for the movie is a success.

The supporting cast is also very good.  Dermot Mulroney is more than a traditional hunk.  He's definitely fetching; his smile is just as warm as Robert's, and he ably portrays the hope and uncertainty of a guy about to get hitched.  He and Roberts also have great chemistry.  Cameron Diaz, still an up-and-coming star at this point, is very good as the energetic Kimmy.  Diaz has always been known as an actress who will take chances, and even this early in her career, Diaz was willing to allow her character to be the butt of a joke by singing the worst karaoke ever put to film (and Kimmy is sober at the time).  The real star of the show is Rupert Everett, who plays Julianne's partner-in-crime.  He does offer her assistance in her extremely unethical mission, but he doesn't let her get off so easy.  He causes a number of obstacles for Julianne himself, and is front and present in the film's standout scene: a meal with the wedding party that includes a lot of improvising from George and a sudden breakout of "I Say a Little Prayer for You."  The film boasts a lot of fun scenes, but this one takes the cake.

Director P.J. Hogan directed the arthouse smash "Muriel's Wedding," which is unseen by me.  He brings a sense of the offbeat (as far as offbeat can be in a major studio release) to the humor.  The humor is kind of warped, but with the irresistible Roberts in the lead, it works.  He's also has a firm sense of misdirection, something that has eclipsed many good filmmakers (credit must also be given to the terrific script by Ronald Bass).  Hogan's sleight-of-hand also ventures into the tone.  Even with Roberts as the lead, the film could have suffered from a split identity.  Fortunately, that isn't the case; Hogan is able to keep the film light and frothy from beginning to end.

Not surprisingly, this was, and still is, a very popular and much beloved film (it opened at #2 at the box office when it was released, behind "Batman & Robin").  For those of you who haven't seen it, this is why you should.  For those of you that have, this is why you should see it again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Thousand Words

3/4

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Clark Duke, Cliff Curtis, Kerry Washington, Allison Janney

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Situations including Dialogue, Language and Some Drug-Related Humor

Eddie Murphy's new movie has gotten trashy ratings from critics, and to be honest, I don't really understand why.  Sure, the plot is eerily similar to "Liar Liar," and sometimes it cuts away from the funny scenes too early, but you know what?  It made me laugh and feel good.  What's not to like about that?

Jack McCall (Murphy) is a motormouthed agent who can sign any potential client.  His latest goal is to get publishing rights to the book of a world famous guru named Dr. Sinja (Curtis).  Shortly after he sleazes his way into getting Sinja to sign with him, a tree pops up in his backyard.  Whenever he talks, a leaf falls off.  According to Dr. Sinja, this has happened before, and when the last leaf falls (after 1000 words), McCall will end up six feet under.  Now McCall will have to keep his mouth shut long enough to figure out how to stop it.

Like I said, it's not Shakespeare.  But it does play to Murphy's strengths: his fast mouth, improvisation, and wildly expressive face.  Murphy, whose career has been in the toilet as of late, proves why he was once one of the highest paid comedians in Hollywood.  His constant rising in stress is hysterical to watch, essentially forcing him to play charades 24/7.

He's surrounded by an able supporting cast.  Clark Duke is less irritating than usual because he doesn't seem to be muting himself.  Kerry Washington is okay as his wife, who wants him to move into a more family friendly home now that they have a young son.  Ditto for Cliff Curtis as the helpful guru.  Allison Janney, a gifted comedienne in her own right, is more often than not irritating.

This is the third pairing of Murphy and director Brian Robbins (the first being the much despised "Norbit," and the not much better received "Meet Dave").  Robbins does what he should do in this case; let Murphy do his thing and build around him.  Murphy knows what he's doing, and Robbins is smart enough to get that.

I mentioned earlier that the film is similar to Jim Carrey's 1997 smash "Liar Liar," and in a not so strange way it is.  Both films feature fast talking, sleazy characters being unable to do the one unethical thing they do to get ahead, and mix physical comedy with light drama.  Although the major plot points and details are hugely different and the story in "A Thousand Words" is a lot thinner, they have the same feel.  If you appreciated "Liar Liar," you'll probably like this one too.

21 Jump Street

3.5/4

Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ice Cube, Rob Riggle

Rated R for Crude and Sexual Content, Pervasive Language, Drug Material, Teen Drinking and Some Violence

The trailers for "21 Jump Street," a movie version of the cult TV show starring Johnny Depp, make the film look like a fairly generic R-rated raunchfest.  They don't do the film justice.  At all.  This is a hilarious movie that occasionally had me holding my sides to contain the pain from laughing so hard.  The story is well-thought out and not as thin as is usual for a comedy, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller cleverly send up the "cop movie" and "buddy comedy" in unusual ways.

Geeky Schmidt (Hill) used to be tormented by Jenko (Tatum) the big dumb jock in high school.  When they both end up in the Police Academy, Jenko is forced to rely on his new friend to help him pass the exams while he helps Schmidt with the physical training.  Of course, when they graduate, neither one of them turns out to be the least bit competent (their first bust gets thrown out because they didn't know the Miranda warning).  They're then sent to an undercover program that will have them pose as high school students to find the supplier and dealers of a new synthetic drug.

The script, written by Michael Bacall from a story by himself and star Jonah Hill, is carefully written and constructed.  It knows the popular conventions of each genre and has a lot of fun with them.  Consider the scene above where they attempt to take down a bunch of bikers smoking pot.  Lord and Miller employ film and music techniques that are used in traditional cop movies to increase the adrenaline, but the joke is that Schmidt and Jenko are on bicycles against a bunch of burly guys who might very well be in the Hell's Angels.  It's not the funniest send-up, not by a long shot, but it's the kind of thing that this movie is filled with.

As the protagonists, Hill and surprisingly, Tatum, are in top form.  Hill is his usual reliable self.  We expect him to be the funny geek, and he delivers.  He's also adept at the "drama" the role requires, although all of it is with the tongue planted firmly in cheek.  I've never been convinced of Channing Tatum's acting skills.  From what I've seen, he's basically a hunk cast in movies for the girls to go gaga over.  To my surprise, he gives a very good performance.  It's hardly Oscar-worthy, but it's surprisingly effective.  Also of note is Dave Franco, James Franco's kid brother is very good as Eric, the popular kid dealer.  And of course there's Ice Cube (always nice to see him) as the foul-mouthed Captain.  There's also a very funny cameo from an uncredited, but obvious, star (whose scene is surprising and hilarious).

I wasn't expecting this movie to be this inventive and hilarious.  Sure, the laughs get thinner as the movie goes on, but there's always something clever happening.  And I found the plot to be surprisingly involving.  Don't judge the movie by its trailer.  It's a lot funnier than it would have you believe, and while a nudge lower than "This Means War," it may very well end up on my Top 10 list.

Match Point

4/4

Starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton

Rated R for Some Sexuality

"The man who said I'd rather be lucky than good saw deeply into life."

So are the opening words, spoken by the lead character, Chris Wilton, in Woody Allen's masterful thriller.  On the surface, the film seems to be about marital infidelity (bringing to mind the likes of "Fatal Attraction," a film that has absolutely no relation to "Match Point"), but it's really about luck.  There are a lot of coincidences in this movie, and that's the point.  Life is full of little coinkeydinks.

Chris Wilton (Rhys-Meyers) is an ex-tennis pro who has settled in London as a tennis coach for the rich.  There, he meets a man named Tom Hewitt (Goode), whom after a round of tennis, is invited to the opera with his family.  Soon after, he's touring London with Tom's sister, the energetic Chloe (Mortimer), who falls for Chris almost instantly.  Things seem to be going great for Chris, but then he meets Tom's fiancee, the beguiling and seductive Nola Rice (Johansson).

I'm not going to say anymore about the plot, although it's mainly a stylistic choice since the trailer (which is very good in its own right) tells more.  That being said, this is one of those movies that works best if you know nothing about it.

The acting is incredible; three out of the four leads deserved Oscar nominations (none of them received any--the only nod the film got was for Best Original Screenplay).  Leading the pack is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Chris Wilton.  The Irish actor got his big break in the British comedy "Bend it Like Beckham," but here he proves that he is more than capable of carrying an entire film.  Present in almost every scene, the actor creates an incredibly complex and sympathetic character.  Chris is a young man who has, in his own words, "become accustomed to a certain kind of living" (read: filthy rich), but he's also tied down by what is really an act of desire, hubris and stupidity.  As the eager to please Chloe, Mortimer radiates sweetness while still retaining a personality.  We can feel a lot of Chris's conflict because we like her so much.  Matthew Goode is also outstanding as the rich boy Tom; he's filled to the brim with charisma, and it's easy to understand why the meek Chris would be attracted to him.  The weak link (a term I use with trepidation because it's not exactly fair) is Scarlett Johansson.  As Nola, she's certainly sexy, and it's a great performance, but maybe because of how the character is written, she isn't as strong as the others.  Beloved character actor Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton also provide solid support.

Woody Allen ended a long dry spell (so I've heard...haven't seen many of his movie) with "Match Point," and if that's the case, it's certainly a masterful shot back to the forefront.  The film is superbly constructed.  Each scene builds upon the last, and is filled with subtle filming techniques and delicious little ironies.  But more importantly, Allen develops the plot like a master.  It starts out fairly slow, but that's actually an asset.  It gets us to intimately know the characters while allowing Allen to turn the screws without us noticing.  The story takes a number of interesting turns.  Allen knows our expectations and plays them against us in a spectacular fashion.

This is a truly amazing movie.  The characters are fascinatingly flawed and never cease to compel.  By the time the film reaches its heartstopping climax, it's impossible to turn away from it.  And there's another act to go!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Mike's Musings: Hating on the Critics

There are a lot of people who hate film critics.  They seem to hate every "good" movie and adore every pretentious, artsy-fartsy movie.  I don't blame them; for a while, I was in the same boat.  There is a film critic at our local newspaper that I absolutely loathed.  He gave mediocre to poor reviews for every movie I loved and only seemed to give good reviews to movies that showed at our local arthouse movie theater.

There is a huge disconnect between film critics and audiences about the quality of movies.  It's only natural, everyone is different so in turn everyone has a different opinion of a movie.  But there's more to that, I think.

The difference is volume.  Film critics see countless movies; more than any normal person.  Therefore, they may find a movie formulaic and derivative even though the average moviegoer may not.  Additionally, critics analyze movies while average moviegoers simply watch them and decide if they do or do not like them.  A critic thinks about all facets of the film: acting, directing, storytelling, and what the film is trying to do or say (if anything).  It's at this point that I could argue that a film critic should try to put himself in the mind of the "average filmgoer," but I won't because it's fundamentally dishonest; a film critic should voice their opinions and theirs alone (they might suggest who the audience is for a movie, but again, that's just their opinion).

If it seems like critics bash every movie in the multiplex and worship the arthouse fare, it's probably because arthouse movies are the best of the foreign films (crappy foreign films won't make any money here--our subtitle phobia is too ingrained), and lower budgets means more risks that could pay off.

Personally, I like to give each movie the benefit of the doubt.  I don't look for flaws; only if it's obvious to someone who isn't looking for it is it worth mentioning, because chances are that the audience isn't hunting for flaws.  I'll admit that this is sometimes hard to do, such as when you've heard terrible things about a movie or if it's directed by Marcus Nispel.

And I don't pay any attention to those critics who hate every "mainstream" (what does that mean, anyway?  Really?) movie because it's "mainstream" and adore every indie movie because it's indie.  By and large, they're all morons who are trying to look hip and sophisticated.  A good movie is a good movie, regardless of where it's shown.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Underworld: Evolution

3/4

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Tony Curran, Derek Jacobi, Steven Mackintosh

Rated R for Pervasive Strong Violence and Gore, Some Sexuality/Nudity and Language

I thought that the first "Underworld" was an interesting misfire.  It had a promising story and great action sequences, but Len Wiseman was more concerned about making the film look good than actually telling the story.  Here, Wiseman has either calmed down or matured as a filmmaker, because the sequel rectifies much of the first film's flaws.

The sequel (which has almost nothing to do with the first film despite the return of a few characters) details the exploits of vampire Selene (Beckinsale) and her half vampire/half werewolf squeeze, Michael (Speedman).  In order to get back on the good side, they must seek the help of the first and most powerful vampire, Marcus (Curran).  Unfortunately, he has his own agenda: freeing his brother, the first werewolf William (Brian Steele), who has been locked in a cage since 1202.  Now they must stop him before they wreck havoc on the world.

"Underworld: Evolution" is better focused and acted, but the problem is the story.  It isn't terrible; it's moderately engaging and keeps things moving inbetween the numerous action scenes, but it lacks the grand melodrama of the first (however ineptly told that may have been).  Wiseman follows a pretty rigid formula: fight scene, talk to character who has the answers, travel to the next place, fight scene, talk, travel, repeat.  I half expected this to be released as a video game.

The acting is serviceable, but there's no time for Shakespeare.  Kate Beckinsale slides easily back into the role (in more ways than one).  Scott Speedman has improved greatly, but I don't expect him to be getting an Oscar anytime soon.  Tony Curran makes for an okay villain, but he lacks any sort of edge.  Much beloved classical actor Derek Jacobi is also on hand in a small but important role; sadly there's not much he can do.

If you've put the DVD in the player without looking at it, it's obvious from frame one that this is a sequel to "Underworld."  The blue-black monochromatic look of the film, bullets and gore fly everywhere, and lots of shots of Kate Beckinsale in a skin-tight leather outfit.  Len Wiseman has improved his craft considerably, and for the better.

Look.  Is it a good movie?  Not really.  I enjoyed it moderately while I was watching it, but that's all.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hoodlum

3/4

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Chi McBride, Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson, Andy Garcia

Rated R for Graphic Gangster Violence, Strong Language, A Scene of Sexuality and Some Nudity

Typically in gangster movies, the guys with the tommy guns are Italian.  From "The Godfather" to "Goodfellas," the two are synonymous (although lately, Russians have taken over the job with the likes of "The Boondock Saints" and "Running Scared").  So here is "Hoodlum," a gangster movie where the central focus is on African American gangsters.

Interestingly enough, there's really not much difference in how Bumpy Johnson (Fisburne) and his crew operate, as opposed to say, the Corleones.  There is a godfather (well, in this case, a Queen), generals, foot soldiers, etc.  Director Bill Duke, who is black, deliberately does not make an issue of race, and that's a wise decision.  Black, Russian, Italian...they're all human beings, and a gangster is a gangster.  Could Duke have given their way of doing things a different "feel," if you will, and still made a dramatically compelling movie?  Absolutely, but to do so would be a disservice to the story.  Duke does show the racism that blacks faced, but for the most part the fact that these gangsters are black is mostly irrelevant to the story.

Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson has just gotten out of prison and is going back to his old life working for "Queen" Stephanie St. Clair (Tyson), a powerful woman who runs a lucrative numbers racket.  But there is an intruder on their turf.  Dutch Schultz (Roth), a gangster who is working under the local mob boss, Lucky Luciano (Garcia), who wants to run his own racket.  Tensions boil over and a war erupts between them.  The body count rises dramatically and no one is safe from either the law or the gun.  Bumpy has to decide how far he is willing to go to win.

The acting is on the good side of variable.  Laurence Fishburne, an imposing actor who possesses a great range, is outstanding as Bumpy.  He is delicate but powerful, and wants to do the right thing.  He has his own set of morals, which, while not revolutionary in a gangster movie, gives the character depth.  Dutch Schultz is another one of Tim Roth's hyper and off-the-wall villains.  It's a good performance, Dutch is the perfect adversary for Bumpy, but this is something that Roth can do in his sleep.  Andy Garcia is flat as Lucky Luciano, but his role is small.  Character actor Chi McBride is also very good as Illinois, Bumpy's right-hand-man.  Also worth mentioning is Cicely Tyson.  Tyson has gone on record saying she will only portray strong images of women, and they don't get much stronger than Madame St. Clair.

Bill Duke, a character actor in his own right,has created a sprawling gangster epic.  The scope is vast, the characters are well-developed and well-acted, but the film suffers from some clunky development.  In other words, it could have used a few rewrites.  It is also about 20 minutes too long (the subplot with a sleazy lawyer, played by William Atherton (who is the go to guy for these types of roles) doesn't make a lot of sense and adds little to the proceedings). To Duke's credit, the film is visually dynamic and almost always interesting.

If you're the kind of person who can't get enough gangster movies, here's another one to add to your collection.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Silent House

2.5/4

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Adam Trese

Rated R for Disturbing Violent Content and Terror

Although "Silent House" contains a number of truly spooky sequences, the film as a whole doesn't work, due in part to a horrible performance by Elizabeth Olsen and a catastrophically bad final act.

Sarah (Olsen) is spending the next few days with her father, John (Trese), and uncle, Peter (Stevens), renovating her family's summer home.  But there are a few creepy goings on upstairs, and before she knows it, she's trapped in the house with a few nasty intruders.

The film's style is meant to mimic a single take (it is actually cut up into ten minute segments that are seamlessly edited together).  It's a creative choice that has a lot of potential for a movie like this.  Unfortunately, as directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, it's mostly unrealized.  The technique feels contrived and constantly calls attention to itself.

Also of note is Elizabeth Olsen's performance.  Olsen is a good actress, like in last years critic's darling "Martha Marcy May Marlene."  She's good in her first few scenes in this movie too, but once she starts crying, her performance becomes cringe-inducing.  Eric Sheffer Stevens is good as her way-too-young-to-be-her-uncle Philip, and Adam Trese is effective as her father, but this is Olsen's show.

The film's ending is also a problem...a major one.  It's completely out of left-field, a lame cliche, and considering the details, more than a little sick.  Done right, twist endings can be effective, but here it's a desperate attempt that is so outrageous and bizarre that it diminishes a lot of goodwill that it built up.

There are some good things about this movie.  Some scenes are genuinely creepy, particularly one that uses a Polaroid camera to good effect.  So if that's all you're looking for, go ahead and see it.  But be forewarned that there are some substantial problems with this movie.

Unthinkable (Extended Edition)

2/4

Starring: Carrie-Anne Moss, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Sheen, Stephen Root, Holmes Osbourne, Martin Donovan

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Torture, and Language

What would you do if you had a man in custody who claims to have three nuclear bombs in three American cities set to go off in three days?  The U.S. Constitution doesn't allow a person to be tortured, but in this case, does the end justify the means?

It's the ethical question of our time (the Bush administration perpetuated the belief that this kind of situation happens every day).  Director Gregor Jordan realized that this question could make a powderkeg of a movie, but unfortunately, his film doesn't exploit the situation effectively.

FBI agent Helen Brody (Moss) watches on the news that a man named Steven Arthur Younger (Sheen) is wanted for shooting a police officer and kidnapping two kids.  But as she's wondering how she didn't get this information before the news did, she and her team are whisked away to a "location that doesn't exist."  It turns out that the Defense Intelligence Agency has Younger in custody, but he's far more dangerous that Helen thought.  Younger has created three nuclear weapons set to go off in three days, but he's not saying where they are.  So the DIA brings in a specialist from hiding, named H (Jackson) who is willing to do anything to get him to talk.  As Helen watches in horror at the torture she is witnessing, she finds her position against torture challenged as the clock ticks.

"Unthinkable" asks a number of questions.  Is torture ever ethical?  Does it actually work?  Is it legal?  The problem is that while these questions are provocative, they're not that original either.  We've been asking ourselves these same questions after the horrors at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay were exposed.

Even on its own terms, the film doesn't work very well.  The acting is of variable quality.  Carrie-Anne Moss, who will be forever known as Trinity from "The Matrix" movies, is good, but not great.  Another actress could have performed the role better.  Samuel L. Jackson is surprisingly weak.  Usually an impeccable and dynamic performer, Jackson's heart doesn't seem to be in this project and it shows.  Michael Sheen, an underrated actor  who can do just about anything, is excellent as Younger.  Some scenes are incredibly shocking because of how good he is.  Martin Donovan turns in a hammy performance and Holmes Osbourne is almost embarrassingly bad, but their roles are small.

But the real problem is the direction by Gregor Jordan.  His work is stale and not very involving; I didn't particularly care whether they found the bombs or not.  Surprisingly, Jordan seems to agree that the end justifies the means.  I'm not blaming the film for that; everyone has their own opinion and because Hollywood is so liberal, we usually don't get opinions from the other side of the fence.  I do however find fault with the ending because it's a cheat.  It's a cheap shot that already hurts this heavily flawed film, although I heard that it's only on the Extended Edition.

Friday, March 9, 2012

John Carter

1/4

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynne Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Willem Dafoe

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action

When it comes to big budget movies, Hollywood wants to make sure that they're getting it right.  With all that money at stake, it can't be just a shameless money grab.  They have to make sure that people will actually like the movie.  Despite there being exceptions to this (like the "Transformers" franchise), big budgets mean, at worst, a decent time at the movies.  Unfortunately for Disney, "John Carter" is one of those exceptions.

There's far too much plot for this movie's good.  There's enough story and subplots running around for a four hour miniseries.  That, by the way, is not the film's only problem, but it is there.  What I could figure out a Civil War soldier named John Carter (Kitsch) is looking for a cave made out of gold, and he ends up finding a medallion that takes him to Mars.  There, he ends up in what is really a three-way battle between the natives.

The biggest problem is that Taylor Kitsch, who plays the title character, is horrible.  He can't act, and in an attempt to become intense, he growls his way through his lines.  Lynn Collins isn't much better, although she can act (she was quite good in the little seen "Bug").  The supporting characters, played by Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong (once again playing a villain), and Willem Dafoe (in a voice role) are adequate.  The best performance (actually, the only good one), is given by James Purefoy, who is clearly enjoying himself.  In a note of irony, he's playing the second-in-command to Ciaran Hinds, just like he did in the HBO series "Rome" (Polly Walker also has a role, but it's just voice acting and it's really small).

Sure, the movie is visually dazzling, but that can be said about any big budget endeavor.  It's also hampered by awful 3D.  The film constantly looks dark and blurry, and it bleeds out any possible enjoyment from the film.  I'm not a fan of 3D, but with a budget this high, I expected it to be actually decent.

This is a movie that is going to make Disney very nervous.  It's obviously intended to be the start of a franchise (iMDb already has a sequel listed, though without a set release date).  But despite all the buzz they've generated about it, it won't stop word from spreading about how lame the movie is.  What does it say about a movie when the most sympathetic character is a 600 pound worm with the personality of a border collie?

"John Carter" is directed by Andrew Stanton, who made two of the most beloved Pixar films, "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E."  Based on this, he should stick to animated films.  This is a terrible movie.  The plot only makes sense half of the time, the acting is lackluster and there are plotholes everywhere.  But worst of all, the movie is just plain boring.  Even with so much going on, it's a $250 million sleep aid.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Death in Love

1/4

Starring: Josh Lucas, Jacqueline Bisset, Lukas Haas, Adam Brody

Rated R for Disturbing Violent and Graphic Sexual Content, Nudity and Language

"Death in Love" is twisted.  That is not a compliment.  It's a creepy, pretentious and disgusting little film.  It's also entirely pointless; all of this depravity is, for a lack of a better term, "all fury and signifying nothing."

The film details the exploits of a family who takes the term "dysfunctional" to a new level.  The mother (Bisset) is a Holocaust survivor who fell in love with a vicious Nazi doctor.  Her youngest son (Haas) is in his late thirties and is co-dependent on his parents and may have autistic tendencies.  The older son (Lucas) is a lothario working at a shady modeling agency who hates himself to no end.

The best thing, in fact the only good thing, that I can say about this movie is that the acting is strong.  Josh Lucas, an underrated character actor, is very good as a self-loathing 40 year old.  This is an intelligent guy who has lived his whole life in decay and has not come out of it well.  He struggles with human connections and with his sexual compulsions (on that note, credit must be given to Lucas for his willingness to perform graphic sexual acts for the camera).  Jacqueline Bisset, no stranger to playing creepy characters (she was terrifying in her stint on the show "Nip/Tuck") is quite good as the unstable mother.  Lukas Haas is rather flat as the younger son, although that may be because of how he was directed.

The saving grace of the film, believe it or not, is Adam Brody.  Brody, who was on the hit TV show "The O.C.," is in fine form as the charismatic talent agent that Lucas' character takes a liking to.  He's handsome, charming and genuine (or at least he seems to be).  The film rises from the muck whenever Brody is on screen. Then it goes back into the artsy hell that it came from.

Because he wrote, directed and produced this monstrosity, Boaz Yakin is the sole bearer of the blame (well, mostly...the cinematography by Frederik Jacobi is drearily stale, reminding us of those awful artsy movies that only cinephiles love).  Disturbing movies can be fine, even ones about dysfunctional families ("The War Zone," anyone?).  The problem here is that the characters are sketchily developed, the flashbacks to the mother's past are oddly placed and intrusive, and Yakin doesn't seem to be saying anything with this movie (he may very well be saying something, but it never comes across).  The only purpose I can think of to watch this movie is to use it as porn, but it's not even good porn; the bleak cinematography prevents any titillation from occurring.  So what are we left with?  An utterly worthless 90 minutes.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mike's Musings: Unfilmable?

I recently rewatched "Hollow Man" a week or so ago, and it got me thinking...is there anything that, under no circumstances, should be included in a movie?

I've seen a lot of movies that have disturbing material in them.  Rape ("Boys Don't Cry"), domestic violence ("Once Were Warriors"), torture ("The Passion of the Christ"), explicit sex ("Lust, Caution).  You name it, I've probably seen it.  The stuff I've listed is disturbing, and often times that's the goal.  You don't watch a movie like "Once Were Warriors" when you're in the mood for light entertainment, and woe betide anyone who thinks that the movie is a lighthearted action/adventure movie (I did for a time, but that was only because Lee Tamahori's career turned to action movies later in his career).

And yet, when I watched "Hollow Man," I felt unclean.  The two scenes that made me feel this way were a rape scene and particularly brutal act of animal cruelty.  I won't say that they were unnecessary; they served the purpose of showing that Sebastian Cane was becoming violently insane.  But Paul Verhoeven created an exploitation flick when he directed "Hollow Man," and that's not the place for this kind of thing.

For the record, I have nothing against either rape or animal cruelty in film...even in fiction.  I think that "Once Were Warriors" is a near masterpiece and "Brotherhood of the Wolf," which is my favorite movie, has a scene where hundreds of wolves are slaughtered.  But in both films these scenes added something to the story in which no other act could.  The rape scene in "Once Were Warriors" serves a purpose, and the wolf hunt makes perfect sense in "Brotherhood of the Wolf."  While not pleasant to watch, it's understandable why Lee Tamahori and Chrisoph Gans included them in their films and I hold no ill will towards either of them.

"Hollow Man" is different because of the context in which the scenes were presented.  First of all, having a lead character go descend into violent madness is a very general plot development, and the ways to show this while raising the nape hairs are endless.  In using rape and animal cruelty, does "Hollow Man" accomplish something positive (in a twisted way) that nothing else could?  I don't think so.  That's what makes these scenes create ill-will.  "Hollow Man" could have done a number of different things to achieve the same result, and using a graphic rape and the killing of a dog to do this is really a cheap shot.  That, and the fact that Verhoeven exploits both makes it a double whammy, but never mind.

That's the big question.  If you're going to show something that is going to repulse a lot of viewers, you better make sure that there's no other way to do so without turning off your audience.

Act of Valor

2.5/4

Cast: Anonymous, Roselyn Sanchez, Jason Cottle, Ailsa Marshall, Alex Veadov

Rated R for Strong Violence including Some Torture, and for Language

"Act of Valor" is frustrating.  Character development is minimal, the story (thin as it is) doesn't make a lot of sense, and the film has a tendency to get ponderous and preachy.  But the action scenes are intense and exciting.  Can a series of well-executed action scenes make up for the deficiencies in the script?  Almost, but not quite.

The film is being advertised as starring actual Navy SEALs, which it does (none of them are credited for obvious reasons).  Apparently, the SEALs were irritated during production because they were not being portrayed accurately, so they were given the roles.  It shows.  None of the action scenes seem to be rehearsed; the amount of verisimilitude is extraordinary.

If only that descriptor carried over to the other aspects of the film.  The story is pretty thin, and it's little more than a connecting thread between the action scenes.  But it goes down like this: A CIA agent has been kidnapped by a drug cartel and the Navy SEALs are sent in to retrieve her.  Once they rescue her, they realize that a smuggler has teamed up with a ruthless terrorist named Abu Shabal (Cottle) to attack the US.  The SEALs must find the smuggler, a man known as Cristo (Veadov) to find Shabal.

For what it is, "Act of Valor" isn't half bad.  In fact, it's decent entertainment.  But the script could have used some beefing up and a few rewrites.  There's not much here to make us want to keep going except the fact that there's another action scene coming up.

Speaking of which, the action scenes are the main selling point.  They're fluid, relentless and visceral.  We can see their tactics and professionalism.  The lack of "Hollywoodization" is immediately apparent.  Even the most intense action movies aren't this realistic.

One of the most common pitfalls of using no-name actors is to cast actors (or in this case SEALs) who look and sound indistinguishable.  That's the case here.  The only thing that differentiates them is the fact that one has a baby on the way and the other already has kids.  Add to the fact that they wear identical combat gear and there's no telling who is who (they're so alike that sometimes its one who has the kids and other times the same guy is the one with the pregnant wife).

Okay, so the movie doesn't work.  But I'm not going to sit here and tell you to avoid it.  Far from it.  This is a solid effort, especially since it avoids the obvious pitfalls (it is not, as some have said, an advertisement for the Navy.  Although the thought is understandable, it's not really fair to the film).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Lorax

2/4

Starring (voices): Danny DeVito, Zac Efron, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, Taylor Swift, Betty White

Rated PG for Brief Mild Language

Short stories do not necessarily make bad movies, even ones as short as those written by Dr. Seuss (I liked "How the Grinch Stole Christmas").  Their brevity demands that the stories become plot outlines, so the difference between a good movie and a bad movie lies in the material that fills in the substantial breaks.  Ron Howard buffed up the Grinch with heart and comedy.  The team behind "The Lorax" attempts to do the same thing, only with much less satisfactory results.

Ted (Efron) is a young boy with a crush on his neighbor, Audrey (Swift).  What she wants more than anything is to see a real living tree; quite a dream for someone in Theedville, where absolutely everything is manufactured in plastic, and bottled air is even sold.  But like every adolescent boy lusting after a beautiful girl, he tries to make her dream a reality.  To that end, he seeks out the Once-ler (Helms), who may know what happened to them.  But there's someone who doesn't want Ted to succeed, the local air-businessman Mr. O'Hare (Riggle), who, despite looking and acting like Edna Mode from "The Incredibles," essentially runs the town.

Family films, especially ones of the animated variety, are known for two things: a lack of subtlety (kids don't typically have long attention spans) and lots of action (ditto).  Both are in evidence in "The Lorax," only in extreme amounts.  The film is constantly preachy to nearly sickening levels, and is filled from top to bottom with artificial and bloated action sequences.  Not to mention the insipid songs that occasionally pop up ("The Lorax" will make you appreciate the dynamic songs that were included in Disney's Golden Age movies).

The voice acting is on solid ground.  Despite a few big names, they all successfully hide behind their characters. Zac Efron is solid as the idealistic Ted.  Taylor Swift is very good as the affectionate Audrey.  Ted and Audrey's relationship, undeveloped as it is, rings true.  Ed Helms makes for a good Once-ler (his relationship with his demanding parents also works), and Rob Riggle makes for a fatuous villain (his burly henchmen are clearly reminiscent of the Belleville Sisters in "The Triplets of Belleville").  Danny DeVito is terrific as always as The Lorax.

It would be wrong for me to criticize "The Lorax" for overdoing the visuals (that sort of comes with the territory...with Dr. Seuss, the mantra is "more is more").  But I can criticize it for being shallow, hyperactive and cloying.  A little subtlety would have been welcome...even if it is a kids movie.