Friday, May 25, 2012

Men in Black 3

2.5/4
Starring: Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emma Thompson, Tommy Lee Jones

Rated PG-13 for Sci-fi Action Violence and Brief Suggestive Content

The first two "Men in Black" movies were successful in the same way "Harry Potter" was: the important stuff was great, but the best stuff was in the details.  My favorite bits of the Harry Potter books were the little bits that J.K. Rowling added for seasoning, like in the second book when Ron Weasley warns Harry that some books are cursed and there was one case where a man picked up a book and literally couldn't put it down, or how Harry had overperformed his Cheering Charm on Ron, who had to go to the next room for ten minutes so he could calm down.  The "Men in Black" movies had decent enough plots, but they were really a thread to place the inventive aliens and jokes.  Sadly, the plot of "Men in Black 3" isn't particularly interesting and the majority of the jokes are lame.

Agent K (Jones) is feeling anxious lately, which is irritating his partner, Agent J (Smith) to no end.  But as in his nature, K won't tell him what's going on, because it's above his paygrade.  It turns out that a vicious alien named Boris the Animal (Clement), has escaped from prison on the moon.  Boris has a beef with K for shooting off his arm in 1963, and has gone back in time to prevent that.  Now J must go back in time to kill Boris and prevent an alien invasion.

Like the first two films, this plot is derivative and fairly boring.  Unfortunately, the material that was the lifeblood of the first two films is lame here too.  All the good stuff was given away in the trailer.  There are a few good jokes here and there, but the script by Etan Cohen is depressingly bland.
Will Smith does his job admirably, but he's not given anything to work with.  Tommy Lee Jones is barely on-screen long enough to be called a cameo.  These two are on hand mainly to pick up a paycheck.  Emma Thompson, the classy actress that she is, looks embarrassed to be here.  Her "funniest" moment, where she squeaks and squeals in an alien language, is more awkward than funny.  I felt embarrassed for her.  The only ones who appear to invest themselves in their performances are Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg and Josh Brolin.  Clement makes for a fairly evil villain, and Stuhlbarg is energetic, if slightly irritating, as the helpful alien who can see every possibility of every event.  Josh Brolin, however, saves this movie from being a lot worse than it is.  He's got Tommy Lee Jones down pat; the mannerisms, the accent, the look...it's easy to imagine that this is what K looked like in the 60s.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld, who hasn't had much of a career outside the "Men in Black" franchise, seems to be tired of the "Men in Black" movies.  The timing is slacking, the energy is non-existent, and the movie on the whole is kind of a bore.  I admit, there's some suspense during the final action scene, but that, and a few decent jokes, are the only things that this movie has going for it.

Chernobyl Diaries

2.5/4

Starring: Jonathan Sadowski, Devin Kelley, Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley, Nathan Philips, Ingrid Bolso Bodal, Dimitri Diatchenko

Rated R for Violence, Some Bloody Images and Pervasive Language

"Chernobyl Diaries" is being marketed as being from Oren Peli, who wrote and directed the absolutely terrifying smash hit, "Paranormal Activity."  This is really only half true, however.  Peli came up with the story and co-wrote the script (with Carey and Shane Van Dyke), but it was directed by Bradley Parker.  Whoever you consider to be "behind" the film, the result is the same.  "Chernobyl Diaries" is at times scary, but it's also unsatisfying.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and Natalie's friend Amanda (Kelley), are in Kiev visiting Chris's older brother, Michael (Sadowski).  After a night of partying, Michael comes to the hungover trio and suggest they do a bit of extreme tourism: tour Pripyat, the town that was abandoned after the Chernobyl meltdown.  With a man named Uri (Diatchenko) as their guide and two Norwegians, Michael (Philips) and Zoe (Bodal) tagging along, they tour the abandoned city.  But when they get ready to leave, they find the van's wires cut.  Now, the seven of them are trapped in a radiated city that they were only supposed to spend two hours in.  They will soon find out that radiation is the least of their worries.

While I was watching this movie, I admitted that it was scary, and yet I did not find myself satisfied.  Part of the reason is the way that Parker, a first-time director whose background is, of course, in visual effects, handles some of the material.  This is not a pseudo-documentary horror film like the aforementioned "Paranormal Activity" and its sequels.  Parker does use a handheld camera, but it's not held by one of the characters.  This is a fresh change from what we've been getting lately.  But in an effort to use the power of suggestion, Parker cuts away from the surprises too quickly.  There were times when I didn't know what was going on in a "shock" moment until after things had settled down.  It is here that rarely, if ever, does the camera go into an epileptic seizure.  Thank God.

The acting is effective.  The biggest star, and I use that term loosely because he blends in nicely with the rest of the cast, and his "stardom" has long since expired, is pop-star/actor Jesse McCartney.  He's effective as the worrywart younger brother, Chris.  Also very good is Jonathan Sadowski.  He is someone I really felt for.  Kelley, Dudley and Bodal are also good, but Philips, who played one of the ill-fated hikers in "Wolf Creek," is good as the Norwegian Michael.

It's rare these days to find an effective horror movie.  If you're looking to get freaked out for ninety-minutes then forget about it, this will fit the bill.  But for those who are looking for a little more, it's lacking.

The Remains of the Day

3.5/4
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant

Rated PG for Themes

One of the most difficult things for a person to do is to be completely honest with themselves.  Admitting what you want opens the door for it to blow up in your face.  Consider closeted gay people.  If they come out of the closet, they face discrimination and possible betrayal from their friends and families.  And yet, if we are, it allows us to be happier with ourselves.  The tragic flaw of the Mr. Stevens is that he his duties as a butler don't allow him to admit how he feels, and it costs him everything.

Stevens (Hopkins) is the dutiful and devoted butler of the wealthy and powerful Lord Darlington (Fox).  He believes that the most important part of being a butler is dignity.  He remains an automoton, an unfeeling thing that does everything that is asked of him with no backtalk or controversy.  How he feels about anything is irrelevant.  That all changes when the new head housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Thompson) arrives.  She's more open about what she feels, and an undeniable bond forms between them.  She is willing to admit it, but Steven's duties as a butler don't allow him to reciprocate.

The other conflict that Stevens has is with his employer, Lord Darlington.  Darlington is a Nazi sympathizer, but only in the extent that he found the Treaty of Versailles unfair.  But as an American Congressman, Jack Lewis (Reeve) tells Darlington, he's in over his head.  Although not directly impacted by the decisions his employer makes, Stevens' devotion to the job and to Darlington makes them affect him deeply.

There's a lot going on here, and the power of suggestion is strong in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay.  Although the dialogue isn't especially revealing, it allows for the actors to carry the rest of the weight.  The characters that she has drawn, based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro, demand a lot from the cast, and the all succeed in bringing them to life.

When he recreated Hannibal Lector for the screen (the role was first essayed by Brian Cox in Michael Mann's flop, "Manhunter") in "The Silence of the Lambs," he rised being typecast as a psychopathic villain.  But Hopkins is a true master, able to play just about any role.  It's hard to name two characters who are more different than Hannibal Lecter and James Stevens.  Lecter was a psychopath who enjoyed toying with his victims, and his adversary, Clarice Starling.  Stevens, on the other hand, prides himself on being meek and obedient.  Miss Kenton once complains, "Why don't you say what you're feeling?"  As for Miss Kenton, Emma Thompson is fabulous as always.  She sees through Stevens' veneer better than he himself does.  She loves him dearly, but he is unable to admit it.

From the late eighties to the early ninties, director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant (and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who despite winning two Oscars for her work and having written scripts for all their films, isn't recognized as much), were the top tier of the arthouse circut.  Watching "The Remains of the Day," it's not hard to see why.  Ivory navigates this complex material with relative ease and is able to get terrific performances from all of his cast members.  Sure, the pacing flags a little early on, and I wanted more scenes with Stevens' and Miss Kenton, but it's still a wonderful movie.  Also, there's a deleted scene at the end where Stevens' spills his heart to a man on a pier that, while I understand why Ivory cut it out, I think the film would have been better served had it been left in.

All that being said, this is a wonderful film.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting

2/4

Starring: Elizabeth Banks, Anna Kendrick, Cameron Diaz, Ben Falcone, Jennifer Lopez, Rodrigo Santoro, Dennis Quaid, Brooklyn Decker, Chris Rock, Chace Crawford, Matthew Morrison

Rated PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Content, Thematic Elements and Language

The informational book on pregnancy, "What to Expect When You're Expecting," has been the book for expectant mothers since the first edition was published in 1984 (although not without controversy...critics claim it makes expectant mothers paraonid by only concentrating on what can go wrong and enforcing strict dietary guidlines, and because the writer, Heidi Murkoff, is not a registered nurse, and only goes to medical professionals for advice after she's done writing).  Virtually every movie dealing with pregnancy has the pregnant female character reading it at some point.

But as an advice book, the book has no storyline.  That hasn't stopped Lionsgate from transforming it into a movie.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It could use the information contained in its pages to create conflict or intelligent thought about pregnancy and how real characters deal with the highs and lows of being pregnant.  Sadly, for anyone looking for insight into what it's like being pregnant isn't going to find it here.  This is an ensemble romantic comedy (a term I use with extreme reservations because it's not particularly funny and only sporadically romantic) that uses the name of the book for marketing purposes only.

The film details the lives of five couples, two of which are on tangentally linked to pregnancy.  TV fitness guru Jules (Diaz) has a fling with her "Dances with the Stars"-ish partner, Evan (Morrison), and they end up getting pregnant.  Baby crazy Wendy (Banks) has been desperately trying to concieve with her supportive husband, Gary (Falcone) and when she finally does, she finds out that it's not nearly as fun as the magazines claim it is.  At the same time, Gary's famous father, Ramsey (Quaid) has knocked up his trophy wife, Skyler (Decker), and she is having a great pregnancy, which makes both Wendy and Gary extremely jealous.  Holly (Lopez) and Alex (Santoro) are unable to concieve, so they look into adoption.  Finally, there's Rosie (Kendrick), who after having a one-night stand with player Marco (Crawford) suddenly has a little human growing inside her.

Ensemble romances are notoriously difficult to pull off.  There are too many characters and there's too much drama.  "New Year's Eve," for what it was, worked because it kept things simple.  Few of those stories needed more time to tell.  That's not the case here.  In some, there's significant ground unturned.  In others, far too much time is spent with them.

The actors do their jobs, but few of them engage.  The only actors worth remembering are Banks (because she's so funny), Kendrick (because she can act), Crawford (surprisingly, ditto) and Morrison.  All of them are worth spending time with, though Kendrick and Crawford's story is the one that goes on for far too long.  No one else makes much of a positive impression, except for Quaid, who is embarrassingly bad.
The screenplay, by Shauna Cross and Heather Hatch, is as dimwitted as they come.  Their screenplay is so lacking in insight that I'd believe it if someone told me that it originally had nothing to do with the advice book and had been branded that by Lionsgate.

Director Kirk Jones, who was behind the arthouse smash "Waking Ned Devine," appears to be in over his head.  The film is messy, and he resorts to unsubtle and stupid "clues" to connect the stories.  It's as if he's saying, "Hey, look!  They're all connected!"  It doesn't really work and stretches the credibility level far beyond believable.  The film is also overlong.  A comedy needs only 90 minutes to tell its story.  For a film that spends nearly two hours, even if it's an ensemble movie, it has to offer something more substantial than this.
I'll admit that it is watchable, and there are some bits that work.  Banks' speech on why pregnancy sucks, which is hinted at in the trailer, is a case in point.  It's pretty funny.  But it's not worth it to sit through the whole movie to catch the few moments that work.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Dictator

3/4

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas

Rated R for Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Brief Male Nudity, Language and Some Violent Images

With "Borat" and "Bruno," Sacha Baron Cohen proved himself to be a master satirist.  He fearlessly exposed the most embarrassing aspects of American culture while keeping his audiences in stitches.  Cohen knows no shame and there's nothing that he won't do (the MPAA excepting) for a laugh.  But with his TV show and his first two films, Cohen used the documentary format as a way of confronting these truths.  With his new film, "The Dictator," Cohen opts for a more traditional film medium: using professional actors and filming techniques. Although not as ferociously funny as his previous features, it's still good for some chuckles and a few big laughs.

General Aladeen (Cohen) is the dictator of the small African country of Wadiya. He's a narcissist to the extreme, obscenely wealthy and will kill anyone who screws up in even the slightest way.  In fact, it's safe to say that he's probably less of a parody than he seems.  In any event, Wadiya is threatened with military force unless he speaks to the United Nations about his nuclear weapons program.  Aladeen arrives, but he's kidnapped by the US Government.  After escaping, he has to find a way to survive alone and stop his adviser, Tamir (Kingsley), from instituting democracy so he can get big payouts from the oil companies.  And he has a little romance with the earthy Zoey (Faris) along the way.

Before I get to criticizing the film, let me state upfront that I do recommend the film.  It contains frequent laughs, some of which are very big.  These days, that's a rare thing.  "The Dictator" only really suffers in comparison to Cohen's previous films.  Additionally, the jokes, while funny, aren't particularly revealing about anything and they lack the edge that Cohen's "faux-documentaries" had.

That being said, I think this would have worked better in a faux-documentary type film like "Borat" or "Bruno." Making it as a fictional narrative piece makes it seem more rehearsed and less real.  While it's probable that a lot of the people needing to be interviewed would realize that it's Cohen, why not use fictional characters played by unknowns as the fictional talking heads?  Most people, sadly, won't know the difference.  Cohen does have fun with newscasts, particularly at the end, where the newscasters are analyzing his gross behavior.  And Cohen does get some big laughs by being crude and gross.  And of course, he gets some pointed remarks about dictatorships.

Apart from Cohen, the only actors who have any real screen-time are Anna Faris, who's no stranger to playing hilariously naiive characters ("Scary Movie," anyone?) and Jason Mantzoukas, as Aladeen's former nuclear scientist.  Faris is good; she manages to submerge herself into the character.  Mantzoukas is an unknown, which helps a lot.  Ben Kingsley, however, is miscast.  This is one exception where a character actor would have been better.  John C. Reilly is on hand for two scenes as Aladeen's torturer, while Megan Fox and Edward Norton are willing to play along with the joke.

Cohen brings back director Larry Charles, who was at the helm for "Borat" and "Bruno."  He tries to keep the film as documentary-like as possible, and it works on that level.  But I have to wonder how much better and edgier it could have been if Cohen had been allowed to use the same format as the last film using unknowns.  And had been willing to push the boundaries farther.

Chocolat

3.5/4

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Judi Dench, Victoire Thivisol, Carrie-Anne Moss, Lena Olin, Peter Stormare, Johnny Depp

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

"Chocolat" is a delightful confection that is as warm and sensuous as the chocolate from which the film gets its name.  It's a feel-good movie that makes you crave chocolate.

In a small French town, life is stable, restricted and unchanging.  It is effectively ruled by the reactionary mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Molina), who resists change and prides himself on the town's ability to resist any sort of temptation and keep their noses out of anyone's business.  This is a grim and gray place.  One day, a woman and her daughter, both wearing red cloaks, blow in with the North Wind, and set up a chocolateirie.  At first, Reynaud is welcoming, but tells them that it's Lent, and no one will be able to buy from them for a while.  Then the woman, Vianne (Binoche) tells him that she and her daughter Anouk (Thivisol) don't practice religion.  This stuns Reynaud, and he then views them with hostility.  But much to his horror, the townspeople are unable to resist her chocolaty confections.  Soon, the town starts to come alive, and Reynaud intends to put a stop to it.

This is really an ensemble cast, with a focus on Vianne and Reynaud.  Vianne is played by the immensely talented Juliette Binoche.  Vianne is a nice person; she's one of those people who is so genuinely good.  But she's also a tough firecracker.  She knows that Reynaud is conspiring against her, and she storms into his office one day and screams at him.  For his part, the grossly underrated Alfred Molina is terrific as the narrow-minded mayor.  He's a great villain because we understand him, and Molina doesn't allow him to become a caricature.  Victoire Thivisol, who got great reviews when she starred in "Ponette" at the tender age of 3.5, is also good as Anouk, who's as much of a dreamer as her mother.  Able support is provided by Judi Dench as a fiery old woman, Carrie-Anne Moss as Dench's conservative daughter, Lena Olin as an abused woman who is married to a drunk played by Peter Stormare (also good).  Johnny Depp shows up (playing a normal person for once) as Roux, the gypsy who catches Vianne's attention.

Lasse Hallstrom, a Swiss director (who, incidentally, is married to Lena Olin), was primarily known for heavier material such as "My Life as a Dog," although I haven't seen that film yet.  But Hallstrom is a master of tone.  In a way that's slightly Dickensian, he mixes the heavy with the light in his own special way.  This can be seen in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (which also starred Johnny Depp) and his next film, "Casanova."  The film is also delicately balanced and visually dazzling.

Although it's not necessarily a "food" movie in the sense that "Big Night" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" are, it would be wise to have some chocolate on hand when you watch this movie.  And a cuddle buddy.

Darkness Falls

3/4

Starring: Chaney Kley, Emma Caulfield, Lee Cormie, Sullivan Stapleton, Joshua Anderson, Emily Browning

Rated PG-13 for Terror and Horror Images, and Brief Language

I suppose since Santa Claus (the infamous "Silent Night, Deadly Night" franchise), Jack Frost (the direct-to-DVD movies) and the Boogeyman (the "Boogeyman" movies), all childhood archetypes, have their own horror movies, it's only fair that the Tooth Fairy gets the opportunity to mount a few heads on her wall.

In the 1800's, there was a woman, Matilda Dickson, whom children would bring their teeth after they've fallen out.  In exchange, she gave them a gold coin.  This is why she was called the Tooth Fairy.  But a fire disfigured her and left her unable to go into the light without a porcelain mask.  One day, two children went missing.  Dickson was blamed then hanged.  She was innocent, however, and the she vowed revenge.  Now, when she takes kids final teeth from under their pillows, she will kill them if they look at her.  A young boy named Kyle Walsh (Anderson) sneaks a peek, and The Tooth Fairy murders his mother.  Naturally, Kyle is blamed for the crime and institutionalized.  Years later, and still terrified of the dark, his old friend Caitlin Green (Caulfield) calls him for help when her brother Michael (Cormie) is suffering from the same night terrors and that the Tooth Fairy will come and get him.  Kyle (Kley) agrees to come, and in no short order has Dickson zeroed in on him, intending to settle the score.

This is a good chiller.  It's spooky, action packed and contains some great special effects (which are not overdone).  It's fast-paced (the second half of the movie is essentially all action) and atmospheric.  It'll be a great movie for scary movie night.

The cast is mostly effective.  "Buffy" regular Emma Caulfield is good as Caitlin, who looks after her brother like a mother (why they didn't write him as her son, since there is a significant age difference, I'll never know).  Lee Cormie is also effective, bringing to mind David Dorfman in "The Ring," if only for his wide eyes.  The weakest link is surprisingly Chaney Kley, an actor of mainly sporadic TV credits before his sudden death in 2007.  Kyle is boring, and the only reason we care is because everyone else is interesting, and the relationship between him and Caitlin as kids (they were played by Anderson and Browning, respectively) is nicely developed.

Jonathan Liebsman, a South African filmmaker who was later known to have helmed "Battle Los Angeles" and "Wrath of the Titans," got his break with this film, and he does a solid, but not spectacular job.  He has a firm grasp of atmosphere, he doesn't shake the camera excessively, and he's able to shock and scare us without an excess of blood and gore.  I can imagine the film being scarier with a stronger and more confident director, but as it is, Liebsman has nothing to be ashamed of.

This is a movie to watch alone with the lights out.  You may not want to admit it, but you'll get pretty spooked.  And be glad that you've got your adult teeth.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Battleship

3/4

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgaard, Tadanobu Asano, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Gregory T. Gadson, Hamish Linklater, Liam Neeson

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, and for Language

Boy, James Berardinelli is going to hate me for this...

I doubt he actually reads my reviews, but he vilified this movie.  I'm kind of ashamed to admit it, but I had fun watching this movie.  I can see his point.  It's noisy, frentic, loud...I've run out of descriptors and synonyms.  It's also dumb, cliched and loud.  Loud, loud, loud.  There were times when I wanted to cover my ears because it was so loud, and the sounds that the alien ships make when they lock on to a target are incredibly grating.  I'm looking forward to watching Anthony Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day" so my head will stop ringing.

And yet, for those who are looking for loud and noisy action movies and are sick of superheros (or have seen "The Avengers" a zillion times already), this fits the bill.  Plus it's not in 3D.

The story starts out with Alex Hopper (Kitsch), an aimless layabout who is drunkenly trying to woo a hot girl at the bar.  In order to get her to talk to him, he steals a burrito from the nearby gas station (it is here that I should mention that there are two glaring instances of stupidity in this sequence: what gas station, in Hawaii, next to a bar no less closes at midnight, and Alex tries to get in through the roof instead of breaking the glass door.  It's obvious that the latter is meant for comic relief, but it's not very funny).  He gets tazed by the cops, but gets the burrito to the girl.  This irritates his older brother, Stone (Skarsgaard), to no end, and he forces Alex to enlist in the Navy like him.  Shortly thereafter, Alex has risen through the ranks, and won the heart of the girl from the bar (whose name is Sam, and she's played by Brooklyn Decker).  He wants to marry her, but can't get the guts to ask her father, who happens to be the Admiral (and he's played by Liam Neeson).

This is all building up to the confrontation with the aliens.  In 2005, NASA located a planet that could be habitable, so they sent a signal to them to see if there was life there.  Now, five ships have crash landed on Earth, and it soon becomes clear that their intentions are hardly peaceable.  And this just happens to be during RIMPAC, an international event that consists of friendly naval war games.  Alex and Stone go to investigate, but their ships become trapped in a forcefield bubble with seemingly indestructible foes.  Meanwhile, Sam is on top of a mountain hiking with one of her patients, a double amputee named Mick (Gadson), and they run into the aliens as well.

Whew!  There's a lot going on, but it's easy to follow.  Plus, for those who aren't paying attention (texters, this means you!), it's got all the familiar cliches: the rebel without a cause who proves himself by the end, the enemies who become friends, death of a loved one, darkest before the dawn, yadda yadda yadda.

The acting is surprisingly effective.  Taylor Kitsch, who was awful in the megabomb "John Carter," acquits himself reasonably well, although I don't see him getting an Oscar anytime soon.  Methinks he needs to stop imitating Christian Bale's Batman voice.  Alexander Skarsgaard fares better as his brother; he understands the character and he can actually act.  Tadanobu is also good, although his accent is so thick that sometimes it's hard to understand what he's saying.  Pop sensation Rihanna is good, and looks great with a machine gun, but she has some rough edges.  Liam Neeson is on hand merely to pick up a paycheck.  Brooklyn Decker is hot, and she does an okay job as the token female/love interest.  Aside from Skarsgaard, the best performance is given by non-actor Gregory T. Gadson.  A real-life amputee, Gadson exhibits screen presence and acting ability.  The same cannot be said for Hamish Linklater.  Based on his appearance (he looks a lot like underground hipster actor/filmmaker Richard Ayoade) and character, he's meant to bring in the hipster crowd.  But he isn't in any of the trailers, and there's a reason for it: he's incredibly irritating.  By his second scene, I was praying that the aliens would abduct him and do all sorts of horrifying experiments on him (maybe they could find Wes Anderson's appeal).

Peter Berg broke out in Hollywood as an actor, most notably in the noir-thriller "The Last Seduction" and boxing satire "The Great White Hype."  He broke out as a writer/director with the gross-out black comedy "Very Bad Things" starring, among others, Cameron Diaz and Christian Slater.  He appears to have made friends very quickly since Slater and Diaz were at the peak of their popularity at the time "Very Bad Things" was released.  Berg then ventured into action with "The Rundown" and "The Kingdom."  The success of "Hancock" convinced studios of his ability to helm blockbusters, which brings us to "Battleship."  Really, there's not much difference between this and "Transformers," which it was rightfully compared.  Both have ridiculously thin scripts, no character development and lots and lots of loud and aggressive special effects.  The difference here is that Berg's camera isn't on cocaine, so it's possible to see the action scenes (which makes it much more fun and exciting.  They also have the same look.  And lovers of the board game will be happy to know that Berg references the game in unusual and creative ways (and it's not just two people playing the board game thankfully).

A sequel isn't set up, although apparently there's a scene after the end credits that I missed.  But expect another one in a year or two and a third one after that.  The film already recouped its budget overseas before it was released in the United States.  I'm not waiting with baited breath, but if this one is anything to go by, it should be fun.

Look.  It's not great art, and certainly not flawless (there is one scene where a building in Hong Kong breaks in half, and it is disturbingly reminiscent of 9/11 and I don't think that was intentional), but it is fun overall.  There is one thing I must mention.  There are two instances where characters are saying "motherfucker" as a one-liner, but because the MPAA is concrete about its "one fuck" policy, they are cut off.  Unless the MPAA heard something that I didn't, the film could have gotten away with one of those actually being heard.  Regardless, even a 13 year old would understand what was originally being said, which makes it obvious that the MPAA is hypocritical and catering to conservative loudmouths like the Parents Television Council and helicopter parents with their heads in the sand and zero common sense.  As usual.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dark Shadows

3/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley

Rated PG-13 for Comic Horror Violence, Sexual Content, Some Drug Use, Language and Smoking

Tim Burton has an affinity for the weird, the gothic and the bizarre.  And Johnny Depp.  His new movie, "Dark Shadows," is based on the cult TV series, and that's obvious.  There are too many characters, too many things going on, and a lot of potential.  But no one can claim that it isn't fun.

In 1752, the Collins family sets sail for the new world and strikes it rich in the fishing industry.  The town that forms around them is named after them and so is their large home.  Twenty years later, their young son Barnabas (Depp) has become a pillar of the community, but he's also a womanizer.  One of his flings is with Angelique Bouchard (Green), who happens to be a witch.  She loves him, but Barnabas is in love with the lovely Josette DuPres (Heathcote).  Pissed off, she bamboozles Josette into taking a dive off a cliff, curses the Collins family and turns Barnabas into a vampire before locking him in a coffin and burying him underground.  Of course, nothing stays buried forever, and Barnabas is released nearly 200 years later.  Collinsport has changed dramatically; it's run by Angelique and his descendants are poor outcasts.  Barnabas sets out to change that, but Angelique isn't going to stand by and let him walk all over her.

All things considered, the script manages to balance all the elements of the plot (and there is always a lot going on) fairly well.  Nearly everything is shortchanged to an extent, but there aren't any gaping holes or subplots that are obviously unfinished.  And it's just a shade under two hours to boot.

The cast appears to be having fun.  Johnny Depp is at his weird best as the vampire who has been transported to the 1970s.  The jokes about this are fairly obvious, but Depp makes them funny.  Barnabas is also deadly enough to make the "Twilight" vampires into the posers that they really are.  He does kill a lot of people, sometimes on-screen (although Burton keeps it at a PG-13 level).  Eva Green goes over-the-top as the vengeful witch Angelique, but there are times when she should have gone farther.  It should be noted that Barnabas and Angelique perform sexual acrobatics to a degree never seen on film (I'm guessing since this is played for laughs, contains no nudity, and is not intended to be the least bit erotic, the MPAA gave it a PG-13).

The other cast members are good as well.  Michelle Pfeiffer is a good sport as the supportive matriarch Elizabeth.  Bella Heathcote is lovely as Barnabas' love interests (yes, that's plural).  Burton's girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter tosses off a few good one-liners as the live-in drunken psychiatrist.  Chloe Grace Moretz is good as the sullen and sarcastic daughter, but she doesn't have much to do but make fun of Barnabas.  Johnny Lee Miller is completely wasted as Elizabeth's brother.  He has nothing to do but act awkward around Barnabas.  Fortunately he's gone by the second half.

Tim Burton accomplishes this delicate balancing act very well.  He goes overboard on the visuals and atmosphere, but that's to be expected.  That's okay, though, since those are Burton's strengths.  Still, because there's so much going on, it's difficult to actually get involved in any of it.

I do recommend it.  It's a lot of fun, and it's not in 3D. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pieces of April

2/4

Starring: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Derek Luke, Alison Pill

Rated PG-13 for Language, Sensuality, Drug Content and Images of Nudity

"Pieces of April" is a visually dazzling but shallow dramedy.  It has all the earmarks of something that Miramax would have bought in its heyday: quirky-but-everyday people, perfect mis-en-scene, gritty cinematography, natrualist plot, and so on.  The problem here is that the characters, while well-acted across the board, are thinly developed which makes the minimalist plot of everyday goings on plodding rather than engaging.

April (Holmes) is a worldly hipster living in a rundown apartment in New York City.  She has invited her family to come celebrate Thanksgiving with her in her apartment, but her relationship with them is so strained that she only half believes that they will actually show up.  But she's struggling to pull it all together (she's never cooked before) when disaster strikes: her oven breaks, and the landlord is unavailable.  She must race up and down the building looking for a spare oven.  Meanwhile, her family is grudgingly making the trip to New York City.  April's past behavior and drug use has left scars, and her mother Joy (Clarkson) is dying of cancer.

The performances are fine.  Katie Holmes, known mainly for her role as Joey Pottter on "Dawson's Creek" and being Mrs. Tom Cruise, is a good actress.  She's a hipster alright, but despite her terrible relationship with her family, she hasn't turned into an vicious emotional sadist like Enid in "Ghost World" (a movie that iMDb has said is similar to this film...which is not true).  Holmes gives the best performance in the film, probably because April is the best developed.  Patricia Clarkson is good as the miserable and guilt-ridden Joy, and while she was honored with a long overdue Oscar nomination for the role, this is not her best work.  She's not given enough material to work with.  Oliver Platt is good as April's long-suffering father Jim and Alison Pill is okay as April's "perfect sister" Beth.

Novelist/screenwriter Peter Hedges makes his directorial debut here, and two things are immediately clear: he knows what he's doing with a camera and his writing abilities are best left to book adaptations.  The script is half-baked; I constantly felt as if half the development was missing.  Watching "Pieces of April" is like only seeing the main scenes of a movie; all the scenes that allow the film to delve deeper into the characters are missing.

Hedges is going for the documentary-approach of movies like "Cloverfield" and "The Blair Witch Project," where the immediacy of the medium makes up for the lack of three-dimensional characters.  We didn't need to know the backstories or the subtle character traits of the characters in those movies because they came across as real people.  The characters in "Pieces of April," for all their oddities, are real, but the script is lacking.  The dialogue and the way that Hedges presents the story leave a hole that the other two movies that I mentioned were able to plug with the way that it was filmed.

It's a shame really.  This had the potential to be something great.  At least Hedges doesn't go overboard and make April a monster like Enid.  I was thankful for that.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Species

2/4

Starring: Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Natasha Henstridge, Marg Helgenberger, Forest Whittaker, Alfred Molina, Michelle Williams

Rated R for Sci-Fi Violence, Strong Sexuality and Some Language

The term "cheesy" has been used to describe films that are so bad that they're good.  Tobe Hooper's ridiculous "horror" movie "The Mangler" fits into this category.  Some movies, like Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers," have used this to their advantage.  Others have worked as both cheesefests and legitimate entertainment.  "Anaconda" is one of these.  Look at the star rating.  Guess which category "Species" belongs in.

Six years ago, SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) received a message from another world that allowed them to merge alien DNA with our own.  But the scientists behind the project got nervous, and it was decided to kill the creature.  But it, a young girl (Williams), escaped, and the lead scientist, Xavier Fitch (Kingsley) has recruited a number of people to find it and kill it.  Time is not on humanity's side, however, since the human/alien hybrid grows at an alarming rate, and is now a sexy young woman played by model Natasha Henstridge.  And she intends to mate as soon as possible.

This could have been an excellent sci-fi chase movie, but there's a problem: the script by producer/screenwriter Dennis Feldman has to be one of the worst scripts ever made into a major motion picture (that was by all intents and purposes to be taken seriously).  If there was an example of what not to do when writing a screenplay, this is it.  The plot is absurd, which is to be expected.  But what is unforgivable is that the characters are incredibly stupid.  One would think that for a task like this, the government would enlist the best in their fields.  But these guys are so dumb that I couldn't help rooting for Sil.  If this is the best that humanity has to offer, we deserve what we get.

The acting is horrible, but no one is giving anything to work with.  Surprisingly, the worst acting is given by Sir Ben Kingsley.  The man is a gifted actor: "Sexy Beast," "House of Sand & Fog," "Schindler's List."  But he's also a practical man; if they pay him, he'll show up.  In addition to those powerhouses, he also appeared in Uwe Boll's "BloodRayne," the big-time flop "A Sound of Thunder," and the much hated "Thunderbirds."  Kingsley is in "take the money and run" mode, and it's painfully obvious.  No one else is much better, and all are capable of giving great performances.  To be fair, the script lets them all down.  Hell, it would let Lorenzo Lamas down, and he was in "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus," the movie that was so bad it wasn't a "so bad it's good" movie.

Roger Donaldson's work is also lackluster.  In fact, calling it "plastic" would be too kind.  This is a direct-to-dvd movie that got a theatrical release (and for some reason, was successful enough to get a theatrically release sequel (that bombed) and two direct-to-dvd sequels.  Part of this is due to the fact that this was made almost twenty years ago, and to the fact that the script is so bad.  Donaldson is a good director.  He made "Dante's Peak," which is a fun disaster movie, and "The Bank Job," which is an underrated masterpiece.

The special effects are also lackluster.  The CGI is hilariously bad, everything looks like it was made of plywood, and the creature design by H.R. Geiger (who designed the Alien in the "Alien" franchise) is lame.

And yet, "Species" has its charms.  It is silly, it is dumb, but it's kinda fun too.  There's plenty of gore, action and Natasha Henstridge has a great body (and she appears sans clothing a lot).  This is one of those movies that is a must-see on a "Bad Movie Night."  If you got some quick-witted friends and plenty of beer, you'll have fun.  Otherwise, you'll just have a few chuckles at its expense.

Mike's Musings: Putting it into CONTEXT

I watched the movie "Trust" a few nights ago, and it got me thinking.  The MPAA gave the film an R rating, and at first glance, it makes sense.  No kid needs to see the rape of a teenage girl.  But now, I'm not so sure.

Kids, especially tween girls, are exposed to a lot of information and images these days, and their young minds aren't sure how to process it.  Marketers target them because they're naiive and get money from their parents, thus making them a lucrative market.  But not all of it is good, and parents aren't realizing it.  Sure, Britney Spears' lyrics are free of profanity, but she dresses and dances in an extremely sexualized way.  And parents bought their kids, mostly young girls, her albums by the truckload.  The "Twilight" movies are another, more recent, case in point.  The films put so much emphasis on Bella needing Edward to protect her and their love (I'll admit that I've only seen the first film, but the romantic undertones are hard to miss from even the movie posters).

This does two things: one, it makes her desire a boyfriend more strongly, and two, it makes them feel that their self-worth is equal to that of her boyfriend.  Both are ridiculous and dangerous notions, especially for a girl that young.  Hormones are just starting to activate her interest in boys (or in some cases, girls, but that's for another Mike's Musings), but her knowledge of her sexuality is nil, and it's not getting any better because parents are, for reasons that baffle me beyond belief, skittish about sex education.  "Twilight" is telling her that she needs a studly boyfriend who is entirely devoted to her to be accepted, and marketers (even clothing liners) tell her that she needs to look sexy to get one.

The first scenes in the "Trust" are in some ways the most disturbing because they are so real.  The protagonist, Annie, looks on at other girls who are talking with a bunch of cute guys.  One would have to be obtuse not to feel her jealousy, her desire to be wanted by cute guys, and her loneliness.  These three things are the ideal qualities that a predator like "Charlie" in the film looks for.  They are so blindly willing to believe that a cute guy would be interested in them that they ignore the warning signs and "bad feelings" about what is happening.

There are those who support sex education including contraceptives for their kids.  But is this enough?  I don't think so.  Believe me, I've been to no-holds barred sex ed classes in school.  Watching a movie like "Trust" is totally different than hearing a middle aged teacher prattle on and tell you what you are like and what you feel.  No one likes to be talked to like that, and they resent it.  But lecturing has that effect.  It depersonalizes the material and the one dispensing information sounds like a know-it-all to a kid who is just starting to recognize her independence.

But won't watching a movie like "Trust" be disturbing for such a young child?  Yes, it will be.  It was disturbing for me, and I just turned 24 two and a half hours ago.  But that's the goal of the film.  Any serious film about rape is going to be disturbing.  If the film is difficult to watch, it's done its job.  And that's why I said at the end of my review that this is a must-see for tween girls.  It personalizes a subject that is a very real danger for them in a way that even the most noble teacher or educational video cannot.

But "Trust" isn't the only film to suffer from a misstep by the MPAA.  "Mrs. Henderson Presents," one of my favorite films, is a good morale booster for girls and the perfect antidote for "Twilight."  It encourages them to be proud of their bodies (something which few tweens are since their bodies change at different rates than their peers) and of being strong, independent women (something that the "Twilight" movies do not do).

But won't this make them more likely to have sex and go topless?  Studies say no, but is it really that big of a deal?  I recall reading in article about the differences in views on sex between the US and the Netherlands (I think, but who it was is really irrelevant).  In the Netherlands, having a teenage girl sleep in the same bed as her boyfriend at his parents house is no big deal.  Here, it's grounds for prosecution.  If they use safe sex practices, chances are that not much is going to come out of it.  But sex is such a touchy subject in the US that kids can't seem to get the right information.  Boring lecturers versus big time marketing and movies.  No wonder they're confused.

And just for arguement's sake, let me pose this question.  If seeing sex in movies make kids more likely to have sex, then logically speaking, they would be more likely to become violent after seeing an action movie.  And yet we allow teens, and young kids, to see violent action movies like "The Avengers" and "Wrath of the Titans."  American hypocrisy at its best.

The crux of my argument has little to do with the movie "Trust" or "Twilight," however.  It's that the MPAA fails to take in the context of a film.  Jack Valenti said that he thought every 13 year old boy should see "Saving Private Ryan," a film that some suggested should have gotten an NC-17 rating for its unrelenting violence and gore.  Surprising as it may sound, I can see his point.  Steven Spielberg's masterpiece presents war as it really was: violent, terrifying and gory.  Like "Trust," "Saving Private Ryan" is not meant to be light entertainment.  It is meant to educate people on what the soldiers in World War II went through and what soldiers are going through now.  It's a real wake up call from movies like "The Avengers" that portray violence as merely a good work out.

Not every heavy R rated film should be seen by kids and not every PG-13 action movie should be rated R.  Action movies don't get any more lightweight (or funnier) than James Cameron's "True Lies."  The film was rated R for "A Lot of Action/Violence and Some Language."  For reasons only the MPAA knows, it leaves out the descriptor of a striptease sequence in which Jamie Lee Curtis strips.  It's meant to be sexy, albeit in a strange way, but no more inappropriate for kids than a lot of the violence that happens in PG-13 movies ("Wrath of the Titan's predecessor featured a man getting ripped in half by a scorpion...bloodless, of course, since the presence of blood automatically means an R rating).  And yet, the action scenes are not at all disturbing and a lot of fun...perfect for teenagers.  I've been watching that movie since grade school, and as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am not a violent person.  I talked with my parents a while back about them fast forwarding (this was in the days of the VCR) through the striptease sequence, and they agreed that it was hypocritical to allow my brother and I to watch the action while fast forwarding through said sequence.  In retrospect, I'm kind of glad they did, although for different reasons.  My ten year old self would have found it boring.

The bottom line is that communication is so important.  It's not easy; I didn't like talking to my parents about that stuff very much, but it has to be done.  I was reluctant to tell them anything personal like that because I was afraid of getting into trouble.  But openness is key to safety, no matter how painful it must be.  Try telling them about your experiences.  Let them know that you've done bad things too, and it might let down their guard.  Being open and nonjudgmental is key for safety and sanity on both sides.

And for the love of God, don't take anything the MPAA says at face value.  You're only going to get screwed.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Red Violin

3.5/4

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Carlo Cecchi, Irene Grazioli, Anita Laurenzi, Jean-Luc Bideau, Christoph Koncz, Jason Flemyng, Greta Scacchi, Sylvia Chang, Don McKellar, Colm Feore

Rated R for Some Sexuality

There are two reasons why I like this movie: I am a history buff and I love stories.  Although "The Red Violin" is fictional, it feels like a true story.  This isn't a biopic of a person, however.  The subject is actually a violin.

In Montreal, there is an auction for a number of rare string instruments.  But the one that everyone is talking about is the famed "Red Violin."  It was created in 1681, the final work by famed craftsman Niccolo Bussotti (Cecchi).  He intends for the violin, his masterpiece, to be for his soon-to-be-born son, but his wife and child die in labor.  The violin travels across Europe, ending up in the hands of a prodigy (Koncz) and his teacher (Bideau), a vain composer (Flemyng) and his lover (Scacchi), and surviving the Great Leap Forward through the efforts of a Comrade (Chang).  But is the violin at the auction really "the" Red Violin?  That's what appraiser Charles Morritz (Jackson) is attempting to find out.

In little more than two hours, Francois Gerard has crafted what is really an epic.  It's filled with passion, tragedy and romance.  Yes, some of it is overwrought, but that's because this sort of story demands it.

The first segment details the story of the donor and the prodigy.  This starts the meat of the film off on a strong note because Girard is able to give depth to Poussin (Bideau).  At first, he seems to be a self-serving and obsessed jerk.  But he comes to care about his young ward, and that gives the segment a note of poignancy.

The second segment is the weakest, although it's still pretty good.  It has nothing to do with the performances: both Flemyng and Scacchi are very good.  The weakness is in the story itself.  The passionate, melodramatic affair between composer Frederick Pope (Flemyng) and his author-lover, Victoria (Scacchi) just isn't as dynamic as the other two.

The final segment is the strongest.  Girard has clearly done his research and presents the sweeping changes of the Great Leap Forward with style, emotion and credibility.  The acting by Sylvia Chang, as the tormented comrade is excellent, and so is Hong Tao, who plays the fiery revolutionary Chan Gong.  Of all the characters, she is the one I remembered the most.

Finally, Girard devotes some time to Morritz (various descendants/relations of the past characters show up at the auction after each segment).  His research into the violin is fascinating, and of course it's easy to connect with Morritz because he's played by the invaluable Samuel L. Jackson.  Interestingly enough, his assistant is played by co-writer Don McKellar.

In-between the segments is the story of Bussotti's wife, Anna (Grazioli) getting her fortune read by Cesca (Laurenzi).  Both characters are well-acted and memorable, and although it is clear that the fortune relates to the violin, it's not clear until the end how Anna's future is connected to it.

Sadly, the violin music gets a little repetitive after a while.  But this is an otherwise great film.

Miss Congeniality

3/4

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, Candice Bergen, William Shatner, Ernie Hudson

Rated PG-13 for Sexual References and A Scene of Violence

The reason why "Pygmalion" is so often used as a template for drama is because we respond to the desire to better ourselves, or in this case, people who need it.  And no one is in more need of a makeover than FBI Agent Gracie Hart.

Gracie Hart (Bullock) is as tough as they come.  She's got more testosterone than estrogen.  She's rude, crude and packs a nasty right hook.  Her temper flares with little provocation and cares little for manners or personal appearance.  But a terrorist named The Citizen has targeted the Miss United States Pageant, and the only way to stop him is to make an undercover agent a contestant.  And the only one available is Gracie.  She doesn't want the job, but she's got no choice after getting into some hot water on her last assignment.  It's going to take a miracle to make her credible...and to keep her from storming off.

Sandra Bullock is a shining star because she's so likable.  She captures the viewer's attention like a magnet, and even in the silliest of movies, she's able to hold it.  There's nothing serious about "Miss Congeniality," and Bullock is able to toss off a few biting one-liners.  And yet, we come to care about her, something that rarely happens in even the best comedies.  Michael Caine is terrific as Victor Mellings, her demanding "pageant consultant;" the scenes with him and Bullock are the highlights.  Benjamin Bratt is also on hand as the leader of the investigation, and Gracie's romantic interest.  William Shatner is affable as the host Stan Fields, and Candice Bergen turns up the nasty as the pageant director, Kathy Morningside.

The film successfully manages to shift gears from making fun of its subject then getting us to care about it.  It's a task that few films are able to do.  Kudos must go to the screenwriters: Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas.  Not only do they know they write plenty of humorous situations and one-liners, they know the ins and outs of pageant life (as far as I could tell).

Director Donald Petrie specializes in lightweight comedies.  He was behind "Richie Rich," a childhood favorite of mine, the beloved (although not by me) "Grumpy Old Men," and "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days."  His style is unobtrusive, and in this case, that's the right decision.  He doesn't show off with flashy editing or camera tricks.  He films the characters in the best possible light and times the jokes well.  A comedy like this requires only a few specific things, and Petrie delivers.

Look, this isn't great art, but it's a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Trust

3.5/4

Starring: Liana Liberato, Clive Owen, Catherine Keener, Viola Davis, Jason Clarke, Chris Henry Coffey

Rated R for Disturbing Content involving the Rape of a Teen, Language, Sexual Content and Some Violence

The beauty of this film is that director David Schwimmer takes his time.  He doesn't rush things and makes sure we understand and know the characters and what drives them.  Without that, the film would turn into a "tearjerker of the week" worthy of Lifetime.  But with a subtle and non-exploitative touch, Schwimmer turns this film into an honest and perceptive look at something that, sadly, happens more often than we would like to think.

Annie Cameron (Liberato) is a normal 14-year-old girl.  She has a few friends, but longs to be popular and have a boyfriend; she probably reads too many teen magazines and watches too many "Twilight-ish" movies, although this isn't delved into.  Her parents, Will (Owen) and Lynn (Keener) love her dearly, and she is close with her older brother, Peter (Spencer Curnutt) and younger sister, Katie (Aislinn DeButch).  On her birthday, Will gives her a new computer, and shortly thereafter, she meets a guy in California named Charlie.  He's in high school like her, plays volleyball and is very cute.  But Charlie is not as he seems.  He is actually a 35 year old man (Coffey) who continues to manipulate Annie and then rapes her at a hotel.  The news is crushing to her parents, and all three of them struggle to make sense of what happened.

The performances are strong across the board.  Liana Liberato, a young actress of a few TV credits, is superb.  She's a completely normal teenager, which makes it easy for us to accept her as a real person and believe what she does.  She denies what happened to her was actually rape, but Liberato understands that this is a lie.  She alienates everyone and her relationship with her parents fractures in a believable way.  Clive Owen is also very good as the father who can't believe that his daughter would do something like this, and as a man who wants revenge.  His anger at "Charlie" is consuming him so much that he is unable to help his daughter heal.  Catherine Keener is just as strong as Annie's mother, who doesn't know how to help her daughter.  The three of them form a believable chemistry as parents and daughter; they function as a normal family.  Will isn't a drug/alcohol addict, Lynn isn't neglectful.  They're normal, affluent people.  Viola Davis, who can do almost anything, gives the second strongest performance after Liberato.  She plays the rape trauma counselor, Gail Friedman.  She's seen this too many times, but is there for Annie because she understands what she's going through better than her parents.

The weak link is, I think, Coffey.  His whole sequence doesn't work as well as the rest of the film, although it took me a while to figure out why.  "Charlie" is creepy in the sense that we know he's bad news, but he's not convincing enough in person for us to understand emotionally why Annie would go with him.  Mentally, we do, because he has already manipulated her completely, but Coffey's performance doesn't plunge deep enough to make this convincing.

Comparisons to "The War Zone" are, at least for those who have seen it, unavoidable, although they're altogether different movies.  They both deal with the same material, but in different ways.  "The War Zone" demands that the viewer fill in the blanks and interpret what's going on themselves.  "Trust" is more straightforward.  It's still incredibly powerful because it is so perceptive.  It knows how people react in this kind of a situation.  The instinct is to blame someone, anyone, but as we learn, things aren't that simple.  Annie is still refusing to believe the truth about what happened because it avoids the pain and continues the fantasy that "Charlie" loves her.  Will and Lynn are in disbelief that this could happen to their daughter.

David Schwimmer is most popular for playing Ross Geller on the hit TV show "Friends."  But like Tim Roth, the actor who directed "The War Zone," he is also a born filmmaker.  He is skilled at introducing the characters and setting the stage.  There is one scene that is, well frankly, brilliant.  Without any audible dialogue, Schwimmer gets us into the mindset of Annie and how she feels.  She's waiting outside of school for her mother to pick her up, and she sees all the popular girls saying hi to their good-looking boyfriends.  Annie has a kind of huddled look about her, looking both jealous and lonely.  It is here that we realize how desperate she wants attention from a guy, and how easy it will be for someone like "Charlie" to prey on her.

I also have some misgivings about how the way Schwimmer chooses to end the film.  It's not that it doesn't work, it does, but it's that the final clip over the end credits isn't earned.  The ending scene sets up a hopeful, if not happy, ending, but Schwimmer backs off, choosing a rather cheap twist (although it's not really that).

The MPAA gave this an R rating, which makes sense, I guess.  This is not an easy film to watch and is quite disturbing.  However, I think this is one of those exceptions where it is an ideal film for teenagers.  It shows what can happen if they're not careful.  Parents, however, especially helicopter parents, might end up coddling their kids.  And, as Dr. Friedman says (but no one pays attention to), "People get hurt.  There's only so much we can do to protect ourselves, our children.  The only thing we can do is be there for each other for when we do fall down to pick each other up."  No other words define this movie.

The Muse

1/4

Starring: Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell, Jeff Bridges

Rated PG-13 for Brief Nudity

Oh, the ironies...

Stephen Phillips (Brooks) is a writer who has hit a rut.  "You've lost your edge," they tell him.  In a stroke of good fortune, Stephen's friend Jack (Bridges) gets him in touch with a woman that he claims is one of the Greek Muses.  Her name is Sarah (Stone) and she's willing to help him...for a price.

The irony of this movie is that it is completely devoid of ideas when it is about finding inspiration (or paying for it).  There are a number of humorous directions that Brooks, a funny comedian, could have taken it, but Brooks doesn't take any chances.  This is a one-joke movie, and it's not especially funny.  The Griswolds did escalating chaos better in "Christmas Vacation."

For a movie that claims to be about a writer using a muse to write better, it doesn't pay much attention to it.  Most of the movie is spent with Sarah helping Stephen's wife Laura (MacDowell) start a cookie making business.  Sadly, that's not interesting either.

Albert Brooks his his usual self, but he hasn't written himself any good material.  Sharon Stone is energetic, if bland, as the high-maintenance muse.   Only Andie MacDowell has some energy, mainly because Laura is the only one in the cast who comes within a mile of being a legitimate character.  Cameos from Rob Reiner, Martin Scorcese, James Cameron and a few others are included, but only Scorcese is funny.  Special mention has to go to Mark Feuerstein, who is awful.

What more can I say about this movie?  It sucks.  There are few things worse than bad comedies, and "The Muse" is one of them.  It's like a bad sitcom that never wants to end.  There's a joke about "Titanic," and I was thinking to myself...this feels soooo much longer than that.  And infinitely worse.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Deep Blue Sea

3/4

Starring: Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J, Stellan Skarsgard, Michael Rapaport,  Jacqueline McKenzie, Aida Turturro

Rated R for Graphic Shark Attacks, and for Language

"Deep Blue Sea" is your average monster movie...except not.  Sure, there are sharks that run amok and most of the cast isn't alive by the final reel, but the script plays our expectations against us.  Just because they are famous or a main character doesn't mean they'll live to see the end credits.

Scientist Susan McCallister (Burrows) is studying sharks on board a research facility in the middle of the ocean.  She has genetically manipulated them into growing bigger so she can extract a protein that keeps the shark's brain cells from deteriorating.  But after the sharks got out, her funding may be cut off.  The pharmaceutical company sends Russell Franklin (Jackson) to oversee the extraction of the protein on time.  But something goes wrong, and the sharks, which in addition to being bigger are also smarter, intend on a feast.

The acting is effective, but director Renny Harlin has never been an actor's director.  The script is thin, and he doesn't seem to show any care about fleshing them out.  Therefore, it's hard to truly care about anyone in the film.  Burrows makes for a slightly bitchy but still sympathetic scientist.  The role of the ex-con shark handler is well within Thomas Jane's limited range, although he lacks any screen presence (the same is true of most of the cast).  Samuel L. Jackson is also very good as the unwanted guest who takes charge since he's been in a life or death situation before.  Stellan Skarsgard is also very good as Susan's co-worker.

Renny Harlin is a terrific action director.  He knows better than anyone how to stage an action scene without sending the audience into an epileptic seizure.  Unfortunately his skills when it comes to fleshing out characters into people who are more than paper thin are still lacking.  It took me three viewings to appreciate this movie.

This is a summer action movie like they used to make.  The sun is shining, real sets are used, there are no superheroes, and plenty of gore.  I miss these kinds of movies.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Seven

3.5/4

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey

Rated R for Grisly Afterviews of Horrific and Bizarre Killings, and for Strong Language

"Seven," also called "Se7en," is a demented and bizarre chiller that starts in hell and only falls further.  This is a truly grim and creepy movie, and not for the faint of heart.  This is no ordinary "serial killer" movie.  It goes far beyond that, and enters "The Silence of the Lambs" territory.

The film takes place in an unnamed city (probably New York).  It's a depressing place; it's always raining, everyone huddles under their jackets and no one cares about anyone else.  World weary Detective William Somerset (Freeman) is six days from retiring.  Until that time, he is paired up with a hotshot new detective from upstate, David Mills (Pitt).  But now, they're faced with a threat they've never seen before: a madman is using the Seven Deadly Sins as a way to kill people.  He is one dangerous man; in Somerset's words, "he is methodical, exacting, and worst of all, patient."  It will take everything they have to catch him before he finishes his "masterpiece."

The film's look is its strongest quality.  The cinematography by Darius Khondji is so strong that it completely draws you in.  From frame one, you are right in the middle of this hellish story.  And yet it never overshadows the actors or the plot.  Like the best visuals, it enhances the story and the characters.  Part of the reason is that the story is so compelling, is intelligently written, and the two leading actors are in top form, and more importantly, have enough screen presence to stand out from the background (there are a lot of talented actors who don't hit it big because they can't draw the viewer's attention).

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are two electrifying actors and they give strong performances.  Freeman plays Somerset as a man who has spent his life wading through the muck and evil of humanity and has carried every last bit of it on his shoulders.  He's tired of all the violence and sickness and wants to get out.  He may get his wish, but it probably won't offer him much relief.  Pitt is the exact opposite as Mills.  He's arrogant and jittery; he thinks he knows the ropes and the rules, but he's from upstate, where life is far different than the hell that is the city.  Gwyneth Paltrow is effective as David's high school sweetheart wife Tracy, but she could have used a little more idealism and naivete.

It's kind of amazing that David Fincher got this directing job.  His first feature was "Alien 3," which was savaged by critics and audiences.  Normally, that means that the director's shot at superstardom is over, even if it was taken out of the director's hands by the studio (which is what happened with "Alien 3").  It's a good thing that Fincher got a second shot because his work here is his best ever.  It takes a lot of talent to make a truly chilling movie, and Fincher does it.  The pacing may flag a little here and there, but not very much.

The film is famous for its unforgettable twist ending, and unlike many films that employ this, it is earned and makes perfect sense within the context of the movie.  Sadly, someone gave away the ending for me before I saw the film for the first time, but I'm not going to do the same to anyone else, so don't ask.  Just watch the movie with the lights out.

Interstate 60: Episodes from the Road

4/4

Starring: James Marsden, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lloyd, Amy Smart

Rated R for Language and Sexual References

Because this oddball little film was recommended to me by my best friend, I will write this review as a thank you letter to him.

Dear Best Friend,

I honestly don't know what to make of this movie.  Words fail me when I try to describe it.  It's certainly bizarre and quirky, and the movie "Big Fish" comes to mind.  Cineastes might call it a surrealist expose on the search for the American identity.  With all due respect, writer/director Bob Gale would probably tell them to shut up and actually watch the movie.

As I'm sure you know the plot, you can skip this paragraph if you want, since it's for readers who haven't seen it (or more likely, haven't heard of it).  Neal Oliver (Marsden) is a young artist who has been living his father's (John Bourgeois) life.  His dad essentially wants his son to live the life that he did: become a lawyer, drive the car that he wants, and so on.  Neal doesn't like it, but doesn't think that he has much of a choice.  Then on his birthday, he wishes for answers.  In no short order, he's assigned to deliver a package to a city that's on Interstate 60 (which, as everyone knows, doesn't exist).  Thus begins a truly weird and wild journey.

James Marsden is an actor of limited range, but here he hits the mark.  The actor does best in roles that require a sense of being animated.  This can be seen in his performance as Lon Hammond in "The Notebook," Corny Collins in the overrated "Hairspray," and as Rex in "Sex Drive."  Here, Marsden does something he's never done well at: playing the straight man.  And he does a great job.  Neal is someone we can all relate to, and that's what makes this journey so much fun.  Sure, it's full of wacky and unusual elements, but it would be hard to care much if we didn't like the guy guiding us through it.

The cast is littered with cameos and supporting roles filled by name actors.  Gary Oldman turns up the weird as the wish-granting O.W. Grant, while the beloved Christopher Lloyd (where has he been?) shows up as David's employer.  Also appearing are Kurt Russell as a sheriff with a twisted sense of logic, Chris Cooper as a dying businessman, and Ann Margaret as an owner of an art fraud museum (this by the way was my favorite segment).

With the words "quirky" and "offbeat" being used to describe the movie, I had a fear that this was going to be something like Wes Anderson would make.  Surprisingly, they bear some similarities, although they are handled in a much different manner.  Anderson is in love with himself and is convinced he is making art.  Gale is simply pulling out all the stops in his imagination and giggling at the bizarre turns that his movie is taking.

Best Friend, this movie is so weirdly entertaining that I am more than willing to forgive its few faults.  Gale's shot selection is static, at least one line of dialogue is unintelligible, and Chris Cooper's character has a little too much screen time.  But the film follows its own wacky logic and it doesn't take long to realize that this strange film actually makes sense.

It's really a shame that this movie didn't get picked up by a major distributor, although I can't figure out why any more than you can.  Sometimes film distributors are so hard to understand.  It would make for a great midnight movie, and it's a good pick-me-up.  It also has an undeserved R rating.  But you know my feelings about the MPAA, so forgive me if I don't rant and rave until I'm red in the face.

Yes, I loved it, and I have no shame in admitting it.  I can't wait to see it again.

Yours truly,

Mighty Mike

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Come Early Morning

3.5/4

Starring: Ashley Judd, Jeffrey Donovan, Laura Prepon

Rated R for Language and Some Sexual Situations

It's always been clear that Ashley Judd has been a strong actress.  From "Heat" to "High Crimes," Judd has always lit up the screen whenever she was on.  Sadly for her, big budget scripts don't usually allow for much depth.  In "Come Early Morning," Judd shows just how amazing she can be.

Lucy (Judd) is a deeply troubled woman.  She drinks too much, sleeps with a lot of guys then bolts away the morning after.  She equates sex with intimacy and has built up so many walls around her that she is unable to form a human connection.  In walks Cal (Donovan), a nice guy who saves her from getting her ass kicked by the local bully.  They tentatively form a relationship, but it's difficult going for them because she is too afraid to let down her guard.

This is Judd's film through and through.  Present in every scene, this is all about her and her character Lucy Fowler.  Judd is absolutely mesmerizing; she never strikes a wrong note.  We like her, but we understand what she is feeling.  It's not easy for anyone, much less Lucy, to wear their emotions on their sleeves, or to let their guard down.  Remaining aloof means less pain when it blows up.  She should have gotten an Oscar nomination (one that is long overdue) for her fearless performance.  Judd buries herself deep into her character.

Judd may dominate the film, but she is surrounded by a fine supporting cast.  Most surprising is Jeffrey Donovan.  Donovan, a character actor best known for being the lead in the show "Burn Notice." I haven't seen the show, but I've seen him play sleazeballs very well ("Hitch" and "Changeling" come to mind).  Cal is a nice ordinary guy.  He does care for her, but he has self-respect (something that Lucy does not).  There is a line in the sand where he will call it off, and if she's not careful, she'll cross it.  Laura Prepon, famous for "That 70's Show," is also good as Lucy's roommate, Kim.  Kim doesn't have love, but she has confidence, and that makes Lucy jealous of her.

Periodically, actors get the urge, and the chance, to get behind the camera.  Mel Gibson, Frank Oz, Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty...there are plenty of them.  Joey Lauren Adams, an actress best known for playing Ben Affleck's love interest in "Chasing Amy," takes to role of screenwriter and director, and it's an astonishing debut.  Not quite as powerful as "The War Zone," but they're different movies.  She'd been an actress for 15 years before she directed "Come Early Morning," and it's kind of obvious that she knows how to do this sort of thing.  She takes her time developing the characters and doesn't rush things.  Adams has a firm had when it comes to tone.  She gets us into Lucy's mindset without overdoing it; it's not too depressing or melodramatic.

Lucy's relationships with her parents play an important part in the breakdown of Lucy's psyche, but unfortunately, they're half-developed.  Especially that with her father, Lowell (character actor Scott Wilson).  He doesn't say much, and I wasn't sure of what that meant.  Her mother and step-father, played by Diane Ladd and Pat Corley are at least a little easier to read (they fight all the time and there is a hint that domestic violence of some kind may be present).  Even less developed is Doll (Candyce Hinkle), a woman of deteriorating mental faculties whose relationship with Lucy is never made clear.

I also had a problem with the ending.  It's not what happens that bothers me; it's honest and rings true (which cannot be said of many romances).  What bothers me is how Lucy reacts to it.  I didn't believe in what she did and how she feels.  The majority of the film is a near masterwork, but it stumbles in the final 10 minutes.

Lest I make this movie sound completely depressing, I assure you that there are many scenes of warmth in this film.  Judd has a great smile, and when Lucy allows herself to be happy, the emotion jumps off the screen.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Avengers

1.5/4

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action Throughout, and a Mild Drug Reference

What a cast!  What hype!  What a disappointment!  It's the fanboys' wet dream, and it's been building for four years.  Each of the main characters has at least one movie to their credit and they've all teamed up for one giant movie.  It's a complete letdown.

An object called the Tesseract has been stolen by the demigod Loki (Hiddleston).  He's taking it so another alien race can come and destroy the Earth.  S.H.I.E.L.D has brought together all the big Marvel superheroes: Iron Man, aka Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.), Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Evans), The Incredible Hulk aka Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) and the other demigod, Thor (Hemsworth) to fight back.

It doesn't take much thought to realize that this is a thinly-veiled remake of last years "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."  It's got a powerful object from outer space that everyone wants (Allspark/Tesseract), superhuman fighters (superheroes/Transformers) and an hour long climax.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Michael Bay's special effects extravaganza is more fun.

The actors do their jobs, but despite them all having their own franchises, there's no one to care about.  Fanboys have read the comics so they know the characters intimately and have already forged a relationship with them.  Those who aren't comic book lovers have not, and since big studios care more about foreign audiences they want to limit any character development.  That leaves people like me sitting in the theater feeling left out and cheated.

With Marvel being bought by Disney, Stan Lee is now a very wealthy man.  He also has no shame, prostituting all his comics to Hollywood for boatloads of money.  And he also has a very large ego since he cameos in all of them (it should be noted, that he doesn't have the acting skills to pull off a cameo...they all stick out like eyesores).

Joss Whedon is beloved by comic book geeks.  I am not among them.  I loved "The Cabin in the Woods," but he only co-wrote and produced that.  And I hated "Serenity," which was a film add-on to his cult TV series and a complete mess.  Here, he proves that his writing is just as bland as his storytelling.  At least Michael Bay had style.

I know I'm going to get a ton of hate from this from the two people that actually read my reviews (and the few that come across by chance from browsing the internet).  At least have the decency to leave comments to assuage my ego to let me know that there are people that actually read my stuff.  I really don't care if you think I'm crap though.  Honestly.

Regardless of what I, or anyone else, says, "The Avengers" will make a ton of money.  And I'll cry because not only will the superhero craze never end, we'll get sequels.  I can only hope that someone will take over for Joss Whedon, but that will never happen because of how profitable this movie is going to be.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Safe

3/4

Starring: Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Reggie Lee, Robert John Burke, James Hong, Chris Sarandon, Anson Mount

Rated R for Strong Violence Throughout, and for Language

The good news about Boaz Yakin's new film is that, for all its flaws, it's infinitely better than his last feature, the unspeakably bad art-porn "Death in Love."  Although Yakin has the unfortunate tendency to shake the camera frenetically, he does raise the adrenaline level to acceptable standards.  For those who crave lots and lots of R-rated violence, this will fit the bill.

The plot is little more than a thread that allows Jason Statham to do what he does best: kick major ass.  And believe me, he does.  The body count is in the high double digits, and it comes close to matching "Shoot 'Em Up" in terms of bullets fired (albeit without the humor).

In any event, the plot involves a little girl named Mei (Chan), who has what appears to be a photographic memory.  She is kidnapped to work for a Triad named Han Jiao (Hong), who has her memorize a series of numbers.  En route to the next set of numbers, she is kidnapped by the Russian mob, who also want the numbers.  But Mei escapes and ends up on the subway.  There she finds Luke Wright (Statham), a down and out ex-cop intending to jump in front of a train.  But the Russians are after her and he saves her life.  Now it's them against the Triads, the Russian mob and a quartet of corrupt cops led by Wolf (Burke).

The plot doesn't always make a lot of sense, but action fans will get what they pay for.  Statham blows bad guys away by the truckload, the violence is sufficiently brutal, and not a lot of brainpower is required to get from beginning to end.

Jason Statham usually plays one role: the ass-kicking Brit.  Filmmakers and fans demand that, and only that, and he delivers.  Statham brings on the badassness, but he adds a little more sympathy and emotion than usual. This isn't Oscar-worthy material by any means, but he shows that he is capable of more than pulling triggers, throwing punches and tossing off one-liners (which he does in this movie from time to time, but none of them are especially witty).  Newcomer Catherine Chan is lovable without being annoying.  She's a natural actress.  James Hong, Chris Sarandon, Anson Mount and Robert John Burke are on hand to add some villainy as well.  Interestingly enough, two of the corrupt cops have done stints on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."  James Colby has guested on two episodes and Burke has the recurring role of the slimy Internal Affairs officer Sgt. Ed Tucker.

The bad thing about this movie is that Yakin imitates Paul Greengrass when he films the action sequences.  The camera has a moderate seizure every time a gun fires, although it is possible to see what is going on.  Still, I think the suspense would increase had he kept it still.

Spider-Man 2

3/4

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

Rated PG-13 for Stylized Action Violence

Because the first one was such a mega success, a sequel was inevitable.  The whole crew is back; Maguire, Dunst, Franco, Harris, Raimi and producer Laura Ziskin.  It's actually quite a bit better than the first one, too.

Peter Parker (Maguire) has settled into his job as Spider-Man.  He is skilled at using his powers and wears his suit under his clothes just in case.  But being a superhero is a full-time job, and because of the anonymity required, it doesn't pay for tuition or the rent.  Trying to be a superhero and a normal person at the same time is taking its toll on Peter.  Mary Jane (Dunst) is fed up with his bailing on her.  Ditto for Harry (Franco), who still believes that Spider-Man killed his father.  His grades are also suffering, as he is constantly told by his professor, Curt Connors (Dylan Baker).  Peter is thinking of giving it all up until a new threat arises: scientist Dr. Otto Octavius, who, like in the last movie, is the victim of an experiment gone wrong and now has his mechanical arms welded onto his body.

In this sequel, greater attention is paid to Peter's struggle with his two identities.  We've all been pulled in too many directions at the same time, and that's why it's easy to sympathize with him.  Maguire makes Peter's struggles credible.  Peter is not only pulled between his two identities, but he's also jealous of his alter-ego.  Pete does all the work, but Spidey gets all the credit (or hate, depending on what headlines J. Jonah Jameson (Simmons) can spin).

The cast members slide easily back into their characters and do solid jobs.  New to the cast is Alfred Molina, a character actor who got a big career boost from this role.  Like Dafoe in the first film, Molina balances viciousness and sympathy.  Molina is a good actor, and makes Doc Ock, as he is called a formidable foe for Peter.  The flaw with him is that he is pretty similar to the Green Goblin in terms of motivation.

The special effects are considerable better in this film.  Spidey moved too quick in the first film, as Roger Ebert pointed out.  Here, he's been given more weight, and looks like a human being has done the stunts.  It's much more believable and easier on the eyes.

Critics adored this movie (Ebert and a film critic at my local paper gave it a coveted four-star rating).  I can't be that generous.  The script lacks the depth necessary to elevate the rating very much, and in terms of emotionality it pales in comparison to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies.  It is, however, much more positive.

On the whole, I enjoyed this movie as much as the first one.  Probably a little more.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Spider-Man

3/4

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Willem Dafoe, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson

Rated PG-13 for Stylized Violence and Action

"Spider-Man" brought in the new superhero craze that has been going on for the last decade and a half (and unfortunately shows no signs of stopping).  It's a fun movie that successfully treads the line between a comic-book come to life and a regular big budget movie.  By no means is it groundbreaking, but it is good entertainment.

Peter Parker (Maguire) is your average geek.  He is constantly bullied, can't talk to Mary Jane Watson (Dunst), the gorgeous redhead next door (with whom he has long held a secret affection) and has only one friend, the rich flunkie Harry Osborn (Franco).  One day on a field trip, Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered "super-spider" and discovers that he has some amazing super powers: he has become incredibly fit overnight, he can shoot webs and swing from them, he can sense danger, and he can climb walls.  But just as he's getting used to his newfound abilities, a new threat has emerged.  Harry's father Norman (Dafoe) is the victim of a science experiment gone terribly wrong, and has turned into the vicious Green Goblin.

The acting is solid across the board.  Tobey Maguire makes for a great geek, and an oddly effective superhero.  Nerds can live out their heroic fantasies through him.  Kirsten Dunst is a terrific "nice girl" while James Franco is surprisingly effective as Peter's best friend.  Willem Dafoe is surprisingly uneven.  He's good when he's low-key, but sometimes he goes too far over-the-top.  The best performances go to screen veterans Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson, who play Peter's aunt and uncle.  They earn our sympathy more than anyone else.

Director Sam Raimi is an odd choice for a big budget movie.  Known previously as the cult filmmaker of the "Evil Dead" trilogy (he also directed the murder masterpiece "A Simple Plan"), Raimi directs the film as he should.  There are plenty of special effects, and every penny of the $139 million budget is put to good use.  But unlike say "Van Helsing" or the "Sherlock Holmes" movies, it doesn't feel like it's completely created by CGI.  Raimi never overuses it, and it's really easy on the eyes after seeing murky movies like the latter two.

Oddly enough, the film came out at the perfect time for America, and the world.  It was release nearly eight months after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, and people were still hurting.  The presence of a big budget movie where the good hero fights (and conquers, obviously) the bad guy was able to lift our spirits.  Actually, scenes were added, such as the one where New Yorkers throw trash at the Green Goblin over an American flag, were used to increase patriotism.  It's not yellow journalism by any means, but it works.

In short, this is a fun two hour ride.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

50 First Dates

3/4

Starring: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Rob Schneider, Blake Clark, Amy Hill, Sean Astin

Rated PG-13 for Crude Sexual Humor and Drug References

Romantic comedies are fairly common.  Good romantic comedies are rare.  The most frequent problems are that chemistry is pushed aside in favor of box office appeal and the romance is hampered by plot complications.  "50 First Dates" works because the leads have chemistry (their first romantic comedy, "The Wedding Singer," was a box office smash) and because the script by George Wing allows the humor to germinate from the plot, rather than forcing it in there.  And it doesn't sacrifice scenes where the leads connect for lame jokes.

Henry Roth (Sandler) is a womanizing vet in Hawaii.  He specializes in wooing women on vacation then kindly dumping them when they ask for his phone number before they leave.  This way, he gets to bed lots of beautiful women without any complications.  That all changes one day when he meets Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore) at the Hukilau cafe.  She's pretty, lively, and he's totally into her in a way that he's never felt before.  After spending a long breakfast together, they agree to meet there the next day.  Henry is pumped, but when he shows up, Lucy has no idea who he is.  It turns out that Lucy suffers from amnesia, and lives the same day over and over again.  But Henry is undeterred, and is willing to do whatever it takes to win her heart.

The key to this movie is tone.  Using mental illness in a humorous context could push a lot of buttons, but as directed by Peter Segal (who directed one of my favorite movies, "Tommy Boy"), the film is lighter than air and treats the characters and their foibles with warm affection.  It's a welcome diversion for Sandler, who was mainly known for his crass comedy.

Sandler and Barrymore have wonderful chemistry, and their characters are lovable.  Henry Roth is a likable guy who can't get a break, while Lucy is made of pure sunshine.  Their vulnerabilities make them irresistibly endearing.  Able support is provided by Rob Schneider as Henry's pothead friend Ula.  I have yet to understand why there's so much hate for Schneider; he's a pretty funny guy.  Blake Clark is good as Lucy's dad, and Sean Astin is hilarious as her juiced-up brother.

Peter Segal knows how to make an audience laugh while touching their heart.  He proved that with "Tommy Boy" and he proves it again here.  Some of the sequences, especially those with Jacko the walrus, are very funny.  But the romance is what really makes this movie special.  From the moment they appear on screen together, we want Henry and Lucy to end up together.  And that is the bottom line for any romantic comedy.

The Brandon Teena Story

2/4

To be fair to the documentary by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, it came before the searing "Boys Don't Cry," the narrative version of the same story.  In all honesty though, I don't think I would have given "The Brandon Teena Story" a much higher rating if I hadn't seen Kimberly Pierce's film first.  This documentary is as bland as its title.

On December 31, 1993, Brandon Teena (official name Teena Brandon) was brutally murdered along with her friend Lisa Lambert and Philip Devine, a week after she was raped by her killers, John Lotter and Tom Nissen.  What reason was there for this senseless crime?  Brandon had passed herself off as a male when she was in fact a female.

This documentary is little more than a series of clips explaining who Brandon was and what happened to him.  It's a by the numbers construction, and while I don't doubt that the filmmakers had passion and reverence for their subject, it's not a good telling of the story.  There's no style evident, although they do have short clips of a bar and some location shots.

By nature, it offers some insight into life in Falls City, Nebraska, but it's perfunctory.  That's what's missing in this documentary.  What kind of culture is it that breeds this kind of hatred?  We know who Hilary Swank (as Brandon), Chloe Sevigny (as Brandon's girlfriend, Lana Turner), Peter Sarsgaard as (John Lotter) and Brandon Sexton III (as Tom Nissen) portrayed them as in Kimberly Pierce's film, but who were they really?  The film lacks any psychological insight into who these people are, which limits the power of the story.

One thing that it does do is give recorded interviews between Sheriff Charles Laux (who doesn't give an on-camera interview).  This was touched upon in the film, but here hatred has another face.  Laux is the officer who questions Brandon about his rape.  He takes an almost sleazy interest in his being a transman, treating him like some sideshow freak.  He also declined to arrest Nissen and Lotter, despite the evidence (a rape kit was performed and came back with positive identification that the two had raped him), which inadvertently led to the triple homicide.

The thing I did like is that it shows how opinions can change when you know someone.  Before, and initially after, they knew Brandon was biologically female, they were outraged and offended by the existence of a transsexual and the deception.  But once they knew him, they cared about him and wanted to see justice for him (although it clearly doesn't go as far as one would like because many interviewed still refer to Brandon as "Teena" or "she," or in some cases, "it").  Studies have shown that most people who know a gay person are in support of gay rights.  It appears that all it takes is the human connection.  There is a young man interviewed who thinks the whole trial, in his words, is "bullshit" because if God wanted gay people, he would have created all men.  One wonders what he might think if he actually knew Brandon.