Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ted

3.5/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, the voice of Seth MacFarlane, Mila Kunis, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi

Rated R for Crude and Sexual Content, Pervasive Language, and Some Drug Use

I am a huge "Family Guy" fan.  It's streaming on NetFlix, and I watch episodes of the animated comedy over and over again.  The writing is strong, the voice acting is excellent and the humor is frequently hilarious.  So when it was announced that creator Seth MacFarlane was coming out with a live action film, I was excited.  It was worth the wait.  "Ted" is hysterical.

Young John Bennett (Bretton Manley) is a lonely kid living in Boston.  He has no friends and his parents don't take him seriously.  One Christmas he gets a large teddy bear that he names, of all things, Ted.  One night, he makes a wish that Ted would come to life.  He makes his wish on the night when a shooting star passes, and what do you know?  Ted does come to life.

Trouble starts when Ted grows up.  John (now played by Wahlberg) is a 35 year old man-child who spends his time smoking pot with his teddy bear.  He has a girlfriend, the lovely Lori (Kunis), but she wants Ted to move out so that they can take their relationship to the next level.  But John is wary about abandoning his best friend, and Ted doesn't like the idea at all.  The battle lines are drawn, and the question becomes, who will win John's attention?

The acting is as strong as the writing.  Mark Wahlberg, who is good as an everyman, gives a terrific performance as a man who is in a state of arrested development.  Ted is a good friend, but he's also a bad influence.  He's made quite the catch with Lori, but her patience is wearing thin.  As Lori, Mila Kunis is both sexy and mature.  We sympathize with her enough so that she becomes a real person, not a bitchy party pooper.  Lori is far different from Kunis' character, Meg, on "Family Guy."  But the real star of the show is, obviously, MacFarlane.  Portraying Ted with a heavy Boston accent and a foul mouth, Ted has all the best lines and antics.

MacFarlane has always been a great, but inconsistent writer.  Not every joke he throws at the audience works, but when they hit (and they often do) the results are hilarious.  Some of the funniest scenes are when Ted tries to botch meetings with a grocery store manager (played by character actor Bill Smitrovich).  His hilarious attempts to get turned down backfire with hilarious results.  One of the jokes pushes the level of the R rating as well (this movie is not for kids, although it does follow the formula for a kids movie).

There's a twisted subplot involving a creepy guy named Donny (Ribisi) who wants Ted for his just as creepy son, Robert (Aedin Mincks).  Although this allows for some funny jokes by Ted, it's a little too weird for this movie.  Also, some of the acting, particularly in the beginning, is pretty bad.  Stick with it.  Once the news clips about Ted start (one would rightly think that a teddy bear coming to life would be big news), the film takes off.

Lots of big laughs is a must for any comedy that wants to be a success.  But "Ted" takes things to the next level because I actually cared about the characters.  None of this is particularly groundbreaking, but it is very funny.  Not for kids, although some of the lines (especially the "Thunder" song) are going to be repeated by middle schoolers who have sneaked in.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Madea's Witness Protection

1/4

Starring: Tyler Perry, Eugene Levy, Denise Richards, Romeo, Doris Roberts, Danielle Campbell, Devan Leos

Rated PG-13 for Some Crude Sexual Remarks and Brief Drug References

Apologies to Larry the Cable Guy, but Tyler Perry's new movie should be called "Witless Protection."  Apart from two or three funny scenes, this movie is a trial.  It's tedious, badly acted and rushed.  Like Wes Anderson, Tyler Perry is hugely popular, but I guess I'm not a member of his audience either.

George Needleman (Levy) is living the high life.  He's very wealthy, just got a huge sudden promotion and has a beautiful wife, Kate (Richards).  Unfortunately, his company is a Ponzi scheme, and the reason why he was suddenly promoted to CFO is because he's a doormat and intended to be the fall guy.  The company laundered money for the mob, and George has to go with his family into Witness Protection.  Because the mob knows the government's Witness Protection hideouts, US Prosecutor Brian (Perry) has to find a place for them to hide out.  His idea is to stick them with his politically incorrect aunt, Madea (Perry).  Now the tough talking Madea is about to do some house cleaning with the Needlemans, since George is a doormat, Kate is a pushover when it comes to her stepdaughter Cindy (Campbell) and Wally (Leos) can't play baseball.

Not only is this movie unfunny, it's sloppily written.  Subplots are left unfinished, characters are left hanging and the plot sermonizes.  Quite frankly, the film is centered around Madea, a caricature who gets old after, oh, 15 minutes.

Eugene Levy is a funny man.  He's funny because he's so innocent in the most alarming of circumstances.  See him in the "American Pie" movies for an example.  But here he's given so little to work with that there's little that he can do.  Levy gives it a game try, but it rarely works.  Denise Richards is okay, but she's mainly just a cute face (why a girl as hot as Richards would ever go after a guy like Levy without dollar signs in her eyes is left unexplained).  Doris Roberts is surprisingly boring as the demented mother Barbara.

The real fault is Tyler Perry.  He wears four hats for this movie, and he's only good at one: the producer.  He knows his target audience and goes after them effectively.  But I wish that his film was worth all the buzz. It's badly written, directed and acted on his part.  He plays three roles: Madea, who is annoying, Brian, who fades into the background, and Madea's randy husband Joe who is also a non-entity.

There are some humorous sequences, such as when Madea tries to wake up her guests.  But that's it really.  Everything else is trash.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

0.5/4

Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content and Smoking

"Moonrise Kingdom" is one of those movies that while watching it, you realize that staring at a blank wall would be more interesting whatever is going on in the movie.  At least then you'd have your imagination to explore with.  And chances are it's going to be a lot more entertaining than what's going on in "Moonrise Kingdom."  And less irritating (the title is wrong for this movie too).

Two misfit kids, Sam (Gilman) and Suzy (Hayward), run away together on a small island to live out their lives in peace and harmony.  They grew to love each other through a chance meeting and love letters.  Naturally, the townspeople, which include Sam's scout master, Ward (Norton), the local (and probably only) cop, Captain Sharp (Willis) and Suzy's parents, Walt (Murray) and Laura (McDormand).  But because Sam is an orphan and his foster parents don't want him, he's going to end up in the hands of Social Services (Swinton), unless the townspeople can do something about it.

Anderson's style is quirky and offbeat to be sure.  Dry, subtle humor, wide spacious shots with unwavering perspective, oddball characters and precocious kids.  That's all fine and good for his legion of surprisingly rabid fans (I've been insulted online by some of them just because I didn't like him...more than any other film or actor/director that I have openly disliked), but for anyone else who is not a devout fan of Anderson, it means boredom.

The key is in how he handles the material.  Some of the stuff, I'll admit, is worthy of a grin.  Like the treehouse that is mistakenly built on the top of the tree instead of in the middle or that bit with a paper mache dummy (which caused me to laugh out loud).  But when the humor misses, or he's going for character identification, the film sinks like a rock.  It's boring, pretentious (it's filmed with little variety in camera angles or perspectives...the whole thing feels like one of those really stuffy arthouse movies) and annoying.

The acting varies.  The two misfit lovebirds are okay, but little more.  Both Gilman and Hayward make their screen debuts here, and while neither is terrible, they're not standout either.  Sam has potential to be somewhat interesting, if not for Anderson force feeding the character into another bizarre creature that he loves so much.  Suzy on the other hand, is a misanthrope; she's like a young Enid from "Ghost World."  A bit of the plot deals with the characters worrying that Sam will get sent to a mental institution because his foster family doesn't want him and that he'll get electroshock therapy.  Sam is weird to be sure, but it's Suzy that needs serious mental help.

The townspeople are played by a mix of Anderson regulars (Murray and Schwartzman) and Anderson newbies (everyone else).  Willis and Norton fare best; they have energy and Norton's Ward is bizarre enough to get a few grins in the beginning.  McDormand is also good for the same reason.  Swinton, is surprisingly flat and Keitel barely has any screen time.  Anderson's regulars are non-entities.  Murray can be hilarious in the right role.  Any movie he made until he started veering into drama and Anderson territory is going to be hilarious.  But Murray can only do his typical smartass stuff; if he's in any other kind of role, he's awful (although he does have one mildly amusing one-liner).  Schwartzman is only on screen for a few scenes, but he's actually pretty good, unlike his other roles where he is exceedingly irritating.

I've been told (repeatedly) that I don't get Wes Anderson's humor.  I think that's a fair statement.  Unlike "The Royal Tenenbaums," where every character is so bizarre and unlikable that you wish they'd run into Jigsaw from the "Saw" franchise, here it's at least easy to understand what Anderson is going for.  But Anderson's style is so pretentious and off-putting that had I not been so irritated by all the self-importance, I'd have fallen asleep.

Heed my advice.  Just stay away from "Moonrise Kingdom."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Brave

4/4

Starring (voices): Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connelly, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson

Rated PG for Some Scary Action and Rude Humor

Since 1995, the release date of the new Pixar movie has become a date to circle on the calendar.  "Toy Story," "Monster's Inc," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Up," "Wall-E"... those are just a few of the many titles that are not only excellent family entertainment, but excellent entertainment for everyone.  Pixar's newest entry, "Brave," is in the upper echelon of Pixar releases, and considering its fellows, that's high praise.

Merida (Macdonald) is a princess living in ancient Scotland.  Her life is being dictated by her mother Elinor (Thompson); she's being groomed for marriage, where the oldest sons of the leaders from the rival clans will compete for her hand in marriage.  But Merida's heart lies not in being a wife.  She longs to get out and control her own fate.  At the ceremony, the friction with her mother comes to a head, and she breaks with tradition in a big way.  She then flees into the forest where she meets up with a witch (Walters).  After much prodding, Merida gets the witch to cast a spell that will change her mother.  But Merida doesn't mean for that to be taken literally, especially when the spell turns her mother into a bear.

In keeping with the tradition of having female princesses be feisty and independent (Jasmine, Belle, Mulan, etc.), Merida is stubborn and fiercely independent.  She marches to her own beat, much to the chagrin of her mother.  Macdonald, a native Scot who is best known for her roles in "Trainspotting" (unseen by me) and "No Country for Old Men," gets this right.  For all her flaws, Merida is likable and it's easy to get behind her.  Likewise, Elinor is sympathetic as well (and Thompson is almost unrecognizable in the role).  The trailers make her look almost like the caricature of an overbearing mother.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  She just thinks that Merida is being selfish by not following tradition, but she still loves her daughter.  Their problem is that they're not listening to each other.  Billy Connelly is hilarious as Merida's loving, if rather dense, father Fergus.

There are a number of truly hilarious sequences, like when the opening ceremony turns into a full blown brawl or Elinor's attempts to keep her manners even when she grows twelve feet tall and sports fur and claws.  There are also some touching sequences, like when Merida and Elinor go fishing and when they finally realize what each other was saying all along.

The film is directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman.  Chapman, who came up with the idea for the film, left the project early on due to creative disagreements.  The film was significantly reworked after her departure, and control of the film went to Mark Andrews, who co-directed the Pixar short "One Man Band" (by the way, the short that plays in front of Brave, called "La Luna," is more whimsical than funny.  It's still good though).  Although there was friction behind the scenes, it doesn't show up in the film.  This is truly the best film of the year so far.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

4/4

Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Alec Guinness, and the voice of James Earl Jones

Rated PG for Sci-Fi Action Violence

The fifth installment (or chronologically speaking in terms of release dates, the second) of George Lucas's beloved "Star Wars" saga is "The Empire Strikes Back."  It is also the most beloved and considered the best film in the series.  I don't know if I'd go that far (for me, Episode III packs a bigger punch), but it is an amazing movie.  It continues the grand saga that Lucas had begun to reveal and provides more depth and complexity to the characters that Lucas had introduced audiences to three years beforehand.  Despite the fact that Lucas neither wrote nor directed this installment.

The destruction of the Death Star by the Rebel Alliance was a huge hit to the Empire, but by no means was that a finishing blow.  The Empire regrouped and has been chasing the Rebels all over the galaxy.  The Rebels have set up base on the ice planet Hoth.  The characters' paths diverge from there, however.  Luke gets a vision from the late Obi-Wan Kenobi (Guinness) to go to the Dagobah system to receive Jedi training.  Meanwhile, Han Solo (Ford) and Leia (Fisher) are being pursued by the Empire, and end up in Cloud City on the planet Bespin.  And the culmination of these two separate adventures may spell doom for the entire galaxy.

Episode IV was a standard adventure yarn.  It had a beginning, middle and end, and the battle lines were clearly drawn.  Here, things get a little murky.  The Empire is still evil, and the Rebels are good guys, but the threat that Luke may turn to the Dark Side is very real.  Luke's past is delved into, which leads to one of the greatest twists in film history: that Luke's father is in fact Darth Vader.  Actually this twist was decided late in the film, and an anachronism is still left in (Leia kisses Luke to make Han jealous, although neither one of them knew that they were related).

The acting is just as good.  Mark Hamill played a starry-eyed idealist who was all light and innocence in the first one.  Here, he's a little more worldly and a little darker.  Hamill understands that the fight against the Empire has changed Luke, and the actor (who has done very little of note outside the three "Star Wars" movies) plays him with a little more anger and tension.  Carrie Fisher is still just as feisty, but her loving relationship with Luke earns her sympathy and her love/hate relationship with Han Solo leads to some hilarious moments.  Ford is also very good as Han, who is struggling with his feelings for Leia.  Anthony Daniels is hysterical as C-3PO, who is more or less in a constant panic, and his barbs with R2-D2 are also very funny.  James Earl Jones lends depth and viciousness to Darth Vader.  Vader has emerged as more than the epitome of evil that he was in the first installment.  Here, we can see his intelligence and his ruthlessness.

George Lucas ceded directorial control over to British filmmaker Irvin Kershner.  Kershner does what every good filmmaker should do in his position: keep the spirit of the previous film.  Many filmmakers have done that with to James Bond franchise, and Kershner does it here.  Quite frankly, it's really impossible to tell that it wasn't directed by Lucas.  Nor was it written by him.  Writer Leigh Brackett wrote a draft, but died before she could finish it.  Lucas was dissatisfied with it, so he had Lawrence Kasdan rewrite it, changing just about everything but following Lucas' story.  Brackett is credited because she fulfilled her contractual obligations.

One of the things that is nice about this movie is that it doesn't suffer the fate of many middle installments.  It exists on its own terms and can be viewed as a stand-alone film (although I don't understand why anyone would want to do that).  The "Star Wars" films are classics, and this one is no exception.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

4/4

Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels and the voice of James Earl Jones

Rated PG for Sci-Fi Violence and Brief Mild Language

"Star Wars," or more appropriately, "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," is the definition of a phenomenon.  It was also, surprisingly, a sleeper hit.  No one had any confidence in it.  Most theaters had to be threatened with the loss of "The Other Side of Midnight," which was predicted to be a blockbuster, if they didn't show "Star Wars" ("The Other Side of Midnight" ended up being a major flop).  But George Lucas's space opera defied all expectations and cemented a place in the hearts and minds of filmgoers for all time.

I'm sure that everyone knows the story, but for those of you who haven't seen it in a while (or seen the hilarious "Family Guy" spoof), here's a refresher.

The Empire has control over the majority of the galaxy, and it holds its power like a vice.  There are those that rebel, but the tide has gone to the Empire now that they have built a space station with the capability of destroying an entire planet with one blow.  But the plans for the station have been stolen by Princess Leia (Fisher) who has stored them in a droid called R2-D2 (Baker).  R2-D2 and his tightly wound companion, C-3PO (Daniels) narrowly escape being caught by the Empire and land on the planet Tattooine, where they end up in the hands of young Luke Skywalker (Hamill), a young farmers boy who longs to escape his home planet.  In no short order, he has teamed up with a mysterious old man, Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobi (Guinness), a mercenary named Han Solo (Ford) and his Wookiee companion Chewbacca (Mayhew), taking the Empire head on.

George Lucas has been one thing: a master storyteller with an unrivaled imagination and visual sense.  With a small budget ($11 million, not adjusted for inflation), he created a whole new universe that instantly captures the imagination.  Although in this film we only see a small part of it, we can sense that there is more out there waiting to be explored.  Lucas directs the film as a grand tapestry.  It has all the requisite elements: a noble hero, an evil villain, a spunky girl, a wise teacher and a mercenary who grows a heart.  And also a large scale that befits a space opera.

The acting is terrific.  Mark Hamill, an actor who hasn't had much of a career outside the Star Wars movies and celebrity appearances, is great as the starry-eyed adventurer.  Luke is an enthusiastic idealist, no matter the circumstances.  He's a nice guy, if a little naiive.  Carrie Fisher makes for a very sassy Princess Leia, and she has some great one-liners.  Harrison Ford shot to fame as the money-obsessed rascal Han Solo (who was based on Lucas' friend, Francis Ford Coppola).  Alec Guinness is great as the much beloved character Obi-Wan Kenobi, although sources are divided as to whether or not the classical British actor liked playing the role.  Interviews said Guinness hated being on set and asked to be killed off early, while Lucas said the actor enjoyed his time there and asked to be in more of the film.

The film holds up well, except that some of the costumes (like the stormtroopers outfits) look fake.  It's still a visually dazzling epic, especially on Blu Ray.  But like "Avatar," "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings" movies, it needs to be seen on as big of a screen as possible.  It's still an amazing movie on a small screen, but it loses a lot of its luster without a big presentation.  I hope the local theater that does late night movies shows this movie on the big screen one of these days.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mike's Musings: The Message Movie

To be perfectly honest, I'm writing this Mike's Musings because this new keyboard is so cool, and I want to keep using it.  That being said, hopefully you faithful readers (the ten of you that exist) will bear with me.

Many movies contain messages.  Anti-drug movies are, well, warnings against drug use.  "Schindler's List" was about the importance of one man's act that saved the lives of thousands.  "Bordertown" was about sleazy practices by big business and politicians leads to the rape and murder of many women in Mexico.  But you couldn't find two more different movies in terms of quality than Gregory Nava's film and Spielberg's masterpiece (a review of which should be coming soon).

The key is to use real characters and an engaging story to tell it.  We cared more about Oskar Schindler and Itszhak Stern and understood Amon Goeth.  We were invested in their fates and those of the other characters.  The same descriptors did not apply to the characters in "Bordertown."  Unless I look it up, I can't remember any of their names.  I remember many names and elements from "Schindler's List."

I got the idea to write this Mike's Musings because the same thing happened with "When a Man Loves a Woman."  It's message is clear: alcoholism is a family disease.  It's not just the fight of the ex-drinker to stay sober.  It's the fight for them to regain their place in the world as a normal human being, and for their family members to heal after dealing with the roller coaster ride of living with an addict.

The problem, as I said, is that none of the characters seemed real.  Alice and Michael Green were stick figures.  They existed not because they were real people but because they were pawns of the script that was trying to educate us.  The film was little more than an educational video with big stars in the speaking roles.

Message movies get a bad rap because many filmmakers let their passion overrule their filmmaking skills.  The best ones know how to use it to augment a story.

When a Man Loves a Woman

2/4

Starring: Andy Garcia, Meg Ryan, Tina Majorino, Mae Whitman, Lauren Tom

Rated R for Language

Alcoholism is a pervasive disease.  Under the right circumstances, it can strike anyone.  There is no cure, only treatment.  Millions of people have it.  Actor Chris Klein.  The late actor Chris Farley.  Actor Joaquin Phoenix.  Actor Ben Affleck.  Actress Eileen Brennan.  And, the character Alice Green.

Alice (Ryan) and Michael Green (Garcia) are a loving couple living in San Francisco.  They have two beautiful daughters: Jess (Majorino) and Casey (Whitman).  Alice is a lively and vivacious school counselor who likes to party while Michael is an airline pilot, a job that keeps him away from his family for days at a time.  But Alice isn't just a hard partier; she's an alcoholic.  Michael is aware of his wife's tendency to drink too much, but not fully aware of how bad her drinking problem is.  It isn't until she tries to cure a hangover with aspirin and vodka and passes out in front of her daughter that he understands that this isn't something that she can handle by herself.  She goes to rehab, but her sobriety presents a new set of problems.

The problem with this film is that it exists purely on a superficial level.  Alice and Michael aren't real people; they're stick figures who do things to fit the writers' need to explain how alcoholism affects a family.  The film would have been a lot more effective if the script had been able to camouflage its desire to detail how alcoholism is truly a family disease more effectively, and added some scenes where Michael and Alice don't just talk about the point that the script needs to convey.  There are a few of the latter, but the writing, by the usually reliable Ronald Bass and SNL-actor/writer Al Franken (who has extensive experience with alcoholism and AA/Al-Anon) is shallow.

The acting is variable, although that is due in part to the weak script.  Meg Ryan, always a strong actress, does what she can with the role, but there's not much that can be done by anyone.  Andy Garcia, on the other hand, is at times embarrassingly bad.  Garcia is an actor of limited range.  His skills lie with low-key intensity, not tearjerker roles.  In "When a Man Loves a Woman," he plays an everyman, which requires more skill than one might assume.  With Garcia in the role, it's not a pretty sight, although he did do something similar to much better effect in "The Man from Elysian Fields."  More life and energy is needed, and his attempts at crying are about as bad as Taylor Lautner's in last year's stinker "Abduction."  The actresses who play their daughters, Tina Majorino and Mae Whitman, are good.  Majorino, the former child star from the seal movie "Andre" and Kevin Costner's ego legendary flop (although that's really an inaccurate term) "Waterworld" is particularly good.  She's the only one I really felt for.  Mae Whitman, who has gone on to be a young character actress, makes a good debut.  Both of them occasionally suffer from dialogue that forces them to become too cute, despite their attempts to be otherwise.

The film's director is Luis Mandoki, a mediocre (he directed the Charlize Theron flop "Trapped") Mexican filmmaker who ventured North at the beginning of the nineties.  His attempts to get the tear ducts running are occasionally shameless, which is disrespectful to those who suffer from alcoholism in any form.  He does manage an effective scene every now and then, such as when Alice has a bad day and Michael gets frustrated because she isn't able to tell him why.  This scene works because Garcia is able to show some energy.

Mandoki also has a tendency to use musical montages, which hurts the film even more.  Used effectively, they can carry emotions over large time lapses in the film.  Here, they're a crutch; probably because Mandoki realizes how thin the script actually is.  Whatever the reasons, it doesn't work.

Ultimately however, the film doesn't work because the script turns it into a message movie instead of a film about two people dealing with one person's alcoholism.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

3/4

Starring: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson

Rated R for Violence Throughout and Brief Sexuality

With a title like this, you already have some idea of what to expect.  One of our nation's best and most beloved presidents swinging an ax (with the blade coated in silver) and brutally dispatching bloodsuckers.  How cool is that?

Young Abraham Lincoln (Lux Haney-Jardine) witnesses a brutal man viciously whipping a young black boy named Will (Curtis Harris).  Despite the warnings of his father, Abe stops the man, named Barts (Csokas) and ends up getting beat himself.  His father steps in and the whole thing ends up with a minor scuffle.  Barts wants revenge, and ends up sucking the blood of Abe's mother that night.  Vowing revenge, Abe waits until his father has died, and then goes after Barts.  It's a failure, because Abe (now played by Walker) doesn't know how to kill vampires.  In steps Henry Sturgess (Cooper), who teaches him the way of the Vampire Hunter.  But Barts isn't the only vampire in town.  Their leader, a nasty piece of work named Adam (Sewell), intends to make the whole South a haven for vampires.  Lincoln realizes that going into politics can be a great help in controlling the spread of the bloodsuckers, but war is coming, and they intend to take over everything.

There are some good things about this movie and some not so good things.  First are the performances.  The acting is strong across the board.  Relative newcomer Benjamin Walker (now the son-in-law of Meryl Streep) makes a terrific debut as Lincoln.  He plays the man with gravitas and presence but doesn't take things too seriously.  This isn't masterpiece theater, after all (for those who crave something a little more realistic, Spielberg's Lincoln biopic is coming out in December).  Dominic Cooper continues to stretch his range as the Mr. Miyagi of the movie.  Also very good is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays Mary Todd with spirit and fire.

The bad thing is that the script is arguably too condensed.  I didn't particularly care about any of the characters, and the connection between vampirism and slavery is poorly explained.  Since the latter is a serious building block of the plot, that's a big problem (although I might have missed it...I'll have to see it again to make sure).

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" was directed by Russian superstar Timur Bekmambetov, who directed the Russian "World of Watches" trilogy before coming to the US and directing "Wanted."  Bekmambetov's style is active and kinetic, which suits the material.  His style brings to mind John Woo and Zack Snyder, whose uses of slo-mo are skillful and adrenaline and testosterone inducing.  He does take things a little too seriously though, although that's really the fault of the script by Seth Grahame-Smith (based on his cult book).  Additionally, he cuts a little too frequently in some action scenes, which makes it hard to tell who is who, especially since many characters look alike.

Still, I had fun, and if you know what you're getting into, so will you.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Monster House

3/4

Starring (voices): Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke, Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Lee, Kevin James

Rated PG for Scary Images and Sequences, Thematic Elements, Some Crude Humor and Brief Language

If Steven Spielberg transformed Stephen King's horror classic "IT" into a family movie, it might look something like this.  It's understandable, since he (along with Robert Zemeckis) is credited as an executive producer.  "Monster House" pays attention to what it's like being on the cusp of puberty; trick-or-treating is getting old and so is having to be babysat, and the hormones are just starting to get active.

DJ (Musso) is a young kid who is convinced that there's something strange going on across the street.  Mean old Mr. Nebbercracker (Buscemi) is extremely territorial, and any toy that ends up on his lawn is as good as gone.  This is the fate of his friend Chowder's (Lerner) new basketball.  It ends up on Nebbercracker's lawn and when they go to fetch it, Nebbercracker storms out.  While he's giving DJ the scolding of his life, the old man has a heart attack.  DJ and Chowder are convinced that he died, so when DJ gets a phone call from Nebbercracker's house, he gets the fright of his life.  Now, the two of them plus Jenny (Locke), a prep school student selling candy, investigate and realize that the house itself is alive.

What really sets this film apart is that director Gil Kenan takes time to really build the relationships between the characters.  Both DJ and Chowder find Jenny attractive, but are unsure about how to react to it.  This stuff rings true.  Ditto for how DJ and his nasty babysitter Zee (Gyllenhaal) interact.  It's refreshingly real, especially compared to many "family films."

Mitchel Musso (who sounds similar to Freddie Highmore), Sam Lerner, and Spencer Locke are all solid in their roles.  We like them and they're very believable.  Zee, the nasty babysitter, is within Gyllenhaal's limited range, and Steve Buscemi makes for a great villain.  Jason Lee and Jon Heder add some humor as Zee's rock star-wannabe boyfriend and a video game addict.

The problem with the film is that the performance capture technology used to animate the film is awful.  The character movements are gangly and stiff; watching "Monster House" is like playing a video game on a computer that's not equipped for it.

There is fun to be had from this movie, although it comes more from nostalgia than laugh-aloud humor (of which there is some) and action (and there's some of that too).  Kids will have fun and so will their parents.  It's not as good as Spielberg's early work or the recent "Super 8," which "Monster House" shares more than a few similarities, but it's still good entertainment.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rock of Ages

1/4

Starring: Diego Boneta, Julianne Hough, Tom Cruise, Paul Giamatti, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Ackerman

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, Suggestive Dancing, Some Heavy Drinking and Language

"Rock of Ages" was a smash hit Broadway musical, and that doesn't surprise me.  It's essentially a rock concert with some dialogue and drama filled in.  And as anyone who has been to a live rock concert can tell you, the energy of being in front of a live band is intense and infectious.  But translating this feeling to film is next to impossible, so to compensate, the filmmakers have to open up the setting to make it a different experience.  Choreographer-turned- director Adam Shankman doesn't do this, and the result is an overlong bore.

Sherrie (Hough) is a small-town girl from Oklahoma looking to make it big in Los Angeles.  Right off the bat, she gets a job at a concert hall called the Bourbon Room, where the legendary Stacee Jaxx (Cruise) is going to play.  She also falls for a talented barback named Drew (Boneta).  Both are looking for fame and fortune, and their run-in with Stacee Jaxx may make their futures or tear them apart.

The acting is, with two exceptions, unremarkable.  The two leads are Sherrie and Drew, but so little time is devoted to their relationship that it's impossible to care whether or not they end up together.  Worse, they're boring.  Neither one of them is worth the screen time they're afforded and while both are attractive, they have zero chemistry.  Hough in particular is problematic because her singing is enhanced and she sounds like one of those generic pop stars that come on the radio every time you turn it on.  Neither Bryan Cranston or Catherine Zeta-Jones are any more interesting.  Cranston blends in with the background while Zeta-Jones doesn't go far enough over-the-top.

As the famous Stacee Jaxx, Tom Cruise is minimally effective.  The trailers are trying to paint the character as the next Les Grossman from "Tropic Thunder," but for the most part, Stacee is a drugged out walking corpse.  Cruise manages to get us invested in him a little, but there's only so much that he can do.  He does have a great singing voice, although that may be a voice over.

The two stars with the most life are Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand.  They work hard to bring energy to their scenes, and some of their antics are quite amusing (their duet is a case in point).  If there's anything good to come out of this misfire, it's that Brand and Baldwin have potential as a comic duo.

Adam Shankman doesn't have a stellar track record.  His background is in choreography, but he's directed a number of generic comedies and dramas, including the overrated "Hairspray."  He should know better than anyone that a stage musical must be completely revamped to work on film.  Even the songs, many of which are classics, are lifeless because of the way that Shankman presents them.  It's hard to believe that a filmed version of "Any Way You Want It" and "Don't Stop Believin'" can be boring, but that's what happens here.

It's entirely possible that Rock of Ages wouldn't have worked as a film no matter what the attempt.  The narrow dimensions of the story and setting demand at the very least a dramatic reimagination of the story, or a particularly skilled director.  As it is though, Rock of Ages should be called "Rock of Snoozes."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Valentine

2/4

Starring: Denise Richards, Marley Shelton, David Boreanaz, Jessica Capshaw, Jessica Cauffiel, Daniel Cosgrove, Katherine Heigl, Johnny Whitworth, Adam Harrington, Claude Duhamel

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence, Some Sexuality and Language

For whatever reason, horror movies have a tendency to revolve around holidays.  "Halloween" has dozens, most famously John Carpenter's classic.  Christmas has the notorious "Silent Night, Deadly Night."  April Fool's Day has one (and it's not a comedy apparently), too.  New Year's Day ("Terror Train" starring Jamie Lee Curtis), Mother's Day ("Mother's Day").  Even the Fourth of July has one ("Uncle Sam").  So I suppose it's only fair that Valentine's Day has one.  Well, another one, at least, since it already has the infamous "My Bloody Valentine" and it's 3D remake.

The reason for this, I think, is because it allows for more creative and ironic ways of dispatching the characters into the afterlife.  One character in this movie gets shot by a few arrows by the villain who wears a Cupid mask.  Plus there's the marketing angle, too, since everyone loves to dress up as their favorite slasher on Halloween.

That being said, "Valentine" isn't a particularly good horror movie, but it's far from the worst I've ever seen.  Compared to "Cube" and "The Nun," this is decent entertainment.  The acting is at the very least reasonably effective, and there's plenty of eye candy (but no T&A...what a shame).  And director Jamie Blanks does a decent job of camouflaging who the killer is even though his attempts to highlight the numerous suspects are obvious.

Thirteen (haha) years ago, five girls turned down Jeremy Melton's invitation to dance.  Three of them were cruel and another betrayed him to violence.  Only one of them let him down gently.  Now grown up, these girls are still best friends (in what world does that happen?).  Paige (Richards) is a sex kitten.  Kate (Shelton) is a nice girl with an alcoholic boyfriend named Adam (Boreanaz).  Dorothy (Capshaw) has lost a lot of weight, but is still a "big" girl compared to her friends (this, by the way, is the scariest element of the movie.  Dorothy looks healthy and fit...calling her fat is a recipe for anorexia).  Lily (Cauffiel) is the funny one, and Shelly (Heigl) is the brainy one.  But one by one, they're getting creepy Valentine's Day cards and are being murdered by a guy wearing a Cupid mask.  Who is the killer?  Could it be friendly Adam?  Could it be Jason Marquette (Harrington), who is a certified creep with the same initials?  Could it be Dorothy's new lover, Campbell (Cosgrove) who has suddenly moved in with her?  Or is it Gary (Duhamel), the weird neighbor next door who is constantly rhyming?

Of the actors, no one bears a mention.  Denise Richards can't act, but she is hot and knows how to be sexy. Marley Shelton is good at playing nice.  David Boreanaz is okay as the big boyfriend struggling to stay sober.  Jessica Capshaw, step-daughter of Steven Spielberg, is actually kind of sympathetic as a woman desperate for love.  The other actors do their jobs okay.  Even Katherine Heigl, although that may be because she's only onscreen for all of ten minutes.

Director Jamie Blanks doesn't have a particularly sterling resume.  His only other major credit was "Urban Legend," a slasher movie with a unique premise and the accompanying unique kills.  Blanks' work here is lacking.  The set design is good (lots of red), but it all takes place in the daytime.  That would have been interesting had it worked, but Blanks doesn't have a clue when it comes to atmosphere.  He also shows too much restraint on the gore and nudity.  There's almost none of the red stuff, and few of the kills are unique.

Ultimately, the best thing I can say about "Valentine" is that it's watchable.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Cube

0.5/4

Starring: Maurice Dean Wint, David Hewlitt, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson

Rated R for Some Strong Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

For reasons that escape my understanding of human intelligence, "Cube" has become a cult hit.  Even the director, Vincenzo Natali, got a shot at the mainstream (he directed the little seen "Splice") because of this movie.  Either I missed something, or the world's viewing of film has become completely warped since 1997.

The bottom line is that this movie is crap.  Apart from a few mildly suspenseful moments and some creative kills, this movie is completely without merit.  The acting is uniformly terrible, the dialogue is banal, the characters are generally imbeciles who occasionally have astonishing and inexplicable leaps of intelligence, and there are scenes missing everywhere.  It's also entirely pointless.

Seven people find themselves trapped inside a series of cubes with doors on each wall.  Some of these rooms are benign and lead to more rooms, while others contain deadly traps.  These seven people have to find out why they're in this bizarre maze and how to get out before they end up dead.

Almost none of these actors deserve to be in front of a camera ever again (David Hewlitt is okay, but nothing more).  The acting is horrible; it wouldn't surprise me if it turned out that Natali only took one take for each scene.  The worst of the lot is Nicole de Boer.  She's annoying, but unfortunately she's one of the main characters.  Ditto for Nicky Guagdini, who isn't much better, and her accent keeps slipping.  Andrew Miller makes for an okay savant, but all he does is whimper, twiddle his fingers and act as a plot device.  Maurice de Wint is horrible as the tough guy who suddenly goes psycho.

Based on this film, Vincenzo Natali has no talent whatsoever.  The direction is constantly static, and the effects are cheesy.  "Cube's" budget was a slim $365,000, which at first glance might explain the utter lack of quality in every area, but remember that the first "Paranormal Activity" was made for a fraction of that ($15,000 to be exact) and it was much more creative, better acted and infinitely scarier.

As bad as it is already, Natali and his screenwriters try to add a bit of pseudo-hip philosophy about how humanity is going down the drain because no one cares about each other anymore.  Not only is this idea trite, but it's poorly developed and badly wedded into the story.

I suppose the film's "point," if you can call it that, is that good people can go bad very quickly when they're in extreme situations.  Oh wow!  I never realized that!  No other movie has said the same thing before!  Now I'm afraid to go out of my house.

Puh-leeze!  This has been done so often that it has not only ceased to compel, it has become a cheap fallback.  If you want to see how good people can go bad in a horror movie, watch "The Descent."  It's infinitely superior on all levels: intelligence, ideas, scares and gore.  Watching "Cube" will make you want to imitate Vincent Gallo; hurl a hex at Vincenzo Natali and anyone involved in this misbegotten project.

Please remember, the video service you rented this movie from is not responsible for the quality, or lack thereof, of the movie.  They're just providing a service to those who do not heed my dire warning.  Don't blame me if you get fined for putting the DVD through the woodchipper.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Backdraft


3.5/4

Starring: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert DeNiro, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, Rebecca DeMornay

Rated R for Language and a Scene of Sensuality

Of all the government social services jobs (police, paramedics and firefighters), firefighting is arguably the least covered in movies.  Although the potential for special effects is limitless, the plots aren’t: Man aims hose, man pours water on fire, fire gone.  So here we have “Backdraft,” a firefighting movie that succeeds because it takes as much time to develop the characters as it does the special effects (which are pretty cool).

The McCaffrey brothers, Stephen (Russell) and Brian (Baldwin) have a tempestuous relationship.  Even though their father Dennis (Russell again) was killed in a fire (witnessed by Brian), Stephen has taken up the job.  Brian attempted, but washed out in firefighting school.  After floating around for six years, changing jobs like clockwork, he’s trying firefighting again, and this time he’s determined to do it.  Stephen conspires to have him work at his station, and pushes him to the limit and criticizes him relentlessly.  But there is more at stake than them getting at each others’ throats.  An arsonist is on a killing spree, setting deadly firetraps on the unsuspecting victims.  Brian, who becomes an assistant to a fire investigator (DeNiro), must find out how to stop the killer before he strikes again.

“Backdraft” is a good old-fashioned action hero movie.  It contains all of the clichés, but it came before all the imitators so they don’t feel like clichés.  You know what I mean, the dramatic slo-mo shots, the group camaraderie, the fracturous but loving brother relationship.  It’s all here.  But Ron Howard and his cast don’t go through the motions.  They play it out with honesty and integrity, and that’s what makes this movie work.

Kurt Russell is mostly known as an action star, but when it comes to drama, it turns out that he can do some really good work.  Stephen is a likable, but stubborn (there’s a reason why his nickname is “Bull”) guy.  He sees everything in black and white, even when it’s not.  Although he espouses the “tough love” approach when it comes to his brother, he does love him.  He also keeps his emotions bottled up inside of him, and not for the better.  As Brian, William Baldwin is effective as the everyman, and he can hold his own against Russell.  He’s a guy we can follow to the end.  The supporting cast is top-heavy with talent.  Robert DeNiro is nice to see in what is probably the most “average guy” role he has ever taken.  Donald Sutherland is at his creepy best, and the other scary lady in the cast, Jennifer Jason Leigh, successfully made me forget that she played Hedy Carlson in “Single White Female” within the first minute of her screen time.  Scott Glenn and J.T. Walsh are at their reliable best as a fellow firefighter and a sleazy alderman.  And when did Rebecca DeMornay learn how to act?

Forgive me, but I must return to the relationship between Steven and Brian.  This is so carefully developed and well acted by Russell and Baldwin that it singlehandedly takes the film to the next level.  Without it, "Backdraft" would be a servicable action movie.  Still worth seeing, I think.  But anyone who has an older (or younger) brother will see themselves and their sibling in Russell and Baldwin.  Their chemistry is so natural and their performances are so on target that their relationship, rather than the plot or the special effects, is the beating heart of the film.
Ron Howard breathes life into a screenplay that could have been turned into a generic action movie.  But with attention to detail and some nice visuals, he has created a real winner.


Friday, June 15, 2012

The Crow

3.5/4

Starring: Brandon Lee, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott

Rated R for A Great Amount of Strong Violence and Language, and for Drug Use and Some Sexuality

Revenge movies serve one purpose: to vicariously enjoy seeing the hero dish out a super cold dish of revenge.  "The Crow" is a superior revenge movie; a dark and hellish adrenaline rush that is surprisingly touching.  And not just because star Brandon Lee died tragically during the shoot.

Rock star Eric Draven (Lee) is a very happy man.  He's about to marry his one true love, Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas).  Sadly, the night before they walk down the aisle, they are attacked in their loft and brutally murdered by a gang of vicious thugs.  One year later, a crow brings Eric out of his eternal slumber to get revenge on those who put him in the ground.

This is one seriously bleak movie.  The film takes place almost exclusively at night and in the rain, and the majority of the characters are bloodthirsty psychopaths.  The exceptions are Sally (Davis), a young girl who was looked after by Eric and Shelly since her mother is a drug addict, and Albrecht (Hudson), a sympathetic police officer.  They are the light in the dark...literally.

As much as it pains me, I can't rave about Brandon Lee's performance in his final film role.  It would be the polite thing to do, but the the truth is that he's uneven.  In the quieter scenes, he's credible, but there are times when he gets hammy.  He does have screen presence, which helps a lot.  Rochelle Davis gives the best performance as Sally, a tough yet vulnerable young girl who misses her friends.  The bulk of the film's emotional component comes from her.  Ernie Hudson is also very good as Albrecht, the ex-detective who knows all to well what's going on.  Michael Wincott, with his smoky voice, makes for a good villain.

This was the American debut of Alex Proyas, who went on to direct "Dark City" and "I, Robot."  This is a triumph of visual style.  It's truly dazzling work, although in an ultra-grim sort of way.  Proyas' work brings to mind "Seven" and "Sin City," served up with a huge dish of depression.  Proyas wanted to do the film in black and white, but the studio wouldn't allow him to do so.  Surprisingly, this works better.  Proyas doesn't overdo the CGI either.  Although the camera tours through the city are computer generated (but are gorgeous and realistic), the director gets his atmosphere from skilled shot selection and Dariusz Wolski's energetic cinematography.

What really surprised me about "The Crow" is how touching it was.  I really believed in the relationship between Eric, Shelly and Sally.  I wouldn't be surprised if viewers actually teared up a few times during this movie.  Although Lee's limitations as an actor hamper the emotionality a little (a little more depth into the trio's relationship would have helped too), this is a film that touches the heart as it raises the adrenaline.  Definitely highly recommended.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Contact

3.5/4

Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, James Woods, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, David Morse, Jena Malone

Rated PG for Some Intense Action, Mild Language and a Scene of Sensuality

Ever since we have become self-aware, man has pondered his place in the universe.  Some look to science, others look to God (and a great amount of people look to both).  Robert Zemeckis' sci-fi film is about this question.  Where do we draw the line between science and faith?

Ellie Arroway (Foster) has been interested in the stars all her life.  It is something that she shared as a young girl (Malone) with her father (Morse).  As a professional astronomer, she continues to search for sentient life beyond our planet.  Shortly before her funding dries up, she finds a signal from the planet Vega.  Now the world becomes divided.  Some, like Palmer Joss (McConaughey) think it's a sign from God, while others, like Ellie, think that there is a scientific explanation.

There is a lot going on here, and Zemeckis gives all of it its due.  Primarily, he poses the questions of the division of science and faith, but there are also a number of other subplots going on.  For example, who will get to go to Vega?  Will it be Ellie, or her slimy higher-up, David Drumlin (Skerritt)?  What is Ellie willing to risk to go to Vega, since because of the distance she'll be gone for 50 years at least?

The acting is strong across the board, although that's to be expected with a cast like this.  Jodie Foster plays Ellie as an idealistic atheist.  She looks to science for answers, but is positive that they hold meaning.  She's also fiercely independent, standing up to Drumlin and the even slimier head of national security, Michael Kitz (Woods).  Matthew McConaughey gives one of his best performances, if not his best.  In his words, he's a man of the cloth without the cloth.  He approves of science, but not at the expense of faith.  And he has a nice chemistry with Foster.  Skerritt, Woods, Bassett and a deliciously wacky Hurt (as a billionaire investor) provide solid support.  The only acting flaws are Rob Lowe, who plays a fatuous Christian Right pundit and Jena Malone, who has some stiff moments as child Ellie.

Robert Zemekis has always been a strong storyteller.  From the "Back to the Future" movies to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" to "Forrest Gump," Zemekis has placed story over effects (although he is skilled with the latter).  He takes his time unfurling the story, giving attention to the ideas and explaining the science (Drumiln frequently explains the science mumbo jumbo to Kitz in one scene).

If there's any flaw, it's the antagonism by religious extremists (mainly led by the creepy Joseph, played by Jake Busey) is poorly motivated.  One would think that people of faith would be excited at the opportunity to meet their creator.

Heat

4/4

Starring: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Jon Voight, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman

Rated R for Violence and Language

Pacino.  DeNiro.  Few actors are as skilled and consistent.  Once these two performers came into the spotlight, it was perhaps inevitable that they would star in a movie together.  Actually, they did star in a movie together before this one ("The Godfather Part II"), but due to the dual timelines, they shared no scenes together.  In 1995, Michael Mann revamped his 1989 TV movie, "L.A. Takedown," into an epic crime saga.  Unlike many movies that bring stars together (such as "The Bucket List"), this one befits the legends it stars.

The premise is fairly simple: Vincent Hanna (Pacino) is a major crimes detective pursuing a group of professional thieves led by Neil McCauley (DeNiro).  But "Heat" is much more than a simple crime story.  It's an epic tapestry of people living in Los Angeles.  The film's tagline is "A Los Angeles Crime Saga."  That defines the movie to a T.

Both Pacino and DeNiro are in top form.  As Hanna, Pacino is a contradiction.  He is chasing after McCauley with such a tenacity that his marriage is crumbling and he begins to like his prey.  McCauley is a brilliant thief, which fascinates Hanna.  For his part, McCauley doesn't allow himself to be tied down.  It's his survival mechanism.  "Allow nothing in your life that you can't walk out on in 30 seconds if you spot the heat around the corner."  And yet, a woman named Eady (Brenneman) gets under his skin, which shifts his perspective.

The women in this film are just as important.  Diane Venora, an underrated character actress who deserves more fame and roles than she gets, is excellent as Hanna's wife Justine.  She loves Hanna, but she is unable to compete with his devotion to his job.  Amy Brenneman is adorable as the sweet Eady, although Brenneman's southern accent fades away after her first scene.

"Heat" boasts a dynamite supporting cast, and they all get their chance to shine without mugging for screentime.  Val Kilmer, taking over from Keanu Reeves (who turned the role down) is great as Chris, whose thievery is partly due to his gambling addiction.  Ashley Judd plays his harried wife, Charlene (and she's good as always).  William Fichtner is perfectly sleazy as the banker/money launderer Roger Van Zant.  Also bearing mention is Natalie Portman, who plays Justine's daughter Lauren.  She shows the promise that catapulted her to stardom.  Also starring are Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight (sporting mottled skin and a bad hairdo), and in small roles, Hank Azaria and Jeremy Piven.

Michael Mann has woven a complex and vivid tapestry of characters that are both similar and different.  For example, even though Hanna and McCauley are on different sides of the law, they are more alike than they are different.  Both are married to the job and alienate their chances for happiness because of it.  And, despite their attempts to avoid it, their personal lives are inextricably linked with their professional ones.

Mann is a director that I love, although his two most recent films, "Miami Vice" and "Public Enemies," have misfired pretty badly.  His films are intelligent action movies that rely more on character than action, and he doesn't overdose on special effects.  He also has an excellent sense of atmosphere and mis-en-scene (generously helped by his usual cinematographer, Dante Spinotti).

In addition to being an engaging character study and crime study, it also has a number of sequences where Mann raises the suspense to very high levels (a prime example is Hanna's stakeout).  But the centerpiece of the film is the bank heist.

Putting it bluntly, this scene is a masterpiece, easily one of the best in film history.  Instead of relying on stunts and special effects, Mann uses what appears to be real police tactics and unmodified sound for gunfire.  The assault rifles crackle rather than boom like they would in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.  The level of verisimilitude is astounding, and the way Mann shoots it makes for an incredible 20 minutes.

"Heat" was completely ignored by the Academy, a move that while shameful, isn't entirely unexpected.  The Academy has made a name for itself out of boneheaded decisions (the fact that "Gladiator" was nominated for anything and that "Shakespeare in Love" beat out "Saving Private Ryan" for best picture is reason enough).  DeNiro, Pacino, Venora should have garnered nominations, and Mann should have been nominated for his screenplay and especially his direction.  And of course the film should have been nominated for Best Picture.

But who cares about the Academy.  The bottom line is that "Heat" is a brilliant story of crime, violence and how people can be more similar than they appear to be.  This is definitely a must see.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rampart

1/4

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty

Rated R for Pervasive Language, Sexual Content and Some Violence

Dozens of movies have been about corrupt cops, drug addicts, racists and bigots, and every kind of misanthrope you can think of.  LAPD officer Dan Brown is all of these, and he deserves a better movie than this.  "Rampart," from Oren Moverman, who co-wrote and directed the heartbreaking casualty notification service drama "The Messenger," is a boring, cliched, and pretentious drama about a misanthrope.  Like we haven't seen that before.

The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1999.  The Rampart scandal is in full swing, and Officer Dan Brown (Harrelson) is about to enter a storm of controversy of his own.  When his squad car is rammed by a Latino driver, he chases after the guy and nearly beats him to death.  The public is out for blood, his lawyer (Weaver) is fed up with him, but Brown doesn't care.  It isn't until the money dries up that he gets in deeper; a friend of his, ex-cop Hartshorn (Beatty) clues him in on a high-stakes poker game that's about to go down and he can break up (I think), and he ends up shooting a gunman dead.  That puts D.A. investigator Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube) on his tail.  Meanwhile, he has to deal with his wife and ex-wife (Heche and Nixon), who are sisters, and a lawyer he's having a fling with (Wright).

Many filmmakers have a sophomore slump: Kevin Smith, James Gray are among the many filmmakers who came out with unsuccessful movies after stunning debuts.  Few, however, have fallen as far as Oren Moverman.  To his credit, Moverman generates great performances from his cast, particularly Harrelson and Ice Cube.  There isn't an instance of artifice in any of the performances.  The script is a different story.  It's shallow, meandering, and only occasionally makes sense.  Brown meets so many characters (all of which are played by big stars venturing into indie territory) that none of them have any room to breathe.  In the end, the movie turns into a game of "spot the star."

Harrelson got raves for his performance as Dan Brown, and it's not hard to see why.  Harrelson buries deep under the skin of his character, and it's not a happy place to be.  This would be one grim film had it actually been involving.  That's not Harrelson's fault; he portrays the character as well as he can, but the script defeats him.  Ditto for the other cast members, which include two actors from "The Messenger:" Ben Foster as a crippled veteran and Steve Buscemi in a cameo.

The script is to blame for the film misfiring.  It's awful, which is surprising since it comes from Moverman and James Ellroy, who is the guy to go to for movies about corrupt cops.  This is a character study, but Brown is never fully defined.  There's almost nothing that separates Dan Brown from any other corrupt cop in the movies.  Worse, he's defined by how he interacts with the various characters, which is a crutch, but that fails because they're even less developed than he is.

What a waste.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hardflip

3/4

Starring: Randy Wayne, John Schneider, Rosanna Arquette, Sean Michael Afable

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Content, and Teen Drug and Alcohol Content

I've never seen a Christian film, and for all the pontificating that the Bible Thumpers do, I was wary of seeing one.  I've been told that they're shallow and preachy so I approached "Hardflip" with trepidation.  I admit that I was waiting for it to screw up, but to my surprise, it never did.  It's no masterpiece, but it does work.

The film is about three people who are broken in their own ways.  Caleb (Wayne) is a young skateboarder whose father has never been in the picture and has no friends.  His mother Bethany (Arquette) has a drinking problem and is about to lose the house.  And Caleb's real father, Jack (Schneider) is a businessman whose pursuit of success has left him without true wealth.

To be honest, I wouldn't have thought this to be a Christian film unless I had known otherwise.  The film never preaches (save for one scene, but there's another way to interpret it), and when it presents Christian themes and bible verses, they are the ideas of the characters.  The movie may have an agenda, but it hides it well.

The film is about forgiveness, one of the tenets of the Christian faith.  Forgiving someone who has wronged you is never easy, and "Hardflip" never pretends that it is.  Co-writer/director Johnny Remo approaches the material with surprising depth and maturity.  He's also unafraid of taking the film to some dark places.

The acting is effective.  Randy Wayne, the film's star is mostly effective, but there are times when he appears stiff.  Caleb is a guy whose life is falling apart, and he has no one to turn to except marijuana.  Rosanna Arquette is very good as his mother who is struggling to keep her and Caleb's lives afloat, but her health is failing.  Jack Schneider gives the best performance in the film as the man who is coming to the realization that he missed out on life and let down the people who needed him.  Special mention goes to Jason Dundas, who plays a surprisingly sadistic bully.

Johnny Remo uses restraint when making this movie, and that is something that all will appreciate.  He deftly handles the conflicting emotions of the characters and never allows "Hardflip" to turn into an ad for Christianity. Caleb is never told to accept Jesus or anything like that.  People he meets have their own beliefs, but they don't force them on young Caleb.  Religion almost completely separated from the heart of the movie.

In the end, "Hardflip" works because it presents forgiveness as an idea, not a message.  If the Christian Right wants to get people on their side, that's how they should go about it.  Pontificating and discriminating are only alienating everyone who is not "one of them."

Crooked Arrows

2.5/4

Starring: Brandon Routh, Gil Birmingham, Chelsea Ricketts, Crystal Allen, Tom Kemp

Rated PG-13 for Some Suggestive References

Underdog sports movies are like romantic comedies: the formula doesn't change, but as long as you have an interesting story and likable characters, the movie will usually turn out just fine.  "Crooked Arrows" follows the formula pretty well, but its lead actor is boring and the theme of his spiritual rebirth is inelegantly woven in.

Joe Logan (Routh) is a half-Sunaquot young man who is working for a casino.  The casino's owner, a man named Geyer (Kemp) wants to expand further into Sunaquot land has tasked Joe to convince his tribal council to allow it.  His father Ben (Birmingham) is against it, but the council agrees with the condition that he take a spiritual awakening.  That means coaching the local lacrosse team since the Sunaquot invented the sport to please their gods.  But the team is a ragtag group of players who lack any discipline, and Joe is doing this only to get the addition approved.

The movie is really about Joe's regrowth as a Sunaquot Indian, which is moderately engaging.  But it's also a sports movie, too.  The problem is that director Steve Rash doesn't tie the two together.  As Joe gets more respect for his heritage, the team starts getting better.  What?  Rash may have had in mind that this change is divinely ordained, but if so, it doesn't come across.

The acting is as to be expected for a low-budget movie: adequate, but no one is crying out for Oscar attention. The only real star is Routh, and his performance is merely okay.  The "Superman Returns" star doesn't embarrass himself, but he's not very good either.  Gil Birmingham is solid as Ben, who is disappointed that his son has lost all respect for his heritage (Joe defines the term "sellout").  Chelsea Ricketts is perky and sympathetic, bringing to mind a less melodramatic Rachel Berry (from "Glee," for those who may make the reference without background).  Crystal Allen is a nonentity and Tom  Kemp brings on the sleaze for the "villain."

Subplots are introduced and dropped with some frequency, and one of them not only makes zero sense but is truly bizarre (the introduction of Maug: forest person turned high school student/lacrosse star...huh?).  That being said, there are some things that do work.  The "rich kids" rival team, Covantry, aren't comically evil and their coach, while competitive, isn't a monster.

The final game is suspenseful, and it works as a sports movie.  I liked the movie I guess, but it's too uneven to recommend to those who aren't longing for another underdog sports movie.

North by Northwest

3.5/4

Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau

Not Rated (contains Some Violence and Sexual Material, although it's not really inappropriate for anyone)

Alfred Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense, and this is why.  With an intriguing premise and an unpredictable storyline, "North by Northwest" is one of Hitch's best films.

Roger Thornhill (Grant) is a high powered ad executive.  He's always on the go, but is called away from a business meeting by a mysterious man.  Confusion takes a darker turn when the man and his partner put a gun to his ribs and take him to an out of the way house.  A mysterious man named Philip Vandamm (Mason) wants information from Roger, but Vandamm is convinced that this man is named George Kaplan.  Needless to say, Roger is confused (not to mention irritated) and wants to leave, but Vandamm and his creepy assistant Leonard (Landau) aren't convinced.  Roger is then pulled into a large conspiracy that he fights not only to get out of, but to figure out what exactly is going on.

One of Hitch's favorite plot devices was the wrongfully accused hero.  If you think about it, it's really an ingenious plot device (when it's used effectively, of course).  The hero is likely an everyman, and the same thing can happen to us.  Both of these qualities allow us to relate to the character better.

Although Hitchcock used a number of movie stars in his films, he did play favorites.  Cary Grant, like Jimmy Stewart, has been strongly linked to Hitchcock.  The famous director used Grant in five of his movies over a span of 23 years.  "North by Northwest" was their final film together, and arguably their most famous collaboration.  It's not hard to see why: it's an excellent film with some terrific suspense and two scenes that have become classic suspense (the crop-dusting sequence and the climax on Mount Rushmore).

Grant is terrific in the role of Roger Thornhill.  He's an ideal everyman, as is required for the role.  He's tough, and surprisingly smart.  The villains don't give him enough credit for his intelligence, and that puts them into some uncompromising positions.  Interestingly enough, he takes many of his predicaments with a sense of humor rather than freaking out or ranting and raving like many characters in his position have.  He's also got an unusual motivation: curiosity.  He could really care less if the Vandamm and Leonard get away, or even what their plan is.  All he wants is his life back.  And to save the girl.

The girl, a femme fatale named Eve Kendall (Saint) is someone who is surprisingly helpful, especially since Thornhill is accused of some rather unsavory things.  But is she as helpful as she seems, or does she have ulterior motives?  Saint is okay, but there are times when she's stiff, and is always overshadowed by Grant.  One could make the argument that she's miscast.

The villains are deliciously evil.  James Mason speaks with a silky British accent, making him seem egotistic and easy to hate.  But far creepier is Leonard, played by Martin Landau (in his film debut).  Leonard doesn't say much, but he just looks evil.  His eyes are shiny and his brow is always furrowed; even looking at him makes the blood run cold.

Hitchcock has crafted an outstanding suspense tale, but unfortunately the romance subplot doesn't work.  It's poorly motivated and there's no chemistry between Grant and Saint.  That being said, if you want to see a classic tale of intrigue and suspense, this is one that you gotta see.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

3/4

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Sam Claflin, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action and Brief Sensuality

Due to the mega-success of fantasy movies, a previously ignored genre due to lackluster film quality and audience reception, over the last decade with "The Lord of the Rings," Harry Potter, and "Twilight," Hollywood has made a huge push for summer fantasy movies.  Tarsem's Snow White tale, "Mirror Mirror," was released in March, and now we have Rupert Sanders's film debut, "Snow White and the Huntsman."  Although it's similar in some respects to Peter Jackson's epic saga (and no doubt Universal would love to have it see the same reception...), it's not as good.  But it comes closer than a lot of movies in the past few years.

King Magnus (Noah Huntley) is a good king.  He rules justly and his kingdom is happy.  His wife gives birth to a beautiful baby daughter named Snow White, but dies soon a few years later.  In his grief, he goes warmongering and finds a gorgeous woman.  He frees her then marries her the next day.  But his new queen, named Ravenna (Theron) is not who she seems.  On their wedding night, she kills the king and assumes the throne.  She locks poor Snow White in the tower, and steals the youth of pretty girls to stay looking like...well, Charlize Theron.  This way, she can essentially live forever.  But soon enough Snow White comes of age, and looks like...well, Kristen Stewart (how anyone could consider her more beautiful than Charlize Theron, I'll never know, but then again, she is the star of one of the most inexplicably popular franchises in film history).  Ravenna  finds out from her creepy mirror (that looks like a golden ghoul and only she can see and communicate with) that if she steals the heart of Snow White, she'll be able to look like...well, Charlize Theron, forever.  She sends The Huntsman (Hemsworth) after Snow White, but he is betrayed and with the help of the Duke (Vincent Regan), his son William (Claflin) who was Snow White's childhood friend, they seek to take Ravenna down.

The film is surprisingly grim.  Director Rupert Sanders does a good job of establishing atmosphere.  This is a very bleak and at times scary place.  Sanders has a gift for visuals but unlike Guy Ritchie in his "Sherlock Holmes" movies, he doesn't overdo them.  The characters aren't three-dimensional enough and the acting isn't strong enough to take the movie to the next level, but this is still good work.

The acting varies.  "Twilight" queen Kristen Stewart is good, although once again she depends on the men to do the fighting for her (at least until the end).  Chris Hemsworth, an actor who has demonstrated range in the past, is awful here.  Either his heart isn't in it or his range is more limited than I thought.  Sam Claflin, who was the only good thing about "Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides," is essentially a non-entity here.  Universal may be hoping for a Bella/Edward/Jacob triangle here, but it's really non-existent.  Charlize Theron is the shining star though.  Much more than a pretty face, she overacts to her heart's content; it's nice to see her chew the scenery.  Popular British character actors, including Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones appear as the dwarves, but they have little to do (one hopes that at least they were well paid).

"Snow White and the Huntsman" is a good movie (considerably better than "Mirror Mirror").  It's exciting, it's involving, and it's entertaining.  But it's a little too grim for its own good.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Tremors

3/4

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire

Rated PG-13 for Intense, Creature Violence/Gore,  and Language

"Tremors" is the definition of a "cult" movie (I saw it at a midnight screening).  It contains all the elements: hilariously stupid characters, cheesy special effects and, well, not much else.  The film is fast paced once it gets going and enough of the humor works to make it worth seeing, but don't expect something great.  Watch it with friends and a few beers.

Actually, that's how the public reacted to it when it was released in 1990.  The film failed to make much of an impression in theaters, but this was around the time when VHS was coming into being, and that's when the film really took off.  It ended up with a box office gross of $48.5 million; a great success coming off a budget of only $11 million (and this was 20 years ago).

The film takes place in the small desert town of Perfection.  Only about, oh, 10 people live there.  Two of them are handymen Val (Bacon) and Earl (Ward).  Neither one of them has a particularly big brain, but as small town joes who do odds and ends so they can drink more, being intelligent isn't necessary for survival.  Mysterious things are going on in Perfection, however.  A bunch of sheep are suddenly found slaughtered.  The town drunk is found dead from dehydration high on an electrical tower.  And the local doctor and his wife are six feet under...literally!  It turns out that there are king sized worms underground that have an appetite for human flesh.  Now the townspeople, plus a graduate student studying seismology (Carter), will have to rally together to make it to the next town in one piece.

The acting is okay.  Both Bacon and Ward appear to be having fun, and they have good chemistry.  The same cannot be said about Finn Carter.  She can't act, and for someone who's obviously meant to be eye candy, she's not particularly eye-catching either.  No one else bears much of a mention except for Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as the local gun nuts who have an armory in their basement.  And that Ariana Richards, who played Lex in "Jurassic Park" three years later, appears in a small role as Mindy Sterngood.

Director Ron Underwood, a short filmmaker who made his debut with this film, does a solid job with the film.  There are some obvious references to "Jaws," like the camera going underground.  The deficiencies lie mainly with the script.  The stuff that works is good, but I wanted more.  I wanted more humor, more action, more scares.  Underwood and his writers clearly wanted to balance scary monster action with comedy, and they do. But I wanted more of both.

This isn't great entertainment, but it's an ideal "late night" movie.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Tattooist

2/4

Starring: Jason Behr, Mia Blake, Robbie Magasiva, David Pane, Nathaniel Lees

Rated R for Violence, Disturbing Images, Language and Brief Sexuality

"The Tattooist" is an intriguing mix of tattoos, ghost stories and buried secrets.  Kind of like a Samoan "Stir of Echoes."  The story, while a tad on the thin side, is reasonably involving, the special effects are inventive and visually dazzling.  So why am I not recommending this film?  Because the performance by the lead actor is the worst example of acting that I've ever seen.

The lead role is played by Jason Behr, a TV actor best known for playing one of the leads on the cult TV show "Roswell," is stupendously bad as the tattooist who goes messing around in things that he shouldn't.  Behr is supposed to play a low-key everyman, which is more difficult than it sounds, but Behr speaks in an internalized monotone with a constant scowl and scrunched up face (and too much eye-liner).  Instead of being an individual we can sympathize with, Jake Sawyer (as he is called) is a lifeless automaton.  I kept waiting for the spirit to kill him with the fatal tattoo and let someone else take center stage.  Behr is surrounded by a decent cast, but that can't save this ex-tween star from tanking the film.  At least Lorenzo Lamas had an excuse for his wretched work in "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus."  That was meant to be an Ed Wood-ish movie.  Not that it helped him, but never mind.

Jake, as we learn, is the best tattooist in the world.  His work is truly beautiful, and his talents are in high demand.  He'll also do anything for a quick buck, including stealing designs, beliefs and tools from other cultures for his own monetary gain.  This last bit is what gets him into trouble.  He spies a Samoan ceremony getting underway, and he intends to steal their designs.  He also steals one of their tattooing tools, which looks like a miniature rake.  That's when he starts having weird nightmares and strange visions.  He gets creeped out and tries to return the tool, but the damage is done.  Everyone he tattoos ends up getting more lines than they paid for, and they bleed to death (in ink).  Now Jake has to find out what is happening to his customers, including his new squeeze, Sina (Blake), before someone else dies.

Apart from Behr's horrific performance, the other actors acquit themselves well.  Mia Blake is cute, and the scene where she gets tattooed by Jake is kind of hot because of it.  Robbie Magasiva is also good as her suspicious brother.  David Pane and Nathaniel Lees are also good in small roles.

One thing that the film lacks is a thorough enough explanation of Samoan beliefs.  We're not talking detailed history or mythology here, but some of what is referenced is unexplained.  The Pe'a tattoo, for example, plays an important part in the story, but its significance is not explained in the film, which leads to some confusion for those, such as myself, who don't know much about Samoan culture or mythology.

This was the film debut of Peter Burger, a TV veteran.  If this is anything to go by, he has talent and an eye for atmosphere.  The pacing is good, and as I said before, the CGI is excellent.  He can also direct actors.  Except for Behr.  But as they say, there are only so many ways you can polish a turd.

It's such a pity that the producers made the colossal mistake of casting Behr in the movie.  With someone who had even a minimum of talent, this would be well-worth releasing theatrically.  As it is, it's just another generic horror movie.