Friday, August 31, 2012

The Perfect Storm

4/4

Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, John C. Reilly, William Fichtner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, John Hawkes, Cherry Jones, Karen Allen, Bob Gunton, Janet Wright, Michael Ironside, Rusty Schwimmer

Rated PG-13 for Language and Scenes of Peril

The thing that sets "The Perfect Storm" apart is that once it gets going, it never lets go.  Watching the film is a maddening experience; we never get the chance to get oriented or catch out breath.  That's exactly where Wolfgang Peterson wants us.  He puts us right in the middle of the action, and it's not a happy place to be.  One person describes it as "hell."  That's an apt descriptor.

The Andrea Gail is a swordfishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts.  It's captained by Billy Tyne (Clooney), whose love of fishing has crossed over into an obsession.  His right-hand man is rookie Bobby Shatford (Wahlberg), who loves fishing and loves his girlfriend Christina (Lane) almost as much.  After a weak catch, Billy decides to go out one last time before the season ends.  That's when they run into the storm of the century: a nor'easter storm merges with a hurricane, and turns the ocean into a war zone with 100 foot waves and gale force winds.  Also caught in the storm is the Mistral, a longboat on its way to Bermuda.  The captain of that ship, a man named McAnally (Gunton), wants to wait out the storm rather than call for rescue, but his passengers (Jones and Allen), disagree.

The performances are strong across the board, which helps immeasurably.  George Clooney is terrific as the obsessed Billy Tyne.  His ego and desire to prove Bob Brown (Ironside), the ship's owner, wrong (Brown thinks that Billy has lost his touch and all but pushes him into going out again) cloud his judgement.  Mark Wahlberg is also very good as Bobby, who realizes that his captain may be leading him into a lot of danger.  But Billy has a way of getting his crew to follow his orders, mainly by appealing to their vanity.  Also very good is Diane Lane, who plays Christine.  She's a tough woman, but hopelessly in love with Bobby.  She and Wahlberg have great chemistry.

The film is blessed with a stellar supporting cast, and all are excellent.  But for me, there are two that stand out: Mastrontonio and Schwimmer.  Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, a character actress famous for playing Al Pacino's sister in "Scarface," is excellent as Billy's rival captain and love interest, Linda Greenlaw.  Although Linda functions as the worrywart and voice of reality in the film, Mastrontonio is talented enough not to make the character seem like a plot device.  Her best scene is at the end; she's so good that it's arguable that she deserved an Oscar nomination just for that scene.  Also worth mentioning is Rusty Schwimmer, a character actress who, based on the evidence, should get more roles.  She plays Irene, a guarded woman who tentatively forms a relationship with Bugsy (Hawkes), who is jealous of the romantic relationships that his friends are involved in.  Schwimmer is quite good, and it should have led on to more things.

Wolfgang Peterson works best with a small cast and claustrophobic settings.  Witness the difference between this or "Air Force One" and "Troy."  "Troy" was a fine film, but nowhere near as effective as this or "Air Force One."  Peterson takes time to develop his characters, but once the action starts, he pulls out all the stops and never lets the tension sag.  As soon as one obstacle is resolved, another one takes its place until we, like the crews of the Andrea Gail and the passengers of the Mistral, are begging for some release.

"The Perfect Storm" is one of those movies that's less of a movie and more of an experience.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mike's Musings: Hardly a Defense

The MPAA is a piece of crap.  Everyone I asked (who knows what it is) thinks so.  My parents never took it very seriously, and I doubt a lot of others do as well.  What's the point of having a rating system if none of the ratings mean anything except to the movie theaters and the filmmakers whose films could be altered to secure the desired rating?

On the MPAA's film ratings website, MPAA ratings chief Joan Graves (who briefly appeared, albeit with a hand drawn face in the searing, must-see documentary about the MPAA "This Film is Not Yet Rated"), writes a note to the parents who are confused about film ratings and how the board makes their decisions.

At first glance, Graves sounds perfectly reasonable.  She seems honest and is open about the ratings board being controversial.  However, it doesn't take much more than a cursory glance to poke holes in her reasoning.  Here is her letter (which was published in the Hollywood Reporter), published word for word, and why she is full of shit.

"A lot of media criticism has been directed at the movie-ratings system this awards season in reaction to a string of decisions described by some as unfair and out of touch and by others as tantamount to censorship.  Just as there are disagreements among those whose job it is to assess the artistic merits of a film, there are differing views about our ratings system and the rules under which we operate."

Duh, Ms. Obvious.

"The ratings system exists for one purpose: to inform parents about the content of films.  Our ratings affect how we believe a majority of American parents, not just from large cities on the coasts but everywhere inbetween, would rate a film.  It's a responsibility we take very seriously."

As I have said before, they're under a lot of pressure from loud-mouthed parents on both ends of the political spectrum.  The problem is that they're not giving parents the right information, and it's causing a lot of unnecessary pain and frustration to parents and filmmakers, as I have said before and will say again.

"When we assign ratings to films; we do not make qualitative judgements; we are not film critics or censors."

Bull.  When they assign a movie with an undesired rating (usually one that is too high), they force the filmmaker to make changes to the film or risk losing a substantial audience.  While it is true that they are not directly censoring films, they know that unless the film reaches the target audience they're going to lose a lot of money (unless the rating is successfully changed on appeal, which rarely happens).

And yet, they are, in a way, censors.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the "South Park" creators had their own unique experience with the MPAA.  Their first film, "Orgazmo," was a spoof that earned an NC-17, which caused some puzzlement among those who have seen it (I have not).  It was a low budget movie, and they did not have the money to edit it so it retained its NC-17 rating.  A few years later, they made "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut."  That was made for Paramount, a big studio.  That film was also given an NC-17 rating initially, but this time the MPAA advised them on what to cut out.  That, by the way, is something they claim not to do (and you can bet that they probably don't do it for independent films).

"We are parents who ask ourselves the same important question during every screening: What would I want to know about this film before I allow my child to see this?"

This is a half-truth, and a gross one at that.  According to "This Film is Not Yet Rated," most raters do have children, although one does not.  Only one other has elementary school children.  The others have children who, at youngest, are in high school.  Some are college-aged or older.  They keep them on board for about seven years, presumably doing so to keep them from getting "out of touch."

"The board makes ratings decisions based on the film in its entirety, not by comparison to other films."

Really.  Then why is it that big budget movies seem to have more wiggle room than independent films?  "Saving Private Ryan" versus "Waiting for Guffman."  I rest my case.

"Decisions are guided by established rating criteria for each category, which include a few rules that trigger an automatic rating.  For instance, any depiction of drug use results in at least a PG-13."

I don't believe this.  Not for a second.  The only "rule" with any consistency is the "two fuck" rule.  One non-sexual "fuck" may still squeak by with a PG-13 (although, reportedly, "How Do You Know" had 2.5 "fucks" and still had a PG-13).  Yet, I counted 3 utterances of "Fuckin A" in "The Right Stuff," and that got a PG, although that was before the PG-13 rating came out.

The issue of an automatic rating for certain content presents a problem.  Like I said before, it neglects the issue of "context."  Some movies, like the aforementioned "Saving Private Ryan," are intended to be disturbing.  Anyone considering going into the armed services or who is convinced that war was like "The Longest Day" with John Wayne running over the hills killing Nazis and escaping unharmed needs to see it.  Or the recent documentary "Bully."

"The restrictive ratings, R and NC-17, are not a judgement or punishment.  The ratings are simply convey to parents that, in the case of an R, a film has elements strong enough that parents should learn more about them before taking their children.  In the case of an NC-17, the rating is unequivocal: the movie is patently adult.  We are not saying that adults can't and shouldn't see these films."

True, but this doesn't help parents who still naiively believe that the MPAA can do no wrong.  There are a lot of parents who still don't want their kids to see "The King's Speech" because of the foul language.  I've seen it.  Believe me, it's not that bad, and it actually serves a purpose (it's that context thing again...).

"There is a sentiment in our industry that a film judged as "good," "worthwhile" or "acclaimed" by critics and audiences should be given a less restrictive rating so more people-namely children-can see it."

In some cases yes.  I'd say let a kid see "Schindler's List," because it is so important, but not "Boys Don't Cry."  Both are equally disturbing and powerful, but "Boys Don't Cry" is really too intense for kids.  Still, if you're a parent and you think otherwise about Kimberly Pierce's film, I'm not going to complain. "Schindler's List," on the other hand, should be seen by middle schoolers and up.  Chances are they're studying the Holocaust in class, and it would compliment it well.  Actually, when I was studying the Holocaust in class, we watched another Holocaust movie, "The Grey Zone" instead of "Schindler's List," only because the teacher assumed that we'd already seen it (and by the way, don't bother with "The Grey Zone," it's a misfire because the dialogue is so wordy it become distracting).

"But it's important to note that rarely, if ever, do we hear feedback from parents that a film given an R or an NC-17 should get a lower rating so it's more accessible to their children."

What?  Is she deaf?  Did "Bully" just not create a storm of controversy over its R rating?  Granted the article was written before "Bully" was released, but Graves wrote it in response to "The King's Speech" being re-released with a PG-13 rating.

"It concerns me that NC-17 isn't a more viable rating because it is crucial to the system to utilize a category that clearly indicates a movie is for grown-ups.  The NC-17 rating does not signify the content is bad, gratuitous or pornographic."

This is one instance where I agree with her.  The NC-17 should be a more viable rating.  Only one movie was widely released with an NC-17 rating: "Showgirls."  Unfortunately, the film bombed at the box office (although it did great on video and DVD), and the NC-17 has since become known as the "kiss of death."  Adults should be able to see the director's true vision instead of a neutered one.

In some movies that were cut to avoid being given an NC-17 rating, it's obvious that the filmmakers were forced to step on eggshells or obviously distort their vision to receive the desired rating.  "Eyes Wide Shut" is a case in point.  There is a scene where shadow figures were added by computer to block out an orgy sequence.  I haven't seen the unrated version (which is available on DVD), but I can tell you that the placement is obvious and awkward enough to jerk anyone out of the moment (and as anyone who has seen a Kubrick film will tell you, the primary joy of watching his films is being so fully sucked into it).  Another instance is "American Psycho," the black comedy/satire that made Christian Bale a star.  The film was originally given an NC-17 for a threesome sex scene.  I have only seen the uncut version, and let me tell you, the controversial scene is hardly gratuitous (in fact, it's more funny than sexy), and it tells more about the lead character than any of the violence (none of which, by the way, the MPAA found controversial).

It particularly infuriates me, as a film lover and a critic, because I'm cheated out of seeing the movie that the filmmaker meant to show.  Someone is interfering with my opportunity to see the film as it was meant to be seen.  Especially for someone who understands the creative process, the thought of having someone force you to edit your work of art is pretty disturbing.  When I watch a movie, I want to see it the way it was meant to be seen.  This is why I bought the NC-17 version of "Lust, Caution" instead of the R-rated one at Blockbuster.

The good news is that the NC-17 is coming back into popularity.  Slowly, but it's moving there nonetheless.  "Shame" was a minor hit in the arthouses, despite being released with the rating, and "Killer Joe" is also making waves.  Hopefully it isn't long before the stigma goes away entirely (although there is no doubt in my mind that studios will still edit NC-17 films to increase profits).

"I have received a lot of feedback from parents over the years.  We know parental concerns about depictions of sexuality, violence and the use of strong language are as diverse as the films we rate, which is why parents make choices based on the descriptor included with each rating that explains why the film received its rating.  Many parents will take their children to see an R-rated film if they are not concerned about the particular elements for which the film received its rating.  Plenty of parents, for example, took their children to see the R-rated Billy Elliot, despite its language advisory."

True, but there's a caveat.  Some parents blindly follow the ratings (when I was a kid, I remember hearing kids say that they wouldn't let their kids watch a PG-13 movie until they were 13 with no exceptions), and it is very difficult to convince a school to show an educational film that has an R rating.  Additionally, we come to the usual crux of the criticisms of the MPAA: inaccuracy.  The film descriptors are not always accurate, and even if they are, they don't always describe the film's content enough.  For example, the film "The Jackal" was rated R for Strong Violence and Language.  That doesn't nearly describe the brutality in the film, such as when Bruce Willis' character uses his custom-made machine gun to blow off a man's arm.  Compare that to "Black Book," which was rated R for Some Strong Violence (among other things).  That merely included some scenes of people being gunned down bloodlessly.  An even worse example is the Chinese classic, "Farewell, My Concubine," which was rated R for Strong Thematic Material and Language.  As if that's going to help anyone.

"Ratings assigned to a couple of documentaries last year further amplified criticism of the system.  Filmmakers and media critics charged that the R ratings meant children were inherently prevented from being exposed to important educational films."

I can think of one example of this off the top of my head.  "Murderball" was an inspirational documentary about wheelchair rugby.  In addition to some profanity, it contained an excerpt of an instructional video for paraplegics who are wondering how to have sex.  As I recall, it was animated (which by nature makes it less explicit), not at all graphic, and it was quite funny.  No, kids aren't barred from seeing this movie at all, but still.  This film is its own defender against an R rating.

Another example is the searing and disturbing documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated," which exposes the MPAA for all the rot that it actually is.  It contained clips that were forced to be edited out of films in order to avoid an NC-17 rating, and for that, the film got the "kiss of death" rating itself.  But within the context (there's that troublesome word again) of an analytical film, it's not the same thing as seeing an actual sex scene.  Forget the NC-17, the film should have been PG-13.

"As with an R-rated film, a parent must decide whether the content is appropriate for his or her own child's sensibilities.  Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and The Passion of the Christ--films that were critically acclaimed and considered historically significant--were rated R, but that certainly didn't prevent children from seeing them."

It's interesting that Ms. Graves mentioned "The Passion of the Christ."  I saw the movie with a friend and his family, and was shocked.  For those who haven't seen it yet, it's incredibly violent.  A woman died from the shock of seeing what was on screen.  And that got an R?  The film should have gotten an NC-17 without a doubt.  But with the R rating, I'm sure a number of parents thought they were going to see something heavy yet spiritual, yet were completely bamboozled into seeing something they never expected to see, much less take their kids to.

"Controversy surrounding ratings decisions is not new.  Indeed, it is often orchestrated by a film's producers or distributors as a marketing tactic.  Our most important job is consistency: whether a film is educational, delightful, terrible or insightful, ratings are assigned based on the level of content in a film."

HA!  Consistency is a word that is outside the MPAA's vocabulary.

"We welcome these debates as valuable opportunities to help refine our understanding of evolving societal values, and in particular, parental attitudes."

At least she's open to the idea.  Not that the MPAA would listen to anyone except the people who scream the loudest.

So you see, the MPAA is full of shit, and to rely solely on them is folly.  Do your research.  Your job is to protect your children yourself, not outsource it to an organization whose credibility is laughable.




Premium Rush

3/4

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Wole Parks, Jamie Chung, Christopher Place

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

Shortly before its release, Columbia pushed back the release date for David Koepp's new movie, "Premium Rush."  Switching release dates from one dump month to the next is usually a sign that the movie is awful, but actually, August it the perfect time to release the movie.  It's filled with the bright sunny energy that has been missing from summer movies for the past 15 years (when did movies become so grim?).  And it won't get lost in the superhero blitz.

Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) is a bike courier in New York City.  When e-mail, FedEx, or snail mail won't work, they call Wilee.  He's incredibly fast on his bike; he has no brakes and no gears.  Some of his friends think he has a death wish.  But Wilee simply likes to ride fast.  One afternoon, he's personally called to deliver an envelope, and it must be delivered on time.  As soon as he's out the door, a guy named Bobby Monday (Shannon) wants it back.  Wilee tells him that once it's in the bag, it's gotta stay there.  But Bobby won't take no for an answer, and he'll do anything to get what's in the envelope.

"Premium Rush" is the kind of action movie they used to make.  Its draw wasn't obsessive marketing or superheroes, but it's plot.  Racing through New York City on a bike, dodging cars and bicycle cops...how cool is that?  The sun is also shining, and there is a sense of high-energy and spirit.  Apologies to Christopher Nolan, but there are times when we want to see a movie that is fun.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who became famous for playing Tommy Solomon on the TV show "3rd Rock from the Sun," has matured in to a great young actor.  It became apparent to me from seeing him in "The Lookout" that he was able to carry a movie on his own.  Five years and two movies for Christopher Nolan later, that hasn't changed.  There may be other characters in the film, but they fade into the background next to Gordon-Levitt.  Michael Shannon, another character actor who recently hit it big, is perfectly nasty as Bobby Monday (ironic for a man who was known for playing shell-shocked characters in movies like "High Crimes" and "Bug."  Also worth mentioning are Dania Ramirez, who plays Vanessa, Wilee's ex and stuntman Christopher Place, who plays the increasingly injured cop who's after Wilee.

The problem is that the plot is inelegantly written and handled by David Koepp, who's known for being a good writer (he wrote, among others, the screenplay for "Jurassic Park."  He reveals the plot in pieces with flashbacks for different characters.  It's confusing at first, but it begins to make sense in the second half.  The envelope is really a macguffin, although Koepp doesn't treat it as such.  Since the scenes where Wilee is racing through the city and/or being chased, Koepp should have relied less on the story and more on the action scenes.

Speaking of which, the action scenes are well done, but not as good as I'd hoped.  Koepp keeps things moving, and the film rarely slows down.  But the film pales in comparison to the likes of "Speed" (to which the film is vaguely similar).  I also liked how the film doesn't seem completely rendered with CGI like the "Sherlock Holmes" movies or your garden variety superhero flick.  There doesn't seem to be much green screen work, and the only CGI is when the film turns into a MapQuest to show where Wilee needs to go.

It is fun, and if it becomes a hit, we could see the fun come back into the action genre.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sister Act

3/4

Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Bill Nunn, Harvey Keitel, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkena, Mary Wickes

Rated PG for Mild Violence and Language

To me, one of the most unrecognized sources of amusement, or at the very least a sense of "cool," is having established characters break out and let loose.  An example is in the film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," where it opens with a standard cartoon short but someone yells cut and the baby starts talking like boy from Joisey and saying things like "Hiya, toots!"  That's funny.

Consider "Sister Act," where a group of nuns start dancing and singing hymns arranged to the music of showtunes.  And later, they guilt a man into flying them to Vegas to save one of their own from a nasty end.  Now, nuns are known to be dignified and proper, which most of them are, I imagine.  But I doubt they are humorless.  I think that they have more fun than we give them credit for.  Whether or not they go about it in the same way that the nuns at St. Katherine's Church in San Francisco, I'll never know.  But that doesn't mean the movie is any less fun.

After a brief (and rather flat) opening, the film begins in Reno.  Lounge singer Dolores Van Cartier (Goldberg) is sleeping with a small time mob boss named Vince (Keitel) in the hopes of launching a successful singing career.  She's not getting off to a good start, however, since her only audience is made up of barflys and people playing the slots.  Dolores is fed up with Vince being unwilling to marry her so she walks out on him.  But as she's returning a fur coat that he gave her (it was originally his wife's), she witnesses him putting a bullet in a guy's head.  She goes to the cops, who stick her in the last place Vince would ever look: a convent.  Naturally, Dolores would rather take her chances with Vince, but the detective, a guy named Souther (Nunn), forces her to stay.  Now known as Sister Mary Clarence, she is forced to keep up the charade but it doesn't go well.  The Mother Superior (Smith) then sends her to sing in the godawful choir, which she transforms into a mix of gospel and Motown in no short order.  But success, as we know, has a price.

The acting is solid.  Whoopi Goldberg does her thing, although one wishes she got better lines in some scenes.  Maggie Smith is wonderful (is she ever not?), although it might have been more amusing if she had allowed herself to have some fun playing the role.  Smith takes her performance very seriously, and while there's no question that it works, it might have been better if she had chewed on the scenery a little.  Even a Dame deserves to have fun.  Harvey Keitel does his best Robert DeNiro impression (and it might have been funnier if Scorcese's right hand man had been cast in the role) as the low-level mobster.  The supporting nuns are where the true spark lies.  Kathy Najimy plays Sister Mary Patrick as a big woman who is bursting with energy; she's hardly ever able to contain herself.  On the flip side, there's Sister Mary Robert (Makkena), who is shy and timid.  Both are very good.

The whole movie is kind of like that.  What's there is definitely good, but it could have been better.  Emile Ardolino's work is solid, but the timing should have been crisper.  There are enough funny moments (especially when Dolores starts teaching the choir) to make it worth seeing, but the flatter moments should have been funnier.

Oh, I do recommend the film.  It was a big hit when it was released (and got a sequel), and that doesn't surprise me.  This is the kind of entertainment that defines the term "crowd pleaser."  Even if it is flawed.

Mike's Musings: Funny versus Offensive

A while back, I posed a question on the Reelviews forum about the line between a joke being funny, and being offensive.  Humor is subjective; James Berardinelli may find "A Fish Called Wanda one of the funniest movies ever, while I find it a lifeless bore.  Edgy material is also subjective; one person might find a joke about a Jewish character hilarious, while another might see it as offensive and reprehensible.

Where do you draw the line?  It really depends on the material and how it's handled.  First off, if the joke lands and gets a laugh, no apologies are necessary.  In many cases, humor is a way of breaking down barriers.  Humor lightens the mood in any situation and it brings to light the fact that everyone, no matter who they are, is prone to their own human foibles.  In dealing with controversial material, which is the lifeblood of many comics, successful comedians use humor to address the material.

Not every joke works, obviously (see "Wanderlust" for an example).  Either it's not delivered correctly or just too dumb to be funny.  But what about offensive material?  Is a controversial joke automatically offensive if it doesn't fly?  I don't think so.

The bottom line is intent.  Is someone trying to make fun or or poke fun.  Jay Leno is a master at this.  No one is off limits for his jokes, but his humor is never mean.  Leno never insults his targets; it's more like poking fun at your friends.  Conversely, there are comedians and comedies that don't get this.  In his review of Andrew Dice Clay's concert film, "Dice Rules," Roger Ebert said this:  "Of course any subject can theoretically be made funny, but to just stand and point is not the same thing as developing a humorous point of view."

I think he hit it right on the money.  In order to make a joke about something, you have to have some sort of respect for it.  A gay person isn't funny because they're gay.  A gay person could be funny because they embody the stereotypes in a ridiculously over-the-top fashion.  Take Albert from "The Birdcage."  He wasn't funny because he was an effeminate gay man.  He was funny because he took the stereotypes to astronomical lengths.

Another controversial comedy is the TV show "Family Guy" (I'm not going to use this Mike's Musings to defend Tucker Max since I already have).  Charges have been thrown at the show for being demeaning to women, anti-Semetic and making fun of people with mental illnesses.  The first charge, I'm assuming, is because of how the teenage daughter, Meg, is treated.  Meg, a "fat and gross" (the character's own words) teenage girl, is often an object of derision by the other characters.  But if you watch the show, she is derided not because she's a girl, but because she's whiny and ugly and so filled with angst.  By contrast, Lois (the mother) is portrayed as being intelligent and sexy.

The anti-Semitism charge against the show is not exactly without merit, although their intent is hardly one of insult.  In my opinion, the show's funniest episode is "Family Goy," where Lois finds out that she has Jewish heritage.  Peter, the buffoonish father, first reacts great to the news; he drags his family to the synagogue, enrolls his kids in a Jewish school, and so on.  But after his father visits him in a dream, his reaction changes. He strings Lois up on a cross as if she's crucified and gets completely hammered before crashing Lois's passover seder.  He even imitates Amon Goeth in "Schindler's List" when he uses Jews for target practice (by the way, I think this scene goes too far, but that's the price of pushing boundaries).

The material is funny not because Lois is experimenting with Judaism or that Peter hates or fears Jewish people (one of his friends, Mort, is Jewish).  It's funny because Peter is such a moron.  He completely misinterprets what is actually going on because he doesn't have the intelligence to get it.  Peter's mind has never been exactly in synch with reality, and his over the top reactions to situations are a case in point.  Earlier in the episode, he has an "affair" with a cardboard cutout of supermodel Kathy Ireland.  Peter's stupidity is the true source of humor.  It would be just as funny if Lois had discovered that she was of Hindu or Zoroastrian heritage.  Then of course Jesus shows up, and that's when Peter (finally) gets it.

The episode "Extra Large Medium" attracted a fair amount of controversy with its depiction of a girl with Down Syndrome.  True, it does make a few jokes about Down Syndrome, but the actress who plays the character, Andrea Fay Freidman, has Down Syndrome herself.  If it was an actress who didn't have it, it would have been uncomfortable.  But because Freidman does, it eliminates the possibility of the show looking like it's making fun of people with the Down Syndrome.  The controversy was due to Bristol Palin taking offense at the character's mother being the former governor of Alaska.  Freidman countered that she has a normal life and Palin was treating her son as a prop for votes and instead should be treated as normal not a "loaf of bread."  And anyone who actually watches the episode will immediately realize that the joke is not aimed at Palin's son.  In fact, the episode breaks a barrier because people with disabilities are shown as people who don't demand sympathy (this is also true of an episode of "Law and Order SVU" that starred Freidman).  Here, Ellen (Friedman's character) is portrayed as a normal girl, if a demanding and bitchy one (something that every gender has been portrayed as).  Not to mention someone who is seen as being sexy.

The bottom line is that the line between funny and offensive is as variable from person to person as is the line between funny and boring.  Still, I think it's always better to push the boundaries since humor depends on it.  The more things we tackle with a humorous spin, the more barriers will be broken down.

Although I always encourage comments and criticisms, this one case where I beg for it.  I'd like to hear what you have to say.  Feel free to speak your mind.  If you think I'm full of shit or dead wrong, say so.  Just say why.  It could lead to some interesting discussions.


The King's Speech

3.5/4

Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle, Timothy Spall

Rated R for Some Language

I've said before that there's nothing wrong with formula pictures, provided they're done correctly.  "The King's Speech" is a case in point.  There's nothing really surprising that happens in "The King's Speech."  It's really a traditional buddy picture spruced up with strong characters, superb performances and top-notch storytelling.  I'm not complaining.

Prince Albert (Firth) is a troubled man.  He's got a terrible stammer, which would be more of an irritant except for the fact with the advent of radio, he's forced to speak in public.  That causes no end of grief for him and his family.  His wife, Elizabeth (Carter) is sympathetic, and determined to help him, but nothing seems to work.  In a last ditch effort to find a treatment that will help, she contacts Lionel Logue (Rush), a speech therapist who marches to his own beat.  Albert is reluctant; he's fed up with all the disappointment, but after an early and unexpected success, he agrees.  But it isn't long before his brother, Edward (Pearce), abdicates the throne, which makes Albert the new king (much to his horror).

If nothing else, and there is a lot to praise about "The King's Speech," it's that the performances are peerless.  There wasn't a better acted movie in 2010, and there hasn't been since.  Colin Firth, an actor known for playing stiff Brit roles with a dry wit, sheds that baggage almost instantaneously.  Albert, or Bertie, as he is called, is a man who has caved in under the pressure.  With his father intending to make his children fear him and getting no respect from his brother, Albert is in a constant state of anxiety.

Geoffrey Rush has always been an impeccable and hard working actor, even in drek like "House on Haunted Hill".  That doesn't change with his performance as Lionel Logue.  Logue is the perfect foil for Bertie.  He wants to help the man, but he's going to do it his way.  Although Bertie is resistant at first, Logue is smart enough to know that the rigidity with which Albert was raised is what is is keeping him so tense.  Logue is as much a psychologist and confidant as he is a speech therapist.

The supporting performances are just as strong.  Helena Bonham Carter has never been better as Elizabeth.  She's supportive through it all, and is a constant companion and helpful hand to Bertie.  Guy Pearce is perfectly brotherly and intimidating as Edward.  He loves Bertie, but is a bit of a bully to him too.  Michael Gambon makes the most of a small role as their father.  Also worth mentioning is Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill.  He's a gruff man who is encouraging.  Perhaps strangely, he's the character who stood out the most for me.

To be honest, I wasn't a big fan of Tom Hooper's miniseries "John Adams."  Sure, it was well acted, and the make-up was realistic, but the script wasn't very good and it lost a lot of steam once the Revolutionary War ended (the final episode was unbelievably melodramatic...sappier than most tearjerkers).  Hooper does good work here.  He uses lots of close-ups for two reasons: to study the characters facial features and to show how overbearing some "helpful" people can be in Bertie's view.  The film is a little too long, however, and drags during the middle section.  Still, this is a very, very good film, and the scenes that work (the majority do) contain real power and drama.

A word to the overly-protective parents:

As has been said before by nearly every film critic when "The King's Speech" was released, the MPAA gave the film an R rating because Bertie lets off a string of "fucks" in two scenes.  Now I know you're wanting to keep little Johnny from hearing naughty words (but apparently you're perfectly fine having him see superheroes portray violence as something fun to do on the weekend), but believe me and every other film critic: the R rating is absurd.  Believe me, the MPAA is infamous for its boneheaded ratings decisions, but this is one of the most egregious.  Not only is it minimal, it serves a purpose (Hooper refused to cut the scene out and both Firth and Carter defended it).  Please, take my word for it.  Let your kids see this wonderful movie.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

ParaNorman

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman

Rated PG for Scary Action and Images, Thematic Elements, Some Rude Humor and Language

Watching "Paranorman" brings to mind Steven Spielberg's early movies, like "ET" and "Hook."  It also brings to mind "Super 8," which was produced by him.  It's got the earmarks of it: outsider characters on the verge of adolescence, the setting in suburbia, the lead character is misuderstood by just about everyone, and the sci-fi/fantasy plot.  I was actually looking forward to this movie, since these days it's all superheroes and vampires.  Sadly, directors Chris Butler (who wrote the script) and Sam Fell aren't able to match Spielberg or Abrams' touch.  The film is lively and active, but cold.  Quite frankly, it's kind of depressing.

Norman (Smitt-McPhee) is an odd duck in the town of Blithe Hollow.  He can see, and talk to, ghosts.  Unlike Cole Sear in the overrated "The Sixth Sense," everyone knows about his gift.  As a result, he's made fun of by cro-magnons like Alvin (Mintz-Plasse).  Norman is a lonely kid, although the local fatty, Neil (Albrizzi) wishes to be his friend.  But it turns out that he's not the only one with the ability to speak with the dead.  His ostracized uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (Goodman), has the ability too.  Because he was the only one who can speak with the dead, he had to read to the legendary town witch to keep her from rising from the grave and bringing the dead with her.  But since he's newly deceased, the task is left to Norman.  Something goes wrong, however, and all hell breaks loose.

The most interesting thing about "ParaNorman" is that, save for the last scene or two, the film takes place in one day.  Most movies stretch out the timeline to make it more credible.  That doesn't happen here.  Like "Halloween" (which is explicitly referenced) the action is condensed.  In this case, it works.

The voice acting isn't the problem.  Kodi Smitt-McPhee is a natural as the lonely Norman.  There's no sense of artifice in his performance.  Ditto for Tucker Albrizzi, a young actor with mainly TV and direct-to-DVD credits.  Anna Kendrick is unrecognizable as Norman's bitch older sister, Courtney, and Casey Affleck makes Kyle, a dumb jock, into a really, really, dumb jock.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse sheds off the geekiness that has typecast his career after "Superbad" and makes for a decent bully.  Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Jodelle Ferland and John Goodman provide solid support.

This movie should have been better.  It's got the materials (the stop-motion animation is excellent, and the effects with the witch are particularly good), but it just doesn't quite get there.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ben & Arthur

0/4

Starring: Sam Mraovich, Jamie Brett Gabel, Michael Haboush, Bill Hindley

Not Rated (contains violence and language)

For a while, "Ben & Arthur" was lurking at the bottom (or is that top?) of iMDb's Bottom 10 list.  Not that that necessarily means anything ("The Shawshank Redemption" at number one of all time?  Really?), but still. That should have been warning enough.  But for reasons I cannot explain, my curiosity was piqued.  I decided to watch it, despite the vicious reviews it got on iMDb.  I should have heeded the warnings of those unfortunate souls who have suffered through Sam Mraovich's travesty.  This is the worst movie I have ever seen.

Yup, you read that right.  The worst.  Never have I ever seen a movie that made me physically ill.

Boring, a failure in every department, and occasionally downright offensive, "Ben & Arthur" is truly a dreadful piece of filmmaking.  I had to pause the film frequently to stop the pain (by comparison, I only paused "Soul Plane" once).  There's little of any redeeming value in all of the 85 minutes that I'll never get back.  The only piece of praise I can offer is that at least it's coherent.

Arthur (Mraovich) and Ben (Gabel) are two men who are deeply in love and want to get married.  But as they live in California, they cannot.  While they're trying to figure out how to get legally married, Arthur's fanatically Christian brother, Victor (Haboush), plots how to save Arthur from eternal damnation by any means possible.

The acting is terrible.  No one feels comfortable on camera, and it's all too easy to see that they're acting.  It's as if Mraovich got a bunch of people from off the street and asked them if they wanted to be in a movie.  Arthur is a boring lead, and Mraovich can't act to save his life.  Ditto for Haboush, who veers between being merely bad and unspeakably awful.  Jamie Brett Gabel is the best of the main trio, although that's not saying much since in this mess he still stinks like dead fish.  The actor who comes closest to giving a legitimate performance is Bill Hindley, who plays Victor's virulently homophobic pastor.  He actually commands a bit of attention whenever he's on screen.  That being said, this subplot is kind of distasteful.  I believe that there are definitely some people who are this homophobic, but the way the character is written and this subplot is handled makes it seem like a stereotype.  The two Christian characters are completely evil and show no positive traits.  They exist to create conflict and their whole lives seem to revolve around "curing" homosexuals.

But what's really striking is how the film looks.  "Ben & Arthur" just looks bad.  It appears to have been filmed on a camcorder with and its attached microphone (the sound fades in and out at times), and it has a grainy and sterile look.  I've seen home movies that looked better.

There are times when this movie approaches being hilariously bad.  The characters are dumber than dumb.  For example, Ben's wife Tammy (Julie Belknap) hasn't realized that her husband is living with another man for the past three years even though she and Ben had been married for 5 years.  Does she have a brain?  There are also some scenes where the guns are obviously fake, and so is the gore.  I admit to laughing at this and the horrible acting, but unlike campy movies like "Tale of the Mummy," I was laughing in condescension; I got no enjoyment from it. 

Since he wears 8 hats (actor, director, writer, producer, casting director, cinematographer, composer, editor), the majority of the blame has to lay at the feet of Sam Mraovich.  He hasn't got a clue about anything that is necessary to make a movie.  Dramatic tension, acceptable performances, pacing, atmosphere...they're all in the lowest nadir one can think of.  Even the music, which sounds like something out of a dance club, is awful.  How is it that there are so many filmmakers out there who are struggling when morons like Sam Mraovich get projects this bad green-lighted?  Didn't anyone have the common sense to realize that there's no way any movie with a script this bad could be anything other than a disaster?

Although I have tried, words cannot express how awful this movie is.  Next to this, "Belly" is looking a lot better.  Hell, even "Moonrise Kingdom" is good next to this.  Better post that last sentence to Facebook guys, cause I won't be saying it again.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Expendables 2

2/4

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Nan Yu, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Liam Hemsworth

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence Throughout

The appeal for "The Expendables 2" is the same as it was for the first one: seeing the biggest badasses from Hollywood appear in one movie to kick major ass.  The first entry was dumb fun; it would have been more so if Stallone hadn't insisted on shaking the camera into a frenzy every time there was an action scene.  The good news is that the new director, Simon West, doesn't shake the camera (he does once, and only briefly, and it makes sense under the circumstances).  The bad news is that this is movie is worse because Simon West is, and probably always will be, a hack.

The gang is back.  The group of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone) and his right hand man, Lee Christmas (Statham) is up for round two.  There are two new additions: Billy the Kid (Hemsworth), an ex-Army sniper, and Maggie (Yu), who is making sure that their job, which is once again given to them by Mr. Church (Willis), gets done.  That job is to get a micro-computer which contains the blueprints of a mine where the Soviets left their nuclear weapons after the Cold War ended.  Also after the weapons is Vilain (haha), played with panache by Jean-Claude Van Damme.  But when one of their own is killed, the mission turns personal.  Back to war indeed.

Is it worth discussing the acting?  In a movie like this, probably not.  One doesn't go to "The Expendables 2" in order to see character depth and Oscar-worthy acting.  That being said, the characters are paper thin (as they were in the first one), which means that it's hard to give a damn about any one of them (which in turn means less excitement and suspense).  Adding to the problem is that it's nearly impossible to understand what Stallone and Statham are saying, and they have the most lines in the film.  Jean-Claude Van Damme is a considerably better villain than David Zayas in the first film.  The only one who truly attracted my attention was, surprisingly, Liam Hemsworth.  It's hard not to be won over by Billy's (relative) innocence and enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, he doesn't have a lot of screentime.  Ditto for Jet Li, who is on screen for even less (and he doesn't do any of the martial arts that he is famous for).  Missing in action is Tool, played by Mickey Rourke in the first film (it's probably for the best since Rourke had absolutely nothing to do).

Simon West's resume does not give one a lot of confidence in his abilities.  After breaking his teeth in commercials, he directed the loud and dumb "Con Air," than completely screwed up "The General's Daughter."  Frankly, the only movie he made that's worth watching is "Laura Croft: Tomb Raider," and the success of that movie was its cheese factor, which considering his lack of pedigree, was probably unintentional.  In terms of organization and handling, "The Expendables 2" is pretty inept.  The action scenes are active and lively, but they're also messy.  West also seems to think that we truly care about the story (which rips off "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," but never mind.  The script is too thin and the actors rightfully know that they're making a simple testosterone flick, not a plot based on moral ambiguity or anything deep like that.  The film's climax, which brings all the action heroes together, is especially disappointing.  West has no sense of place; characters seem to appear exactly where they're needed without regard to logic or the laws of physics.  We never know where anything is, much less where the people are.

During its production, the sequel was rumored to be going for a PG-13 rating because Chuck Norris, a conservative Republican and born-again Christian, refused to appear if it had a lot of foul language (apparently, bloody violence and mayhem is okay with him...true American values).  After an intense backlash from fans, the film was re-edited to add a lot of blood and gore.  The edits are obvious (especially since the profanity is minimal as well...not even a "fuck").  And by the way, this problem afflicted the first film as well.  That one went in without a set rating; producer Avi Lerner assembled two cuts of the film (one PG-13 and one R) to see what tested better.  The latter version was released, but it never seemed like a full-blooded R movie since it wasn't one from the get-go.

Look, the people who want to see it are going to see it.  Even if I truly wanted to convince them otherwise, I couldn't.  And quite frankly, I didn't hate the film.  My only emotion was apathy mixed with slight disappointment.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Campaign

2.5/4

Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, Sarah Baker, Katherine LaNasa, Dan Aykroyd, John Lithgow, Brian Cox

Rated R for Crude Sexual Content, Language and Brief Nudity

"The Campaign" defines, in movie terms, inconsistent.  There are some scenes of inspired comedy.  But there are just as many, if not more, that are overlong or simply not as funny as the filmmakers think they are.  In terms of plot, it's more like a series of skits than a story.  The pacing is wildly uneven, and the ending rings false.  Still, I did laugh every now and then and chuckle a lot more than that.

In a North Carolina district, Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell) is running for his fifth term in office.  He's the favorite to win because there's no competition.  But the Moch brothers (Aykroyd and Lithgow) want him out because Brady isn't willing to help them further their business agendas.  Therefore, they enlist Republican legend Raymond Huggins' (Cox) effeminate, willing to please son, Marty (Galifianakis).  To help him, the Mochs send in Tim Wattely (McDermott) to be his campaign manager.  No holds are barred and nothing is sacred as Cam and Marty try to beat each other by any means possible.

Will Ferrell is one of the most inconsistent comedians working today.  He's been funny in some movies ("Elf" and "Old School" come to mind), while also appearing in some truly awful ones ("Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby").  "The Campaign" is one of the former.  He's kept in check and given decent material.  Methinks Ferrell needs to stop working with Adam McKay (who was behind both "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights."  Zach Galifianakis is hilarious as the ineffectual Marty Huggins.  With his feminine mannerisms and voice, he is probably the candidate least likely to be successful.  But with the ruthless Tim Wattely on his side, that might change.  As Tim, McDermott oozes an icy malice.  One might  be interested in seeing him play a serial killer.  Jason Sudeikis brings to mind Ed Helms as Mitch, Cam's friend and campaign manager.

The man at the helm of the project is Jay Roach, who directed the "Austin Powers" movies and the "Meet the Parents" movies.  The man's work is solid, but he needs a better editor.  Some scenes are funny, but others are just far too long.  The scene where Cam blows up because the racy ad he wants to run is turned down by Mitch.

The second problem is that the film lacks teeth.  The film makes some pointed remarks about big business buying politicians (the Moch brothers are obvious stand-ins for the Koch brothers).  But that's it.  It's mainly just crude satire.  As I've said, some of this stuff is truly funny (the funniest scenes in the trailer are expanded upon and much funnier in the actual film).

Look.  I can't recommend the movie.  But it is what it is.  If you're a Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis fan, and all you're looking for is a few good laughs and don't mind if there are a few lengthy dead spots, see it.  But for those who are looking for more may want to skip it.

Don't I say this for every 2.5/4 movie?

Black Swan

4/4

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Disturbing Violent Images, Language and Some Drug Use

Character studies are compelling because we learn about and understand a character inside out.  "Black Swan" takes this and puts two new wrinkles into it.  First, it's from the point of view of the lead character.  We see the world through the eyes of ballet dancer Nina Sayers.  Second, Nina is an unbalanced girl, and has trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.  Thus, "Black Swan" becomes not just a film, but an experience.

Nina (Portman) is a shy and timid dancer at a ballet company in New York City.  She still lives with her mother, Erica (Hershey), a former dancer who had to give up her dream when she became pregnant with Nina.  Nina's ballet company is putting on a new version of "Swan Lake," and she desperately wants to dance the part of the Swan Queen.  There is something standing in her way, however.  As the director, Thomas Leroy (Cassel) says, she's perfect for the fragile White Swan, but lacks the passion and sexuality of the Black Swan.  Also in the mix is Lily (Kunis), a new dancer who may or may not be vying for the role as well.  In the end, Nina gets the role, but that's when her fragile mental state begins to fray.

On the acting side, "Black Swan" is a triumph.  There isn't a weak performance to be found.  Leading the pack is Natalie Portman, a gifted actress who ended a string of lazy performances in the likes of "Goya's Ghosts," "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" and "Brothers" as Nina Sayers.  As quiet and meek as she is, we still sympathize with her.  Nina is like a small child; innocent and naiive.  But she must gather strength and confidence to play the Black Swan.  Portman ably handles all aspects of the role, and this is a demanding role, not only physically but emotionally.  Depending on the scene, Nina is either shy, an emotional wreck, threatening and at times, violent.  Portman never misses a beat.
Also good is Barbara Hershey, who plays Nina's mother.  Although at first glance Erica seems more stable than her daughter, she is not.  She's just as ill as Nina, and her obsessive hovering with Nina's career is creepy.  Erica's shot at her dream was cut short, and she seeks to live vicariously through her daughter.  Hershey's performance should have gotten an Oscar nomination as well.

As Lily, Mila has what is probably the most difficult role in the film.  Kunis needs to create the character of Lily, and then create Lily's emotions and personality based on how Nina sees her.  Kunis doesn't just act mean, sympathetic or whatnot.  She does that as Lily.  Kunis was known primarily for her lightweight comedies and portraying Meg on "Family Guy" (which she still does today), but this is her first big foray into the drama/thriller category and she nails it.  Quite frankly, with her striking visual appearance (especially her eyes), it's a little strange that it has taken her this long to do it.  I'm anxiously awaiting the day when she portrays a villain in a "stranger within" movie.

Rounding out the cast are Vincent Cassel and Winona Ryder.  Cassel is very good.  His desire to get his dancers, particularly Nina, to emphasize the sexuality in their roles borders on sexual harassment.  He's an egotistical jerk, but he's also intelligent and capable of kindness.  Winona Ryder hasn't been in much this past decade, and although her role is small, it's important enough to make us realize how much we missed her.  Ryder plays the bitter Beth, the former star who has just recently retired (there are hints that she was forced to by Thomas).  Nina sees her as an inspiration and a threat.

I've never been a particularly big fan of Darren Aronofsky.  I found "Requiem for a Dream" to be overrated and "The Wrestler" to be a bore (both were critically acclaimed and garnered Oscar nominations).  But the man's work is a revelation.  He successfully gets us into the mind of his lead character, and he does so in a uniquely compelling way.  This is a visually dazzling thriller that is at times erotic and quite scary.  There are instances that caused me to gasp and wince.

Both bizarre and intoxicating, "Black Swan" was the best film of 2010 (better than "The King's Speech," which won the Best Picture Oscar that year).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Observe & Report

1.5/4

Starring: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Anna Faris, Michael Pena, Collette Wolfe

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

When you make a dark comedy like this, you either go all the way or you don't make the movie.  Last year's "Bad Teacher" worked because director Jake Kasdan and his screenwriters pulled out all the stops.  We weren't meant to like Diaz's character, and that's what gave the movie its edge.  In "Observe & Report," first-time filmmaker Jody Hill can't decide how he wants us to feel about his lead character.  Sure, he's a freak, but there are times when Hill wants us to like him.

Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is the head of mall security at a local mall.  He's bipolar, has an unhealthy fixation on Brandi the cosmetics girl (Faris) and takes his job way too seriously.  That's the setup for the plot, which involves Ronnie trying to catch a flasher.  Also in the mix are a police detective, Harrison (Liotta), for whom Ronnie is an unending annoyance and Nell (Wolfe), a born-again Christian who loves him and gives him his free coffee.

The film's biggest problem is that it's way too long.  Ronnie never shuts up; whether he's doing a voice over, or a "fuck you" sparring match with Saddam (Aziz Ansari), he never shuts his trap.  And because little of what he says is of any interest, much less funny, it quickly becomes boring.  Also problematic is the film's humor, or lack thereof.  Hill is too close to his characters, and is unwilling to send them through the shredder of true black comedy.  The humor is too soft or simply not there.  When Hill sends up the "hero everyman" cliches, the film is hits the mark.  Unfortunately, these scenes only take up about 10 minutes of the total screen time.

Seth Rogen does an about face from his usual genial chubster stuff.  His work here would be effective if he were given better material.  Rogen is effective (he plays Ronnie as a cross between Kevin James and a truly weird version of Jonah Hill), but there's little he can do for the film.  Ditto for Anna Faris, who sometimes goes over the top.  Michael Pena is boring, and John and Matt Yuan (who play the Yuens, Ronnie's "infantry") are nonentities.  Ray Liotta looks like he'd rather be anywhere else.  The only one who manages to attract the mind and (surprisingly) the heart is Collette Wolfe.  She's adorable, and frankly, the only reason we wish Ronnie well (something that we're clearly not supposed to do) is because we want her to be happy.

Jody Hill is one of the creative forces behind the HBO comedy "Eastbound & Down."  I've seen an episode or two of the show, and it's not my forte.  The humor is too low-key.  I like my humor upfront and undiluted.  Still, not even a different approach would have made much difference with "Observe & Report."  It bares its gums when it should have fangs.

Mike's Musings: Why do I do this?

A few days ago, someone asked my why I spend my time watching and reviewing movies.  He said it seemed like a waste of time.

He has a point.  After all, I don't get any money from it, and I could be spending the time doing something for financial gain.

But why do any film critics review movies?  Sure, some fortunate movie fans get paid to do it, but others, like James Berardinelli, don't do it as a career.  Berardinelli has a "real" job as well as a wife and a one year old son (who, ironically, shares my name and birthday).  How he manages to balance all of these at once, I'll never know.

To me, it doesn't seem unproductive at all.  It's a way to stretch and open my mind, practice and refine my writing skills (essential for everyone, especially an aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker such as myself).  More importantly, it's a way to publicize movies that people may not know about, or warn people against bad movies they may be planning on seeing.  Admittedly, I don't have as many readers as either Ebert or Berardinelli, but if I can convince someone to see a great movie like "The War Zone" or "Brotherhood of the Wolf," they haven't heard of, much less saw, than it's a worthy pursuit in my book.

But this person overlooked the most important reason why I watch and review so many movies.  I enjoy doing it.  I don't do it for the money, fame or the Pulitzer Prize (although I wouldn't say no to any of those).  I do it because it's fun for me.  True, watching a movie like "Belly" or "Soul Plane" is a real trial, but there is an element of entertainment in ripping them to shreds.  Plus, in those cases, it's performing a public service.

Writing movie reviews is no more productive than playing video games or reading books.  Neither of those things bring in money the consumer or change the world.  But they are entertaining (and by the way, studies have shown that playing video games increases hand-eye coordination and visuo-motor skills...and everyone knows how helpful reading is).  Plus, the video game industry is worth billions, and books have been around for thousands of years (and oral storytelling since the dawn of man).  Something must be worthwhile about those things.

The number of regular readers I have is difficult, if not impossible to establish (my guess is somewhere around 10).  Some of my writing has been relatively widely read (at the time of this writing, "Magic Mike" has 136 hits and my Mike's Musing entry, "How to Watch A Movie in a Theater Without Pissing Everyone Off" has 731 hits).

As nice as it is to have regular readers, I don't do it for fame or rising hit numbers.  As false as this sounds, it's the truth.  Like James Berardinelli once said, I do it for myself.

The bottom line is, if I enjoy it, there's nothing wrong with it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Boys Don't Cry

3.5/4

Starring: Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brandon Sexton III, Alicia Goranson

Rated R for Violence including an Intense Brutal Rape Scene, Sexuality, Language and Drug Use

Watching "Boys Don't Cry" is like watching an impending train wreck.  You know what's going to happen but you're powerless to stop it.  Yet, no matte how punishing and horrible the images are, you can't turn away.  It's an unfortunate part of human nature, but that's the effect that watching "Boys Don't Cry" has on the viewer.  This is a tough movie to watch, but for those who are willing to witness this story, their time will be well rewarded.

Teena Brandon (Swank) is a young woman from Lincoln, Nebraska, who, as we learn, feels that she is a man.  She gets her cousin Lonny (Matt McGrath) to give her a boyish haircut.  She stuffs a sock down her pants and goes to a roller rink for a date.  Now Brandon Teena, she appears to be a man.  Brandon's first attempt ends badly, but then he meets Candace (Goranson).  After defending her in a fight, he makes fast friends with Candace and her friends, John Lotter (Sarsgaard) and Tom Nissen (Sexton III).  In no short order, he ends up in Falls City, sleeping on his new friends' couches in lieu of working to get his own apartment.  It is there that he meets Lana Tisdel (Sevigny), a sensitive young woman who falls for Brandon, and he for her.  But it isn't long before his secret is out, and the result leads to his brutal rape and murder.

Before she was cast as Brandon, Hilary Swank was best known for playing Julie Pierce in "The Next Karate Kid."  But it's impossible to imagine that the long haired girl who starred alongside Mr. Miyagi is the actress playing Brandon Teena.  Except for a few momentary instances when her makeup gives it away, Swank is absolutely convincing as Brandon.  He's naiive and not blessed with incredible intelligence, but he's by and large a sympathetic character.  We feel his ecstasy at being accepted as a man, but when things turn sour, we  pray that he'll escape even though we know it was not to be.  For once, the Academy gave the Oscar to the person who truly deserved it.  This is the performance of a lifetime.  Swank, a talented actress when she really puts in the work, has done solid work since then, but she's never equaled this performance, and it's unlikely that she or anyone ever will.

Her co-star, Chloe Sevigny, is also in top form.  A gifted actress who has stayed in the independent film realm for the most part, Sevigny is excellent as Lana.  She's sensitive and vulnerable, but also tough.  Sevigny's skill lies in the low-key realism.  Sevigny was honored with an Oscar nomination as well, but she lost to Angelina Jolie for "Girl, Interrupted."  Her performance her is pitch-perfect, and she has amazing chemistry with Swank.

The supporting cast is also very strong.  Peter Sarsgaard is alternately friendly and vicious as John Lotter.  An ex-con who has no impulse control, Lotter is likable and charismatic, but there's always a hint of danger whenever he's around (I'm not sure if this is because we know what he eventually does, but it doesn't matter).  Brandon Sexton III is quite good as Lotter's gopher, Tom Nissen.  Tom is also a person to be wary of, but John is the live wire.  The girls, Alicia Goranson and Allison Foland, are also good.  It should be noted that Goranson, Foland and Sevigny also auditioned for the role of Brandon.  Character actress Jeannetta Arnette is quite good as well as Lana' alcoholic mother.

Kimberly Pierce, in her directorial debut, is careful to take her time in establishing the setting.  Falls City, Nebraska is in large part fueled by alcohol.  People drink in nearly every scene, and from what I gathered from the film, people work to make money so they can drink more.  This is a dreary, rundown place with nothing to do, and it's easy to see when Brandon and Lana want to get out.

The film isn't flawless.  Sometimes the writing isn't as crisp as it should be, leading to some confusion about the particulars of a few select scenes.  Additionally, the film's most intense scene, where Brandon is raped, is spliced with her interview with the Sheriff (Lou Perryman) and it's not done very well.  Pierce should have let the scenes play out chronologically.  It would have been more intense, yes, but also more honest.

In another of the MPAA's boneheaded moves, they initially gave the film an NC-17 for the rape scene.  Naturally, Pierce was against cutting any of it because it would have been disrespectful to Brandon.  She was forced to cut the scene some and also the some of the sexual activity between Brandon and Lana.  Such demands are insensitive and infuriating.  But that's what we expect from the MPAA.

Nevertheless, "Boys Don't Cry" is an electrifying piece of cinema.  Definitely a must see.

The Bourne Legacy

1.5/4

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacey Keach, Donna Murphy

Rated PG-13 for Violence and Action Sequences

Call me crazy, but I was never the biggest fan of the Bourne series.  They seemed like grimmer, wannabe "Bond" movies.  I love espionage thrillers and action movies, but the films did nothing for me.  Apparently I'm the only one, since the franchise is hugely profitable.  That, by the way, is the reason this film exists.  The series has made nearly a billion dollars, although like most action movies, the majority has been made overseas.  Universal desperately wants to keep this franchise going, but since the novels ended with "The Bourne Ultimatum," Universal was at a loss for what to do.  The studio decided on making a parallel movie of its own invention, intending to use the same name for a different character.  I suppose this could work, but the movie is terrible.  It's better, albeit marginally, than "Total Recall" (albeit marginally) this years other big budget waste of time, but sadly it's 20 minutes longer.

After the disaster with Jason Bourne, the CIA is forced to take drastic measures with The Program.  That means eliminating all the agents and starting over.  One by one, the agents are given poison pills and dying.  The last agent, Aaron Cross (Renner), has slipped through their fingers.  Desperate to eliminate him, the CIA pulls out all the stops, but Cross is too smart and too fast.  Also in need of elimination are the scientists whose research has served as the foundation of The Program.  All are eliminated in what is made to look like a random office shooting, except Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz).  Now she and Cross must go on the run.

For the first hour, the film makes little sense.  They're short scenes with various plotlines that are meant to set up the plot.  The problem is that they're not very interesting, and by the time the actual plot gets moving, I ceased to care.  Blame director Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote the script with his brother Dan.  It's bland, and Gilroy's direction, which is fast paced, fails to liven things up because there's really nothing there.

I first took notice of Jeremy Renner when he played the psychotic loose cannon Brian Gamble in 2003's "SWAT," which was based on the television series.  It took him another five years to hit it big when he scored an Oscar nomination for "The Hurt Locker" (which was overrated).  Now he is able to headline a movie by himself.  Renner is talented enough to carry a movie, but frankly, this is a waste of his considerable talent.  Ditto for Rachel Weisz, who also deserves better.  Weisz sleepwalks through her role to pick up a hefty paycheck.  It's hard to blame her, since the material is so flat.  Edward Norton does what he can to play the hardass behind the scenes, but like the other cast members, there's not much that can be done.

There's a scene in the film that I found somewhat distasteful.  When one of Marta's co-workers is secretly ordered to eliminate all his co-workers, it's disturbingly reminiscent of other recent massacres.  While Gilroy has the decency not to exploit it, do we really need to see this?  Isn't there another way that this could have been handled?

Gilroy is a terrific screenwriter, who took part in writing the previous Bourne movies (he adapted "The Bourne Supremacy" by himself, but the others were with written in conjunction with other screenwriters).  His skills do not extend to filmmaking however.  His approach is clinical, and he fails to get his actors to attract the attention of the audience, despite working with some of Hollywood's best talent.  He keeps the pace up (the second half of the movie is essentially one long chase sequence), but since there's no reason to care, it's all sound and fury signifying nothing (apologies to Will Shakespeare).

I'm about to write off big budget action movies.  Few filmmakers are allowed to use three dimensional characters and complex plots (James Cameron and Christopher Nolan come to mind) since that risks alienating foreign audiences.  Without those, the movies are usually dull.  Here's to hoping that someone somewhere is going to be able to merge visual effects with compelling characters and stories.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Child's Play 2

3/4

Starring: Alex Vincent, Christine Elise, Jenny Agutter, Gerrit Graham, and the voice of Brad Dourif

Rated R for Horror Violence and Language (I guess...)

When the 1988 horror movie featuring a killer doll became a hit, a sequel was all but assured.  After all, no genre is easier to turn into a franchise than a slasher movie.  Just use some mumbo jumbo to bring the villain back from the dead, add photogenic but dim-witted characters to fill up body bags and let the carnage begin!

After the events in the first film that sent a number of people to the morgue, little Andy Barclay (Vincent) is in a foster home.  His mother (played by Catherine Hicks in the first film) is in a mental institution due to the trauma, and Andy is stuck living with the Simpsons (Agutter and Graham), the "perfect couple."  But Andy's troubles are far from over.  In an act of unbelievable stupidity (although this sort of thing is a requirement of a horror movie), the company that makes the Good Guy dolls has rebuilt the doll that the tabloids claimed was behind the murders.  To be fair, they're doing it to investigate the rumors to put their stockholders at ease, but still.  When it comes to possessed toys, it's better to err on the safe said.  At least from this reviewer's perspective.  In any event, it doesn't take long for Chucky, new (but not improved) to get loose and start killing people to get to Andy so he transfer his soul into Andy's body.

The film does not get off to a good start.  The acting is adequate, although little Alex Vincent is stiff (a common problem that affects child actors and slasher movie thespians).  The film also gets a little repetitive: ominous thing happens, Andy blames Chucky, (insert older person) doesn't believe him, and throws Chucky into closet/basement/trash can/etc.  There is a good side to this, however.  Then-newcomer Christine Elise, who plays Andy's tough-as-nails-on-the-outside foster sister, Kyle.  She's quite good, and of all the characters in the film, she's the most sympathetic.  I suppose Agutter and Graham are okay, but they have too many scenes.  Once Kyle and Andy go on the run, the film takes off.

Like the first film, there is some inspired, if dark, comedy.  Nothing quite as funny as Chucky's memorable "Fuck You" from the first one, but there is an amusing sequence where Chucky is backseat driving.  There are a few other witty bits here and there, but writer Don Mancini and director John Lafia keep them in check in order to keep the tension up.

The film works, I suppose, since I have to admit that I enjoyed myself overall.  But by our standards it appears a little tame (so was the first one, by the way).  The body count is low and there's not much of the red stuff.  The second installment is inferior to the first one, but not by much.  Chucky fans will do well to check it out, but unless you liked the first one, there's not much point to watching the sequel.  

U-571

3.5/4

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Jake Weber, Dave Power, Terrence "T.C." Carson, Jack Noseworthy

Rated PG-13 for War Violence

When it comes to submarine movies, everyone seems to think that the king is "Das Boot."  Although it's been years since I've seen it, and I was young when I did, I remember not being particularly impressed with it.  It was overlong and I didn't really care about anyone in it.  "U-571," on the other hand, is a different story altogether.  It's leaner, meaner and consistently suspenseful.  Never have the words "depth charge" or "splashes" been so scary.

The film is based on the true story of how the Allies got hold of the German code machine, the Enigma, during World War II (although based on the evidence, the filmmakers took more than a few liberties with the story.  But, as they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story).

Lt. Andrew Tyler (McConaughey) is a beloved officer S-33 submarine.  In the Chief's (Keitel) words, the sailors look up to him like a brother.  Unfortunately, talent and respect are not enough for a person to be in charge of their own boat, according to his commander (Paxton).  Tyler and his crew are taken off leave early because they're tasked with a special ops mission: they're to board a downed German submarine and steal a codebreaker called "the Enigma."  Unfortunately, the plan fails and Tyler and a few of his crew are trapped on the crippled U-boat.

I've heard criticism for "U-571" for having undeveloped characters.  In this case, character development is not mandatory.  This is a fast-paced adventure where pausing for character development would only hurt the film.  The characters have personalities and we feel like we're trapped in the sub with them.  That's all one can ask for in a movie like this.

That being said, the performances are top notch.  Matthew McConaughey, who has had an amazing year this year with "Magic Mike" and the upcoming "Killer Joe."  This is one of his best performances.  McConaughey plays the character as quiet and aloof, but intense when under pressure (which in this case, is nearly all the time).  As always happens in the movies, Tyler learns what it means to be the commander of a submarine.  He has to make decisions on the fly that could save them or kill them all.

Also impressive is Harvey Keitel, whose talent is as underrated as they come.  Keitel is older than anyone else on board, but he does not have the highest rank.  He gives Tyler advice and support, both of which he desperately needs.  Jake Weber is suitably mysterious as Hirsch, the brains behind the operation.  The cast of young character actors (including Tom Guiry and Will Estes) do good work as well.

Jonathan Mostow knows what this film needs: claustrophobia and constant tension.  He's two for two.  Once the film gets going (when the S-33 leaves the dock), the film never lets up.  We're there with the crew in the tiny, cramped and crippled submarine.  There are more than a few moments when you can cut the tension with a knife.

Simply put, this movie works.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Castle in the Sky

3/4

Starring (voices): James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill, Cloris Leachman, Jim Cummings

Rated PG for Fantasy Action Violence and Peril

As I was purchasing some DVDs today, including Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro," I got talking with the cashier at Best Buy.  He was talking about Miyazaki and how underrated he is, and when describing him, I finished, "[He's] a master."  The cashier emphatically agreed.

"Castle in the Sky" is Hayao Miyazaki's steampunk adventure.  It's got action, flying machines, pirates, a villain afflicted with megalomania, a plucky hero and heroine, and a lost city.  Yup, you guessed it, this movie is right up my alley.

Orphaned teen Pazu (Van Der Beek) has long dreamed of the legendary floating city Laputa.  His father saw it when he was caught in a storm, but no one believed him.  Then one night when he's fetching dinner for his boss, he spots something falling from the sky.  It turns out that it's a young girl.  Taking her back to his house and nursing her back to health, she tells him that her name is Sheeta (Paquin).  Sheeta, as it turns out, was kidnapped by the army, and escaped after they were attacked by pirates.  The Army was after a crystal that she wears around her neck (this is what caused her to fall slowly to earth instead of landing with a splat).  Now she and Pazu must stay away from the army, especially their leader, a mysterious man named Muska (Hamill), long enough to find Laputa and uncover its secrets.

As is usual for a Miyazaki film, the dubbing for the film is quite good.  James Van Der Beek is perfect as the hero, Pazu.  His energy and optimism is infectious, and it takes just one word of dialogue from him to get behind him.  Anna Paquin, an exceptional actress who is never in enough movies, is very good as Sheeta, the smart but vulnerable princess.  Mark Hamill is menacing as Muska, who has his own motives for finding Laputa, although no one is going to confuse him with Hannibal Lecter (this is, after all, a kid's movie).  Cloris Leachman is an interesting case.  The first time I saw the movie, her voice acting irritated me so much that it nearly tanked the movie for me.  This time around, I'm more sympathetic.  I think she does a solid job as the pirate Dola, who also wants to find the floating city.

"Castle in the Sky" has had an interesting production history.  Made in 1986, it was dubbed in the late 80's for international flights to Japan.  Streamline Pictures distributed this dub, although they did not produce it.  Who was behind that remains a mystery, apparently.  In any event, Disney produced another dub in 1998 and planned to release it to video the next year, however they decided to release it theatrically first.  But when "Princess Mononoke" flopped (due to lackluster marketing and the fact that it was shown in very few theaters), the release was pushed back and back and back until it was shown at a few children's film festivals and then released on DVD and video alongside "Kiki's Delivery Service" (another Miyazaki film, although I haven't seen it) and "Spirited Away."

The film bears a remarkable similarity to the floating city (also named Laputa) in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels."  I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on how much of the book made it into the film.  That being said, the film has a wonderful sense of imagination and wonder.  In some ways, this is a spectacle, and unlike Miyazaki's other films, it demands to be seen on as big of a screen as possible.

But the film is definitely not one of Miyazaki's stronger efforts.  The plot isn't as complex (although it's not predictable), and the sense of magic that was so powerful in "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke" is diluted here.  It is a lot of fun, and I do recommend it.  Kids will love it, perhaps even more than the adults.  But I can't help feeling let down, if only slightly.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Erin Brockovich

4/4

Starring: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Scotty Leavenworth, Peter Coyote

Rated R for Language

"Erin Brockovich" is a legal drama, yes, but anyone who is expecting courtroom twists or grandstanding has walked into the wrong movie.  There are no action scenes or people coming back from the dead.  Rather, this is a character study about a woman who uses her personality, rather than her legal expertise, to inspire a community to fight back against a huge corporation that caused them to become gravely ill.

Erin Brockovich (Roberts) is a former beauty queen whose life has not turned out the way she planned it.  She has three kids and two ex-husbands, $17 in her bank account and no job.  When she's hit by a car, she is defended by Ed Masry (Finney), who thinks she has a case.  That is until her foul mouth sinks her.  All out of options, she goes back to ED and demands a job.  Reluctantly, he hires her as a clerk.  And that's when she uncovers some sleazy activities by Pacific Gas & Electric.  With her persistence, she and Ed set out to make PG&E pay big bucks for the health problems they caused a whole town.  The result is the biggest direct-action lawsuit in American history

Julia Roberts has defined the term "movie star" for the 20th century.  With her beautiful smile and charismatic appeal, she's instantly likable.  Those attractive qualities (plus her talent) make it possible for audiences to sympathize with her when she plays characters who aren't always that likable.  That was true for "My Best Friend's Wedding," where she played a woman who tried to break up her best friend's wedding, and it's true here.  Erin has got some rough edges to say the least.  She has a foul mouth and speaks her mind when she probably shouldn't, and she dresses provocatively.  However, she cares about the people she's trying to help, and that's what makes her endearing.  Albert Finney, the great character actor that he is, makes Ed Masry into the perfect counterpart to Erin.  While she's brash and charismatic, he's buttoned-down and cereberal.  Brains and legal strategy are his strength.  Aaron Eckhart, an actor who had made waves by playing characters for Neil LaBute, is also very good as George, her biker boyfriend.  Like Erin, he's not an ideal character for this kind of role.  He has long hair, a goatee, and wears leather.  But like Erin, he has a good heart.  He and Roberts have excellent chemistry, so that helps as well.  Also strong, although not recognized is Scotty Leavenworth, who plays Erin's son, Matthew.  He's a good kid, but he misses his mom.  Much of the emotional component that comes from Erin's inability to be at home as much as she'd like comes from him.

Director Steven Sodebergh had a huge year in 2000.  He directed two hit movies (this and "Traffic") and earned Best Director nods for both (for the record, he won for "Traffic").  In both movies, his talent for directing actors and weaving many plot threads and ideas into one complete motion picture is apparent.  Sodebergh directs the scene with a true sense of place.  Hinkley (the town in question) is a pretty run down town.  Most of the inhabitants are poor and uneducated.  Sodebergh desaturates the color and emphasizes yellows and browns to emphasize the out-of-the-way nature of the setting.  It works, and we become more involved than we would had Sodebergh used a more conventional approach.

Although this story is at time poigniant and inspiring, it never resorts to cheap melodrama to make its point.  Sodebergh trusts his characters and the performances to make his point.  It is also, surprisingly, quite funny.  Erin's "tell it like it is" approach to life and her ability to call out the elephant in the room lead to some humorous moments.  Audiences will laugh as much as they cry in this movie.  You don't often find movies that can do that.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Peacemaker

3.5/4

Starring: George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Aleksandr Baluev

Rated R for Strong Violence and Some Language

"The Peacemaker" was the first film of the newly-formed production company Dreamworks SKG, headed by movie masters Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.  It's an truly amazing debut to one of the fastest growing movie studios.

This is a political action thriller that not only deals with the threat of a nuclear weapon detonating in a densely populated city, but also the motivation, or lack thereof, of terrorists.  In many films, they're simply scowling faces with henchmen designed to shoot at the hero (and miss) and to fill body bags.  Here, things aren't that simple.  The lead villain's motivation is anger, not money or power.

A nuclear weapon has detonated in the middle of Russia.  Nuclear expert Dr. Julia Kelly (Kidman) is assigned to find out what happened.  Almost right off the bat, she figures out that this was no accident, but an act of terrorism.  And a gung-ho soldier named Thomas Devoe (Clooney) points out that this was a robbery.  Together, they must track down the missing warheads before they end up in the wrong hands and the unthinkable happens.

Director Mimi Leder, who won more than a few awards for directed episodes of the long-running TV series "ER" (one of my favorites as a kid, by the way), directs this movie with a frantic pace.  The film is relentless, and the script by Michael Schiffer keeps throwing new wrenches into the story.  The film takes us to Russia, Turkey, Sarajevo and of course, the United States.  She also has a flair for action scenes, including a game of chicken and bumper cars in the streets of Vienna.  Leder has no qualms about showing violence onscreen (the film deserves its R rating).

The acting is very good.  George Clooney (who has regretted making the film for some reason) is terrific as the impulsive and blunt soldier.  But Clooney gives him a softer side, and at times, a sense of humor (his first scene at a senate hearing is a case in point...it's pure Clooney).  His co-star, Nicole Kidman, is just as good. She's a desk worker who wears a business suit.  Now that she's out in the real world, she gets first hand knowledge of what she reads about behind a desk.  It terrifies her, but she learns how to work through it to get the job done.  In an interesting turn of events, it was Kidman who gave Clooney his Oscar when he won for "Syriana."

The film has two main villains: Kodoroff (Baluev) and Dusan Gavrich (Iures).  Both are very different people but in their own ways, equally frightening.  Kodoroff is a ruthless psychopath.  A corrupt general, Kodoroff has gone to the black market for one last big score now that the Soviet Union has fallen.  Utterly ruthless and psychotic, he has no qualms about stealing a nuclear weapon for someone who will probably use it.  As long as he gets paid, he doesn't care about anything else.  Dusan Gavrich, played by Romanian acting legend Marcel Iures, is also very good.  He's not a psychopath like Kodoroff, just angry.  His anger, pain and frustration have warped his sense of self and he wants those he sees responsible to share it.

"The Peacemaker" is a great thriller, and in a way that the filmmakers couldn't have predicted, is incredibly timely.  See it, see it, see it!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hope Springs

1/4

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carrell

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Content involving Sexuality

One could argue that this film is for older people and the reason I didn't like it is because I couldn't relate to it.  I disagree.  Love, and the fight to keep it, is a universal conflict, and especially with a talented cast like this, it should have been great.  Surprisingly it is not.  In fact, it is one of the worst of the year (probably a first for Streep).

Kay (Streep) is extremely unhappy.  Her husband Arnold (Jones) doesn't pay any attention to her except out of habit.  He's also a grouch and a pessimist.  In a desperate attempt to save their marriage, Kay enrolls them in an intensive couples therapy in Maine.  It's lead by Dr. Feld (Carrell), who is going to get them to open up about their need for intimacy.  Easier said than done.

It's easy to define the problem with the film: the script.  It's extremely shallow.  Although Dr. Feld asks intimate questions, there's no real follow through, and to begin with they're not that insightful.  Kay longs for passion but Arnold is too macho to show it.  Instead of portraying this as a light drama, director David Frankel thinks it's serious and groundbreaking.  Maybe it's because he is primarily known for directing comedies (he made "Marley & Me" and "The Devil Wears Prada"), but his impression of Vanessa Taylor's script is dead wrong.  It's shallow and derivative.  Neither Taylor nor Frankel can decide what they want this film to be: a tearjerker, a light drama or a heavy meditation on love and intimacy.  By trying to be all of them it ends up misfiring spectacularly.

The film's biggest crime is wasting the talent of its three stars, all of whom deserve better.  Streep does what she can, but with the shallowness of her dialogue and Frankel's poor direction, there's little she can do.  Ditto for Tommy Lee Jones.  He has some meat to chew on, but not enough.  Arnold is one of those macho guys who doesn't talk about his feelings to avoid appearing "soft" or something.  Jones makes a game try, but that's a cliched character and he can't make it original.  Steve Carrell is the only one who does anything with his character because he's the only one with something to do.  He calls out the elephant in the room and directly asks questions that Kay and Arnold need to talk about but are too nervous to do so.  He also plays the role straight; this is a purely dramatic role for him.  Carrell can do drama, but like his co-stars he's given nothing to work with.  Elizabeth Shue appears for, like, two scenes playing a bartender, but she's given even less to do.

There are two curiosities about this movie that I must mention.  First, the film has been marketed as a romantic-comedy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There aren't many attempts at humor in this movie, and they aren't successful.  To laugh at the jokes in this film, you have to still be living in the 1950's, where sex is a dirty word.  To a person such as myself, who thinks that sex is a beautiful and essential part of life, the humor is unfunny and immature.  The second is the film's PG-13 rating.  Even if the film weren't so dreadful, it's not a film that teens would be interested in in the first place, making the desire to earn the rating a curiosity.  The second thing I'm wondering is what on Earth persuaded the MPAA, who as we all know, is extremely skittish about sex, gave this film such a rating.  The film is surprisingly graphic, including an (covered up) blow job.  I've seen movies get NC-17 ratings for less.

In a way, "Hope Springs" is one of the toughest kinds of movies to watch.  With a zero-star movie (which is what this would be had it not been for the valiant, but futile, efforts of its cast), at least it provokes me into actively hating the movie.  In this case, I was simply waiting for it to end, and it takes far too long to get there.