Friday, September 28, 2012

Alien

3.5/4

Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Rated R for Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

In space, no one can hear you scream.

It's an ominous tagline to be sure.  One of the better ones, in my opinion (the only one I can think of that comes close is "Let he who is without sin try to survive," which adorned movie posters for "Seven").  Although marketing and trailers have a tendency to overestimate the value of the film they are advertising (there are way too many of these to count), that's not the case with Ridley Scott's monster movie, "Alien."  This is a truly frightening and atmospheric horror film.

A crew of seven people are coming back from a mining mission in deep space.  They are: Captain Dallas (Skerrit), Executive Officer Kane (Hurt), Warrant Officer Ripley (Weaver), Navigation Officer Lambert (Cartwright), Science Officer Ash (Holm), and grunts Brett (Stanton) and Parker (Kotto).  On their way back to Earth, they are awakened prematurely.  The ship has picked up a signal of unknown origin on a nearby planet.  Company policy dictates that they must investigate.  But when they come back on board, they bring something with them.

What makes this film unique is its sense of atmosphere.  There are times when it recalls the early silent films with its production design, and Ridley Scott paces the film deliberately.  It's slow at first, including the use of long takes to let us soak in the atmosphere (Scott never lets us forget how truly alone these people are).  But by the end of the film the pace becomes frantic as the fight for survival becomes more intense.

The acting isn't the centerpiece of the film, but all the actors do their jobs.  We are there with them in the ship and we pray that they make it out alive (even though, obviously, most do not).  Sigourney Weaver got her big break playing Ellen Ripley, and after she revisited the character in James Cameron's superior sequel "Aliens," she became permanently associated with the character to the extent that all action heroines are matched up to her.

But the true star of the film isn't one of the humans waiting to be picked off.  It's the alien.  Later dubbed the Xenomorph, this creature is easily the most frightening being ever imagined.  Often times, when monster is finally shown, it's a disappointment.  Not here.  The alien, which is based off drawings by H.R. Geiger, is truly terrifying.  No wonder Geiger woke up screaming during his night terrors if this is what he saw when he closed his eyes.  I'd wake up screaming too if I saw it when I was sleeping.

The problem with the film is that, although it is almost painfully scary, it's not always consistent.  The terror comes in long, intense bursts.  That being said, "Alien" definitely earns its status as a horror classic.  Now, on to "Aliens!"

Equilibrium

3/4

Starring: Christian Bale, Taye Diggs, Angus MacFayden, Sean Pertwee, Sean Bean, Emma Watson

Rated R for Violence

The theme of the dystopian future will always compel because it reminds us how much art and expression mean to us (despite the fact that it is the least respected field of study these days) and how much of a myth the utopia is.  While no one is going to give Kurt Wimmer's debut film "Equilibrium" marks for originality, it is well acted, compelling and features some truly eye-popping action scenes.

After the third world war, humanity realized that human emotion was the cause of all the violence and pain.  Therefore, a new society was made that, with the help of a medication called Prozium, has completely done away with human emotion and all its sources.  Art, music, expressive clothing (even so much as a hair ribbon) is considered contraband, and those with it are arrested and usually killed (if they don't die fighting for the arts to begin with).  Society is ruled by The Father (Pertwee), and his instruments are the Clerics, deadly soldiers skilled in combat and gun katas (a mix of martial arts and gunfighting).  The best Cleric is John Preston (Bale), an emotionless and brutal man who is as deadly as they come.  He's so good that he can sense who is feeling emotion.  But when he forgets a dose of Prozium, he begins to realize what he's missing, and that there are some things risking everything for.

No one can play an emotionless character like Christian Bale.  Well, no one that can keep the character interesting for more than a second, much less a whole film.  Whether it's playing the white collar serial killer Patrick Bateman in the controversial "American Psycho" or Cleric John Preston in "Equilibrium," there is no one else who can master that intensity.  Bale is perfect for the role (and Wimmer's only choice).  Also good is Angus MacFayden, who is positively chilling as The Father's number one, Partridge.  With his icy stare and his slow, calm nature of speaking, MacFayden gets the nape hairs on end.  Sean Pertwee is solid as The Father, who's constant reminders of why emotion is bad are almost hypnotic.  The weaknesses are, surprisingly, Taye Diggs and Emily Watson.  Taye Diggs is miscast, and his character is poorly written.  As a part of the story, Brandt (Diggs) works, but he is written and acted in a way that is inconsistent with the story; he's more emotional than Preston.  Watson is especially surprising.  Normally an exceptional actress who can (and will) do just about anything, Watson doesn't seem too invested in playing the ill-fated Mary O'Brien.  She's supposed to be the one who changes Preston's heart, but we don't feel anything for her.  Sean Bean also makes an appearance, but his role is regrettably small.  The film would have been better off if he had switched places with Taye Diggs.

Wimmer has made an action movie so visually dazzling and thought-provoking (even if they aren't new questions), that many blurbs have compared it to "The Matrix."  Ironically, it's an apt comparison.  Both mix stylized violence with philosophy, although the action scenes in the film from the Wachowski siblings are much cooler and the philosophical questions are more original and compelling.  Still, you don't see gunfighting like this anywhere else, although it's reportedly in Wimmer's next film, "Ultraviolet."

The problem is that while "Equilibrium" has cool action scenes, only a few of them rely on the gun katas.  The rest are the same that can be found in any well-made sci-fi action movie.  Additionally, the film is sometimes too grim for its own good (the fate of about a dozen dogs is a case in point).

All in all, "Equilibrium" is a pretty good adrenaline cocktail.

Fargo

4/4

Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language and Sexuality

Like most of the Coen Brothers' movies, "Fargo" is a twisted and bizarrely funny affair.  Sure, it's a crime story, but offbeat doesn't even begin to describe it.  It's really a comedy punctuated by sudden violence and plot twists.  Or is it a crime thriller that's punctuated by offbeat humor?  I can't decide.  It doesn't matter, though.  The end result is just as entertaining.

Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) is a car salesman with a plan: he's hiring two men to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud) and use the ransom money from her father Wade Gustafson (Presnell) to pay for a patch of land to build a new lot.  Of course, absolutely nothing goes as planned, and three people end up dead.  Perky and pregnant police cheif Marge Gunderson (McDormand) is on the case, and she stumbles onto it almost by accident.

This movie is hilarious in surprising ways.  From the over-the-top accent to the darkly funny interaction between the characters, "Fargo" will keep you in stitches as well as on the edge of your seat.  It's a rare feat that a movie can do both, and the Coen Brothers do that.  And more.
The acting is consistently high caliber.  Frances McDormand won a much deserved Oscar for playing Margie.  She's all sunshine and smiles, and almost impossibly perky.  But she's a good cop, and despite the high pitched voice and funny accent, she never becomes a caricature.  We like her.  William H. Macy is just as good, playing what has to be the most incompetent criminal in film history.  Jerry is not your typical bad guy; he's polite, sunny, and well, pathetic, really.  He's so bad at crime that you have to feel sorry for the guy.  Steve Buscemi is hilarious as Carl Showalter, the inept criminal who never shuts up.  Peter Stormare is also good as his partner who barely says a word (despite Carl's best attempts).

The beauty of the film is its mix of emotions.  It's funny and suspenseful, yes, but it's also kind of sad.  Despite everything, the characters are kind of likable to varying degrees, and many of them won't be around when the end credits roll.  The score by Carter Burwell emphasizes this.  Yet the Coens have skillfully mixed all these emotions into one coherent, and unusual tale.

You never go into a Coen Brothers movie expecting a normal movie.  They're not normal filmmakers, and to expect otherwise is pointless.  I've seen a number of their films ("No Country for Old Men," "The Ladykillers," "Burn After Reading," "O Brother Where Art Thou?'), but "Fargo" remains the pinnacle of their careers.  It's unlikely they, or anyone, can top it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

House at the End of the Street

3/4

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Max Theriot, Elisabeth Shue, Gil Bellows, Nolan Gerard Funk

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Terror, Thematic Elements, Some Teen Partying and Brief Drug Material

At first glance, "House at the End of the Street" looks to be another generic teen ghost story.  You know, lots of cheese CGI monsters and loud jumps every 10 seconds (without any true terror), no gore or nudity, acting challenged yet photogenic teen stars and usually remakes of horror flicks from across the Pacific.

But looks can be deceiving.  For starters, there's no ghost to be found.  Second, there isn't a haunted house.  Finally, it's not a remake.  It's an original story by Jonathan Mostow (who co-wrote and directed "U-571") and a script by David Loucka.  Most importantly, it contains some effectively tense scenes.

Elissa (Lawrence) has just moved to a new town with her mother Sarah (Shue).  They're living in a gorgeous house, which they can only afford because the house next door was the location of a double homicide: a young girl brutally murdered her parents a few years earlier.  The girl ran off and is thought to be dead.  The only survivor is the girl's brother Ryan (Theriot), who wasn't there at the time of the murders.  He's still living in the house, by himself, no less, and after they meet one rainy night, Elissa starts to like the guy.  Of course, the story that everyone believes isn't exactly the truth.

After scoring an Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone" and starring in "The Hunger Games," the third biggest movie of the year (after "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises"), Jennifer Lawrence has become a hot commodity.  Unlike wannabes like Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner (whose hideous performances will finally end once the "Twilight" franchise wraps up this November), it's easy to understand why she's become so popular.  Lawrence is a natural talent with an unforced acting style.  While Lawrence isn't going to get any acting awards for this film (Relativity Media is doing surprisingly little promotion for this movie.  Maybe they didn't know what they had on their hands or it turned out to be different than they imagined.  And these types of movies aren't noticed by any big awards anyway), she does good work.  Elissa is a normal girl; unlike Bella Swan, her interest in the local misfit isn't due to a sexist need for protection, it's because she likes "fixing" people.  It doesn't take long for the audience to get behind her.

Lawrence is surrounded by a solid supporting cast.  Elisabeth Shue is quite good as Elissa's mother.  The relationship between the two is believable.  Max Theriot is effective, much better than his deer-in-the-headlights turn in the unspeakably bad "My Soul to Take."  His performance is low-key and mellow, but that becomes a detriment towards the end of the film.  Also worth mentioning are Gil Bellows, who plays a very sympathetic cop (his tentative relationship with Sarah is underdeveloped, however), and Nolan Gerard Funk, who plays the local "golden boy who's really a sadistic sociopath."  Funk is quite convincing.

I liked how this movie surprised me.  I'm not talking about M. Night Shyamalan-ish twists, however.  The film continuously evolves in ways I didn't expect.  For example, the townspeople don't regard Ryan and his house with fear; they view him with disdain because the house's history drives down their property value.  Also, director Mark Tonderai doesn't fill up his movie with lots of cheap shocks; he takes time to develop his characters so we sympathize with them.  He also goes against the conventions of the genre.  Ten minutes into the film, I thought I knew exactly where this film was going.  It didn't take long for me to realize that I was dead wrong.  And Tonderai manages to do something that many directors, even good ones, are unable to: fool us into thinking that the film is going in one way while it's really going in another.

The problem with the film is its final act.  It isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it could have been better.  With stronger direction, it could have been a real nail-biter.

I don't hesitate to encourage thriller fans to seek this movie out.

End of Watch

3/4

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera

Rated R for Strong Violence, Some Disturbing Images, Pervasive Language including Sexual References and Some Drug Use

"End of Watch" is a wildly uneven but always interesting cop thriller from David Ayer, who wrote and directed "Street Kings," and wrote "Training Day."  To tell his story, he uses the "first hand camera" approach that is popular with horror films, although this creates more problems than successes.

Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Pena) are partners in the LAPD.  They're very close, and well, a little cocky.  This gets them into trouble with their superiors, and more importantly, a drug cartel.

The plot doesn't kick into high gear until the final act.  For most of the film, it's just following Brian and Mike as they go about their days.  This stuff works; it's rare that we see characters, especially interesting ones, just be themselves without being shoehorned into a plot.  It's refreshing and engaging in a similar way to the opening scene of "Cloverfield," although it's not as well done.

The performances are strong, although with Gyllenhaal, Pena and Kendrick (underused that she is) in it, that goes without saying.  Gyllenhaal and Pena have good chemistry.  It's never forced, although they're not going to go down in history as one of cinema's great buddy couples.  The two stars also have good chemistry with their women; I wish we'd seen more of them.

Making a film from a first person perspective is meant to increase the sense of verisimilitude.  This technique was made famous by "The Blair Witch Project" (although the film did not originate it), and has been effectively used in movies like the aforementioned "Cloverfield," "The Last Exorcism," and this year's "Chronicle."

If you notice, none of those films have big stars in them (although Lizzy Caplan, Odette Annable, and TJ Miller got their big breaks in "Cloverfield."  Somehow Michael Stahl-David's career is still non-existent, despite the fact that he gave the best performance.  That's Hollywood for you though).  That verisimilitude is broken by the presence of actors we recognize.  Gyllenhaal, Kendrick, and to a lesser extent, Pena, are too well known for this sort of thing.  It's not the actors' fault, but it happens.

The decision on the part of Ayer to include footage from the gang members is a big flaw.  It's unnecessary and takes away time that could be spent with Brian, Mike and the other characters while adding nothing.  The fact that they too are using handheld cameras makes the whole thing seem contrived.

The film veers between realistic and preposterous like a winding country road.  The majority of the scenes ring true, but there are some (like the fight with the drunk early in the film) that simply aren't believable.

Additionally, the ending is problematic.  The final scene of the climax should have had more rehearsal and the decision to make it sort of out of order is kind of a cheat.  The musical score is also unusual at times, to say the least.

Yet despite everything, I do recommend the film.  The characters are interesting, and it is well acted and compelling.  It takes chances, and while many don't pay off, the result is always interesting.

The Corruptor

0.5/4

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Mark Wahlberg, Ric Young, Byron Mann, Brian Cox, Kim Chan

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language and Sexuality

I feel really bad for Chow Yun-Fat.  Although he became famous for his action movies with John Woo, he's also an excellent actor (he should have gotten an Oscar nomination for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), but his attempts to follow Jackie Chan and Jet Li into Hollywood have been met with abysmal failure (after "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," he starred in the "Bulletproof Monk" with Sean William Scott.  I think that says enough.).  Ironically, he's a better actor than either of them.

Chow Yun-Fat plays Nick Chen, a detective in New York City's Chinatown.  He works in the Asian Gang Unit, which essentially is the job of the peacekeeper.  While Nick is a good cop, he's also on the payroll of the Triads, led by Uncle Benny (Chan) and his right hand man, Henry Lee (Young).  A brutal gang war has broken out between the Triads and a bunch of young psychos who call themselves the Fukinese Dragons.  To help him, the NYPD has brought in a young rookie named Danny Wallace (Wahlberg).  Nick hates the idea; in his words, Danny "isn't just white, he's green."  Nevertheless, Nick and Danny become partners, and Nick tries to keep his young partner out of Henry Lee's grasp.  But with a father in the red with some nasty people, looking out for Henry Lee's interests for some extra pocket change is mighty tempting.

Sounds kind of interesting, doesn't it?  I thought so too.  This film is ripe with promise, but it is saddled with a hopelessly generic script and plastic direction by the usually reliable James Foley.

I don't blame either of the two stars since they do their jobs and its easy to understand why they signed on.  Chow Yun-Fat was trying to break into Hollywood while Wahlberg was trying to cement his status as an actor (his big break came two years earlier with "Boogie Nights").  Sadly, this movie doesn't give them the opportunity to show what they're capable of .  Danny and Nick are boring.  The only color is provided by Ric Young, but that may just be the actor's style; he's certainly doesn't say anything of interest.  Brian Cox, the brilliant character actor that he is, is completely wasted as Danny's father.  Talk about your unforgivable sins!

This is a huge disappointment.  No, it's a spectacular one.  I haven't seen a director fall farther with one film than James Foley, who's previous film was the infinitely superior "Fear."  True, Christopher Crowe's script was brilliant while this one is garbage, but that doesn't absolve Foley of much.  He should have known that the script was awful and not taken it so seriously (or better yet, demanded some serious rewrites by someone who knows what they're doing).  He did bring along his star and composer Carter Burwell from "Fear," although it doesn't help.  "Fear" was a masterful excursion into terror.  It was well acted, intense, and frightening.  "The Corruptor" is a snoozefest that feels longer than the entire Blu Ray Extended Edition of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

There's really not much more I can say about this movie other than to avoid it.

The Guys

1.5/4

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Anthony LaPaglia

Rated PG for Thematic Elements and Brief Language

When deciding whether or not to recommend a movie, I have to ask myself two questions: What am I getting from this experience, and is it worth sitting through the running time?  We all take away something from every movie we see.  Often it's a few good laughs from a movie like "Ted," or two hours of suspense from a movie like "Speed."  In the case of "The Guys," however, it's a void.  The characters talk and talk, but they barely say anything at all.

The film takes place in the days following the September 11th attacks.  Joan (Weaver) is a journalist living in New York City.  Like everyone at the time, she's still reeling from the shock.  A few days after the attacks, Joan receives a phone call from a friend.  A fireman has lost 8 of his men, and he has no idea how to write the eulogies.  She agrees to help the poor man, whose name is Nick (LaPaglia).

This is really a two-character piece, and there's really no plot.  If a film is going to succeed with these limitations (and they are substantial), it needs to do one of two things (or preferably both): have strongly written and acted characters, or have compelling subject matter.  Unfortunately, Anne Nelson's play has neither.

The source material is the film's biggest problem.  Even though it's based on a true story, it's not very cinematic.  Frankly, I don't think it would have worked well on a stage, either.  The writing is shallow and fails to do anything noteworthy with the powerful premise.  The film doesn't shed any new light on how people react to a terrible situation like this.  Nor do we learn anything about Joan or Nick.  When the end credits roll, they remain the one-dimensional stick figures that they were at the beginning.

It's hard to fault the actors since they're given such meager material.  Anthony LaPaglia, who became famous for playing Jack Malone on the TV series "Without a Trace," has the meatiest role almost by default.  That's not saying much.  Nick is a shuffling, simple blue collar guy.  Eloquent speech doesn't come at all for him.  LaPaglia is good, but not standout.  Even with a better script, I don't think that LaPaglia would be Oscar material in this role.  For example, when he talks about the men he lost, he fails to bring them to life.  Again, that's mainly due to the vapid script.

Like LaPaglia, Sigourney Weaver does what she can.  She's mainly a reactor to Nick.  Weaver is soft and comforting, which is perfect for the character.  But during the scene where she cries, it rings false.  Weaver has never been particularly adept at heavy drama, like "Death and the Maiden, where she played a torture victim who came face to face with her torturer.  She couldn't handle the heavy emotions there and she hasn't improved since then.  Fortunately, this only occurs once.

This is Jim Simpson's feature debut (being married to Weaver probably helped him secure the job).  Simpson has done a few things in movies (mostly behind the scenes, though).  His only previous directing credit was an episode of "Tales from the Crypt" in 1990, although he was the assistant director on "Event Horizon" and "Spice World."  His work is adequate, although this isn't a movie where a director could show off.  He manages a touching scene every now and then, like when Joan thanks the firefighters (who appear to be real).

The film's greatest sin is that it completely ignores the powerful storytelling opportunities that the premise allows in favor of things that are completely inconsequential.  The source material was either really bad to begin with, or Anne Nelson and Jim Simpson completely butchered it when adapting it for the screen.  It's vapid, repetitive, and at times completely absurd (the dance sequence is a case in point.  And, adding insult to injury, it's a cheat).

The best thing I can say is that the ending is nicely staged.  But the film is so lacking in every department that it fails to have the emotional impact that it shoots for and the story deserves.  And it's not insulting, so it's got that going for it too.

Pan's Labyrinth

3.5/4

Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergei Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil

Rated R for Graphic Violence and Some Language

To me, Guillermo del Toro is more noteworthy for his vivid imagination and spectacularly inventive creature design.  You don't see creatures as bizarre or beautiful as you do in a movie by the Mexican director.  The creaky, shuttering movements, the wildly imaginative creatures...both are hallmarks of del Toro.  As a storyteller, however, he's lacking.  "Cronos," the film that brought him to the attention of Hollywood, was grossly overrated (not even worth seeing, in my opinion), and the Hellboy movies are cool, but superficial.  I wasn't the world's biggest fan of "Pan's Labyrinth" the first time I saw it, or the second.  I thought it was good, but not great.  But after the third time watching it, I realize now how truly special it is.  Third time's the charm?

The film starts at the end of the Spanish Civil War.  Francisco Franco has already won power in Spain, and a psychopathic captain named Vidal (Lopez) is trying to flush out a group of rebels in the middle of the woods.  He has brought his new wife, Carmen (Gil), who is at the end of a very difficult pregnancy, and her daughter Ofelia (Baquero) to stay with him.  Ofelia, as it turns out, is a lover of fairy tales, much to the disdain of her mother and especially Vidal.  Needless to say, Ofelia is not a happy little girl.  One night, she is visited by a fairy, who takes her into the center of a labyrinth.  There, she meets the Faun (Jones), a creature who tells her that she is in fact a princess of the Underworld.  In order to go back, she must complete three tasks.  Meanwhile, Vidal is rooting out the resistance by any means possible.  And it's bad news if Ofelia gets in his way.

There are really two main plotlines: Ofelia's quest and Vidal's war with the resistance.  They compliment each other nicely, although the relationship between them is a little tenuous.  No matter.  "Pan's Labyrinth" is especially unique because del Toro gives them both their due.  Often times when there are two storylines running together, particularly in the fantasy genre, one (usually the fantasy one) is more interesting than the other, normal one (Tarsem's "The Fall" falls into this category).  That doesn't happen here.  Vidal's storyline is just as compelling as Ofelia's.

The acting is consistently high caliber.  It's a daunting task to put the weight of a film on the shoulders of a young actor or actress.  But young Ivana Baquero is perfectly suited for the role.  She's young and naiive, but she cares deeply for her mother and it's impossible not to sympathize with her.  Baquero has a wonderfully expressive face, which del Toro takes full advantage of.  As the evil Vidal, Sergei Lopez radiates evil.  He'll torture and kill anyone without batting an eye.  But he does care about his unborn son (for selfish reasons), and that makes him a more rounded villain.  Maribel Verdu, the Spanish actress who attracted the world's attention in the arthouse smash "Y tu Mama Tambien," is very good as Mercedes, the housekeeper who forms a motherly bond with Ofelia.  She's a member of the resistance, and that puts her in some unenviable situations.

Roger Ebert famously called this film a "fairy tale for grown-ups."  He was right on the money.  "Pan's Labyrinth" is a fairy tale, and like all fairy tales before they were diluted by time and Disney to appeal to children, it is very dark and very violent.  The R rating is richly deserved.  There are scenes where even the most hardened viewer like myself will wince.  But del Toro doesn't overplay his hand.  He isn't trying to shock the viewer, merely get them involved in the story.

"Pan's Labyrith" is a one of a kind movie.  It mixes a number of different elements from things such as traditional fairytales, "Alice in Wonderland," and the Holy Bible.  Like all great directors, del Toro doesn't steal themes and ideas from other sources, he uses them as building blocks to create his own unique story that stands on its own.  It's not flawless (there's a plothole in the third act that's kind of obvious) and it's not as intoxicating as one might hope, but it is a truly special motion picture.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Cold Light of Day

1/4

Starring: Henry Cavill, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Echegui, Bruce Willis

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

Despite the fact that it had nothing to do with this monstrosity, Warner Brothers is no doubt extremely nervous about the piss-poor quality and reception of "The Cold Light of Day."  The reason is that its star, Henry Cavill, is the lead in their new Superman movie, "Man of Steel."  The utter disaster that the movie is, I don't think "Man of Steel" is in much danger.  It's got too many big names behind it (Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder), and Superman is an iconic character.  That, and Cavill has proven that he can act ("Immortals," anyone?).  The best thing for all involved is to forget about this piece of garbage, and for everyone in the audience to just ignore it.

Will Shaw (Cavill) is an American joining his family on vacation in Spain.  He doesn't get along very well with his father, Martin (Willis), who because of his job as a cultural attache, constantly moved his family all around the globe (whether or not this is the source of the friction between them isn't made clear.  That happens a lot in this movie).  But one day Will goes into town and finds his family gone.  In order to find his family, he has to deal with a corrupt CIA agent (Weaver), a local Spanish girl whose uncle was also murdered (Echegui) and constant acts of stupidity.

This sounds like something that Hitchcock would have loved to play around with.  Maybe that's what Mabrouk El Mechri was going for.  But El Mechri, who directed the pseudo-biopic of Jean-Claude Van Damme, "JCVD" is in over his head.  His direction is, at best sloppy, and at worst, incomprehensible.  The script is a disaster, yes, but with tighter direction it could have been dumb fun.  As it is, it's a mess.

The acting doesn't exactly help matters.  Henry Cavill is uneven.  There are times when he's effective, but mostly he's flat.  Mainly because he's given nothing to work with and no one of any consequence to play off of.  Bruce Willis is only on screen for the first 20 minutes.  Sigourney Weaver looks like she'd rather be anywhere else, although she's always fun to watch when she's playing a bitch.  And his female co-star might be the blandest eye candy I've ever seen.  Veronica Echegui fades into the background the minute she shows up and never distinguishes herself.

"The Cold Light of Day," a title that has nothing to do with anything in the movie, was released with no critics screenings.  That means that Summit Entertainment, never exactly the bastion of film quality, realized that the movie was crap, and wanted it to disappear while bamboozling as many people into seeing it as possible.  It's not going to happen.  There was minimal marketing and the public is ignoring it.  You'd be best to do the same.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Ark

3/4

Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Ronald Lacey

Rated PG for Action Violence (I guess)

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is one of the most beloved and famous adventure movies of all time, appearing on many respectable "Best of" lists.  Such high regard befuddles me.  While this is undeniably a fun wind-up toy of a serial and displays Steven Spielberg's true craftsmanship, the film as a whole isn't nearly worth the praise it has received.  It's not even the best in the Indiana Jones series (I found the second installment, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to be a lot more inventive and exciting).

This is the first adventure of famed archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones (Ford).  He's asked by the government to track down the Ark of the Covenant, a powerful chest that contains the broken tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments.  The US government wants Jones to find it before the Nazis do.  To that end, he has to track down an old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Allen) and race against Rene Belloq (Freeman), his rival.

With one exception (Tim Robbins in "War of the Worlds"), Steven Spielberg has always gotten terrific performances from actors who star in his movies.  Harrison Ford makes his iconic character into a tough and determined but vulnerable hero.  He's smart and good in a fight, but his geeky nature comes out when he starts talking about history, and he has a fear of snakes.  His female counterpart is not like most damsels.  She's probably tougher than Indiana is (although, true to formula, she does have a tendency to get kidnapped).  She's also a drinker...a big one.  British character actor Paul Freeman makes Rene Belloq into an interesting villain.  He respects Indiana Jones and falls for Marion, although that doesn't tone down the intense rivalry between them.  But the creepiest villain in the film is actually Toht (Lacey), who's a demented cross between Peter Lorre and Cold War bad guy stereotype (complete with a black hat and trenchcoat).  With his shuffling gait and panting voice, Lacey is positively chilling.

Spielberg's film always engages and has a lot of energy.  The stunts and action sequences are impressive and well-done.  And yet the film didn't get my heart soaring with an adventurous spirit like some other movies ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" for instance).  That's what's missing from this movie.  It's breathless, but not very filling.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Lost & Found

1/4

Starring: David Spade, Sophie Marceau, Patrick Bruel, Artie Lange

Rated PG-13 for Crude and Sex-Related Humor, Brief Nudity and Language

Unless you're building your film around blacker than black humor, it's necessary to create characters that your audience will sympathize with instead of actively wishing for them to die horrible deaths.  That's what happens with "Lost & Found," a would-be romantic comedy that's rotten to the core.

Dylan (Spade) is a restaurateur who has just dumped his stripper girlfriend.  Or at least that was the plan, but she beat him to the punch.  His business is down in the toilet because they are awaiting a desperately needed loan to expand into the next building, as if his new-found bachelorhood weren't enough.  Luck changes for Dylan when a pretty new neighbor moves in downstairs.  Her name is Lila DuBois (Marceau), and she's a cellist who has come from France after her fiancee, Rene (Bruel) cheated on her with half the orchestra.  It just so happens that Lila's dog, Jack, runs away a lot so Dylan gets an idea: kidnap the dog (or rather, don't immediately take it back after finding him) and soak in the hero's attention when he "finds" him.  The trouble is that the dog has stolen a very expensive ring, so Dylan can't give Jack back until he returns the ring.

The film's biggest problem is, believe it or not, Spade.  While the script is dumb and pretty nasty, Spade makes Dylan into a thoroughly despicable human being.  Dylan's supposed to be a nice guy underneath the sarcasm and snappy one-liners, but we rarely see this.  Plus the way he treats the dog borders on animal cruelty (although I have to admit that I did laugh at the scene in the laundry room).  It's not that Spade can't handle light drama (he did solid dramatic work in "Tommy Boy"), but either his heart isn't in it or he was badly directed.  Whatever the reason, Dylan is a truly awful character.  Sophie Marceau, the wonderful actress who can't seem to break into Hollywood, is good, but frankly the role is beneath her considerable talent.  She does what she can, but when you're working with a script this awful and acting with David Spade at his worst, there's not much that she can do.  The two don't share even a hint of chemistry, so there's that problem too.

The two supporting characters, Rene and Wally (Lange), are even worse.  True, we're not supposed to like Rene since he's Dylan's rival, but Bruel's just nasty.  Lange, on the other hand, is incredibly irritating.  Lange is popular on Howard Stern's radio show, but he can't act.  Ironically, the role was originally going to go to David Spade's friend, the late Chris Farley.

Jeff Pollack was behind the films "Above the Rim" and "Booty Call," neither of which I have seen.  "Booty Call" is supposedly funny, but then again this movie has David Spade and Sophie Marceau, so that calls into question Pollack's actual talents (or lack thereof).  Maybe it's the script (which Spade had a hand in writing) that's the problem.  The jokes just aren't funny.  Still, it was Pollack who agreed to direct the film based on this script and he mishandled the film in nearly every way.  So I suppose some of the blame has to be laid on him.

Either way, this movie should have stayed lost.

Party Monster

3/4

Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Seth Green, Dylan McDermott, Wilmer Valderrama, Chole Sevigny, Mia Kirshner, Natasha Lyonne

The version being reviewed is the unrated version.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Pervasive Drug Use, Language and Some Violence

When it comes to movies, I have a high tolerance for what a movie will show.  I deeply admire "The War Zone," my favorite movie of all time shows a corpse with a huge chunk of her side missing, and I own both "Once Were Warriors" and "Boys Don't Cry."  When it comes to content, I'll watch anything provided the offending scenes are earned.

It's a rare movie that makes me feel like taking a shower after watching it.  The only movie off the top of my head that I can think of that made me feel dirty is "The Believer" with Ryan Gosling.  In many cases, that should be seen as a criticism.  Not with "Party Monster."  If anyone identifies with any of these characters, they need to seek immediate psychological help and check into a drug rehab facility.

The film details the exploits of Michael Alig, the famous Club Kid who ended up murdering his drug dealer while high on drugs.  There's not much more to the movie than that, which is fine, I suppose, since this is more of a character study than a plot-based narrative.  Alig is superficial to the extreme, and he knows it.  So is his "friend," James St. James (Green), but not to the extent that Michael is.  To him, human relationships are a mystery.  Since he doesn't understand them, he views them as jobs or assignments.  "You'll be my best friend," he tells James early on.  "How can we be best friends I if I don't even like you?" James asks (later, not in the same conversation).  Michael is superficial and a narcissist, but not quite a sociopath.  He craves human connection but doesn't know how to get it.  His extravagance is an escape from being himself.

Michael Alig was Macaulay Culkin's first film after 9 years of retirement.  Few actors have made a jump from child to adult actor like this (the 9 years notwithstanding).  Anyone seeking to revisit the adorable kid who became famous for slapping aftershave on his face and screaming hilariously is in for a truly nasty shock.  This is a deeply disturbing and often unpleasant movie featuring generally despicable characters subject themselves to all sorts of degradation.  Kids should stay far away.

The only other actor with significant screen time besides Culkin is Seth Green.  Known primarily as a funny geek, Green portrays James St. James as someone who is almost as shallow as Michael, but has enough humanity to watch in astonishment at the way his "friend" views other people.  Dylan McDermott plays Peter Gatien, the club owner who becomes, in Michael's view, the father he never had (although Michael is certainly wrong about their relationship even though it is in some ways paternal).  McDermott, a low-key character actor, is miscast and fades into the background against a force of nature like Alig, but he's not on screen for very long.  Solid support is provided by other members of the cast as well.

"Party Monster" was directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who made the documentary of the same name in 1998.  They are successful in sucking us into this warped and disturbing existence.  For all it's flaws (the timeline is shaky and there are a few plotholes), it retains an almost hypnotic quality.  I wondered how much farther these characters could go.

This movie isn't for everyone.  A lot of people who watch this movie may turn it off in disgust.  I wouldn't be one to blame them.  After all, no normal person would want to spend a lot of time with these animals.  But it is well acted (apart from a few stiff moments on Culkin's and Green's parts early in the movie) and it is consistently compelling.  The decision whether or not you want to see it is up to you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hit and Run

1/4

Starring: Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, Tom Arnold, Michael Rosenbaum, Bradley Cooper, Jess Rowland, Carly Hatter, Joy Bryant, Kristen Chenoweth

Rated R for Pervasive Language including Sexual References, Graphic Nudity, Some Violence and Drug Content

Now here is a movie that is bad in a way that you don't see very often.  It's not just badly acted (which it is), poorly told (which it also is) and completely boring (which, again, it is).  "Hit and Run" is so innocuous that a few hours after seeing it, I forgot about 90% of what happened during the unending 100 minutes between the beginning and the end.

Professional slacker, who in an example of the film's "humor," is named Charles Bronson (Shepard) is living in a small, out of the way California town.  His girlfriend, Annie (Bell), is a professor who specializes in non-violent conflict resolution.  Her boss, Debbie Kreeger (Chenoweth) knows of a job opportunity in Los Angeles where she could be at the top of her field.  That wouldn't be a problem except that Charles is in Witness Protection, and can't go back to Los Angeles or else he might get killed before he testifies against his bank robbing pals, Alex (Cooper), Neve (Bryant) and Alan (Ryan Hansen).  But because he loves her, or maybe just forgot about his current situation, Charles agrees to go because he loves Annie.  So trailing him is his incompetent handler, Randy (Arnold), Gil (Rosenbaum), Annie's ex who wants her back, and two idiot cops (Rowland and Hatter).

For about twenty minutes, the film is weird enough to be strangely compelling.  The dialogue is Tarantino-esque and the humor runs in the bizarro way.  But that dries up fairly quickly once we realize that nothing is happening or is likely going to happen.  The characters talk and talk, but it doesn't take a man like Einstein to realize that they're not saying much.

The acting is flat.  No one displays any energy or range.  Dax Shepard is awful.  Charles is such a moron that it ceases to become funny, and you're wondering what a college professor at the top of her field would be doing with a loser like this.  Shepard's fiancee, Kristen Bell, is the only one who has any energy, but she's not given any good lines or things to do.  If she wants to keep her star on the rise, she'd hope everyone forgets that she appears in this movie.  Tom Arnold is okay as the incompetent and utterly worthless Fed, but like everyone else, he's not given anything to do.  Bradley Cooper appears to be enjoying himself a little playing the bad guy in dreadlocks, but like Bell, he'll probably wish no one will see this crappy movie.  No one else is memorable enough to bear mention, except for the fact that Shepard manages to get a few high-profile cameos including David Koechner, Jason Bateman, Beau Bridges and Sean Hayes.

Because he wrote and co-directed this piece of garbage, a lot of the blame has to be laid at Shepard's feet.  The comedy isn't funny (gee, is having the lead characters accidentally walk into the wrong hotel room, which is filled with fat, old, naked people, funny?  Didn't think so.  It happens twice, and it isn't funny the second time around either), the action scenes (what few there are) aren't exciting, and the characters are so stupid that they quickly become annoying.  Stupid characters can be funny when they're treated like stupid characters.  But the film thinks that Charles is smart.  That's a fatal mistake.

Who is this movie for, I wonder?  Dax Shepard's friends, I assume.  Or people who are drunk or high...maybe.  Not that I would recommend joining either group since that would be a bad idea.  The solution would be to ignore this piece of garbage and watch something else.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Mighty Heart

2/4

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Irrfan Khan, Archie Panjabi, Will Patton, Dan Futterman

Rated R for Language

Despite what the major studios and wannabe "hip" filmmakers (like Paul McGuigan, whose "style" ruined films like "The Reckoning" and "Lucky Number Slevin") would have you think, the most important part of a movie is the script.  Without a good script, your movie is sunk.  A powerful story can be rendered inert by a poor script, and that's what happens here.  True, Michael Winterbottom's style does little to help the film, but the main flaws are with the script.

The film details the experiences of Mariane Pearl (Jolie), the wife of Daniel Pearl (Futterman), the journalist who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by terrorists while working in Pakistan.  Shortly after the September 11th attacks, Danny and Mariane (who works as a journalist for French Public Radio) went to Pakistan.  The day before they were to leave, Daniel was heading to one final interview, but that was the last time that anyone saw him.  Mariane has little choice but to wait and pray that her husband will be returned to her alive.  Unfortunately, as we all know, that was not to be.

There is a fundamental flaw in telling stories where the ending is common knowledge.  After all, what's the point of watching a mystery when someone already has given away the ending?  Films like "Boys Don't Cry" and "Monster" work because they are not simply biopics, but character studies.  "Valkyrie," which is a film that is more similar to "A Mighty Heart," works because the film understood that the audience knows that the plot is going to fail; the tension came from how close they came to pulling it off and how they were going to react once they realized the plot failed.  Had "A Mighty Heart" been told in a similar fashion, it (might) have worked, but for some reason Winterbottom seems to think that no one in the audience would have known about Pearl's murder prior to viewing the film.  I know, I know, Americans prefer junk news and social commentators to true reporting (or at least that's what most people think, myself included), but still.  Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and death was not an obscure event.  Such underestimation by Winterbottom is fatal to the film.

On top of that, the film suffers from Winterbottom's detached style and the messy script.  Winterbottom directs the film almost like a documentary.  In some cases, this can make a film more intimate (see "Chronicle" or "Paranormal Activity" for good examples).  This is not one of those instances.  It distances us from the characters, and because Winterbottom cuts between various storylines and has many random establishing shots and flashbacks, it's impossible to truly care about anyone.

The script is all over the place.  This is a complex story, to be sure, but with stronger writing, the story could have been told more clearly (less kinetic direction from Winterbottom could only have helped matters).  It's so bad that apart from a few characters who camp out at Mariane's home, I had no idea who anyone was, which caused the film to make little sense at times.

Whatever problems the film has, let no one claim that Angelina Jolie's performance is one of them.  Jolie, an actress known mainly for her beauty and charity work, is peerless as Mariane.  She's tough and independent, and she won't show her agony in front of anyone else.  Jolie not only gets the character's accent down but her mannerisms and personality.  The scene where she reacts to the news of Daniel's death is heartbreaking because of her.  Reliable support is given by British actress Archie Panjabi and the irreplacable Irrfan Khan. The only flaw in the cast is Will Patton.  Both badly written and acted, Patton's Randall Bennett is a obvious irritant whenever he shows up.

It's sad, really, that this film is so heavily flawed.  Jolie's work is wonderful and it deserves to be seen.  Jolie's performance as Mariane deserves a much better movie.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Milk

3.5/4

Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Diego Luna, Denis O'Hare, Victor Garber

Rated R for Language, Some Sexual Content and Brief Violence

What's really striking about Harvey Milk is that, unlike in most biopics, it's not a sudden event or tragedy that spurs him into action.  He kind of just falls into it.  At first, he runs for office so he can keep his business open without facing discrimination.  But the more he finds success, he realizes that with just a little more effort, he can do more.  Before he knows it, he's swooped into a storm of social change that he started without even realizing it.

The film is guided along with narration by Harvey (Penn) himself.  He begins his story in New York City, where he meets a man named Scott Smith (Franco), who would become his longtime lover.  The two hit it off beautifully, and end up moving to San Francisco together, which is starting to become a mecca for gays and lesbians.  But when he decides to open up a camera shop, he's faced with resistance and discrimination. He decides to run for City Supervisor, although that fails.  More attempts bring him closer and closer to success, and eventually he wins a spot in government.  Harvey Milk becomes the first openly gay man to be elected to a seat in public office.  Just as he's settling into his new job, there are two great fights that he must win: Anita Bryant's crusade against gays in Dade County, Florida and John Briggs' Proposition 6.

Sean Penn is an amazing actor.  From playing a convicted killer in "Dead Man Walking" to playing an openly gay politician, Penn has shown true devotion to his craft and his versatility.  He doesn't play Harvey Milk as a queen or a deeply troubled character (two ways that gay men are often portrayed in Hollywood).  He's essentially a normal guy.  A little feminine, maybe, but with a big smile and a corny sense of humor.  Penn disappears into this role to the extent that Hilary Swank did in "Boys Don't Cry."  But Penn has another challenge that Swank (at the time) did not have: he's a well known face.  Yet it takes less than a second to stop seeing him as Sean Penn and only seeing Harvey Milk.

Penn is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, and while this is unquestionably his show, he commands the screen without forcing his co-stars into the background.  James Franco, an actor of limited range, gives his best performance as Scott, Harvey's lover who grows tired of having his life overrun by his partner's political career.  He and Penn have great chemistry, and both of them are willing to shed their clothing and engage in some surprisingly graphic (for a movie that stars two well known actors playing gay men) sexual scenes.  James Brolin is very good as Dan White, Harvey's co-worker and ideological rival.  White is a button-downed conservative Catholic, but he's willing to play ball (at least initially).  Brolin has come a long way from "The Goonies" and "Hollow Man."  The other cast members include Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, one of Harvey's supporters, Diego Luna as Jack Lira, a boyfriend of Harvey's, and Alison Pill as his campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg.  Dennis O'Hare is chilling as Senator John Briggs, the driving force behind Prop 6.

Gus Van Sant has had an interesting career.  When he tries to make normal films, like this or "Good Will Hunting," he shows true talent as a filmmaker.  But when he tries to be indie, like with the much-despised "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," or his ego trip "Paranoid Park," he can make some truly awful movies.  Fortunately, "Milk" falls into the first category.  He pays attention to developing the characters and their situations.  But I didn't feel much emotionally.  With a biopic like this, it should swoop the audience up in a whirlwind of inspirational emotion and tears at the end.  That doesn't happen here.  Maybe it's because Dustin Lance Black's script tries to do too much.  Or maybe Van Sant uses too subtle of a touch.  Whatever the reason, it's still a good film, but it doesn't quite earn a 4/4.

FeardotCom

3/4

Starring: Stephen Dorff, Natasha McElhone, Stephen Rea, Jeffrey Combs

Rated R for Violence including Grisly Images of Torture, Nudity and Language

While it would be unfair to lay the blame for the film's problems solely on the feet of editor Alan Strachan (the script by Josephine Coyle has some serious problems as well), it's safe to say that had this film been something other than a superb looking piece of Swiss cheese, people probably would have responded to it better.  For the longest time, it was sitting on iMDb's Bottom 100 list (near the bottom of it, but still), and as the case is with "Phat Girlz," I'm kind of puzzled as to why.

Detective Mike Reilly (Dorff) is called to a bizarre crime scene.  A man (Udo Kier in a cameo) has been found dead in a subway tunnel next to the tracks.  The look on his face is of sheer terror, and his eyes are bleeding.  It's a bizarre crime to be sure, and the detective calls in Terry Huston (McElhone) from the Department of Health since it may be a deadly disease of some kind.  The case grows stranger as more bodies turn up with the same symptoms.  The one thing they have in common is that all the victims have visited the website feardotcom.com.  Mike thinks that these deaths are connected to The Doctor (Rea), a psychopathic medical school reject who streams live torture sessions through the internet.  But the only way to find out is to enter the site itself.  Then they have 48 hours to solve the mystery or end up in a black bag.

Putting it simply, the story is a mess.  It is relatively easy to piece together the longer the film goes on, but you have to work to fill in the blanks yourself (not something a horror movie fan wants).  Even after that, there are a lot of plotholes, some of which aren't resolved by the end credits.

The acting isn't spectacular either.  Stephen Dorff blends into the background, overshadowed by the atmosphere and the visual effects.  To be fair to the actor, he's going up against some really special sights, but in a better version of this movie, he'd still be able to focus our attention on him instead of how great the film looks.  Compare his work to that of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in "Seven," who were up against the same obstacle and overcame it.  Natasha McElhone is no better.  In fact, there are times when she appears to be reading her lines off of unseen cue cards.  Stephen Rea is clearly slumming for a paycheck, and while his presence and great talent are always welcome, this is not one of his finer moments.

I was not a fan of William Malone's first feature, the "House on Haunted Hill" remake.  Despite having a stellar cast (including Geoffrey Rush), I found it to be a complete bore.  Here, however, his skill has improved.  He has a firm grasp of atmosphere; this is a dark and bleak place, so much so that it's something worth taking joy in when sunglasses are needed.

But the true star of the film is Christian Sebaldt.  No, he's not an actor that I didn't mention until now for dramatic purposes.  He's the cinematographer.  The film just looks awesome.  The special effects are inventive, and in a way, beautiful.  The final act is particularly so.

Although this film is heavily flawed, I think there is enough good stuff in the background to warrant a viewing.  But it's certainly not one of the worst films ever made.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Pulse

1/4

Starring: Madeleine Stowe, Mischa Barton, Bijou Phillips, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language, Some Drug and Sexual Content

Not to be confused with the 2001 Japanese horror flick or its 2006 remake

"Pulse," is a void.  There is nothing here.  And when I say nothing, I mean nothing.  Quite frankly, the only reason why I didn't give this film a lesser rating (which I probably should) is because it couldn't even get me to feel hatred towards it.  Certainly not in the way that "Ben & Arthur" did.

Senga (Stowe...gee, what a name!) is in hot water with her daughter, Nat (Barton).  Senga won't allow her daughter to go to a music festival with her friends.  As all teenagers do, Nat pitches a fit and whines.  She decides to get revenge by offering a hitchhiker (Phillips) a ride.  That's when things start to get weird, and Nat ends up taking a ride with the hitchhiker and a few of her friends.

The problem isn't the acting.  By and large, everyone does their jobs.  Madeleine Stowe, a good actress who never quite "popped," is effective as Senga.  Her relationship with Nat is credible, and it would have been better had the script given them something to work with.  "O.C." hottie Mischa Barton is adequate as Nat.  She's good as the rebellious teen (she looks a little old to play a teen, but that sort of thing happens all the time in movies...especially in the horror genre).  However, if she wants to play a scream queen in the near future, she'd better hope that producers don't get their hands on this dud.  Bijou Phillips is weird enough to play the hitchhiker as well.  Norman Reedus does what he can, but he has almost nothing to do.  No one else bears a mention except for Jonathan Rhys Meyers.  An actor of considerable range and talent (he should have gotten an Oscar for "Match Point"), Meyers plays a decent villain as The Father (his entrance is pretty cool, by the way).  Unfortunately, he doesn't show up until the final 20 minutes.

"Pulse" is like a mix of bad Hitchcock, bad David Lynch, and a bad music video all in one.  Suffice it to say that a mixture of three bad elements does not make a good movie.  Part of the reason is that the script by Stephen Volk, is completely empty.  It's a wonder that this film attracted these actors, who, while not well known, had at least made a minor name for themselves.

It has long since concerned me that music video directors are the ones who are getting the directing jobs.  Sure, special effects and visual storytelling bring in foreign audiences (and some music video vets, like David Fincher and Michael Bay, have done great work), but there's more to making a movie than just eye-popping visuals.  Plus, director Marcus Adams suffers from the same affliction that affected Hype Williams when he directed "Belly:" he forgets that he's making a movie, not a music video.  Not all the time, but there are sequences that seem to be lifted straight out of a video for a rock band (the scene in the truck is a good example).

"Pulse" is a supermarket of bad decisions and general ineptitude.  Pacing, focus and direction are lacking, and the script and atmosphere are non-existent.  As such, "Pulse" is the equivalent of an Ambien.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Killer Joe

2/4

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon

Rated NC-17 for Graphic Disturbing Content involving Violence and Sexuality, and a Scene of Brutality

NC-17 movies are exceedingly rare.  Major studios have always cut them to get an R rating if they don't win an appeal after "Showgirls" bombed at the box office.  There are only five theatrically released movies with the rating (other than this one) that I can think of: "Shame," the Michael Fassbender film that was released last year, "Henry & June" (originally an X, but re-rated as an NC-17), "Showgirls" (the only widely released movie with the rating), "The Dreamers," and "Lust, Caution."  When "Killer Joe" was slammed by the MPAA with the same rating, LD Entertainment appealed the rating, but lost.  In the end, it allowed the film to be released with the NC-17 instead of without one at all (which is what usually happens to arthouse movies in cases like this).

I'd applaud their decision to release it with said rating (even though it doesn't really deserve it--"The Passion of the Christ" and "Sin City" were far more violent.  The scene that probably did it in involves, of all things, a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken) since it would be a huge step in giving the rating legitimacy and may encourage more studios to release unedited versions of movies, except for the fact that the film just isn't very good.  It's a wannabe black comedy/thriller that isn't particularly funny or suspenseful.

Chris (Hirsch), a small time drug dealer in Texas has a debt to a loan shark (Marc Macaulay) that he can't pay off.  In order to save his life, he convinces his father Ansel (Church), step-mother Sharla (Gershon) and sister Dottie (Temple) to kill his real mother and collect on the insurance.  They hire Killer Joe Cooper (McConaughey) to do the deed.  But Cooper has some demands that must be met if he's going to agree, including a $25,000 fee up front.  Of course, Chris and his family can't pay that until the deed is done.  In lieu of payment, Cooper takes Dottie as a retainer until the debt is paid.

Neither Chris nor his family members are blessed with much brainpower.  It's a difficult thing to make a film compelling if the characters are dumb without being comically dumb.  The Smiths (which is their surname) are too smart to be funny yet too dumb to be interesting.  The result is a boring two hours.

Much of the problem is with Tracy Letts' script.  It's based on his first play (another of his plays was adapted into the film "Bug," which was also directed by William Friedkin).  Letts can boast writing plays with interesting characters and set ups, but no follow through.  The plot opens up possibilities for a great noir thriller or a black comedy (or a mixture of both).  Unfortunately, it's neither.  The characters talk a lot, but they don't say anything of much interest.

The acting is as good as can be expected, but the actors are given little to work with.  All have shown talent in the past, and they do what they can.  Emile Hirsch is good as the stressed out Chris, and he shows great physicality and emotional turmoil in the scenes where he gets brutally beaten up, but his character suffers from poor motivation.  Juno Temple (who bears it all in the role--nice to know that the Brits are not skittish when it comes to nudity) is also good as the ditzy Dottie.  Temple gives her a helium voice and a sense of girlish naiivite.  Thomas Haden Church makes his character, Ansel, into a truly dumb hick.  And Gina Gershon (who appears sans undies) makes a good bitch.

Director William Friedkin has had an interesting career.  He's directed classics such as "The Exorcist" (which I found to be extremely overrated) and "The French Connection," for which he snagged a Best Director Oscar.  He's also directed crap like "Cruising" and "The Hunted."  "Killer Joe" is no classic, but it's no disaster either.  It's just somewhere in between.

House of the Dead

3/4

Starring: Jonathan Cherry, Ona Grauer, Jurgen Prochnow, Tyron Leitso, Enuka Okuma, Ellie Cornell, Will Sanderson, Sonja Salomaa

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

Uwe Boll does not have a good reputation as a filmmaker.  In fact, that's probably the understatement of the century.  No filmmaker has been hated more than Boll.  The German government changed a law that encouraged investing in films simply because of how much the public hated his movies.  I've seen two of his movies now, and while I'm not going to claim he's the next Spielberg, the vicious outrage against him by film lovers is way overzealous.  "Postal" at least tried to do something different, and it managed a very funny sequence about halfway through.  "House of the Dead" on the other hand, is widely considered to be one of the worst movies of all time period.  Every critic seems to trash it, and it's at #49 on iMDb's Bottom 100 list (not that that means anything.  I mean, "Phat Girlz" is #99).

But the worst film of all time?  Hardly.  No, it's not perfect; the little clips of the actual "House of the Dead" video game are irritating, and Uwe Boll (whose ego knows no bounds) is prone to self indulgence.  It's also not the least bit scary, but I don't think that's what Boll had in mind when he made it.  This is a testosterone and adrenaline cocktail.  The point of watching this movie is to see the characters kick major zombie ass for more or less 70 minutes.  "House of the Dead" is bears more similarities with "Shoot 'Em Up" than say, "The Descent."

A group of twenty-somethings is going to a rave on a deserted island.  They are: cynical party pooper Alicia (Grauer), horny stud Greg (Sanderson), sexpot Cynthia (Salomaa), dim-witted model Simon (Leitso), and the token minority, Karma (Okuma).  Already there is Rudy (Cherry), who narrates the film at the beginning and the end.  When the partiers get to the island, it's completely deserted and the whole place is trashed.  That's when they find Rudy and a few others who inform them that the majority of the partygoers were killed and turned into zombies.  Now they, plus a cop (Cornell) and their sketchy boat captain (Prochnow) have to figure out how to stay alive long enough for help to arrive.

The acting isn't exactly impressive, but that's to be expected in horror movies, especially ones as silly as this one.  Jurgen Prochnow adds a dose of class to the proceedings, despite him chewing on the scenery harder than the cigar he's always chomping on.  There's really no time for anyone to develop a character; it's mainly them just running around avoiding/shooting zombies.

If you're looking for more ammunition with which to hate Uwe Boll, you're not going to find it here.  Sure, the special effects are pretty cheesy and there's not much atmosphere, but where else can you find a Chinese girl with pigtails (she's named Liberty and is played by Kira Clavell) doing some kung-fu against a zombie horde?  The film is at least competently made (aside from the unnecessary and irritating video game inserts) and there's plenty of adrenaline to be found.

As a critic, one must judge a movie for what it is, and not what we think it should be (I admit, I have broken this rule once when I revised my review of  "Hollow Man").  If you're looking to get scared, this isn't your movie.  However, if you're in the mood for lots of action, gore and cheese, this is a good pick.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sparkle

1.5/4

Starring: Jordin Sparks, Derek Luke, Carmen Ejogo, Mike Epps, Whitney Houston, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Content involving Domestic Abuse and Drug Material, and for Some Violence, Language and Smoking

Showbiz dramas will never cease to compel for many reasons, mainly because they allow a character the audience sympathizes with to achieve fame and fortune, and because they appeal to our creative nature.  Unfortunately, Salim Akil's remake of the 1976 film is not only completely generic, it's also a tedious mess.

Sparkle (Sparks) is a talented singer and songwriter.  She's constantly writing and performing music, and hopes to one day become a star.  In order to make that happen, she enlists her two sisters, Sister (Ejogo) and Dee (Sumpter) to form a girl group.  They find some success, and while on their way to the top, circumstances cause their close relationship to fray, and their shot at getting a record deal may fizzle up before they get the chance that they've been waiting for.

It would be bad enough to have a script that is schizophrenic in nature, but "Sparkle" fares worse because the story and the characters are lifeless.  Did I care about the sisters' romantic melodramas?  No, and I didn't care if they made it to the big time either.  Handled better, this film could have worked because it's easy to believe that what happens to the trio happens to would-be starlets all the time.  But the direction by Salim Akil is pedestrian, and the actors fail to truly bring their characters to life.

"American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks plays the title character with energy and enthusiasm, but I found it incredibly difficult to care about her.  It's debatable whether or not she has any acting chops (we'll have to see how she does with a better script and a stronger director), but here, she doesn't connect with the viewer.  Carmen Ejogo, who plays her sister Sister, is better.  Mike Epps, an actor who is mainly known as a comedian, is solid in the role of Sister's abusive husband Satin (everyone seems to have a weird nickname in this movie).  He's believable.  The shining star of the film is the late Whitney Houston, who plays the deeply conservative mother of the trio.  She tried, and failed, to make it as a singer, and that's why she's vehemently against her daughters trying to do the same.  It's a shame that the movie is the Hollywood epitaph for Houston, but if it's any consolation, she's the best thing in it.

While it would be unfair to blame the film's borderline-incoherent narrative solely on Salim Akil, he's not blameless either.  Akil is in over his head; he fails to bring any life to his characters and the whole thing lacks narrative momentum.  "Sparkle" is essentially a series of scenes that sometimes follow what appears to be a plot.  But there are annoying shifts in the timeline and one obvious continuity gaffe.  That stuff is unacceptable for a film that wants to be taken seriously.

At least there's some good music to alleviate the tedium.  I mean, as a musical lover, I find that this has always been the saving grace for many a failed production.  Like "Joyful Noise."  Nope.  The songs are as generic and uninspired as the rest of the film.  What's more, they sound modern and completely different from the music Motown inspired, despite the fact that that is where the film is set.

The bottom line is to avoid this stinker.  Even Whitney Houston die-hards desperate to capture one last glimpse of the beloved singer should stay away.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

3/4

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Justin Long, Stephen Root, Joel David Moore, Rip Torn

Rated PG-13 for Rude and Sexual Humor and Language

"Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" is a satire of sports movies and underdog stories.  Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber enjoys sending up the cliches of these formulas in surprising ways.  Sometimes subtle (although not often), every beat and plot idea gets its due.

Peter La Fleur (Vaughn) is the owner of Average Joe's Gym, a neighborhood gym that's deeply in debt.  $50,000 to be exact.  Peter's rival, GloboGym owner White Goodman (Stiller) wants to buy Average Joe's and expand his own gym.  In a last ditch effort to save their hangout, Peter and a few of his friends enter a dodgeball tournament that could net them the fifty g's.  Naturally, once White finds out about this, he and a few of his employees form their own team to take him down.

The comedy is uneven.  Sometimes the humor hits the mark (anything with dodgeball legend Patches O'Houlihan (Torn) is guaranteed to get a laugh).  Other times its cliched (the girl scout on steroids) or just too dumb to get a response.  Still, I was engaged, and there are some big laughs in the movie.

The acting is effective, which isn't terribly surprising since everyone in the cast has shown talent in the past.  Vince Vaughn is a good everyman, and is unusually low-key (compare that to his awful turn in "The Watch" where he appeared to be on cocaine in every scene).  Ben Stiller seems to be enjoying himself immensely as the narcissistic wannabe-Adonis.  The role brings to mind "Heavy Weights," another movie where he played a fitness freak ("Dodgeball" contains a reference to it at the very end).  Also good is Christine Taylor (Stiller's wife), who wasn't very funny in "Zoolander."  Here, she's more loose and fits the role a lot better.  And Justin Long is perfectly lovable as the lovelorn high school student Justin.  Also worth mentioning is Jason Bateman, who plays a completely drugged out announcer.  He's worth mentioning because this is a rare instance when he's actually funny.

Some of Thurber's humor is unique.  Take for instance the fact that sometimes the characters actually acknowledge that something funny has happened (Rip Torn's final scene is an example).  Or the fact that White Goodman runs his gym as if he's a sadistic cult leader.  And unlike many films, where the cameo is merely just a big name actor in a bit appearance, Thurber actually uses the actors' reputations as a source for humor.  David Hasselhoff and Lance Armstrong are examples (Chuck Norris and William Shatner also make brief appearances).

The film could have been made with a sharper satirical blade, and some of the humor doesn't fly (Steve the Pirate is an example...rather than laughing, I felt embarrassed for Alan Tudyk), but all in all it's a good time.

Compliance

3/4

Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson

Rated R for Language and Sexual Content/Nudity

The events that occur in this film are a matter of factual record (apart from names and locations, that is).  That's a good thing, because no screenwriter could dream this stuff up.

The story begins at a fast food restaurant called ChickenWich.  The store manager, Sandra (Dowd), is in a bit of trouble because someone didn't lock the freezer right and over $14,000 worth of food went bad.  Even worse, a person who works at corporate might be coming to the restaurant posing as a customer to see if things are running right.  That's when Sandra gets a call from an Officer Daniels (Healy) who says that a young blonde woman working for her has stolen money from a customer.  Sandra thinks that the person the officer is talking about is Becky (Walker), a woman working up front who, as it happens is young and blonde.  Because he isn't there yet, Officer Daniels asks Sandra to search for the money.  She does, and none is found.  Then things start to escalate.

It's impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the landmark study by behavioral scientist Stanley Milgram.  For those of you who don't know, the study found that people are willing to do horrible things if an authority figure tells them to.  That's what occurs here.  What happens to Becky is rightfully described as a rape, although she is not the only victim.  Sandra, her fiancee Van (Camp), and some other co-workers are also victims too.  They were lied to and betrayed into doing things that they would never do on their own.

The acting is strong across the board, but perhaps a little too low-key.  Ann Dowd, a character actress of mainly stage and independent fare, is good as the frumpy Sandra.  She's a professional, and she acts like it.  She's sympathetic to the plight of Becky, but she does what she has to.  What's really interesting is that Sandra doesn't quietly obey Officer Daniel's orders.  She doesn't want to do it, but she follows orders just to get it over with.  Dreama Walker, who is one of the main characters in "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23," is also very good.  Walker doesn't go for histrionics; to her, this is more of a bizarre annoyance than anything else (at least initially).  The best performance goes to Pat Healy.  Healy is excellent in the role of Officer Daniels.  His voice is smooth and calming, and Daniels is a flatterer.  He tells his victims that they're doing a good job, he knows that they don't like what they're doing, and so on.  But more importantly, he tells them that they aren't going to be responsible for what happens because he's in charge.

The flaws with the film rely on the part of the director.  Craig Zobel uses far too many close-ups and establishing shots and cutaways.  Do we really need to spend two minutes looking at cooking oil?  His style is self-indulgent and reeks of him trying to be "indie."  It's enough to take a viewer out of the moment constantly, and decreases the amount of tension.  Compare this to what Tim Roth did with "The War Zone" (a film that bears a remarkable similarity to this one), and you'll see my point.

Reportedly, many viewers walked out of "Compliance," disgusted by what they saw.  That doesn't really surprise me.  This is not an easy film to watch.  I mean, how comfortable would you feel to watch a woman being sexually assaulted by proxy and having witnesses do nothing about it because they were told to do it?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lawless

1.5/4

Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Gary Oldman

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

Memo to John Hillcoat: making your actors growl their dialogue, slapping mud and dirt on them, and filling your movie with lots of brutality does not automatically make your gritty movie good.  It may make it gritty, but you need solid performances, characterizations and a comprehensible story to make spending two hours watching your film worth someone's time.

I was not a fan of John Hillcoat's debut film, "The Proposition" (which, incidentally, also starred Guy Pearce and Noah Taylor).  To me, it was ruined by its sense of self-importance.  Hillcoat, and his screenwriter Nick Cave (who also wrote the script for this film), were convinced that they were making an important and groundbreaking "classic" film when in fact they were merely regurgitating tired cliches.  With this movie, the pretension has been toned down, but the plot rarely makes sense and you'd be hard pressed to find a character with more than two-dimensions.

The film (which is based on a true story) is set in Franklin County, Virginia.  Prohibition is in effect, but that doesn't stop the residents from making moonshine with whatever materials they can find.  The leaders in the business are the Bondurant brothers (at least I think): war vet and loose cannon Howard (Clarke), quiet and intense Forrest (Hardy) and young Jack (LaBeouf).  They slide by the law because they provide the cops with moonshine.  That all changes when Charlie Rakes (Pearce), an effeminate monster, strolls into town intending to clean up (or force the moonshiners to pay protection fees...I thought I heard both).  Of course, the Bondurants don't like this idea, and it isn't long before tensions between them and Rakes boil over.

Hillcoat wants this film to be a sort of gritty "Robin Hood."  But maybe I'm wrong, since it seems more like "The Patriot."  The plot is goes everywhere with no rhyme or reason and the tone so varies wildly from one scene to the next that I don't think even Hillcoat himself has any idea what he wants this film to be.  This is a mess.

But the worst offense is completely wasting a talented cast.  Shia LeBeouf, a talented young actor who is seeking to establish himself as an actor rather than a Disney kid or a prop in a "Transformers movie," is quite good as Jack, who is desperate to prove himself to his brothers.  Sadly, he's given nothing to work with.  Tom Hardy is awful, however.  I've been a fan of Hardy's since I saw him in "Star Trek: Nemisis," long before he became famous after starring in "Inception."  Hardy is a versatile actor who thrives when playing intense characters (although he can play lighter fare, like in "This Means War").  Hardy radiates intensity, but every time he opens his mouth (which is not often, thankfully), he speaks in a low croak.  I understood more of his dialogue as Bane.  Jason Clarke fades into the background.  Guy Pearce is suitably vicious, but he's not given a lot to work with.  The women fare worse.  Neither Jessica Chastain nor Mia Wasikowska have anything substantial to do.  Chastain simply stands around, uttering the occasional line of dialogue and trying to develop a romance with Forrest without any dialogue or direction.  Wasikowska at least has some dialogue, although the romantic subplot between her and LaBeouf is extraneous.  It is, however, the best thing in the movie.  The two actors have chemistry; they just need a better movie to explore it.  Gary Oldman is on screen for so little that if you blink twice you'll miss him altogether.

Movies like this are supposed to leave you reeling from the gut-punch impact that they have on the viewer.  Instead, I left the film feeling pissed off and a little depressed.  Not a good sign, Mr. Hillcoat.