Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mirrors

2/4

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Amy Smart, John Shrapnel

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Violence, Disturbing Images, Language and Brief Nudity

"Mirrors," a loose remake of the Korean horror film "Into the Mirror," is one of the movies that can be defined in this simple sentence: good premise, bad execution.  The idea that evil mirrors can force you to do horrible things or influence behavior towards violence or other such scary actions is intriguing and has a lot of potential.  Unfortunately, director Alexandre Aja has co-written a script that could charitably be called anemic and uses poor shot selection to tell his story.

Ben Carson (Sutherland) is a cop who is wrestling with some serious demons.  While on the job, he accidentally shot an undercover officer.  Now on leave, he has stopped drinking and is taking a job as a security guard for the Mayflower shopping mall...or what's left of it.  Five years ago, this premier shopping center was destroyed by a devastating fire, but the company wants security guards to patrol it while the insurance claim is sorted out.  Ben views the job as a offensive step down, but he'll do whatever it takes to get his life back on track.  But it turns out that the Mayflower has its secrets: specifically, mirrors that can force him to do terrible things, and can follow him to any reflective surface.  And they have a very specific task for him to do, or else his family will die.

The acting is okay.  Kiefer Sutherland is uneven, probably because the role requires him to act gruff and intense at times while emotional and sympathetic at others.  He isn't able to form a bridge between the two.  Paula Patton is miscast.  In the dramatic moments as Ben's emotionally scarred wife, Amy, she's good.  But she's no scream queen.  Her talents lie in drama and comedy.  Amy Smart is on hand as Ben's supportive younger sister, Angela, but she doesn't have much screen time (this film might have been better if Patton's and Smart's roles had beet switched).

I wasn't exactly a fan of Alexandre Aja's breakthrough cult hit, "High Tension."  I found it to be too violent for its own good, and it was ruined by some questionable music choices and a boneheaded cliche of an ending.  "Mirrors" isn't exactly an improvement, but it's at least not as sadistic.  However, I am still unconvinced that Aja has much talent as a filmmaker.  His shot selection is at times befuddling.  Sometimes we can't see things that we should because the camera is too far away, and other times it's unclear whether what its happening is an image in the mirror or not.  The plot is also similar enough to "The Ring" that it earns the ungainly moniker of "rip off," and Gore Verbinski did it much better six years prior.

"Mirrors" isn't a terrible movie.  It is watchable, and the story keeps things going, if only to find out what the mirrors want Ben to do and why.  But it could have, and should have, been so much better.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Into the Blue

3.5/4

Starring: Paul Walker, Jessica Alba, Scott Caan, Ashley Scott, Josh Brolin, James Frain

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action Violence, Drug Material, Some Sexual Content and Language

If you had the chance to make more than a billion dollars in one day, what would you do?  Would you be willing to do some blatantly illegal activities for that shot?  What about risking your life, or those of the people you care about?  We'd like to think that we'd stay on the safe side and turn down everything to stick to the higher ground, but the truth is that most of us would take that chance.  Four people are about to find out how far they are willing to go to live on easy street.

Jared (Walker) is a dive guide living in the Bahamas.  He's a treasure hunter in his free time, although he hasn't found much (due in part to the fact that his boat is rotting).  Jared lives in a trailer with his gorgeous girlfriend, Sam (Alba).  When his best friend Bryce (Caan) comes to visit with his girlfriend of 14 hours, Amanda (Scott), the stumble onto two things: one, a wreck of the fabled ship Zephyr, which is worth tens of millions in 1861 dollars, and a downed plane filled with a hell of a lot of cocaine.  In order to claim the Zephyr find as their own, they have to have the money to do it.  All of them agree to stay away from the plane until they claim the wreck, but when time isn't on their side (a rival treasure hunter, Bates (Brolin), has better equipment and is bound to find it eventually), the cocaine seems mighty tempting to sell.

The acting is, for the most part, surprisingly good.  There are those who say that Paul Walker is a pretty face who can't act.  I am not among that group.  While I'll admit that he's not the best actor around (although he can act when he puts his mind to it...see "Running Scared" if you don't believe me), when it comes to playing Southern California jocks, there's no one better.  Anyone who has been to LA will know people who look and talk exactly like him.  Walker has a few stiff moments early on, but I'll chalk that up to the script.  Overall, Walker makes Jared into a surprisingly real character.  Also good is Jessica Alba.  Like Walker, she's known mainly for her good looks.  Also like Walker, she can act.  She's more than a conscience for the other characters.  She's willing to go along, but only to a point.  It also helps that she has good chemistry with Walker (the two became good friends during filming).  The best performance is given by Scott Caan.  Caan is terrific as the persuasive asshole Bryce.  For him, the chance at getting stinking rich is worth anything.  There really is no argument in his point of view.  But his character is smartly written, and the scenes with him and Walker are very real.  Less impressive is Ashley Scott, who is a little stiff.  She's not terrible, however.  Josh Brolin is a good rival, and James Frain and supermodel Tyson Beckford ooze malice.

John Stockwell has made teen-targeted films, including "Crazy/Beautiful" with Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez, the surfing movie "Blue Crush," and the horror flick "Turistas."  He does some fine work here; there's a lot going on here, more than usual for a summer action movie.  Stockwell lets it unfold piece by piece, and ably camouflages the twists (of which there are a few).  He also has the talent to make the Bahamas, and his stars, look their best (generously helped by his cinematographer, Shane Hurlbut, who was later the victim of Christian Bale's infamous tirade on the set of "Terminator Salvation").  Even if the film wasn't as much fun as it is, it would be worth watching on mute just to see all the eye candy.

Look, great art, it's not.  I would be tempted to label it as a guilty pleasure, except for the fact that I have no qualms about loving this movie.

Kaena: The Prophecy

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Kirsten Dunst, Richard Harris, Greg Proops, Tom Kenny, Keith David, Anjelica Huston

Rated PG-13 for Sensuality and Some Frightening Images

I'm not going to criticize "Kaena: The Prophecy" for its low-quality animation.  It was France's first CGI film, so a little leeway must be given.  I will, however, criticize it for its complete lack of color differentiation (which often makes it impossible to distinguish a character from the background) and occasionally incompetent editing.

Kaena (Dunst) is a young human girl living on Axis, a free-floating tree root.  Unlike the others in her town, she gives little weight to appeasing the gods, who require a lot of tree sap.  Kaena is an adventurer and a dreamer; the latter encouraging her to explore Axis.  Her exploration leads her to Opaz (Harris), an alien who knows the true story behind the creation of her homeworld.  This puts her and her people in dangerous conflict with their "gods:" Voxem (David) and the Queen of the Selenites (Huston).

The voice acting is effective across the board.  Kirsten Dunst, who was taking a break from playing Mary Jane Parker in the "Spider-Man" movies, makes Kaena into a heroine we can get behind.  She's tough and intelligent.  Richard Harris, despite this being his final acting role, displays great energy and wisdom.  Tom Kenny, who is famous for voicing the incredibly irritating (and inexplicably popular) Spongebob Squarepants, makes his character, Zehos, a surprisingly likable romantic lead.  Keith David and a completely mechanized (to the point where she's unrecognizable) Anjelica Huston make decent villains.

The problem with the film is that it occasionally struggles to make sense.  Some of the film's science is either poorly explained or doesn't hold up (my academic strengths lie almost exclusively in the right side of my brain).

More damning, however, is the film's look.  It's not the low quality of animation, as I've said before.  It was created using software for making computer games (and it looks it...the film is essentially a series of cutscenes from a video game).  But the fact that there are really only two colors in this movie (other than black used for shadow): brown and blue.  There are really no other colors, and that makes the characters and the backgrounds blend together.  Not only is the story at times hard to follow, but it's hard to see what the hell is happening.

Still, far be it from me to say that this movie is a complete bomb.  The story is moderately engaging, and directors Chris Delaporte and Pascal Pinon have vivid imaginations.  Still, there are better animated films out there than this one.

Note: Not that it matters since the film isn't worth seeing, but the MPAA's PG-13 rating is befuddling.  The "Frightening Images" descriptor makes sense, since the two villains are kind of creepy looking.  Less obvious is the "Sensuality" descriptor.  Either I missed something significant, or the MPAA is more puritanical than usual.  There's really nothing sexual going on, except for a meaningful discussion or two between Kaena and Zehos, a mention of reproduction (as I recall, "reproduction," or a form of it, is the exact word used) and a scene where two characters fuse together.  None of these will be considered sexual; the love scene in "The Lion King" is more graphic than anything in this movie.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Silent Hill Revelation

2/4

Starring: Adelaide Clemens, Kit Harrington, Sean Bean, Carrie-Anne Moss, Malcolm McDowell, Martin Donovan, Deborah Kara Unger

Rated R for Violence and Disturbing Images, Some Language and Brief Nudity

"Silent Hill: Revelation" looks great.  Although not as eye-popping and eerily beautiful as the first film (writer/director Michael J. Bassett lacks Christoph Gans eye for detail and atmosphere), there are still plenty of cool, if grotesque, images to be found in this film.  As for the story...

This sequel takes place a number of years after the original.  Christopher da Silva (Bean) has been constantly on the move with his daughter Sharon (Clemens).  They're just starting a new life in a run down city with their new identities (he calls himself Harry and she Heather).  But Sharon/Heather is still having terrifying nightmares about Silent Hill and she doesn't know why (her father never told her about her past).  When her father is kidnapped, she and the other new kid, Vincent (Harrington), go to Silent Hill to find him.

The original film didn't exactly have a well-thought out story, but at least it was coherent.  The same cannot be said for this one, which often doesn't make much sense.  There's something about a secret society and the film disregards a huge part of the the earlier film's ending.

The acting is adequate, although based on the evidence, I wouldn't be in a rush to see either of the two leads from this film in something else.  Austrailan actress Adelaide Clemens is adequate, but she doesn't have a great set of lungs.  She does, however, look uncannily like the girl on the cover of "Silent Hill 2."  Kit Harrington, who is famous for playing Jon Snow in the HBO series "Game of Thrones," is better.  With a stronger script, I could see him doing something great.  Malcolm McDowell, Debra Kara Unger and Carrie Anne Moss are on hand for brief appearances (McDowell and Unger get one scene each, while Moss gets two).

With a better script, I could see how Michael J. Bassett could make a good movie.  He has a great visual sense and knows how to get the nape hairs up.  What he doesn't know is how to direct action scenes.  The final fight scene is messy, and so are some of the others.  I did like his imagination; the creatures are truly inventive (I especially liked the one made out of mannequins).

I didn't hate this movie.  It kept me engaged and it's always cool to look at.  It's too problematic to suggest that you see it, but it's not an abomination.  It could have been better, but it could also have been a hell of a lot worse.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sinister

4/4

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley

Rated R for Disturbing Violent Images and Some Terror

When I settled into my seat to watch "Sinister," I was hoping for a few spooky thrills and a cool ghost story. What I got was the most frightening ghost story I have ever seen, and one of the scariest movies I have ever watched.

Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) has just moved his family into a new house to work on a new crime story.  His books are literary adaptations of unsolved crime cases, and his new book is about the murder of a family who were hung from a tree, and one of the children was never found.  Shortly after the move, Ellison finds a series of Super 8 films that turn out to be videos of similar crimes.  That's when strange things start happening at night.

Ever seen a picture where the subject seems to be looking directly into you?  I remember seeing the box of the board game "The Game of LIFE," and seeing all four of the family members smiling at the camera.  They seemed to be looking directly at me.  Even when I tilted the box, their eyes followed me.  It's an uncomfortable feeling, and that discomfort is at the heart of "Sinister."  Director Scott Derrickson is able to capture this in his film with a monster that appears to have been tailor-made for this effect, and it's what gives this film its bone-chilling punch.

The acting is good all around.  Ethan Hawke is a good everyman.  He's a little obsessed, even to the point of doing some unsavory things for the sake of his book.  We identify with him.  Juliet Rylance is good as his supportive but frustrated wife.  James Ransome is perfectly lovable as the shy, self-deprecating Deputy So-and-So.  He's humbled and blushing in the face of a celebrity like Ellison.  The two child actors, Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley are solid as well.  Fred Dalton Thompson appears for a few scenes as a cop, but he doesn't have much to do.

This film takes atmosphere to a level never before seen, which helps since the script is a little underwritten.  The cinematography by Chris Norr is bleak and threatening, and the score by Christopher Young is intense.  Never before has ambient music been so scary.  These two things, together with Derrickson's superb direction (the film contains some truly amazing jump scenes), makes this film a uniquely terrifying experience.  This isn't suspense scary like "Insidious" or your better-than-average slasher movie.  This is true spine-tingling horror.

This is one of those movies you have to see with friends.  You need someone's hand to squeeze while you're watching it.  I wish I did.  When the end credits started to roll, I ran for the exit, praying I'd make it to the lighted hallway of the movie theater.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

An American Werewolf in London

3/4

Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine

Rated R for Werewolf Violence/Gore and Some Sexuality/Nudity

"An American Werewolf in London" is a horror/comedy; it contains scares and laughs in equal measure.  The humor isn't self-referential, but instead it germinates from the plot and its characters.  It's difficult enough to scare your audience while keeping them laughing when you're merely poking fun at the obvious ridiculousness of the plot.  But director John Landis fully meshes the opposing genres in a film that isn't perfect, but is, well, kind of groovy.

Two Americans, David Kessler (Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Dunne), are backpacking through Europe (probably on the ultra-cheap since the first time we meet them they're getting let out of a farmer's truck where they've been riding with a bunch of sheep).  They stop in a bar called "The Slaughtered Lamb," where their reception by the locals is chillier than the weather outside.  They leave, but are warned to be careful.  Of course neither one of them takes the warnings seriously, and they get chewed on by something big and furry. Jack is killed, but David recovers in a hospital.  He quickly makes friends with the sexy nurse, Alex (Agutter), and despite being attacked and losing his lifelong friend in the process, he feels great.  That's when he gets a visit from Jack's corpse, telling him that he's become a werewolf.

The performances are very good.  David Naughton is excellent as David.  He's an amiable and charming everyman, and it doesn't take long for us to start to like the guy.  He has good chemistry with the equally amiable and charming Griffin Dunne.  The two have a nice and unforced chemistry that sets the film on a solid foundation.  Jenny Agutter is sexy and lively while still being refreshingly real as the love interest.  John Woodvine is also good as the helpful doctor.

Landis' work is inspired not only in his writing but in his directing.  He balances the warped humor with the gory scares well; there are just as many amusing scenes as there are scary ones.  Landis also doesn't forget the story or the characters.  We like everyone in this film, and the story isn't always predictable.

The star of the show isn't a member of the cast nor John Landis.  It's makeup expert Rick Baker.  This was his first big break (he won his first of thus far seven Oscars for his work), and it's all incredibly convincing.  So effective is his work that the Academy started recognizing make-up and special effects in its awards ceremony.  And, it still looks incredibly real today, although I admit I'm not a fan of the ultimate creature design of the werewolf (it looks like a cat on steroids).  But the transformation scenes are surprisingly convincing, even after 31 years.

It's a little too long, and neither as scary nor as funny as it could have been, but it goes down pretty easily.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Jeepers Creepers

3/4

Starring: Justin Long, Gina Philips, Jonathan Breck, Patricia Belcher, Eileen Brennan

Rated R for Terror Violence/Gore, Language and Brief Nudity

"Jeepers Creepers" is a low-budget monster movie that, while no classic, works.  It's creepy, has a sufficient amount of gore, and sustains its tension throughout the film.  This is one movie where you're smiling at the genre conventions while still getting creeped out.

Siblings Darry (Long) and Trish (Philips) are taking the long way home in Trish's nearly-dead beater.  They trade quips, play stupid games involving license plates, and other stuff to pass the time.  Then they're nearly run off the road by a rusty truck.  Things get even weirder when they see the driver of the truck drop large white objects down a large pipe.  Since they're about five to six feet long and are probably 150 to 200 pounds, so it's not hard to guess what they are.  Darry can't resist a peek down to see if their suspicions are correct.  What he sees puts them both in the sights of a mysterious creature who wants something from them.

The acting by Long and Philips is quite strong, especially for a horror movie.  Their chemistry is natural and unforced; anyone who has a sibling will see themselves in these two characters.  What's good about this is that Salva recognizes their chemistry and keeps this interaction going throughout the film.  It allows our affection for Darry and Trish to grow and adds some relief to the tension.  Jonathan Breck has nothing to do other than look menacing under a lot of makeup, and he accomplishes that with scariness to spare.  Eileen Brennan is on hand as a cat lady who isn't as crazy as she seems.  The one character that doesn't work is the part of the psychic Jezelle Hartman.  The character isn't as well written as the others, but the real problem is that Belcher is awful.  She's annoying.

Victor Salva's career started with short films, which brought him to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola.  His career was halted after his first theatrical feature, "Clownhouse" (which was Sam Rockwell's first film) when he was convicted of having sexual relations with a 12 year old on the set of that film.  Salva quickly made his way back to being a director who was getting work (and yet careers have been destroyed for things that aren't even illegal...disgusting, isn't it?) with the smash direct-to-video hit of "The Nature of the Beast" (based on his experiences in prison, and the theatrical release of "Powder" starring Sean Patrick Flannery.  "Jeepers Creepers" was an unexpected hit for the now-defunct MGM, and it set a Labor Day weekend box office record (which has never been a weekend that had any competition, but never mind).

Salva's work is effective.  He knows what he's doing, and he creates the sort of backwoods atmosphere that is such a common setting for many horror movies like this.  He also includes some one-liners (most given by Trish), but this isn't a "wink wink nudge nudge" horror movie like "Scream."  Salva's goal is to scare his audience, and he does that.  Sure, it's a little overlong and silly, but it is consistently tense.  And yes, the characters do some really stupid things, but they do more things that are pretty smart.

For those who like good old-fashioned horror movies but are tired of masked psychos impaling curvaceous females and brainless morons with sharp objects, "Jeepers Creepers" is a way to get the nape hairs on end for 90 minutes.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

3/4

Starring: Stellan Skarsgard, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford, Ralph Brown, Julian Wadham

Rated R for Strong Violence and Disturbing Images

Morgan Creek Productions presented us with an extraordinary opportunity; the opportunity to see the same story presented in two almost completely different ways.  Of course, this isn't what the company had in mind when they greenlighted Paul Schrader's version, but that's how things turned out.  True, remakes have presented different versions of the same story (or in some cases, a carbon copy), but this is a different case altogether, I think.  "Exorcist: The Beginning" is so radically different than "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" that they're more cinematic cousins rather than Renny Harlin's film being a remake of the other.

Schraeder made a point that he was making a psychological drama rather than a gory horror film.  So he has.  Although there are moments when this film is violent and scary, it's really about Lankester Merrin (Skarsgard) rediscovering his faith.  It may not be the most interesting aspect of the film, but it is the main thrust of it.

After being forced to do the unthinkable, Lankester Merrin has gone away from the cloth.  Now, he's working as an archaeologist.  He is working to excavate a church found in the African desert.  The church wants a young priest, Father Francis (Mann), to oversee it since Merrin has taken a sabbatical.  Once fully excavated, Merrin and Francis discover a beautiful church that is built in a very strange way.  They realize that it is hiding some secrets, but they will only discover them when it is too late.  Meanwhile, the local nurse, Rachel Lesno (Bellar) is looking after a local outcast named Cheche (Crawford), who is recovering from a brutal attack with surprising speed.

The acting varies.  Stellan Skarsgard, being the hard-working and talented actor that he is, is good as Merrin (just as he was in "Exorcist: The Beginning").  We understand him and like him, although the limitations of the script don't allow him to go deep enough to get us to truly feel for him.  If only the same could be said for Gabriel Mann.  Mann was hired on the spot when he showed up to the audition wearing a priest's outfit and carrying a copy of "The Exorcist" DVD.  Bad decision.  He may look the part, but he can't act to save his life.  Mann is as stiff as a cement block; when he got thrown around, I was worried that he'd crumble (okay, maybe not, but I should have been).  Somewhat more impressive is Clara Bellar, who plays the sympathetic nurse.  She's good, but not standout.  The best performance goes to Billy Crawford, who shines in a physically and emotionally demanding role as the mysterious Cheche (more than that, I will not say).

I suppose it's only fitting that Paul Schrader directed this movie (although he did not write it).  Schraeder grew up in a strict Calvinist home (he wasn't allowed to see movies until the age of 18) and usually writes movies about unstable characters (he wrote "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," among others).  His work is solid, but not stand out.  He lacks a sense of atmosphere (and like the other film, the CGI is incredibly cheesy), and the film's plot rests on an undeveloped foundation, which lessens the impact of the main subplot.  Still, he manages to generate some suspense and get us invested in Merrin's fate.  In other words, he does his job.

Of the two films, this is the one to see.  But it would be unfair not to watch the other one, since they are so closely related.  Although I can't recommend the Renny Harlin picture, it does contain its pleasures and is most certainly watchable.  It's a unique opportunity to compare two different visions of the same story.  The two would make a wonderful double feature.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Poltergeist

3/4

Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubenstein

Rated PG for Scary Action, Some Gore, Language and Brief Drug Use (I guess)

"Poltergeist" is one of the most famous horror movies.  It's also very overrated.  Yes, it's a good movie, but it's got some significant problems, like the story (which is pretty thin) and the pacing.

The Freelings are living in a new development in suburbia.  Steve (Nelson) is a real estate agent who is helping the developer, Mr. Teague (character actor James Karen), sell the houses he built.  His wife Diane (Williams) is a stay-at-home mom to her three children: teenager Dana (Dominique Dunne), young son Robbie (Oliver Robins) and younger daughter Carol Anne (O'Rourke).  But strange things are happening to the Freelings.   Carol Anne is sleepwalking and talking to the TV set (set on static), a spot on the kitchen floor acts like a running walkway, and the kitchen table and chairs move themselves.  To their horror, their house is not just quirky, it's filled with evil spirits, and they've kidnapped Carol Anne.

The acting is okay.  JoBeth Williams makes for a surprisingly normal mom.  Craig T. Nelson underplays his role a little too much.  But they're the straight men, so to speak, of this film.  They're the ones we're supposed to identify with.  To the extent that we can (a point I will get to later), we do.  The color is provided by the supporting characters.  Beatrice Straight, who holds the record for the shortest onscreen performance ever to win an Oscar (she was on screen for all of 5 minutes 40 seconds in the dark satire "Network") is suitably frumpy and odd as the paranormal expert Dr. Lech, but after the first few scenes, she doesn't have much to do other than look scared (and even in the first scenes, her character is almost superfluous).  Far more important (and memorable) is the empath Tangina (Rubenstein).  The petite, baby-voiced actress is weird enough to fit in a horror movie.  That last statement is a compliment by the way.

For Tobe Hooper, who came into the horror film echelon with the infamous "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in 1974 (an odd start for a director of a film aimed at kids and teens), didn't do much after "Poltergeist."  His work here is solid, but he moves things way too fast.  In a movie like "Aliens," which was as much an action movie as a horror film, that would be okay.  With a ghost story, things need to move slower, at least initially.  We need to be able to identify with the protagonists before things start happening to them.  That doesn't happen here; the very first scene is intended to freak us out.  Rumor has it that co-writer and producer Steven Spielberg did most of the work, however.

"Poltergeist" has been the basis of rumored curse, including sudden deaths of cast members and failed careers.  Heather O'Rourke died of intestinal stenosis in 1988 at the age of 12.  Dominique Dunne was strangled by John Thomas Sweeney, her abusive boyfriend, at age 22.  Tobe Hooper's career has gone essentially nowhere.  Neither JoBeth Williams or Craig T. Nelson has had a stellar career (although they are both successful character actors).

Still, despite a rather thin story and some suspect editing, the film works.  It's freaky, there are lots of loud noises and atmosphere, and the special effects are pretty cool and hold up surprisingly well.  It's not the classic that it's rumored to be, but it's a fun choice for a horror movie night with your friends.  Especially for the kids.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

1.5/4

Starring: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson

Rated R for Strong Violence, Bloody Images, Pervasive Language, Sexuality/Nudity, and Some Drug Use

How does one begin to describe "Seven Psychopaths?"  One doesn't defend it, that's for sure.  It's not at all interesting, nonsensical and criminally unfunny.  But it's such a mess and so hypnotically boring that it's impossible to even comprehend much of a plot.

As far as I could tell, the plot goes like this: Marty (Farrell, in his second film for Martin McDonagh) is an alcoholic screenwriter trying to write a script titled "Seven Psychopaths" (ho ho ho).  He's got the first character, but that's it.  The ideas that he comes up with mirror events in his real life (to an extent).  His best friend, Billy (Rockwell), is a loose cannon who runs a dognapping scheme with Hans (Walken).  Billy and Hans run into a bit of trouble when they kidnap the dog belonging to a mobster named Charlie (Harrellson).  Charlie loves his shi tzu and will do anything to get her back.  Charlie and Hans go on the run, and Marty tags along hoping for a little inspiration.  Meanwhile, there's a serial killer running around targeting members of the Italian mafia and the Yakuza (and only them).

There's a lot going on here, although little of it is relevant to the main plot (such as it is).  What McDonaugh is trying to do is ambitious: he's trying to show how real life influences fiction through Marty's screenplay.  At least I think.  I may be wrong, though.

The acting is flat.  Colin Farrell does what he can with Marty, but he's not given anything good to say or do.  Sam Rockwell is suitably off-the-wall, but he suffers from the same affliction that Farrell does.  Christopher Walken is boring (how is that possible?), and Woody Harrelson fails to really chill or get any laughs.  There are some other relatively big names in the cast, including Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, and Tom Waits.  None of them have any real screen time, and could have just as easily been replaced with no names.

I kind of liked Martin McDonagh's previous film, "In Bruges," despite the fact that it was not the twisted black comedy that it was marketed as.  McDonagh is trying to do a Tarantino-esque movie, but he falls far from the mark.  Instead, the movie ends up being like "Hit and Run."  I think that says enough.

Friday, October 19, 2012

War Horse

2.5/4

Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Niels Arstrup, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Toby Kebbell

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of War Violence

Without a doubt, Steven Spielberg is the most famous figure in film history.  About half of his films are masterpieces, including two ("Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan") that are among the best films ever made.  But he is not without his misfires.  "War of the Worlds" was notable only for its scary action sequences.  "Munich" was good, but really only worked as a metaphor rather than a narrative piece.  And "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn" (which, like "War Horse," was released last year), lacked any of his usual touches, and as a result, was pretty generic.  "War Horse" is the only misfire on the brilliant filmmaker's resume.

Ted Narracott (Mullan), a war hero turned alcoholic farmer, is bidding on a horse to help him plow the fields.  Everyone tells him to get a draft horse, but in a drunken stupor, he decides on a young and feisty colt.  He is nearly outbid by his greedy landlord, Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis), but he wins at great cost.  As a result, he is unable to pay the rent.  But this is a special horse, and Ted's son Albert (Irvine) has formed an intense bond with it including naming it Joey).  But just as he has tamed the horse, war breaks out and in order to pay the rent, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the Army.  But when Joey's rider is killed in action, Joey changes hands multiple times, and the question becomes, will he get home?

This is not Spielberg's finest hour.  The acclaimed director is known for his superb handling of big emotional moments, but for most of the film he appears to have lost his touch.  Only the ending truly touches the heart.

Part of the reason is that the lead character is actually Joey.  I love an animal movie as much as anyone, but horses are not the most expressive animals (there's a reason why dogs and chimpanzees are so big in movies), and it's hard to form an emotional bond with him.  Another reason is that, for reasons I cannot understand, Spielberg isn't able to get a good performance out of anybody.  And he's working with a cast to die for: Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston (as Joey's rider), David Thewlis, up-and-coming British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (as a major), Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, David Kross...all are talented actors, but everyone appears to be walking through their roles.  Even reliable actors like Watson, Mullan and Thewlis are flat.  Newcomer Jeremy Irvine is especially so.  You'd think that if you're working for a legend like Steven Spielberg, you'd want to do your best.  After all, it's the chance of a lifetime for an actor.  The only actor who gives a truly good performance is French legend Niels Arstrup, who plays the kindly grandfather of a girl (Celine Buckens) who finds Joey and his companion Topthorn.

Where the film shines is in the battle scenes.  The first one starts out cool (a group of cavalry walking through the hay fields), but it's clearly neutered to get a PG-13 rating.  The big one, which involves trench warfare, is brilliant, and it brings to mind the D-Day scene in "Saving Private Ryan."  It's not nearly as gory (hence the PG-13 rating), but the effect is similar.  The cinematography by Spielberg's right hand man, Janusz Kaminski, is often gorgeous.

The script is also oddly formatted.  Although screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis do a good job of opening up the play that it was based on, it feels episodic, which further limits our emotional connection to the characters and the story.  I remember seeing the play performed on stage in London.  I found it to be pretty good, but sadly Spielberg and his screenwriters don't find a way to translate it for the screen.

Should you see it?  I can't answer that, but my answer is leaning on the side of no.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Crucible

3/4

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Joan Allen, Paul Scofeld, Rob Campbell

Rated PG-13 for Intense Depiction of the Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials were one of the most unspeakable miscarriages of justice in US history.  Fueled by religious fanaticism and paranoia, these trials (and there were a few of them in many towns at the time) cost many people their lives.  Of course, when Arthur Miller wrote "The Crucible," he wasn't writing a historical play.  He was writing a vicious dramatic satire that pointed an angry finger at Senator Joseph McCarthy and his dramatic attempts to root out communism in the United States.

The film takes place in Salem, Massachusetts (duh).  Abigail Williams (Ryder) is going with some of her friends to a little ceremony deep in the woods with the local slave, Tituba (Charlayne Woodard).  There, they do a ceremony to get the boys interested in them.  In today's world, it would be a harmless bit of fun.  But in a Puritanical community in 1692, it was evidence that the devil had possessed the girls.  To save their own necks, they claim (and act) that they were possessed.  Salem is already a tinderbox, ready to explode, and this little lie brings chaos to the town.  Neighbor turns on neighbor.  An accusation means guilt.  No one is safe.

The cast is spot on.  Daniel Day-Lewis is good in an unusually low-key performance as John Proctor, one of the few voices of reason in this tale of madness.  Day-Lewis is one of the most magnetic actors around, and many of his characters (Bill the Butcher in "Gangs of New York" for example) are larger than life in some way.  But the power of his performance comes from his lack of theatrics, which makes the moments when all his passion and frustration come bursting out all the more powerful.

As the manipulative Abigail, Winona Ryder is truly special.  In the play, Abigail is a cunning and calculating vixen.  Ryder plays her as an infatuated young girl who makes a mistake and makes another in order to get out of it.  She enjoys being in control at first, but it is only when things go too far that she realizes what she truly has done.  Joan Allen got her first Oscar nomination playing John's wife, Elizabeth, whose only crime was to come between John and Abigail.  Paul Scofield is truly good as the judge who takes things farther than anyone imagined or wanted.


I appreciate how Hytner gives the characters true motivations for their actions.  As is the case in many instances such as this, people are driven by things other than what they say.  For example, Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) is mad at John Proctor due to the fact that Proctor thinks that he's more concerned with his reputation than preaching the word of God.  Another example is that Thomas Putnam (Jeffrey Jones) is angry at Giles Corey (Peter Vaughn) due to a land dispute.  This dichotomy is highlighted by Hytner and adds another level of depth to the play.


Still, the film is closer to a misfire than a success.  It does pack a power punch, but it lacks atmosphere.  From what I recall of the play, the film version (which was penned by Miller himself) is significantly different than the original text.  That's not the problem, although it does make the film's points less clear.  More troublesome is the direction by Nicholas Hytner.  When a filmmaker adapts a play, he must open it up to replace the immediacy that a live performance has (see "Rock of Ages" for what not to do when adapting a play for film).  In this case, Hytner has done that a little too much.  The film version lacks the claustrophobia that the play has, which dilutes the tension.  Additionally, some scenes are more cryptic than they should be, and John Proctor's motivations for the final act are pretty hazy.  The worst offense is an instance of awful editing.  There was a time when I thought the film had repeated itself and had gone a different direction unexpectedly.  This kind of thing is unacceptable.

A common saying is that we learn about history in order to prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes again.  Clearly, Miller meant for his play to not only be an indictment of rage against McCarthyism and the lives it destroyed, but a warning for what can happen when fear and power mix unchecked.  But will those who read it take heed?  Yes and no.  Looking back on it, we can say that both instances were horrible acts of injustice and hiss at those who were responsible.  But we lack the gift of foresight.  Our modern fear isn't demonic possession or communism.  It's terrorism.  Just look at Peter King's investigation into the "radicalization of American Muslims."  Although it wasn't as bad as McCarthyism because it wasn't allowed to go that far, the thought of it should chill every American.  The bottom line is that we can say that we were wrong the last time, but this time its different.  This play proves how heavy a price a witch hunt can be, regardless of motivation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Week with Marilyn

2.5/4

Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Zoe Wanamaker, Dominic Cooper, Emma Watson, Judi Dench

Rated R for Some Language

Marilyn Monroe was a star.  No, she was more than that.  She was an icon.  A symbol.  Whatever you want to call it.  Forget Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Robert Pattinson.  Compared to her, they're nobodies.  Marilyn Monroe was so popular that she ceased to become a human being.  "My Week with Marilyn," which is based on a true story, seeks (with limited success) to explore who Marilyn Monroe really was.

Sir Laurence Olivier (Branagh) is directing his new film in England, called "The Prince and the Showgirl."  His star is none other than the world famous Marilyn Monroe.  Olivier is soon going to regret his decision as his star is unreliable, emotional and a method actor (something that he does not understand very well).  He enlists his third assistant director, Colin Clark (Redmayne) to keep an eye on her.  It isn't long before he becomes infatuated with her, and she with him.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of Michelle Williams.  It's not that she's a bad actress (she's quite good).  It's just that she lacks screen presence.  She can't hold the camera's attention, and if there's one thing that an actress needs to play Marilyn Monroe, that's it.  Eddie Redmayne is a little better, but they generate no heat.  He has more chemistry with his other romantic interest, Lucy (an underused Watson).  Kenneth Branagh is very good even though his speech patterns slip occasionally.  Judi Dench is dreadfully underused, although it's always nice to see her no matter how long she's on screen.

One thing I did like about this movie is that it gives insight into what filmmaking is like.  Marilyn is a temperamental star to put it mildly.  Laurence Olivier is the egotistic and constantly stressed star.  Paula Strasberg (Wanamaker) is more of a leech than Marilyn's acting coach.  Milton Greene (Cooper in another fine performance) is the harried producer who will turn a blind eye to Marilyn's behavior and self-destructive tendencies as long as she's happy enough to make the movie.  And Colin is the starry-eyed kid half in awe and half infatuated with this celebrity.  This stuff, and how these characters respond to Marilyn, rings true.

Simon Curtis has done his research and the look of the film is authentic.  The problem is that the shot selection is stale.  There's little variety in the shot selection, and I was reminded of Wes Anderson (only in that sense of course...this movie is actually watchable).  To his credit, he is able to generate a moderate level of attention when Marilyn makes an entrance, but there's only so much that he can do.  Also real is Colin's relationship with his parents (he wants to be a filmmaker, but his father tries to talk him out of it and his mother just humors him).  Everyone who wants to do something important feels that way.

I can't trash the movie, and I wouldn't want to.  It kept my attention and I was rarely bored.  I just wish that the producers had gotten an actress who had "it," as it's commonly called.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ghostbusters

4/4

Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Annie Potts, Rick Moranis

Rated PG for Scary Action/Violence, Language and Some Crude Humor (I guess)

The version of "Ghostbusters" that was shown to audiences starting on June 8th, 1984, was radically different from what it was originally envisioned.  The original premise had Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as Ghost Busters, but after John Belushi died and Eddie Murphy turned it down, the whole script was rewritten (for the record, Murphy's role was Winston Zeddmore, and it would have been hugely expanded upon if he had signed on).  Then in the original rough draft, the film would have taken place in the future and there would have been teams of Ghost Busters like there are firemen and paramedics, but as written, the film would have cost $300 million in 1984 dollars.  That's nearly $640 million in today's dollars, which is more than twice to price of "Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End" (the most expensive film ever made as of yet).

Ordinarily, this kind of constant and drastic change for a movie can spell doom for the project ("Gigli" was a black comedy that was completely revamped as a light-hearted romantic comedy by the studio when the nation's inexplicable interest in Bennifer's engagement whipped into a fervor).  Fortunately, that doesn't happen here.  This movie is a classic.  Not only is it consistently funny time and time again (and the jokes have lost none of their punch after nearly 30 years), it's also genuinely creepy.

Three parasychology professors are working at an unnamed university (it's actually Columbia University, but they demanded that they not be named in any way in the film) in New York City.  They are uber-nerd Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), humorless Egon Spengler (Ramis) and smartass Peter Venkman (Murray).  Stantz and Spengler are obsessed with their work, while Venkman is probably doing it so he can get paid to screw around.  After their are unceremoniously fired from the university, they go into business for themselves.  With technology developed by Egon, they are able to catch ghosts and store them in a containment facility.  One of their first customers, a lovely musician named Dana Barrett (Weaver), comes to them with a unique problem: her eggs jumped out of their shells and started cooking on her counter, and her refrigerator has become a portal into another dimension.  The Ghostbusters are on the case, but Dana's curious situation is just a small piece of a much bigger problem that may end up destroying the world.

This is an example of pitch perfect casting.  Before Bill Murray began to work with indie-film king (who's really the town fool) Wes Anderson and believed that he could act, he was one of the funniest and most popular comedians working in Hollywood.  Murry makes a great smart aleck, and his talent at being hilariously obnoxious is used to good effect here.  Venkman is annoying, yes, but only to the characters.  To the audience, he's hysterical.  Dan Aykroyd, who can act, is perfect as the nerdy Ray.  He believes that everyone is as knowledgeable and as interested in his gobbledegook as he is.  He makes Mother, the character he would play 8 years later in the criminally underrated "Sneakers," look like a chick magnet.  Harold Ramis is very funny as the deadpan Egon.  For the most part, he's incapable of any human emotion other than being serious, although Ramis (who had no intention of taking the part that he wrote until he realized he was the only one who could do it) always makes him interesting.  Annie Potts is great as the sarcastic secretary, Janine, and Rick Moranis is his usual socially awkward self as Dana's neighbor, Louis Tulley (John Candy was offered the role, but he turned it down after they rejected his ideas for the character).

Ivan Reitman was the mainstream comedy director of the 80's and 90's, including the three comedies that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Twins," "Kindergarten Cop" and "Junior").  Reitman's work is that of all the great comedy directors.  He sets the stage so the funnymen can do their things.  But Reitman does two important things that make "Ghostbusters" not just a good movie, but a great one.  First, he flawlessly mixes a lighthearted comedy with some genuinely creepy material.  It's a delicate balance, but Reitman pulls it off.  Second, he includes lots of special effects and while they are the focus of some scenes, they never camouflage the characters or the story.  Many filmmakers would have tripped up on both qualities (the latter one afflicts many special effects movies these days), but not Ivan Reitman.

One of the things that makes this movie what it is its timelessness.  The jokes are character-based.  There's little topical humor that wouldn't fly after a significant passage of time.  There are no obvious in-jokes or pop culture references that will fly over the heads of everyone who wasn't in the target audience when this movie was released (myself included).  "Ghostbusters" stands completely on its own, and it will be successful for years to come.

Monday, October 15, 2012

May

1.5/4

Starring: Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris

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

"May" has become a cult horror movie over the past decade, and Lucky McKee has become fairly well known in the indie film circuit.  Judging by the utter lack of quality in his film, that should surprise me.  Then I remember that the same thing happened with Vincenzo Natali and his shitfest "Cube."  Obviously, I don't recommend either, although I admit that "May" isn't nearly as bad.

Lucky McKee's film is one that makes you want to take a shower after watching it.  It's so twisted, so bizarre, and so creepy (none of these descriptors should be construed as compliments, by the way), that had it not been for the fact that I'm writing this review, I'd have jumped into the shower and soaked all the filth away.

May (Bettis) is a troubled girl.  Bullied since childhood because of her lazy eye, May is no longer a normal human being.  She is unable to form any human connections, no matter how desperately she wants to.  She's almost autistic in this way.  After potential relationships with Adam (Sisto), who likes the weird, and her sexy lesbian co-worker Polly (Faris) get snuffed out, she decides to take her mother's advice: if you can't find a friend, make one.

The film's problems have nothing to do with the performances.  Even when setting aside the lacking circumstances in which they occur, the acting is strong across the board.  Leading the pack is Angela Bettis, who is terrific as the tiny May.  She's quiet and shy, and has a child-like voice and mannerisms.  But there's something creepy about her; while the other characters are denying (Adam) or oblivious (Polly) to this fact, it's clear that she is a danger to herself or others.

Bettis' co-stars are just as good.  Jeremy Sisto, a character actor with roles in films as diverse as "Wrong Turn" and "Thirteen," is great as the object of May's obsession.  Adam is not a stunner; he's a wannabe rocker and has an obsession with horror movies, but even May turns out to be too weird for him.  Anna Faris, never exactly a versatile actress, tones down her tendency to go over-the-top for comic effect and makes Polly into a sort of sexy stoner-type girl (she played a major stoner in Gregg Araki's "Smiley Face," which I saw part of a few years ago).

The problem with the film is that none of the characters become individuals.  With a traditional horror movie, this isn't necessary (although sympathy with the characters is a must), but "May" is not, and does not try to be, a normal horror film.  While there's plenty of blood and gore, this is more of a character study.  But the characters and the dialogue are not strong enough to sustain a full film.  The pieces are there, but it needs more than what it has.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Argo

2.5/4

Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber

Rated R for Language and Some Violent Images

One has to give Ben Affleck credit for challenging himself.  In all three movies he has directed ("Gone Baby Gone," "The Town" and "Argo"), he has chosen complex projects that demand a lot from a director.  While I applaud his bravery, I can't do the same for his inability to create truly compelling films.  Only his debut, "Gone Baby Gone," was a strong feature.  "The Town" was a fairly generic action thriller that thought it was more original than it actually was.  The fault with "Argo" is somewhat confusing narrative and acting that is way too low key.

In 1979, the people of Iran overthrew the corrupt Shah.  The United States gave the Shah asylum in the US, which angered the Iranian people.  Hundreds of people working for the US Embassy in Iran were kidnapped and taken hostage.  Six of them, Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea Duvall...Duvall is surprisingly good and not at all irritating like she usually is), Joe and Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bische) and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane) escape and find a safe haven at the Canadian Embassy under the care of Ken Taylor (Garber) and his wife Pat (Page Leong).  But the Canadians are anxious to get the hostages out of the embassy for their own political safety, but in the midst of a revolution, that's tough going.  Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), an "exfiltration" specialist who comes up with a bizarre idea on how to get them out: act like they're shooting a movie (no one in Iran knows the identities of the 6 hostages) with the hostages as members of the crew and after "scouting locations," all of them will leave on a public plane together with no one in Iran being the wiser.

The acting is flat.  All the performers do their jobs, I suppose, but Affleck keeps them so low-key that it's almost impossible to feel anything for them.  In order for us to become invested in the outcome (and for us to feel any suspense, this is crucial).  Affleck is his usual low-key self, but we feel for him only because he has the most screen time.  John Goodman and Alan Arkin are intended to provide comic relief as the makeup artist and producer sent in to help with authenticity, but the jokes aren't that funny and like everyone else, they're too muzzled by Ben Affleck.

Often times with big Hollywood productions, realism goes out the window with cheap theatrics and cliches.  Affleck seeks to avoid this trend by keeping things understated and real.  But Affleck goes too far; the energy level is comatose.  There's a difference between low-key characters and performances and lifeless ones.  Affleck is on the wrong side of the line.  The film also suffers from a messy first act, which makes it even more of a struggle.

It's a shame really.  The story is so fascinating, and there's some real suspense at the end of the film.  But unfortunately the film is just too lacking in energy to recommend sitting through it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hair Show

0.5/4

Starring: Mo'Nique, Kellita Smith, Gina Torres, Taraji P. Henson, Keiko Agena

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content including Dialogue

After laughing hysterically at nearly everything she's done (excepting the vile "Soul Plane") and being blown away by her powerful performance in "Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire," I didn't think Mo'Nique had it in her to give a bad performance.  But here it is.  Mo'Nique is constantly irritating throughout the way-too-long 105 minute movie.

Hair stylist Peaches (Mo'Nique) has been estranged from her sister Angie (Smith) ever since their grandmother left a lot of money to Angie and nothing to Peaches.  Now, five years later, Peaches is in trouble with the IRS (she owes $50,000), and she goes to Angie, who is running a successful salon in Beverly Hills, for a loan to save her neck.  To her irritation, Angie can't give her the money.  The only way they can get the money is if they defeat Angie's mentor Marcella (Torres), who's known as the "Hair Show Diva" in a hairstyling competition. Angie has never done it to her low self-confidence, but at Peaches' insistence, she agrees.

Mo'Nique may be bad, but her co-stars are a whole lot worse.  No one in the cast appears to know how to act; it's as if director Leslie Small used the first take of every scene.  Kellita Smith comes closest to giving a performance, but based on this, she'd have trouble getting work on weeknight afternoon TV.  Gina Torres is awful as the rival.  Marcella is meant to be the woman we love to hate, but the character is a psychopath.  She's rumored to have connections to the mob, may be responsible for a murder, and will resort to vandalism as a way to threaten people.  Taraji P. Henson takes annoyance to ear-splitting new highs as the catty worker.  SCREECH!

Based on the evidence, Leslie Small has know idea what he's doing behind a camera.  He has no concept of comic timing, his shot selection is stale, and his film moves at a crawl.  Honestly, it makes "Gone with the Wind" as short as a sitcom, and that is not a hyperbole.

The film is also irredeemably stupid.  For examples, the two IRS agents who are after Peaches, lop off some of the money she owes them because they made her quota, and they harass her on the phone like lone sharks.  In what world does this occur?

The writing is also depressingly shallow.  There are plenty of opportunities for humor, but through the unholy trifecta of bad acting, bad directing and bad writing, "Hair Show" becomes "Shit Show."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

National Treasure

4/4

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Sean Bean, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer

Rated PG for Action Violence and Some Scary Images

I really admire Jerry Bruckheimer.  He is one of the most successful producers in Hollywood history, and there's a reason why: he knows what he's doing.  Bruckheimer knows exactly what the audience wants, and knows how to give it to them.  He's also willing to take chances.  While some of his projects of late have been franchises, he's always done something new, and hasn't had anything to do with a superhero movie so far.  "National Treasure" is an example of his softer side; early on in his career, he made ultra-violent action movies like "The Rock" and "Con Air."  Lately, however, he's been working for Disney, and has been behind the megasuccessful "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.  Of all the films he's done in the past decade, "National Treasure" is the most fun.

Benjamin Gates (Cage) is a history buff.  Well, that's putting it lightly.  In fact, he's more like a fanatic.  Ever since his grandfather told him the story, he's been following his family's legacy: searching for the treasure of the Founding Fathers.  It's a treasure that has been accumulating for thousands of years, but has been lost since the Revolutionary War.  The only clue he has to go on is the one his ancestor got from one of the Founding Fathers: "The Secret Lies With Charlotte."  Now with the help of his sidekick, Riley Poole (Bartha) and a gorgeous historian, Abigail Chase (Kruger), he's racing to find the treasure before his ex-partner, a nasty man named Ian (Bean) gets there first.\

Lately, Nicolas Cage has been getting a lot of flak.  I'm not sure why.  I've always liked him as an actor.  He was terrific in "The Rock," and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as the history nerd here.  He's almost too smart for his own good, going off on historical tangents when he's trying to communicate with someone.  Diane Kruger is also not given her due as an actress; she's much more than a pretty face.  Abigail is at first in disbelief at Ben's obsession (the Gates family has long been ostracized as kooks within the historical community), but the more clues appear, the more she begins the believe that the treasure is real.  Justin Bartha provides some effective comic relief as the sarcastic worrywart and Sean Bean provides a good villain (something which he is exceptionally skilled...anyone remember "GoldenEye?").  Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Plummer in a cameo all provide effective support.

Jon Turteltaub is known mainly for his family-friendly fare (although he did direct the R-rated "Instinct" with Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding, Jr), and "National Treasure" fits into the genre like a glove.  There's nothing here that's inappropriate for young children.  The scariest thing that happens in this movie is that a man falls to his death due to stairs that give way.  There was more violence in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

That's not to say that there isn't any excitement in this movie.  Far from it in fact.  This movie gets the adrenaline going almost from the get-go.  It's essentially one long chase movie, but it's filled with fascinating historical trivia, cool science, great humor and lots of genuine adventure.

This movie wasn't popular with critics.  Their loss.  I love this movie, and I always have fun watching it.  Ignore the sequel, though.  It's really a carbon copy of this one, and the magic doesn't strike twice.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Manhunter

1/4

Starring: William Peterson, Dennis Farina, Brian Cox, Tom Noonan, Joan Allen, Kim Griest

Rated R for Strong Violence, Disturbing Subject Matter and a Scene of Sexuality (I guess)

Watching "Manhunter" is shocking.  Not just what's going on in the story (and as told by Michael Mann, it's trite and superficial), but what isn't there.  The main character, Hannibal Lecktor (as it was spelled in this misbegotten adaptation), is only on screen for two scenes, and is essentially ignored.  I know, I know, this was made well before "The Silence of the Lambs" (five years in fact), but Mann should have known what a unique character he had on his hands and focused more on him.  Alas, he presents this unique story as a depressingly generic serial killer movie.

Will Graham (Peterson) was the FBI's best criminal profiler until a traumatic experience caused him to retire. Now a serial killer dubbed "The Tooth Fairy" (he leaves bite impressions at the crime scenes) has already murdered two whole families, each on the night of the full moon.  As the amount of time before The Tooth Fairy strikes again dwindles, Graham's old boss, Jack Crawford (Farina), persuades him to look over the evidence to figure out what they overlooked.  Needless to say, Graham gets completely pulled back into the case, even going so far as to see the man who caused him to retire, the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Cox).

"The Silence of the Lambs" was a demented psychological thriller that took us into the darkest corners of the human mind.  It's follow up, "Hannibal," was a geek show, but it had its moments.  "Manhunter," on the other hand, is a waste of time.  The story isn't interesting (at least how its presented here), the characters range from dull to absurd (with one exception), and the film has no sense of atmosphere.  The score in particular is crap; the film suffers from "They Live" syndrome, where would-be tense scenes are matched with the most inappropriate music (in this case, it's bad 80's music).  Instead of getting the nape hairs on end, the film becomes a complete joke.

I feel bad for the cast members.  William Peterson is a good character actor, and he does good work.  The problem is that the character is horribly written.  Instead of seeming like a person who gets inside the heads of the killers he's targeting, Graham is written like a guy with ESP.  It's impossible to take his character that seriously because of how he's written.  Dennis Farina is good as Jack Crawford, but he's given nothing to do other than to play a sounding board to Graham.  Tom Noonan is only creepy when he doesn't talk.  Brian Cox is effective, but pales in comparison to Anthony Hopkins.  To be fair, Cox did it first.  He plays Lecktor as a goading bully, which is different to say the least.  The lone exception is Joan Allen, who plays Reba, the kind blind woman who forms a tentative relationship with Franchis Dolarhyde (aka the Tooth Fairy).

Michael Mann is a good director.  He's made some truly great films ("Heat," "The Insider,") and some bad ones ("Miami Vice," "Public Enemies"), but this is the worst.  His talents are so far away from what is required for this movie that it's surprising that he didn't stop himself before he botched it.  The film looks like a commercial and there are times when it gets almost sci-fi ish.

There is good news, however.  There is a much better version of the same story.  It's called "Red Dragon" (the original title of the book...it was changed by producer Dino de Laurentiis after the bad box office reception of "Year of the Dragon").  It's creepy, it's better scripted (by "The Silence of the Lambs" adapter Ted Tally), and better told by director Brett Ratner.  And it has Hopkins.

I think that says enough.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

3.5/4

Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Stone, Ezra Miller, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Rudd, Mae Whitman, Joan Cusack

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material, Drug and Alcohol Use, Sexual Content including References and a Fight--All Involving Teens

Originally, I thought "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" was going to be an emo movie about teen angst (not the kind of movie that's my cup of tea, if you haven't already guessed).  That's certainly the vibe I got from hearing about it.  I suppose it is about teen angst and the characters are all off the beaten path, but it's not emo.

Charlie (Lerman) is just starting his freshman year in high school.  It's not going well; he has barely walked through the door and he's already getting bullied.  He's shy and quiet.  A loner.  That is until he gets the courage to start talking to the class clown, Patrick (Miller) at a football game.  They become fast friends, and  Charlie develops feelings for Patrick's stepsister, Sam.  But having friends presents some new obstacles to navigate.

While the ins and outs of being in high school are broadened considerably, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is still much more perceptive than many high school films like "She's All That" or "Election" (one of the most overrated high school movies of all time after "Heathers").  On some level, we all know what it's like to feel alone in a sea of people who seem to have it all.  This is what makes the film feel real.

The acting is effective.  Logan Lerman is effective as Charlie.  He's a shy and softspoken individual (due to a past trauma, he suffered from blackouts and flashbacks, although those are in the past), and it takes self-confident and worldly people like Patrick and Sam to get him to open up.  If there's any flaw in his performance, it's that he's so low-key that it takes a while to form an emotional connection with him.

Ezra Miller, whom I first saw in the lame "City Island" and was positively chilling in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," is terrific as the free-spirited Patrick.  He's an odd duck and he knows it.  More importantly, though, he doesn't care.  He marches to his own beat and that serves him fine.  But behind the pranks and joking around, he's got some of his own conflicts.

Based on her work in the Harry Potter movies, I never thought Emma Watson could act.  She was stiff as a board as Hermione, and her performances barely improved as the franchise went on.  But the role of Sam appears to have been written for her.  Watson is natural, speaking the words with ease.  Her acting is low-key, but impressive.  I fell in love with Sam as Charlie did.

This film is Stephen Chbosky's own.  He wrote the novel, the screenplay and directed it.  It's rare that an author with little directorial experience (he did one film back in 1995, but I don't know how many people actually saw it) is given the opportunity to direct their own film, but the results speak for themselves.  This is about as honest and real as a studio like Summit Entertainment will allow it to be.  I should also mention that it is one of the few movies that made me choke up a little (I can count the number of movies that have done that on one hand).

Note: The film was given a PG-13 rating on appeal, and although it's one of the more racier PG-13 movies (the film contains a fair amount of drug use and deals with heavy issues such as suicide and molestation, although not explicitly), I think the MPAA made the right move in this case, had it not been for the utterance of the term "faggot."  Ten years ago, this wouldn't have been so shocking in a movie for teens, but times have changed.  The term has become as hurtful and wounding as the "n" word.  I know a lot of straight people who are greatly discomforted when it is merely said (and in this film, it's meant as an insult).  If a film gets an R rating for two instances of the word "fuck," then a film that uses the "f" word even once should get an R rating.

Atonement

4/4

Starring: Saoirse Roman, Keira Knightly, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Juno Temple, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave

Rated R for Disturbing War Images, Language and Some Sexuality

"Atonement" is one of the few love stories that touches you to your very core.  It ranks among "Titanic" and "The Notebook" as one of the greatest in recent memory.  Powerful, poignant and tragic, it's absolutely unforgettable.

Because it's as much a mystery as a romance, I will have to be vague when describing the plot.  Thirteen year old Briony Tallis (Roman) is living a life of luxury with her sister Cecilia (Knightly) a few years before the outbreak or World War II.  Cecilia has a complex relationship with the local gardener, Robbie Turner (McAvoy).  She no longer speaks to him, but even Briony can tell that there's something going on between them.  One day Briony sees something happen between Cecilia and Robbie, and it shocks her enough to accuse him of a terrible crime of which he is in fact innocent.

This film is a triumph of storytelling.  Not only in what happens, but how director Joe Wright tells it.  A trained filmmaker, Wright uses many methods to tell his story.  Unique camera angles, delicate and deliberate lighting, and a breathtaking five minute unbroken sequence along a crowded beach.  He carefully unfolds the story in a "Rashamon" type way (the editing by Paul Tothill also helps too); each new scene reveals more about what happened and why the characters acted the way that they did.  It is only at the very end do we understand the full impact of Briony's actions.

"Atonement" wouldn't have nearly the impact that it does without superb performances from its cast.  Keira Knightly has grown into quite the actress.  Since she became famous with the British soccer hit "Bend it Like Beckham," Knightly has proven that she's a gifted performer, and she gets better with every role.  This is easily her best performance yet.  Cecilia is really the typical older sister: curt, a little stuck up, but loving.  And when her emotions come pouring out, we really feel them.  James McAvoy is also very good as Robbie, able to be a heartthrob and a uniquely human character at the same time.  It's easy to understand why Cecilia and Briony would fall for him.

The real star of the film is Saoirse Roman.  A young and relatively unknown actress at the time, Roman deftly handles all the contradictions of her character.  In her words (spoken by Romola Garai, who plays the older version of the character) about the pivotal event, "she saw something that she doesn't understand, but she thinks she does."  Briony is a smart girl, but she's also naiive and jealous; it makes for an explosive combination.  Roman is skilled at using her eyes (which Wright takes full advantage of) to show her emotions.  Her eyes are a cold blue/grey, which gives her an almost evil appearance.  What Briony does is reprehensible and unforgivable, but Roman remembers that she is not a bad person.  Just a confused girl who made a poor decision.  Garai and Redgrave are in top form playing the character at the different ages, but Roman dominates the role.

This is one case where I must write out my anger at the Academy for its poor decisions regarding this film.  It was nominated for 7 Oscars (including Roman for Best Supporting Actress and Best Picture).  It only won one for Best Original Score by Dario Marianelli (deservedly, I might add...he uses a typewriter as a musical instrument).  It lost the Best Picture award to the very good, but overrated "No Country for Old Men."  Missing were nominations for Knightly and more outrageously, Wright.  The Academy has made some boneheaded decisions before, but these are some of the worst.

Although I have tried, it's really hard to describe the impact of watching "Atonement."  In a way, it's almost like watching "The War Zone" (they share the same cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, although you wouldn't know it), although it's less oblique and significantly less depressing (though this is by no means a happy movie).  In both films, we see the characters for what they do, but wonder why they act that way.  Sometimes it's obvious or will be revealed later, other times we have to infer for ourselves.  Most films aren't able to do this, and even less are able to do that with the emotional impact that "Atonment" has.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!

1.5/4

Starring: Kate Bosworth, Topher Grace, Josh Duhamel, Ginnifer Goodwin, Nathan Lane, Sean Hayes

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, Some Drug References and Language

Romantic comedies are supposed to be light entertainment that will lift your spirits and make you want to cuddle with the one you love.  "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!" doesn't accomplish this feat.  Not only is it a trial, none of the three central characters are especially likable.

Tad Hamilton (Duhamel) is the world's biggest movie star.  He's the equivalent of Brad Pitt in his heyday.  Every woman wants him.  But he's got an image problem after the paparazzi snapped an unsavory picture of him.  So, his agent and manager (Lane and Hayes) decide to hold a contest where the winner gets a date with Tad.  The winner is his biggest fan, Rosalee (Bosworth), a small town girl from West Virginia.  He thinks Rosalee will be just another entry on his list of female conquests until she points out how shallow his life is.  That's when he starts to fall for her.  That's good news for Rosalee, but bad news for her best friend, Pete (Grace), who has loved her from afar.

I felt almost nothing for any of the three lead characters.  Josh Duhamel, in his first film role, is good, but I always thought there was going to be a betrayal from him (maybe I took Pete's warning to heart).  Kate Bosworth is bland.  She's done good work before ("Blue Crush"), but here, she's stiff and boring.  The role of Pete was probably tailor-made for Topher Grace, and he does what he can, but the script gives him nothing to work with.  Grace is as adept at drama as he is at comedy, and while technically he's given the opportunity to do both, the script is so weak that there's little that he can do.  Nathan Lane and Sean Hayes are completely wasted as a comic duo while Ginnifer Goodwin and Katharine Hahn are horrible in supporting roles.

The script is a disaster.  The jokes, what few there are, are lame.  The plot plays it safe at every turn, and I mean every turn.  Character development is nil.  The direction by Robert Luketic, a filmmaker with a weak resume (he directed "Legally Blonde" and two Katherine Heigl flicks) is weak.  He defines the term pedestrian and knows nothing of the word "pacing."  This movie crawls.

There are many other, much better romantic comedies.  Rent one of them instead.


The Magdalene Sisters


2.5/4

Rated R for Violence/Cruelty, Nudity, Sexual Content and Language

"The Magdalene Sisters" is one of those historical dramas that might have worked better as a documentary than a fictional piece.  The subject matter is compelling and needs to be told, but it would be difficult to show the magnitude of the horrors of the Magdalene Asylums within the constraints of a narrative.  British character actor-turned filmmaker tries, with limited success, to show the brutality of what occurred in these "laundries."

Three young girls: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), who was raped by her cousin, Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan who was deemed too frisky with the boys, and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who had a baby out of wedlock, are shipped off to the Magdalene Laundries, where in the words of the sadistic Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), they can work themselves to death to pay for their sins.

The performances are all strong, and for the most part, composed by fresh faces.  In her debut performance,Nora-Jane Noone (who I first saw battling monsters and claustrophobia in "The Descent") is terrific as the jaded Bernadette.  Most of the girls have accepted their lot at the laundries; not Bernadette.  She wants out, and will stop at nothing to accomplish that.  Anne-Marie Duff is also very good as Margaret, who despite everything that happens to her, still retains her humanity.  Dorothy Duffy is the weak link, but that's not exactly a damning statement.  Then there's Geraldine McEwan, who is one of the more vicious creatures to come out of British cinema.  And yet, McEwan uses her eyes to show that Sister Bridget isn't pure evil; a Catholic fanatic and an abuser, yes, but through her facial expressions we can see that there's something human about her.

The problems with "The Magdalene Sisters" are two-fold.  One, the characters are sketchily developed.  We see the horrors, we know they are reprehensible and shocking, but because our empathy with the characters is so limited, the impact of the cruelty inflicted upon them lacks the brutal punch that it so justly deserves.  Consider Lee Tamahori's landmark film, "Once Were Warriors."  That film had a devastating impact because we understood the characters.  That doesn't happen here (at least not to the extent that we understood Jake and Beth Heke).  The second problem is the reason why it might have worked better as a documentary: following the lives of three women who lived through this eliminates the opportunity to explain why these asylums started and put it into any social context.

This is a solid film, but it could have been so much more.

Anatomy

2.5/4

Starring: Franka Potente, Anna Loos, Sebastian Blomberg, Benno Furmann, Traugott Buhre, Arndt Schwerig-Sohnrey

Rated R for Terror Violence/Gore, Some Sexuality and Language\

Although I call "Anatomy" a guilty pleasure, there are two reasons this gorefest won't be well appreciated by most of my readers:  it's not that good and more importantly, it's not in English.  While there are plenty of shocks and gore, and just as much sex, the film is sloppily made.  Still, there are some truly cool special effects (they were based off of BodyWorlds).

Paula Henning (Potente) is a brilliant medical student who has just been accepted into an exclusive medical school program.  She's beyond excited and it rooming with Gretchen (Loos), another student in the program who, like Paula, is from Munich.  On the train, she saves the life of David (Schwerig-Sohnrey) whose heart has stopped.  But when his body ends up on her operating table a few days later, she thinks something fishy is going on.  It turns out that the school has a nasty past: it was home to the Anti-Hippocratics, who thought that research was more important than the care of patients.  Now someone is turning some of the medical students into not-so-living sculptures, and Paula may be next.

The acting is okay, although as history has proven to us, that has never been one of the trademarks of the horror genre.  Franka Potente hit the big time when she starred in Tom Tykwer's art house smash "Run Lola Run," and this was made two years later.  Potente is good in a underwritten part, although for someone who's supposed to be a brilliant medical student, she has an alarming amount of brain cramps.  Anna Loos is also good as her oversexed roommate; she's boffing all the guys in the program one by one (usually it's the guys who get to do this in movies).  Sebastian Blomberg (looking like a less twisted version of Ian Somerhalder) is okay as the obligatory hunk, but he can't match his cast members for screen presence.  And Traugott Buhre radiates creepiness and power as their instructor.

Ordinarily, I think that Hollywood remakes of foreign films are just easy ripoffs.  With the case of "Anatomy," I think that a remake could be an improvement if done right.  The film has all the requisite elements, but it's not well made.  The pacing is haphazard and the script is pretty thin.  It's also too long; Gretchen has too much screen time for someone of what amounts to very little importance, although I must admit that she certainly throws herself into the role during her numerous sex scenes.

"Anatomy" isn't a bad movie per se.  I just don't think that it's worth the time of anyone who doesn't mind mixing subtitles with gore.

Looper


Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Pierce Gagnon, Qing Xu

3.5/4

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

"Looper" is an astonishingly audacious and ambitious sci-fi thriller.  Director Rian Johnson's new thriller, due to clever marketing and word-of-mouth, has become one of the most talked about and mysterious films of the year.  For once, the trailers give away almost nothing about the plot.  It's too complex to be able to be fully introduced within the confines of a two minute series of clips.

The film takes place in the near-future.  Time travel hasn't been invented yet, but it will be in thirty years.  It's supposed to be illegal, but the mob uses it as a way of getting rid of people who would otherwise sleep with the fishes.  Loopers, like Joe (Gordon-Levitt), are assigned to blow away the hits who get sent back in time, and shove the bodies into an incinerator.  Eventually, though, all loopers see their own future selves, and after they kill them (as they must), they retire and live out the rest of their 30 years doing whatever the hell they want.  When Joe meets his future self, Old Joe (Willis), his would-be victim is ready for him.  Now both of them are on the run from the mob and each other.

This is one of those movies where it is entirely possible, if not probable, that the movie will get better with successive viewings.  Due to its complex nature, it takes a while to set up, and there's a lot of jumping around in time and with characters.  It's not that it's confusing, it's just that there's so much going on that it's difficult to form an emotional connection with any of the characters.  Once everything has been explained, the plot hits full stride and it turns into a one of a kind movie.

Rian Johnson has had an interesting career to say the least.  He broke out in the indie film circut with "Brick," a good film-noir set in a high school (complete with stylized speech and violence) that completely collapsed during the final act.  His next film, "The Brothers Bloom," was what one might imagine if Wes Anderson had made an action movie (had his ego and self-indulgence been toned down by about a hundred fold).  Both of those films, it should be noted, starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt (he had the lead in "Brick," and a cameo in "The Brothers Bloom").

One of the things I liked about the movie is how Rian Johnson handles the concept of time travel.  With all its paradoxes and the fact that it is so impossible that science can't make it credible even with a substantial amount of Michael Crichton-ish fudging, it's damn near impossible to make a compelling story that uses it effectively (this is where J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboot stumbled, mainly due to the writing).  Johnson uses the almighty "KISS" rule: keep it simple stupid.  Apart from a few rules, every other paradox about time-travel is irrelevant.  That's not to say that the butterfly effect wouldn't occur, but for the purposes of this movie it doesn't matter to us or to the characters.

The acting is exceptional across the board.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt cut his acting teeth on the TV show "3rd Rock from the Sun," but his true breakthrough came when he starred in Scott Frank's directorial debut, "The Lookout."  That film wasn't a box office smash (probably because it was marketed as something that it wasn't), but it proved that Gordon-Levitt's talent hasn't diminished with age.  Now he's worked with the likes of Christopher Nolan (twice), Spike Lee, and is starring in Spielberg's upcoming epic "Lincoln."  With every new role, he continues to grow and mature as an actor.  Although his performance is almost everyman-like, it's not.  Gordon-Levitt uses subtle changes in his eyes (I swear he's wearing colored contact lenses) and his tone of voice to create menace and sympathy.  His co-star, Bruce Willis, is no less impressive.  Now that he's outgrown his status as an action star (save for valiantly attempting to keep the "Die Hard" franchise alive if he's paid enough money), Willis has gone the way of many an actor who have been replaced by younger, hotter stars: independent fare.  After starring in one of the year's worst movies ("Moonrise Kingdom"), he's starred in one of the best.  We can feel Old Joe's turmoil and desperation to the extent that it takes a while for us to side with Young Joe.  Emily Blunt, who accepted the role before she even got to her character's entrance in the script, is also very good.  Her performance (especially her accent) is so good that it's hard to remember that it's the same dark-eyed beauty who got her break playing Anne Hathaway's (her real-life best friend) rival in "The Devil Wears Prada."  Superb support is provided by Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano and in an important cameo, Garret Dillahunt.  Special mention has to go to Qing Xu, who play's Old Joe's lover.  She has no dialogue, but boy, does she have an expressive face!

In a way, it's almost unfair to the film for me to review it after seeing it only once (seeing old favorites on DVD doesn't apply), since this movie demands repeat viewings to get the full experience.  I plan on seeing it at least once more in theaters, and I reserve the right to change the rating (as I have from time to time).  There are a few little problems (including one brief clip that should have been left on the cutting room floor) but they are really minor quibbles.  This is really one of the best films of the year so far, and I guarantee that it will end up on my top 10 list this year.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pitch Perfect

3/4

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Anna Camp, Skylar Astin, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Material, Language and Drug References

Really, "Pitch Perfect" isn't anything special.  The plot is formulaic (and not especially well done), there are no surprises, and the ending is open-ended when it shouldn't be.  But the film nearly got a 3.5/4 for one reason alone: it's funny.  Very funny.  Occasionally sidesplittingly funny.  And it does it without an R rating to boot.

The Bellas are the female a capella group at Barden University.  They're photogenic and sing the same exact, innoffensive songs every year.  They finally made it to last year's finals, only to botch it on the account that one of them suddenly vomited onstage in the middle of a number.  Now the group has only two members left: obedient Chloe (Snow) and domineering (and said vomitee) Aubrey (Camp).  Their new recruits are hardly the Barbie dolls Aubrey was hoping for.  They include, among others, a Tazmanian girl who calls herself Fat Amy (Wilson), a girl moves her mouth like a fish and says really strange things at an almost inaudible tone (Hana Mae Lee), and a big girl with a retro hairdo who may be a lesbian (Ester Dean).  Also joining is Beca (Kendrick), although for less altruistic reasons.  She wants to be in LA working as a DJ instead of in college, and her dad (John Benjamin Hickey) tells her that if she really makes a go of college and doesn't like it she can drop out and he'll help her get started at being a DJ.  Then again, maybe it was being confronted by a naked Chloe when she was singing in the shower (the movie never tells us).

Despite appearing in the inexplicably popular "Twilight" franchise (in a throwaway role, no less), Anna Kendrick has proven herself to be a good actress.  She's gotten more than a few high profile theater nominations (including being the second youngest person nominated for a Best Leading Actress Tony for her role as Dinah in "High Society") and scored an Oscar nomination for "Up in the Air."  Even in lackluster movies like "50/50,"  Kendrick is a consistently strong performer.  There's really nothing special about the role of Beca in "Pitch Perfect," but like all the hard working actresses, she makes her real.  Beca is sarcastic and pushes everyone away, but she's also independent (but not combatively so).  In her view, if someone wants their way that badly enough, it's their funeral.

Her co-stars are good, but special note has to go to Rebel Wilson.  The Aussie actress was funny in "Bridesmaids," but here, she makes herself a star.  The fact that she's large, unattractive and ungainly means nothing to her; in fact, she probably doesn't notice.  That makes her likable, not to mention funny.  Also worth mentioning is Anna Camp, who plays the rigidly traditional Aubrey.  She's beyond high-strung, and has a tendency to upchuck half her body weight when she gets nervous (for a PG-13 movie, it's pretty raunchy).

The problem with the film is that the plot is a throwaway, and it's not told very well.  The best comedies will get you involved in the plot even if you're not really supposed to (see "Ted" for an example of this).  I didn't care about Beca's relationship with Jesse (a member of the Bella's rival team), and I didn't particularly care if the Bella's won the championship.

Still, as a series of hilarious bits connected by a thin plot, "Pitch Perfect" scores fairly high.

Gone with the Wind


3.5/4

Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel

Rated G

Whenever someone talks about Hollywood, "Gone With the Wind" is bound to be mentioned almost immediately.  Apart from a few exceptions, no film is more famous or beloved (adjusted for inflation, it would be the biggest grossing film of all time, garnering nearly $4 billion dollars).  At just a hair under four hours, it defines the term "epic."  Still, it's legendary status is overstated, and by quite a bit.  The film is at least 20 minutes too long and the final act becomes a daytime soap opera.  All things considered, however, it's a wonderful film.

Storywise, it's really a romantic melodrama (as epics tend to be).  Scarlett O'Hara (Leigh) is a Southern Belle living on a plantation in Georgia shortly before the Civil War.  Despite being adored by every man in town, Scarlett is in love with the dashing Ashley Wilkes (Howard), one of their neighbors.  Unfortunately for her, he's going to marry his cousin, Melanie (de Havilland).  But there is one man who gets her attention, although not in a positive way.  That's Rhett Butler (Gable), a dashing rogue, who is hardly a virtuous southern gentleman like Ashley.

Oddly enough, this film is really a character study of the feisty Scarlett.  Character studies usually don't take long to tell, but this is an instance where this story could really only be told against an epic backdrop.  Scarlett is so firey and it will take a lot for her to change.  But war has that effect on people.  In the beginning of the film, Scarlett's life is centered around getting a husband (preferably Ashley).  Once the war takes over, she is forced to become independent; she takes charge of Tara, her family's plantation, marries for financial certainty, and isn't above using people to make her situation more stable.  Scarlett has her rough edges; she isn't always polite, is often selfish and can be manipulative.  But we still like her.

The acting is, for the most part, great and is often excellent.  Initially I thought Vivien Leigh was over-the-top, acting like every other talkative female star (Judy Garland specifically).  But she won me over.  Where Leigh really shines is in the quieter, more subtle scenes.  And she has a very expressive face.

Her co-star, Clark Gable, is wonderful.  He's just as politically incorrect (compared to the "honorable" Southern Gentleman).  Her prickly nature amuses him, and it doesn't take long for us to realize that this is the real match for Scarlett (much better than Ashley).  But will Scarlett realize it?

The supporting cast is mixed.  Olivia de Havilland gives the best performance in the film as the gentle and genuine Melanie.  Initially, we see her as a rival for Ashley's attention, and a woman who's going to turn out to be a villain.  The truth is far different.  Melanie is a kind and genuine woman.  She's devoted to those she loves (including Scarlett), positive and forgiving.  The danger of playing a character like this is to make her so noble that she becomes boring, but de Havilland succeeds in making her real.  Less successful is Leslie Howard, whose portrayal of Ashley is bland.  Granted, he's not supposed to be more interesting than Rhett Butler, but Howard is so boring that it's impossible to imagine why Scarlett is so hung up on him (and he's always looking sad, so there's that too).

Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to be nominated for (and win) an Oscar.  McDaniel gave birth to the "Mammy" archetype: the fast talking, slang using fat black maid (which has since become a racist caricature).  McDaniel is quite good; Mammy knows exactly what Scarlett is thinking/planning and isn't afraid to speak her mind.  Interesting bit of Hollywood trivia: there was thought to be some antagonism between Gable and McDaniel after he played a prank on her (he put actual brandy in the decanter when it was supposed to be iced tea), but they were actually good friends.  When McDaniel was barred from attending the premiere in Atlanta due to the fact that she was black, Gable was furious and threatened to boycott it.  He relented after McDaniel convinced him to go.

"Gone With the Wind" was the subject of some behind the scenes strife with its directors.  Originally, George Cukor was to direct the film, but because of his work and the slow pace at which he shot the film, producer David O. Selznick fired him and replaced him with Victor Fleming (Cukor was also unhappy with script changes, although he did come back to coach Leigh and de Havilland on weekends at their request).  Scenes shot by Cukor were either reshot or scrapped entirely.

The film is not flawless.  Far from it in fact.  The pacing is at times uncertain and the writing isn't as strong as it should be.  As I said before, the film is too long (although I've seen plenty of movies that seem longer when in fact they take up a third of the running time), particularly at the end, where the melodrama gets amped up to levels that almost make it to daytime TV levels.  And the ending doesn't really work, in my opinion.  It's kind of open-ended and doesn't tie up the story effectively.

This historical epic is really a product of its time, especially in the sense that it treats its black characters.  They're all stereotypes (the fat maid Mammy, the simple minded servant named Pork (Oscar Polk), the dim, high-pitched servant Prissy (Butterfly McQueen)).  Admittedly racism was shamefully more open back then, but it can still create a bit of discomfort when watching the film.

All things considered, it's a wonderful film (although when it comes to epic romances, I still prefer "Titanic").  It may be four hours long, but it's not a bad way spend it.