Friday, November 30, 2012

Red Planet

1.5/4

Starring: Carrie-Anne Moss, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Simon Baker, Benjamin Bratt, Terrence Stamp

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence, Brief Nudity and Brief Language

It's always obvious when a movie makes up the story as it goes along.  Never has it been more painfully obvious than with "Red Planet," a dull, shallow and dreadfully boring science-fiction "thriller."  Not only is it filled with stupid cliches, but they're partially baked cliches.  The characters are so undeveloped that calling them stick figures would be grossly overstating their depth, the plot has ADD, and director Antony Hoffman is completely incapable of handling a $70 million project like this.

"Red Planet's" release date was pushed back twice, and it's not hard to see why.  It has the potential to be a intense science-fiction thriller along the lines of "Alien" mixed with "2001: A Space Odyssey" (or so I assume, since I haven't seen the latter, yet), but the studio probably balked when they realized how little box office potential the final result actually had.  The film reeks of studio interference.  It starts off with some intriguing, if shallowly written, philosophy about our place in the universe.  Then it devolves into terrible action and a lame fight for survival.

The film takes place a few decades into the future.  Due to pollution and overpopulation, the Earth is quickly becoming uninhabitable.  A last ditch effort is to make our nearest solid planet, Mars, inhabitable.  They sent algae over there to create atmosphere, but it stopped working.  A team of six has been sent to find out why.

The acting is flat.  All actors have shown promise in the past, but with a script like this, there's not much that anyone could do.  Carrie-Anne Moss is the best of the lot.  Although she doesn't have a huge range, she deserves to be more than the one-hit wonder that she became after "The Matrix" movies.  She's good at taking charge while still being sympathetic, but she spends most of her time talking to a computer.  Val Kilmer is terrible; this is easily the worst performance he's ever given.  Tom Sizemore is miscast.  Simon Baker does what he can with an inconsistent character (ditto for Benjamin Bratt).  Terrence Stamp does his best not to choke on the lines that he is given, but he doesn't have much screen time.

First time-director Antony Hoffman is clearly in over his head.  He loses control of the film fairly early, and struggles to regain it.  He never does.  The whole film seems like the regurgitation of sci-fi movies that Ed Wood would have loved, and he fails to bring any sort of life to them.  It's as if he is constantly remembering subplots, and trying to tie them all up, but Hoffman's direction is extremely clumsy, and the film keeps stumbling to the finish line.  Even the climax, which involves a fight with a robot (who is conveniently forgotten for most of the film), is anticlimactic.

I'll admit that some of the special effects are impressive (which was the studio's excuse for the release delays), and there are some B-movie-ish pleasures to be found here and there.  But all in all, "Red Planet" is a bore.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Deer Hunter

3.5/4

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, John Cazale

Rated R for Strong Graphic and Disturbing War Violence, Language and Alcohol Abuse (I Guess)

"The Deer Hunter" is a film in three acts: normal life, the war, and the aftermath.  It's an emotional powerhouse with scenes that rival movies like "The War Zone" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin," or more appropriately, "Saving Private Ryan" and "Platoon" in terms of being able to deliver a series of gut punches to the mind and soul.

The film follows three men from a steel town in Pennsylvania.  Mike (DeNiro), the aloof serious guy, Nick (Walken), the weird looking guy with a girlfriend Linda (Streep), and Steven (Savage), who has just married his fiancee, Angela (Rutanya Alda).  The day after the wedding, the three of them are being shipped off to Vietnam, where because of the hell they are forced to take part in, their lives will be changed forever.

Films that show the true horror of war are not new.  Even "The Longest Day," to a limited extent, showed that war isn't just an adventure.  But with films like "Platoon" and the more influential "Saving Private Ryan," showing war to be anything but hell on earth is passe and offensive.  Many films, such as "In the Valley of Elah," have shown war to be completely dehumanizing.  "The Deer Hunter" concentrates not so much on gunfights and gory battles (although there are some of those), but on how war can cause people to do things they would normally be incapable of doing, and how it completely and irrevocably changes them.  "The Deer Hunter" succeeds in ways many modern war films (post-9/11) do not because it has no obvious agenda.  It is not designed to promote an obvious agenda.  Politics are barely mentioned.  Cimino has an agenda, I suppose, but it's not political.  His opinion of the Vietnam War isn't addressed.  What he concentrates on is how war in general breaks down a human being to a point where it is impossible to build back up.

There is a scene that perfectly illustrates this.  When one of the soldiers comes home after his tour, his friends back home throw a welcome home party.  He tells the cabbie to take him to a hotel instead, and hides out there until everyone is gone.  Later, he is fussed over and congratulated by his old friends.  They think this is how he wants to be welcomed home; they are happy that he is back and proud of his service to his country. But the reality is that given his experiences, he feels awkward with all the attention and gratitude, and that he needs peace, not attention and fame.  The scene illustrates with uncommon poignancy how life always moves on back home, and the home that soldiers fight for isn't there when they come back.

What makes the film what it is are the flawless performances across the board.  Robert DeNiro was just coming off his debut films with Martin Scorcese ("Taxi Driver" and "Mean Streets") and his first Oscar win (Best Supporting Actor for "The Godfather Part II").  Known for playing intense and at times psychotic characters, this is DeNiro as we've never seen him.  He's an everyman.  A little aloof and standoffish, but not obviously deranged or violent in any way.  He's short and to the point, but is fully capable of having normal relationships.  Christopher Walken, who has become famous for playing weird characters (his appearance kind of demands it), plays a surprisingly normal individual.  Nick is the guy next door; a nice guy, but cool under pressure.  Well, he's not the latter, but he doesn't show it until we finally see what the war has done to him.  John Savage is in some ways the most tragic figure in the film.  He has it all, until the war causes him to lose everything.  He doesn't keep his emotions bottled up inside of him, and one of the toughest scenes to watch is when he loses his sanity to fear.  Meryl Streep got her first Oscar nomination for her performance, and while that's not necessarily a mistake it's a little surprising.  Streep his her usual reliable self, but she just doesn't have much to do.  Still, she does wonders with what she's given.

"The Deer Hunter" was directed by Michael Cimino, whose career was destroyed by the legendary flop, "Heaven's Gate."  He directs the film with a sure hand; the film is tightly controlled (Cimino is a notorious perfectionist), although it doesn't feel like it.  It appears to be moving along completely naturally, as if it is guided by real people rather than the needs of a formula or the director's message (or ego).  However, the film isn't flawless.  The editing is at times awkward (oddly enough, the film's editor, Peter Zinner, won an Oscar for his work), and some scenes run on for too long.  Some clips or in one instance, a small scene, seem to be missing.  Additionally, many of the film's elements are meant to be metaphorical, but as to what is a mystery (for example, the significance of deer hunting).  But these are small blemishes on an otherwise breathtaking production.

Russian Roulette became an infamous underground game after the release of this movie (approximately 28 people have died playing it since the film's release).  These scenes were controversial upon its release, with many critics claiming that such instances never took place in the Vietnam War.  Cimino and DeNiro defended these scenes, claiming they added to the realism of the story.  In fact, Cimino included them to cause controversy.  Regardless, blaming the film (not to mention the fact that it was imitated) baffles me.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, than people who play it have some seriously twisted ideas.  The game is not presented as a form of entertainment (at least to the film's audience...there are extras who cheer and bet on who is going to blow their brains out, some of which are not Vietnamese) for the characters we have come to understand and care about.  It is an act of anger by the VietCong, a way to exorcise their pain from war and death.  It is an act of inhuman torture to break the victim's human spirit as much as their own.

This is an amazingly powerful film, sometimes rivaling "The War Zone" and "Once Were Warriors" for emotional power.  Like "The War Zone," the film looks gorgeous (the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is truly beautiful and haunting).  This is not a movie for those seeking light entertainment.  But for those who seek to understand the unspoken casualty of war, this is a must see.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Flight

2/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Tamara Tunie, Brian Geraghty

Rated R for Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Language, Sexuality/Nudity, and an Intense Action Sequence

When we first meet Captain Whip Whittaker, he's passed out on a bed after what appears to be one hell of a bender.  He woke up next to a beautiful (and naked) woman in his bed, so it must have been a good night.  He finishes his beer, does a little coke, and he's off to work.  His job happens to be an piloting a commercial airliner.

"Flight," as everyone now knows, is not about a plane crash, but about addiction.  Unfortunately, despite the promising cast and the presence of respected directer Robert Zemeckis behind the camera, the film is a bore.  The characters are strictly two-dimensional at best, the acting is surprisingly flat, and the direction is sloppy.  Worst of all, the film offers no new insights into addiction, even though there are plenty of opportunities to do so.  Rather than be a compelling film like "Traffic" or to a lesser extent, "Requiem for a Dream," "Flight" ends up being more like "When a Man Loves a Woman."

Whip (Washington) is a drunk.  He knows it, but he believes he is in control of his drinking, or that he like being a drunk (depending on the situation).  But as everyone knows, that's always the drunk's excuse.  The morning after he got loaded and drank and snorted before takeoff, the plane suddenly goes into freefall.  Due to a daring and next to impossible maneuver, Whip manages to save the lives of all but six of the passengers.  Initially he's regarded as a hero.  That is until his freedom is in danger when it was discovered that he had alcohol in his system.

Denzel Washington is an amazing actor.  Time and time again, Washington has delivered powerhouse performances, sometimes even in weak movies ("Safe House," for example).  He has made an indeliable mark on cinema.  But here, Washington is going through the motions.  He doesn't seem to be invested in the film, and as a result, Whip isn't sympathetic or interesting.  The script by John Gatins, which has been floating around Hollywood for years, is shallow and anemic, but that doesn't give Washington a free pass.  The best actors use their talent to fill in the blanks as best they can.  Washington merely coasts by on his charisma (which as has been demonstrated before, is considerable).  Washington is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, but no one is given much to work with.  The only ones who distinguish themselves are Kelly Reilly as a fellow addict and James Badge Dale as a cancer patient (who only appears for one scene and has nothing to do).

Robert Zemeckis' films have always been manipulative (movies almost always are by their nature).  It's just that he's really good at it.  Look at "Forrest Gump."  In lesser hands that movie could have been a melodrama so sappy it could have been laughable.  But in Zemeckis' hands it turned out to be a really good movie.  Here, he's lost his touch.  Zemeckis hasn't made a truly good movie since "Contact," and that was 15 years ago.  "Flight" is not a return to form.  He tries so hard to get the audience to feel for Whip that the results are sometimes unintentionally funny (the scene where he tries to get his co-pilot (Geraghty) to lie for him about his inebriated state is a case in point).  The only noteworthy element in this film is the cinematography, which is at times beautiful, and the crash scene, which is pretty intense (although one would expect nothing less from Zemeckis, who is always pushing special effects to the limit).

There are so many other, better movies that deal with addiction in a more honest and affecting manner (like "Once Were Warriors" to name one) that there is really no need to waste two hours of your life with "Flight."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Deceiver

2.5/4

Starring: Tim Roth, Michael Rooker, Chris Penn, Rosanna Arquette, Ellen Burstyn

Rated R for Violence, Language and Some Sexual Content

The first time I saw "Deceiver," I got lost fairly early.  I took a chance and watched it a second time, and while I wasn't confused (usually), I can't recommend it.  For most of its running time, it's a decent enough psychological film noir, although it's by no means perfect.  Then at the end, the film loses all credibility with a predictable and unbelievable twist.

A woman has been found brutally murdered.  Her body has been cut in two and the pieces were hidden miles apart.  The only lead the police have is a phone number found on the girl's body.  That number belongs to James Weyland (Roth), a wealthy heir.  Two detectives, Kennesaw (Rooker) and Braxton (Penn), are conducting a polygraph test on him, but Weyland is smarter than they think he is (his IQ is 151 while Kennesaw's is 122 and Braxton's is only 102), and it isn't long before he turns the tables on them.

"Deceiver" is uneven.  Some of it is interesting (the film always takes off whenever Roth is on screen).  Other scenes, such as the time that is devoted to the cop's personal lives, isn't as compelling.  The film is at its best during the interrogation scenes; they're propulsive and effectively acted.  Watching these three characters match wits is very entertaining.

I've always admired Tim Roth as an actor (and as a director...after "The War Zone," I'm eagerly awaiting his next directorial project, although he sadly doesn't have anything in the pipeline apparently).  He's extremely versatile (he played Thade in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" reboot, and the lead in "Reservoir Dogs.  Nuff said).  As Wayland, he's at his best.  Wayland is arrogant, but also intelligent.  He's also afflicted with temporal lobe epilepsy, which makes him prone to blackouts and violence when he has a seizure.

Character actors Michael Rooker and Chris Penn are also good, but sadly their parts just aren't as well written as Roth's, and as a result, they come across as rather dull outside of the interrogation room.  It's not their fault; both of them have proven time and again that they can act (Penn was terrific in "Rush Hour" and also starred in "Reservoir Dogs" with Roth, and Rooker is a solid character actor).  Also worth mentioning is Renee Zellwegger.  This film was made when she had just hit stardom with "Jerry Maguire," but here, she's little more than a plot device (Zellwegger does a good job, though).

The film was directed by Jonas and Josh Pate, and it, like the film as a whole, is uneven.  Some of what they do is clever; I liked how in the opening scenes, they had the camera from Wayland's point of view (they return to this shot frequently throughout the film), and I also liked how they showed that one character is lying because his voice-over is different than what the physical character is saying.

"Deceiver" is really a mixed bag.  I'm almost tempted to recommend the film because the scenes in the interrogation room are so much fun.  But the film takes too long with Kennesaw and Braxton's personal lives, and the ending is pathetic.  Still, for those who like mind games and psychological thrillers, you could do worse.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Rise of the Guardians

4/4

Starring (voices): Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Isla Fisher, Dakota Goyo

Rated PG for Thematic Elements and Some Mildly Scary Action

When I first saw this movie on iMDb, I was curious.  Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, Jack Frost in one movie?  Definitely intriguing.  Then I saw the cast: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Isla Fisher...I had to see this movie.  When I saw the trailer, I was hooked.  I was counting down the days to see this movie for months.  Now, after seeing the movie, I was already planning on when I could see it again.

The plot isn't necessarily anything special, but that's really okay.  It enhances the dream-like quality of the film.  It turns out that Santa (Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Fisher) and the Sandman (who has no dialogue) are not only real, but when the need arises, they band together to protect the children from evil.  In this case, evil comes in the form of Pitch (Law), a nasty entity who is also known as the Boogeyman.  He want to stamp out every kids belief in our heroes to take away their power, and instead replace them with himself and his nightmarish armada.  But the Man in the Moon (also without a speaking voice) enlists Jack Frost (Pine) to be the fifth Guardian.  Of course, the practical jokester Jack Frost doesn't want the job, but with the promise of finding out his past, he leads the fight against Pitch.

"Rise of the Guardians" is a visually dazzling animated film.  Outside of "Spirited Away," there hasn't been a movie that looks this incredible.  There were a number of times when my jaw dropped at what I was seeing. It's so inventive, colorful and richly detailed that I couldn't help but be in awe at what I was seeing.  If only the story held up its end.  It's not a bad story, in fact its reasonably involving.  But the film rushes through the first act and the rules of what can and can't happen aren't clearly stated early on.

The voice cast is wonderful.  No one calls attention to themselves, which is great.  Alec Baldwin is unrecognizable as Santa, who is tough and wise.  Hugh Jackman appears to be having fun with the role of the Easter Bunny (his line of "I'm a bunny" is pretty funny...I mean, Wolverine saying that defensively?  You gotta admit that that's worthy of at least a grin).  Isla Fisher is good as the Tooth Fairy, but she's the weakest performer.  And Jude Law makes for a surprisingly vicious, not to mention sympathetic, villain.

The real star of the film is Chris Pine.  I've been a fan of his for a while, but the part of a kind-hearted jokester plays to Pine's strengths.  Jack Frost is funny, a little selfish, but overall lovable.  Based on how good he is, it's amazing that he wasn't the first choice for the role (that was Leonardo DiCaprio).

I won't claim that this is the best film of the year, but I guarantee that this is going to be on my Top Ten list, and definitely somewhere near the top.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Natural Born Killers: The Director's Cut

3/4

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Downey, Jr.

This is the Unrated Director's Cut.  For the record, the theatrical cut was rated R for Extreme Violence and Graphic Carnage, for Shocking Images, and for Strong Language and Sexuality

"Borat" became a monster hit because it unveiled the stereotypes, buffoonery and stupidity that lives in the lowest places of America.  12 years earlier, Oliver Stone peeled back the veil of civilization and exposed some hard truths: people love witnessing train wrecks, and the media is all too willing to exploit it in a quest for ratings.

I remember watching the news one evening with my parents.  I was a young kid at the time, but I had seen more than a few of the local news casts.  They were filled with short stories about recent murders, arrests and other sorts of grim human behavior.  I asked my mother why the news always insisted on constantly airing these violent news stories.  She told me that they need gripping stories like this to keep people tuning in.  To be fair, they do occasionally air stories about lighter and more inspirational topics, but in suburbia, those aren't particularly memorable or interesting to begin with.

This isn't the act of a desperate news station with a love for the lurid.  They're simply reflecting human nature.  Stories of violence and depravity grip us far more than lighter fare.  For example, when I say "Hurricane Sandy," which do you think of first: the destruction left by the storm, or the charitable response to help the victims?  Unless you're Mother Theresa, it's going to be the former.

Don't worry, you're not a psychopath.  I think of that too.  Everyone does.  It's how we're wired as a species.  Whether it's a survival mechanism or what, I don't know.  But that fact is why the local news channel is constantly airing stories of violence when they're really quite rare, and why Casey Anthony, OJ Simpson, the Aurora shootings and the Virginia Tech massacre stay in our minds far longer than kinder and more common stories, like how a group of Egyptian Muslims acted as protectors for Coptic Christians going to celebrate Christmas Eve mass after a terrorist attack on Christians by Muslim fanatics.

Our attraction to the lurid isn't Stone's point.  Plenty of other movies have done that, even before "Natural Born Killers."  Stone's movie is about how the media feeds on it and warps our perception of violence.  One guy says "Mass murder is wrong, but if I were a serial killer, I'd be Mickey and Mallory."  Through constant news coverage, specifically "American Maniacs," a Jerry Springer-like show that obsessively covers serial killers.

Mickey (Harrelson) and Mallory (Lewis) Knox are lovers who go on a mass murder spree.  They wreck havoc on Route 666 (ha ha ha), but always leave one person alive to bear witness to their crimes.  On their trail, is hotshot detective Jack Scagnetti (Sizemore) and "American Maniacs" host Wayne Gale (Downey, Jr.).

This film isn't really about plot.  Very little of it is meant to be taken literally.  Stone is making a comment not on serial killers (we have plenty of those movies already), but on violence in general.  For example, Mallory's abusive childhood with her sexually abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield) and inattentive mother (Edie McClurg), is presented as a sitcom (a purposefully trashy one) complete with music.  The murder scenes are realistically brutal, but they're stylized like an action movie.  Stone's point is that by "explaining" and "reporting" these crimes, we are inherently sensationalizing them.  Copycat killers don't kill because of movies or music.  They copy and kill because they want their 15 minutes of fame.

Think about it.  When a tragedy happens, it gets a name (even if it's simple like the Aurora shootings), a musical intro and a logo.  Pop psychiatrists weigh in.  Politicians pontificate about gun control versus personal freedom.  Helicopter parents get panicky.  Don't think for a second that Stone hasn't thought about this.  This is what the movie is about.

The performances are good, but really, this is Stone's show.  The actors are simply his materials.  Normally it would be a criticism for a director to manipulate his actors so obviously, but this isn't a normal movie.  Plus, Harrelson and Lewis are talented actors, and they bridge the gap.  Tom Sizemore, normally a powerhouse character actor, isn't as successful at distinguishing himself from the special effects.  Robert Downey, Jr. on the other hand, is awful.  Whether this was an intentional decision on the part of Downey and Stone, but Wayne Gale is incredibly irritating.

Visually, there's always something new going on.  The camera effects never slow down and never stop.  It's Stone's way of getting us to see how the media has warped Mickey and Mallory.  Would they have caused as much carnage without the media frenzy?  Possibly.  It's an interesting and provocative question, but it isn't really on Stone's agenda.  He's concerned with the aftermath.  It becomes a little too much at times, but it gets the job done.

The MPAA initially gave this film an NC-17 and forced Stone to resubmit it over and over again to get the R rating.  The MPAA's reaction to it doesn't surprise me.  The MPAA, for all of its hypocrisy, is part of the problem that Stone is railing against, and they were clearly smart enough to recognize it.  It pushes the R rating to the limit, but there are definitely more violent movies out there that didn't bother the MPAA ("Sin City" comes to mind).  No doubt that the MPAA tried their best to muzzle Stone, but this film is a live wire; no amount of minute cuts could dilute its message.  Apparently, the MPAA was concerned about its overall feeling of chaos, rather than any one scene.  It's hard to cut enough of a film to change its tone.

"Natural Born Killers" has achieved a degree of infamy due to its message, its methods and a number of copycat crimes it "inspired."  Although John Grisham, who was a friend of one of the victims of LSD-induced copycats (which is probably what the real cause was), sued the filmmakers and the studio, the case was thrown out (justifiably, since it would have infringed on Stone's First Amendment rights).  This proves Stone's point: media frenzy, not movies or music, fuels crime sprees (at least in part...mental illness is the real cause).

Interestingly enough, the film was marketed, and in some instances still today, as a predictor of where we're headed.  If the frenzies surrounding Casey Anthony, Virginia Tech and the Aurora shootings (which inspired other massacres that were fortunately foiled) are any indication, we're already there.

I'm of two minds of whether or not to recommend this movie.  On the one hand, it's an important film that takes a hard but mandatory look at our culture and what we value.  On the other, it's too long and occasionally overbearing.  It may be that the director's cut is part of the problem, and the shorter, theatrical cut may be a more effective version.  Initially, I gave it a 2.5/4, but I think for what it says, it's worth seeing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Red Dawn (2012)

3/4

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Brett Cullen

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

The term "guilty pleasure" is thrown around every now and then by a few critics.  Everyone knows what it means, but for a film critic, it can bear a note of shame.  For example, "The Notebook" is a movie that many have derided as "corny" and "sappy."  Both of which it is, since that comes with the territory of being based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks.  But I do like it, and although I have no compunctions about saying so, it can be a little awkward to admit in front of my guy friends who boast about how much they hate romances.  Or a better example is "Tale of the Mummy," a virtually incoherent cheesefest with laughably bad special effects and terrible acting.  But in spite of (or because of) that, I do like the movie.

"Red Dawn" fits this description, albeit barely.  The premise is wafer thin, and wastes a number of interesting plot tangents, character development is nil, the film is edited to its bare bones, and first-time director Dan Bradley, who was Second-Unit Director under a number of Paul Greengrass's films has inherited his tutor's tendency to shake the camera frenetically.  But still, I had fun.  Just enough to recommend it.  Slightly.

The story begins at, like many high school themed movies, a football game.  Matt (Peck) is the quarterback who is desperately trying to win a football game but instead of going for the field goal like his coach is telling him to, he keeps trying (and failing) to run it so he can be the hero.  Naturally, this fails, and he finds refuge with his girlfriend Erica (Lucas) and tension with his brother Jed (Hemsworth), who is a Marine home on leave.  The next morning, they wake up to a loud rumbling.  Matt and Jed run outside to see what's going on, and they find planes flying overhead and soldiers parachuting down from the sky.  It's an invasion.  After high-tailing it out of the city and watching their father be executed, Jed and his group of survivors decide to come together and raise hell for the invading North Koreans.

Watching this movie and how the characters planned and executed their guerrilla warfare against the invading forces, I couldn't help thinking that this is how terrorists feel and how they wage war on the modern world.  It's a little disconcerting, to say the least.  So is the sight of teenagers being gunned down, even in a movie like this.

The acting is adequate, although it may have been far worse based on how little there is.  There's really no time for it.  Bradley has, as I've said, edited the film down to its bare bones.  It's made up of cliches, yes, but the meat of them occur off-screen (relatively important elements, such as how they suddenly are able to train with submachine guns despite no obvious contact with anyone who has them).  This makes it twice as hard to sympathize with the characters, and as a result, it doesn't provoke more than a shrug when one dies (as some surely must).  Of the cast, only Chris Hemsworth distinguishes himself.  Hemsworth is a good actor ("Snow White and the Huntsman" excepting), and he has screen presence.  The same cannot be said about Josh Peck, who is awful.  Matt is a selfish dick, and Peck not only can't make him sympathetic, he can't utter a word of dialogue without making me cringe.  No one else bears a mention.

That being said, the film has some exciting action sequences.  I've always thought it would be cool to have a war movie set in a big city, and while this isn't the one I was hoping for, it's still pretty neat.  Sadly, the camera shakes so much and it's so frantically edited that it's hard to know what is happening.  This is one of those movies where you have to wait to the end to find out who died.  But when Bradley keeps the camera relatively still (which he does from time to time), that's when the film takes off.

Look, this isn't a great movie.  It's not even a good one.  But it is what it is, and despite everything, I have to admit that I enjoyed myself.  A little.

The Yards

2/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, James Caan, Faye Dunaway

Rated R for Language, Violence and a Scene of Sexuality

The longer "The Yards" goes on, the less I liked it.  Like many films, it opens with promise, but then it slowly begins to unravel when it should be tightening up.

Leo Handler (Wahlberg) is an ex-con who has just been released from prison.  His best friend, Willie (Phoenix) promises him that his girlfriend's new stepfather, Frank (Caan), will be able to set him up with a job.  That job will come after a few years of schooling, however, and due to his mother's failing health, he can't afford to wait that long.  So he tags along with Willie who acts as an enforcer against the competition.  But things go wrong, and a railway worker is killed and a cop is severely wounded.  Leo is fingered for the crime, although he is innocent.  Due to the corruption scandal that ensues, everyone abandons him.  But when the scandal ball gets rolling, it's only a matter of time until the whole truth comes out.

The performances would be fine if director James Gray didn't keep everyone on mute.  There's a fine line between being low-key and being without a pulse, and like Ben Affleck's film "Argo," he doesn't find the right balance.  Mark Wahlberg is flat; rather than a hero we can get behind, Leo is a bland stick figure.  Charlize Theron is wasted in a thankless role.  Ditto for Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn, who have nothing to do.  The best performances are given by Joaquin Phoenix (who has been in every movie directed by James Gray since this movie) and James Caan.  Both play good men who are caught up in terrible situations that they have caused, although they react differently to what happens to them.

James Gray broke out into film circles with his debut film "Little Odessa" starring Tim Roth and Edward Furlong.  I haven't seen it, but I did see Gray's other two films, "We Own the Night" (which also starred Wahlberg) and "Two Lovers."  Gray puts emphasis on character development rather than plot or special effects.  But try as he might, none of the characters become three-dimensional.  The writing just isn't strong enough and Gray forces his characters to speak quietly and with lots and lots of pauses.  He could have shaved at least five minutes off this movie had he allowed his actors to speak normally.

Speaking of pacing, that's the biggest flaw with the film.  It moves incredibly slowly, which it should increase speed as the film goes on.  Instead of tightening the noose, the film sort of floats there like a fishing line that doesn't get reeled in.  The cinematography is also terrible.  Everyone is constantly darkened to the point where I was thinking, "Turn on a damn light!"

One thing I did like about this movie is that it deals with murder in a realistic way.  In many movies, even "Crime and Punishment-esque" movies, murder is a plot device.  We know it's a bad thing, but rarely does it feel real.  "The Yards" is like "Brighton Rock" in the way that it portrays murder as something that can completely and irrevocably change a person.  It is dealt with on an emotional and psychological level that most films don't even try for.  Sadly, it's not worth seeing either.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Courage Under Fire

3/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Scott Glenn, Michael Moriarty, Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon

Rated R for War Violence and Language

People are obsessed about the search for "truth."  What really happened on 9/11?  What really happened to JFK?  Whether you're a witness, a historian or a conspiracy theorist, you want answers.  Sometimes, the truth is indisputable (for example, the World Trade Center towers did fall on September 11th, 2001, and cost thousands their lives).  Often times, it's less clear.  For Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling, finding the truth about what happened to Captain Karen Walden will allow him to put his demons to rest.

And boy, does Nat have some demons!  During the Gulf War, Nat gave an order to fire on an enemy tank, not knowing that it was one of his own.  Even worse, it was his best friend's (Tim Ransom) tank and he was killed.  Fortunately (although Nat doesn't see it that way), the whole event was covered up, sparing him and the Army a lot of humiliation.  Now that the war is over, the Pentagon is doling out medals.  Nat is assigned to investigate whether a helicopter pilot's actions deserve recognition for the Medal of Honor.  It seems ordinary enough until Nat finds out that the pilot is a woman.  Nat begins investigating, but he's facing brick walls at every turn from the soldiers who could make or break her case.  Everyone wants her confirmation to get through, but the more Nat investigates, the more he begins to realize that finding out what really happened could make the memories of the friendly fire incident go away.

"Courage Under Fire" is a mix of the good and the not so good.  The good is the story.  It's a good mystery and effectively presented.  Director Edward Zwick, who is at home in these types of movies (he later directed "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond") tells his story without a whiff of exploitation.  This isn't a seedy pulp thriller like "The General's Daughter."  It takes the subject matter seriously.

The bad is the acting.  Denzel Washington is fine, although this isn't one of his best performances.  Washington does his job and doesn't walk through it, but his role is less meaty than one would hope for the actor's considerable talents.  Meg Ryan is good, but due to the fact that she's only shown in flashbacks (Walden died during the incident) and that she acts based on the soldier's memory of the events, there's not much for us to latch onto.  Matt Damon is effective as a skittish soldier (he lost 40 pounds for the role), but Lou Diamond Philips, who has never been an especially good actor, is terrible.

Thematically, the film is on shaky ground.  Critics have touted its exploration of what is truth, honor and so on.  They are touched on, but not explored very thoroughly.  Part of the reason is that the connection between Walden's story and Nat's guilt is so tenuous.  Had this connection been better formed, it would have had a bigger emotional punch.

The ending is also questionable.  While it's nice that both stories are tied up, I'm not sure that that's the right approach for the film to take.  If a movie is about the ambiguous nature of truth, then the film should stick to it.  If you don't have the guts to have an open ending, at least have something substantial to say about your topic.

Still, I liked the movie.  It's worth seeing.  Not as good as you hope, but it's still well worth the two hours one would spend watching it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

One Day in September

2.5/4

Starring (voice): Michael Douglas

Rated R for Some Graphic Violent Images

Don't you just hate it when a good movie makes a move that's so boneheaded and stupid that you wonder what the hell the director was thinking?  It happened in "Hollow Man" with the unnecessary (not to mention brutal) murder of a dog, and it happens here.  Most of "One Day in September" is an engaging documentary; it held my interest a lot more than many members of this genre.  Then at the end, the very end, it makes a decision so bad that it becomes reprehensible.

Kevin Macdonald is a good filmmaker.  "Touching the Void" is one of the best documentaries I've seen, and "State of Play" manages to effectively condense a miniseries into a two hour movie with little loss or confusion.  "The Last King of Scotland" was also very good, but it required background knowledge of Idi Amin (played by Forest Whitaker in an Oscar-winning performance) that I did not have.  Macdonald's work is effective, although never standout, until the end.

The film details the events of the 1972 Munich hostage crisis.  A group of Palestinian terrorists stormed into the rooms of some Israeli athletes and held them hostage.  They, and a few of the terrorists, were killed during a botched rescue attempt.

"One Day in September" doesn't go into much detail, but it efficiently tells the story of how arrogance, fanaticism and shocking incompetence left more than a dozen people dead and shocked the world.

I liked how Kevin Macdonald doesn't sermonize.  He lets the players speak for themselves...at least for the most part (one would believe that the officials who completely bungled the rescue attempt are still smarting from the disaster.  Unless they're deceased, which after forty years is a real possibility too).  He gives voice to the lone surviving terrorist (who appears on camera for the first time) and while it's not enough, it does give us a brief understanding of their motivations and how these terrorists were able to commit these horrible acts (the terrorist is still proud of what he had done because it brought attention to the plight of the Palestinians).

I also liked how he used archive footage to tell the story.  Save for the interviews (which are brief but tell us what we need to know) and come basic computer animations to show what happened during the botched rescue attempt, it's all footage from the actual event.  I was surprised at how much of it there was, although given the attention paid to it at the time, I guess I shouldn't be.  The voiceover narration by Michael Douglas (I guess Morgan Freeman was unavailable, although Douglas fits the material better) is sparse; Macdonald only uses it when it's necessary.

Macdonald keeps things moving.  He uses a little too much footage of the 1972 Olympics to set the scene, but for the most part the film moves at a nice clip.  It's engaging and once it starts, it never slows down.  But the ending is so bad that I was actually questioning whether Macdonald had any respect for the victims.  There are times when the film seems more like a thriller than a tragedy, but I was willing to forgive because the tone was respectful.  But when everything has gone up in smoke, Macdonald shows the carnage with rock music that is grossly inappropriate.  What was going through his mind when he decided on that?

Save for the ending, this is a decent documentary.  It tells the story that Spielberg rushed through in "Munich," although his focus was on what happened after.  It has a heart (Macdonald humanizes a few of the athletes, specifically Andre Spitzer through the words of his wife and daughter, although few of the others are given their due), and the story is engaging.  But the ending sinks it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

From Paris With Love

3/4

Starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, John Travolta, Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence Throughout, Drug Content, Pervasive Language, and Brief Sexuality

"From Paris With Love" is the action movie equivalent of an energy drink.  It's too carbonated to contain any real substance but it contains lots of energy.  It's similar to, although not quite as stylish as, "Shoot 'Em Up," which was released three years earlier.  If you liked that live action cartoon, you'll like this one.

James Reece (Rhys-Meyers) is a young agent living in Paris.  He's eager to get a promotion and start doing real work, but for the time being he has to moonlight as an aide to the American ambassador (Durden) while performing minor errands like changing license plates.  That all changes when one night (the night that his girlfriend Caroline (Smutniak) proposes to him, no less) he gets a call that one agent is held up at customs and Reece has to get him out and drive him around.  The agent is Charlie Wax (Travolta), a loose cannon who loves guns as much as he loves women.  Charlie is intent on taking down a bunch of terrorists, leaving James to tag along and try to keep up.

The role of Charlie Wax might as well have been tailor made for John Travolta.  Charlie Wax is the kind of foul-mouthed over-the-top maniac that the actor plays so well.  Travolta is clearly having a ball, and he brings to mind his role (well, the majority of it) in John Woo's masterwork, "Face/Off."  Charlie Wax isn't as developed or as strongly written as Castor Troy/Sean Archer, but he's fun to watch nonetheless.  Less impressive is the usually impeccable Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.  The Irish actor is superbly gifted (he should have gotten an Oscar for his performance in "Match Point"), but it takes a certain amount of charisma and screen presence to play a lead in an action movie.  Rhys-Meyers tries his best, and there are times when he succeeds, but he can't stand on his own next to a force of nature like Travolta.  Kasia Smutniak is quite good as James' sexy girlfriend as well.

The film was directed by Pierre Morel, the protoge of Luc Besson.  Besson is the French equivalent of Jerry Bruckheimer; none of his films belong in arthouses.  By and large, they're loud, violent and packed with action.  Morel directed "Taken" (but not its sequel), which I found to be overrated.  Here, he's found a groove, even if it's totally superficial.  With a movie like this, it doesn't really matter.  All that matters is that it contains enough action and adrenaline to satisfy.  It does.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Man with the Iron Fists

1/4

Starring: RZA, Russell Crowe, Rick Yune, Lucy Liu, Jamie Chung, Dave Bautista, Byron Mann, Daniel Wu

Rated R for Bloody Violence, Strong Sexuality, Language and Drug Use

RZA's "The Man with the Iron Fists" is meant to be a love letter (or should that be "blood letter?") to those cheesy kung fu specials that were a cult sensation back in the day.  I haven't seen those movies, and I'm not one who has a taste for those "so bad they're good" movies (although there are a few that I do like).  Regardless, I can still say that I saw this movie and thought it sucked.

The story takes place in some warped version of ancient China, probably circa the late 1800's.  Steampunk weaponry, weapons that may well have been designed by Rube Goldberg's ancestors, and traditional Chinese buildings and clothing.  The governor (Terence Yin) wants to transport a sizable amount of gold, but to do that, he must transport it through the crime ridden town of Jungle Village, in which crime runs rampant.  He enlists Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen) to accompany it along the journey, but he his betrayed by his lieutenants, led by Silver Lion (Mann).  Gold Lion's son, Zen Yi (Yune), learns of his father's death and returns for revenge.  Also in the mix are a reluctant (of course) sword maker (RZA), the head of a brothel, Madam Blossom (Liu) and a British adventurer with an unknown agenda (Crowe).

The film's main flaw is that I didn't care about anyone or anything.  RZA makes Blacksmith (as he is called) into what is probably the least interesting character in recent years.  Byron Mann is incredibly irritating (clearly, his thespian skills haven't improved in the 13 years since the last movie I saw him in, James Foley's wretched cop thriller "The Corruptor").  Lucy Liu is awful, although not in the "good" way she probably intends.  Russell Crowe appears to be enjoying himself immensely, although he seems to know he's in a cheesefest, which makes him stick out.  He is the most watchable character in this film, however.  The only one who gets what the movie is trying to be is Rick Yune.  He's got his tongue planted just far enough in his cheek that he's neither too serious nor too fatuous.

RZA is considered one of the greatest hip hop producers of all time.  Based on the evidence, that's what he should stick to.  He has no grasp of what it takes to make a movie, or bring a character to life.  The film is sloppily made, and the action scenes are boring and dizzying because RZA insists on close ups during them.  At least he had a decent editor; the original cut was four hours long, and RZA suggested that they split it into two films until Eli Roth convinced him not to.  Thank God for that.

Mike's Musings: Are Video Games Going Down the Same Road as Movies?

A few weeks ago, I read an article that bemoaned the trend of video games these days.  The author claimed that they were going down the same road as movies: all remakes/reboots and franchises.  I disagree.  In fact, I believe that we are in the Golden Age of video gaming.

When a big budget movie comes out, it's really almost a rehash of the first one, moreso with a remake (Christopher Nolan's movies being an exception).  When a big budget game comes out, it's substantially different in a number of ways.  The graphics are improved.  The story is different.  There are more weapons, options and locales to experience.  Take the "Halo" franchise for instance.  The original was widely hailed as a masterpiece, and a landmark in gaming history.  It raised the standard for first-person-shooters (FPSs) in a similar way that the N64 version of "GoldenEye" did.   When the sequel came out nearly three years later, the creators had improved the graphics and begun to go deeper into a story that they had only begun to reveal in the original (in this respect, it's like the "Star Wars" franchise.  The first is a self-contained story, but the sequels build upon it).  They took chances (you got to play as one of the enemies who became an ally), and there were new weapons, enemies and locations.  It felt like the first game, but it also had its own identity.  In short, it did exactly what every sequel should.

As for remakes, the same rule applies.  For example, when they remade "GoldenEye," they completely revamped the game to the extent that it was totally different.  The changes were unsuccessful in my opinion and they turned it into another generic shooter, but that's beside the point.  The point is that when they remake a game, they're improving upon it and experimenting to make it better.

Of course, there are games that are simply old games transferred to new systems.  This is a deliberate choice, and it fills a need that Hollywood is neglecting: nostalgia.  Often times, these games came out on systems that are 10 to 20 years old.  Finding a system and game that old, much less in working condition, is incredibly difficult (not to mention possibly expensive).  Adapting it for a new system gives older players a chance to relive their childhood memories and also give younger players the chance to have the same experience.  Usually the graphics and gameplay are improved, as well.

What also must be mentioned is that there are big games being produced that aren't franchises and don't automatically get sequels.  For example, the Xbox game "Bulletstorm."  It was very successful and doesn't have any sequels (although I wish it did).  "Rage" was proclaimed as the next big game.  It was an open world shooter, and it was clear that they spent a lot of money on it.  That was a stand-alone game too.

The difference, as I see it, between movies and video games in this regard is two-fold.  First, the video game industry is still growing.  It's constantly changing, and they're pushing the boundaries of what games can do.  They're experimenting with new ideas and adding qualities that keep the games fresh and alive with each new installment.  They tell new stories that engage the viewer (when I got my hands on "Halo 3," I raced through it as fast as possible to see what happened to the characters, despite the fact that I was going to get a copy of my own a month later for Christmas).  There are exceptions to this rule, but they mostly flop.  Movies, on the other hand, are simply throwing special effects at the screen and leaving out everything audiences like in order to be the jack-of-all trades.  Sure, aggressive marketing can earn the films a profit, but outside of Nolan's "Batman" movies and "The Avengers," when's the last time you heard someone truly rave about a movie?  Even "Avatar," the all-time box office king (inflation aside) has long since faded from public consciousness.

The second difference is that the gaming industry is in touch with its audience's desires.  They want sequels.  There are midnight releases for a huge number of big games.  Yes, there are midnight showings of new movies every week, but apart from "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises," when was the last time anyone was eagerly awaiting a movie?  Hollywood, on the other hand, is making sequels for one reason: the movie makes a profit.  It makes fiscal sense, but I mean, come on, is anyone really waiting with baited breath for "Captain America 2" or "Thor 2?"  Not every profitable game gets a sequel, but it seems that every movie that makes a dollar more than the budget gets one.

Will the gaming industry turn down the same road as Hollywood?  Time will tell.  Video games are becoming more expensive to produce ("Grand Theft Auto IV" cost $100 million, the same as many big budget movies), but the difference is that the game makers know that there's always room for improvement and more options.  As long as they keep pushing the limits and giving gamers more of what they want, I don't think it's going to matter.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Skyfall

3.5/4

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney

Rated PG-13 for Intense Violent Sequences Throughout, Some Sexuality, Language and Smoking

When "Die Another Day" was poorly received ten years ago, cinema's longest running franchise was sent into turnaround once again (it should be noted, however, that the film did boast a handsome profit of $431.9 million against a $142 million budget).  James Bond was rebooted dramatically with "Casino Royale" (a serious version of the 1967 spoof starring Peter Sellers and David Niven, who were the stars of the "Pink Panther" movies).  The change was dramatic.  Gone were the days of over-the-top action, sexy ladies and cool gadgets.  "Casino Royale," which was directed by Martin Campbell (who directed my favorite Bond adventure, "GoldenEye,"), followed the trend established by Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins."  The new Bond movie was gritty and ultra-realistic (something that didn't particularly endear me to the film like it did for many others, apparently).  His next adventure, "Quantum of Solace," was ruined by Marc Foster imitating Paul Greengrass, who frenetically shook the camera and cut the film frenetically every time a gun fired.  Due partly to legal issues with MGM going bankrupt, it has been four years since "Quantum of Solace."  Thankfully, it's worth the wait.

James Bond (Craig) is after a man named Patrice (Ola Rapace, ex-husband of Swiss star Noomi Rapace).  Patrice is carrying with him a hard drive that contains a list of all the secret agents in the field.  He's working for a man named Silva (Bardem), and he has a very personal beef with M (Dench).  And he'll stop at nothing to get his revenge.

The cast is effective, as is usually the case.  Even after four years, Daniel Craig slides easily back into the role of James Bond.  Craig is a good actor, and his performance is effortless.  Judi Dench, the reliable actress that she is, makes M into a more melancholy and regretful woman.  Naomie Harris is solid, if unspectacular, as Eve, Bond's sort-of partner for the proceedings.  The weak link is Javier Bardem, surprisingly.  Bardem does what he can, but unfortunately Silva is pretty generic.

That's actually the problem with the film.  The story, including the villain's motivations, has been done so many times before (bad guys get a list of secret agents...it's the fall back for every spy thriller devoid of ideas), and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan are too afraid to take any chances.  Sure, they sometimes manage to do things differently, but in the end it turns out to be a retread.

What saves the film is the direction by Sam Mendes.  Mendes burst on to the Hollywood scene with his first film, "American Beauty," for which he won a Best Director Oscar.  Apart from his next film, "Road to Perdition" (also starring Daniel Craig), he hasn't done an action film until now, which makes the selection of him as a Bond director curious.  The results speak for themselves.  The action sequences are fantastic, the opening one particularly so.  They're stylishly filmed and provide huge jolts of adrenaline.  Mendes doesn't resort the new standbys of shaking the camera and frantically cutting the film.  They're relatively clean and therefore more exciting.  The cinematography by Roger Deakins and score by Thomas Newman are also top-notch.  Mendes does what he can to liven up the proceedings by skillful filmmaking and storytelling, and it's surprisingly a lot.  But despite his best attempts, the middle portion of the film sags because of the derivative script.

In the end, "Skyfall" works because it goes back to the fundamentals of the Bond genre.  It's not as over-the-top as Brosnan's films, but it's not hopelessly muted or grim, and contains all the elements that we expect from a Bond movie.  Finally, after 15 years, James Bond makes a big comeback on his 50th anniversary.

Yes, dear readers, James Bond has returned.

The Gift

3/4

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, J.K. Simmons, Chelcie Ross, Gary Cole, Kim Dickens

Rated R for Violence, Language, and Sexuality/Nudity

It is one of cinema's great pleasures to see Cate Blanchett on screen.  She's immensely talented and beautiful, and she never repeats herself.  With one exception, "Notes on a Scandal," Blanchett has always given dynamite performances.  Whether it's playing England's greatest monarch ("Elizabeth," her breakthrough role), a powerful Elf queen ("The Lord of the Rings" movies), or a dame in an homage to the classic potboilers ("The Good German"), Blanchett always delivers.

"The Gift" couldn't have come at a more perfect time for Blanchett.  Although she gained acclaim and exposure (not to mention an Oscar nomination, which she should have won) with "Elizabeth" two years earlier, she was stuck in supporting roles after that (the lame flop "Bandits," the even lamer "Pushing Tin," the Oscar Wilde film "An Ideal Husband" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," where she was severely underused).  With Sam Raimi's film, she was given the lead in a mainstream film surrounded by a well-known and talented cast.  The risk was that she'd get drowned out by all the star power.  But with Blanchett, that never happens.

Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a psychic in a small southern town.  Unlike most psychics, she can actually do what she claims.  She's poor after the death of her husband a year ago, and is looking after three boys.  Social security helps some, but she has to read cards for clients to make ends meet.  There are a few townspeople who drop in regularly, including the unstable mechanic Buddy (Ribisi) and Valerie, the beaten housewife who lacks the strength to leave her husband Donnie (Reeves).  Also living in town is Wayne Collins (Kinnear), the kindly principal who is engaged to Jessica King (Holmes), the daughter of the local rich businessman Kenneth King (Ross).  One night Jessica goes missing and the police, led by the disbelieving sheriff, Pearl Johnson (Simmons), have no one else to turn to but Annie.  Of course, since she may be able to find Jessica when no one else can, her life becomes threatened.

Director Sam Raimi, who at this time was moving away from the cult movies that put his name on the map, takes his time telling his story.  The murder mystery aspect doesn't get moving until the film is half over.  Raimi wants us to get to know all the characters, especially Annie.  Everyone has their secrets, and they all have a part, if tangentially, in what unfolds.  While one can argue that he takes too much time doing this, it never gets boring.

The acting, as expected, is standout.  Blanchett makes Annie into a woman who is simply using what she has to get by.  She's a normal person who has an extraordinary talent that's as much a curse as it is a gift.  Giovanni Ribisi is very good as the town oddball, playing the character with sympathy while giving us a sense of unease.  We never know what he is capable of.  Hilary Swank makes for a good battered woman.  This is Swank when she works at it, not when she's on autopilot, and the difference is clear.  Katie Holmes is excellent as the town sexpot, and Greg Kinnear does what he does best: play the everyman.  Keanu Reeves is the weak link.  He's not bad, but he is uneven.  When he is active and energetic, he becomes frightening, but low-key intensity is not his strong suit, and when he has to act like that, the words don't come easily from his mouth.  Character actors Chelcie Ross and J.K. Simmons provide solid support (with the latter providing some dark humor along the way).  Kim Dickens reminds us once again why she never hit it big.

With the lead character being a psychic, the film runs the risk of turning Annie into a walking, talking deus ex machina.  In other words, she could have become a plot device that has key revelations only when the plot requires her to.  But the script, by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, is too smart for that.  Annie can see into the future, but she can't see everything.  That lends an authenticity to her character and keeps the plot from becoming mechanical and predictable.

Sam Raimi has a good sense of atmosphere (this can be seen in the masterful and underrated thriller he made two years earlier, "A Simple Plan").  We soak in the swampy bayous, the poor county life, and the sense of menace.  What the film doesn't have is rhythm.  Most thrillers grow in suspense at specific intervals to keep us involved ("Copycat" and "Dead Again" are two examples of how this is used effectively).  "The Gift" kind of just moves from beginning to end.  That's not really a failure of the film, but Raimi doesn't highlight the twists like he should.

"The Gift" is the kind of movie you watch when you want to relax.  It's safe, it's comfortable, but it works, too.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

3/4

Starring (voices): John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch

Rated PG for Some Rude Humor and Mild Action/Violence

The idea behind "Wreck-It Ralph" is promising.  Video games have become one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and Hollywood has tried to tap into that (usually with subpar results, like "Wrath of the Titans").  What makes "Wreck-It Ralph" different (and what makes it work) is that even though it is about video games, it doesn't try to be one.

"Wreck-It Ralph" boasts an intriguing premise.  The video game characters at Mr. Litwak's (Ed O'Neill) arcade function in the same way we do.  They live in their games, yes, and they play their characters from open til close.  But once the arcade's doors are shut for the night, the characters go socialize with each other.  For example, the game where the player controls the bartender sliding drinks to everyone who comes in as quickly as he can becomes a waterhole for the characters who need to unwind after a long day.

No one needs to unwind more than Wreck-It Ralph (Reilly).  He's the villain in the classic game "Fix-it Felix, Jr."  Every game needs a good villain, but after 30 years, it begins to bear down on him.  Especially since he gets no respect for it (the other characters live in the apartment that is the setting of the game, but he's forced to live in the pile of leftover bricks from each game).  The final straw is when he crashes the 30th anniversary party that the characters are having (he wasn't invited), and when he demands their respect due to his importance in the game, they tell him that if he wins a medal like Fix-It Felix (McBrayer), they'll allow him to live in the penthouse.  So, Ralph decides to take them up on the offer.  He goes to the new action game, "Hero's Duty," which is led by the tough-as-nails Calhoun (Lynch).  He gets his medal (in an unorthodox way), but on his way home, he's forced to take a detour and ends up in the racing game "Sugar Rush."  There, he meets a glitch named Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman), who's determined to prove herself.  Because she stole his medal, he's forced to help her win one before he can go home.  The trouble is that without Ralph in his own game, "Fix-it Felix" is being labeled as out of order, and unless it gets fixed soon, it gets taken away, leaving all the characters homeless.  And there's more trouble afoot as well.

Although that set-up is lengthy, the film is really simple (as all films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki are).  The problem is that it's too full.  There's so much stuff going on that it becomes hard to care about anyone in this movie.  The subplot about the villains from "Hero's Duty" infiltrating "Sugar Rush" is extraneous (not to mention poorly explained.  It's enough to have Ralph's story and Felix's story (Lynch is great as Calhoun, so they should have found a simpler way for her to tag along).

The film also doesn't take full advantage of the premise.  I've always found it to be really cool to watch beloved characters act like real people, such as in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"  "Wreck-it Ralph" has some of that, but not enough, and what is there is kind of mundane.  The film is also lacking in wit.  It's not that the jokes aren't funny, it's that they simply aren't there.

The voice acting is great.  John C. Reilly is probably the only guy who could play the title character.  Reilly is so good at playing the put-upon everyman, and that's exactly what Ralph is.  Sarah Silverman is good as Vanellope, but she doesn't touch the heart.  Like Reilly, Lynch is perfect for the role of Calhoun.  She's a tougher, less manipulative version of Coach Sue from "Glee."

Maybe I liked the idea more than the movie itself, but I enjoyed myself during "Wreck-it Ralph."  Not as much as I would have liked, but I did.

Away From Her

3/4

Starring: Gordon Pinsent. Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson

Rated PG-13 for Brief Strong Language

Although it would seem like "Away from Her," an independent film aimed solely at adults, and "The Notebook," a tearjerker aimed at teenage girls, would have nothing in common aside from the subject matter, the truth is that they're actually quite similar.  Both deal with the sadness that comes along with the fading of memories associated with Alzheimer's.  The two films explore it in different ways, but the feel is the same.

Grant (Pinsent) has been married to the lively and spirited Fiona (Christie) for more than 40 years.  But she's losing her memory, and it quickly becomes clear that these aren't just "senior moments," as they're called.  Eventually, Fiona decides to move into an assisted living facility, but they have a policy that for the first 30 days new residents can't have visitors...even close family members.  Grant doesn't like the idea because he's in denial about his wife's illness, but she insists. Once the 30 days are up, however, Grant finds out that Fiona no longer recognizes him.  Now he has to watch her from afar as she begins to dote on another patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy).

Before I go pointing out the film's flaws, let me tell you what the film does right.  First and foremost, the mood of the film works.  Actress-turned-director Sarah Polley tells her story slowly, careful not to break its thoughtful and emotional spell (credit must also go to the cinematography by Luc Montpellier and the score by Jonathan Goldsmith).  The acting by the two leads is also superb.  Gordon Pinsent, a Canadian actor, is wonderful as the depressed and lonely Grant.  He had been unfaithful to Fiona during their marriage, and he views her illness as either an act or a twisted sense of karma.  Likewise, Julie Christie is also excellent.  Even as her Alzheimer's progresses, we can see her spirit and kindness.  It's no wonder that Grant is so in love with her.  Wendy Crewson is a little rough around the edges in her first few scenes, but she's mostly good as the administrator.  We all know someone like her: super professional to the extent that she doesn't have time to form the connections she thinks she has with the people who wander in and out of the building.  Also good is Kristen Thomson, who plays the helpful nurse Kristy.  She's everything that administrator Madeline isn't, and is exactly the helpful ear and adviser that Grant needs.

Now for the flaws.  First, while the script is well-written, there are times when it either gets too literate or too oblique (or both).  It's not enough to sink the picture, but it does take you out of the moment.  Second, the pacing is a little erratic.  For example, it takes all of two seconds for the one month no-visit policy to be over with.  Wouldn't it have been wise to show how Grant is struggling to keep going during that?  Also, Olympia Dukakis, who plays Aubrey's husband, is miscast.  Dukakis is known for playing brash older women, like in the "Look Who's Talking" franchise.  Here, playing a woman in a similar position to Grant, she's not given a role that suits her talents.

Do I recommend it?  Well, do you want to see a movie about Alzheimer's?  I'd imagine that a lot of people wouldn't.  While this film is good, it's not strong enough that a person should see it if they have a personal connection to the disease.  Some movies are good enough that they demand to be seen by everyone regardless of past history.  This isn't one of them.

Monday, November 5, 2012

September Dawn

1/4

Starring: Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Jon Voight, Shaun Johnston, Taylor Handley, Terrence Stamp

Rated R for Violence

I suppose I should be offended by this film (like Roger Ebert was).  It portrays Mormons as traitorous, manipulative fanatics who don't have a single brain cell between them and were lead to commit a massacre at the words of a mentally ill psychopath.  Had the film been better made, I probably would have.  But the film is too silly, too badly acted and too incompetently told to take seriously.  I'm not telling you to avoid it because of its subject matter.  I'm telling you to avoid it simply because it's a terrible movie.

The story takes place in the 1857 (although the film is bookended by two different sets of flashbacks.  By and large, it tells the story of imagined events leading up to the fateful massacre of over 100 men, women and children who were traveling from Arkansas and Missouri to start a new life in California.

No one appears to be able to act.  Okay, fine, I suppose Trent Ford is okay (he's adequate when he's low-key, but when he has to show emotion, he becomes hilariously bad) as the hero, Jonathan Samuelson.  He's the lone Mormon who doesn't regard the gentiles, as they're called, with hostility.  Of course, he wins their trust and falls for one of them.  Her name is Emily (Hope).  She's not much better than Ford at acting (despite a striking resemblance to Chloe Sevigny, who stars on the Mormon-themed HBO show "Big Love"), but the two have good chemistry.  No one else bears mention, except for the question of what the hell is Jon Voight doing in this misbegotten film?  Clearly he's simply taking the money (despite its measly $11 million budget) since this is the worst performance he has ever given.  Terrence Stamp is good as the unhinged Bringham Young, but he's only on for a few scenes.

A big, but by no means the only, problem is that the script is awful.  It's shallow, cliche, and unimaginative.  The dialogue is at best bland, and at worst unbelievably bad.  But the worst thing is that it simplifies motives for the massacre into a simple revenge tale.  I mean really, are writers Christopher Cain and Carole Whang (her real name, actually) Schutter that inept?  Although revenge and fear of attack may have had an influence in their decision to kill the settlers, they never get us to understand why they would go that far.  As written, they're sadistic killers and nothing else.

The direction by co-writer Christopher Cain is just as bad as the script.  Almost none of the scenes land, and many are unintentionally funny.  Two scenes at the very end come to mind.  Not only are they cliches, but they're so bad that I burst out laughing.  There are other scenes like this as well.  If the subject matter wasn't so serious (not to mention dull), an argument could be made that this goes into the "so bad it's good" category.  There are certainly enough howlingly awful scenes to grant it membership.  Even worse are the action scenes.  They're badly choreographed and look incredibly fake.  The gore, the dying victims...none of it is believable.  I'll admit there is a little tension in the scenes leading up to the massacre, but it's mild and fleeting.

There's a kernel of an interesting idea that Christopher Cain only takes a moment to explore: fanaticism.  How can a culture, or a single individual, drive a person to do terrible things in the name of God or something else.  We see this happen often.  Cults, terrorism, ritual murder...all do so because of what they think they know about their higher power.  Had the film done more with this idea and presented a point of view about it, Cain might have been on to something (although considering the final result, maybe not).  Sadly, he uses tired cliches, stupid characters and hilariously bad dialogue to tell his story.  That's why this movie fails.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Boiler Room

3.5/4

Starring: Giovanni Ribisi, Nia Long, Nicky Katt, Ron Rifkin, Vin Diesel, Taylor Nichols, Tom Everett Scott, Ben Affleck

Rated R for Strong Language and Some Drug Content

Is "Boiler Room" a wish fulfillment fantasy that turns south?  A reflection of our culture?  An example of how an environment can turn a good kid into a narcissistic jerk?  Or is it a predictor for how we ended up in this cursed recession?  I think it's all of them...and more.

Seth Davis (Ribisi) is a college dropout who is running a successful casino from his apartment.  His father (Rifkin) despises him for it.  Luck comes his way when a friend named Greg Weinstein (Katt) drops by and lets him in on a job opportunity where he can make big bucks.  It's a stockbroking firm called JT Marlin, and it's run by Michael Brantley (Scott) and Jim Young (Affleck).  In the group interview, Young promises them that they will make their first million dollars within three years.  Seth gets accepted, and under the tutelage of Greg and Chris Varick (Diesel), he becomes a huge success.  But then Seth sees something by accident that raises suspicions that JT Marlin may not be as clean as it claims to be.

What's interesting about this film is how writer/director Ben Younger (in his first film), explores the culture that this kind of an environment creates.  Nearly everyone working at the firm is young: mid twenties to early thirties.  This much money with that kind of immaturity is an intriguing mix.  They're frat boys with money to burn, although most don't spend it wisely.  They're impulsive and on the go constantly.  They also have egos up the wazoo and take things deadly seriously (although I got the sense that they're trying to prove to each other how important they are; they know the dialogue in "Wall Street" by heart).

The acting is terrific.  Giovanni Ribisi is good as Seth, a smart but aimless guy who becomes one of the guys, but not to his benefit.  He wants nothing more than to impress his father, but it's a tough sell because his father hasn't heard of it and thinks it a lesser firm.  However, Ribisi is a good low-key actor who can also play intense characters (like in "Avatar," for example).  But crying doesn't come easy to him, and the scene where he is required to do so comes across as fake as a result.  Nia Long, who plays Abbie, the firm's secretary, is also good.  She's really the only person there who is actually kind and not a sociopath like everyone else.  Long is a good actress, and this performance shows what she is truly capable of.  The other actors do excellent work (there's nothing more sad than watching one of Seth's clients, Harry Reynard (Nichols) plead with Seth after he loses everything), although I must single out Ben Affleck.  Known primarily for playing low-key everymen, Affleck does an about face playing Jim Young, the head recruiter.  He's aggressive, forceful and brutal.  He's only on screen for a few scenes, but he dominates them and commands our strictest attention.

Ben Younger is a good but criminally underrated filmmaker (his next film was "Prime").  He has a firm command over the material, and his script is strong.  The only rookie mistake is that some scenes run a little too long (he could have shaved off about 15 minutes of the film and made it tighter and leaner).  And for someone who knows next to nothing about finance, the whole scheme doesn't make sense when it's explained ("Margin Call" suffered from this too).  But it really doesn't matter.  We understand what is going on and what it means if not how it works.

"Boiler Room" is really a wild ride.  It's intelligent and fiercely compelling.  Even if you have no interest in the financial world (I don't), it's still well worth a watch.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Chasing Mavericks

3/4

Starring: Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Leven Rambin, Abigail Spencer, Elisabeth Shue

Rated PG for Thematic Elements and Some Perilous Action

I wish I knew how to surf.  It looks really cool.  But here in the Midwest, the closest thing we have are skaters impressing each other with how close they come to performing a trick.  So, apart from the rare trip to a coast, the closest thing I have are movies like "Chasing Mavericks," where, done right, I can surf vicariously through the characters on the screen.

Jay Moriarty (Weston) is a surfer living in California.  He's basically raising himself because his mother's (Shue) drinking problem makes it difficult for her to keep a job, much less raise a kid.  But when Jay sneaks on top of his neighbor Frosty's (Butler) van and sees him surfing the mythical Mavericks (read: HUGE waves), he wants Frosty to teach him how.  Due to the nature of the Mavericks, Jay has 12 weeks to prepare for what may end up killing him.

This film is based on the true story of professional surfer Jay Moriarty (who died in a freediving accident in 2001), although like most films that are purportedly based on truth, what did or did not actually happen may or may not have happened in the film.  Doesn't matter.  This isn't a documentary.  What is on-screen works. It's compelling and it kept me engaged.

The best performance goes to Gerard Butler.  It takes a skilled actor to make a character who is essentially a jerk for half the movie into someone we like and understand.  The script, by Kario Salem (based on a story by Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hopper) uses surprisingly little melodramatic cliches to accomplish this.  We don't know much about Frosty's backstory.  Instead, Salem's script (plus Butler's talent) allow him to develop the character into a three-dimensional human being based on who he is, not what sort of traumas happened to him in the past.  Less impressive is Jonny Weston.  Apparently, there was an international search to find a lead actor to play Jay.  They should have looked harder.  Weston is stiff like no other...he's only marginally better than Taylor Lautner.  Rarely is he ever convincing.  This film could have easily been on my Top Ten list this year had a better actor been cast in the role.  He fades into the background against everyone else on screen.

The film shares two directors (Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted...both respected and talented filmmakers), although they didn't work together.  Hanson was the original director, although he had to drop out with three weeks of filming left due to health reasons.  The good news is that one wouldn't realize this change without being told.  There's no alarming change in tone or style; everything flows naturally as it were made by one filmmaker.  It's a little long, maybe, but it kept my attention and I didn't check my watch.  There are also a few minor subplots that are left hanging, but they are effective enough.  Surf nuts and sports movie lovers would do well to check this one out.

Urban Legend

3/4

Starring: Alicia Witt, Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Tara Reid, Joshua Jackson, Michael Rosenbaum, Loretta Devine, Robert Englund, John Noble

Rated R for Horror Violence/Gore, Language and Sexual Content

Call "Urban Legend" a guilty pleasure.  No, it's not a great horror movie.  It's pretty dumb, and there's about one too many murders to make things credible.  But the plot is interesting and, as is the rage in the post-"Scream" era, ironic.  And there are a some tense scenes.

Natalie (Witt) is a college student at Pendleton University in New England.  When a fellow student is murdered, she becomes on edge because it was an urban legend come to life.  That's when her friends start ending up corpses (in various stages of mutilation), also in the form of urban legends.  But who is the killer?  Is it the creepy professor who is teaching the class on urban legends (Englund)?  Or is it Dean Adams (Neville), who may be covering up one of the school's dirty secrets?  Or is it someone closer to home, like Paul Gardner (Leto), the school journalist who stays on the shady side of ethics?

As is par for the slasher movie course, the acting isn't the strong point.  Under different circumstances, I could see Alicia Witt being a good actress (James Berardinelli raved about her performances in the Candian film "Fun").  She's too serious (if that makes any sense).  The only compliments I can give to her co-star, Rebecca Gayheart, are that she possesses the requirements for every slasher movie female: great boobs and a great scream.  Her acting ability...not so much (although there are times when this becomes an asset).  Jared Leto is rather invisible as the hunky love interest.  Tara Reid shows why she became such a hot commodity a year later after she started starring in the "American Pie" movies.  The best performance goes to Joshua Jackson, who plays the practical joker frat boy Damon.  He's a lot of fun, especially considering he came from a background in kids movies ("The Mighty Ducks" franchise) and the TV show "Dawson's Creek."  Surprisingly, Robert Englund is weak.  And it's kind of fun to see a classical actor like John Noble in a slasher movie like this.

Director Jamie Blanks does not have a sterling resume.  Apart from this and "Valentine," he hasn't done much except a few short films and some direct-to-dvd flicks.  The answer is pretty obvious: he doesn't have much talent.  The film moves way too fast and lacks solid performances and character identification.  It is much more effective than his next film, however.  I'll admit that.

Look, I'll admit that this isn't exactly first class entertainment.  If you're looking for a superior slasher movie, this isn't it.  Rent "Scream," "Halloween," "Psycho," whatever.  There are plenty of other slashers out there that I will freely admit are of higher quality than this one.  I am giving it a 3/4 because I enjoyed myself, and I think there are others who will too.