Sunday, December 30, 2012

Singin' In The Rain

3.5/4

Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Millard Mitchell

Rated G

"Singin' in the Rain" is magical, and while it's a little overlong, it's also a lot of fun.  The songs are cheery, the romance sizzles, and it's often very funny.  But because it stars Gene Kelly, the dancing is standout.

Silent film stars Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lemont (Hagen) are America's sweethearts; they're the equivalent of Bennifer.  Everyone loves them and wants to believe that they're together off screen.  Of course that's not the truth.  Don feels nothing for her, but Lina thinks they're in love because that's what the tabloids say.  But with the arrival of the talkies, their stardom is threatened because Lina's voice is like fingernails on a blackboard.  Their luck changes when a girl who helped Don escape from rabid fans (before she called him on his large ego), Kathy Selden (Reynolds), has a beautiful voice and is willing to dub Lina.  Things get more interesting when Don and Lina start to fall for each other.

The dance sequences are the standouts.  Gene Kelly displays amazing athleticism and flawless skill with his extravagant choreography.  The numbers feel fresh because they're based on footwork and movement, not sexuality and flashy camerawork (not that movies like "Chicago" and "Step Up Revolution" don't have their pleasures).  Matching him beat for beat is Donald O'Connor, who plays Don's best friend Cosmo Brown.  Actually, because of his gift for physical comedy and quick wit, he upstages Kelly.  Ditto for Hagen, who gets a lot of laughs for portraying what has to be one of the dumbest, if not the dumbest, character ever to grace the silver screen.  Also worth mentioning is then-newcomer Debbie Reynolds, who displays a lot of innocence as the gentle Kathy.  She's very good.

The film is very funny.  Cosmo has a number of great one-liners, and the songs "Make 'Em Laugh" and "Moses" are very funny.  Despite not getting along on set (Kelly was reportedly something of a tyrant), Kelly and O'Connor have a natural and unforced chemistry together.  Kelly also has lovely chemistry with Reynolds, although they didn't get along either (Kelly insulted her for not being able to dance, but Fred Astaire found her crying under the piano and helped her learn).  And of course, Jean Hagen is side-splitting as the brainless star.

Kelly directed this movie with Stanley Donen, and they rely on simple yet effective staging.  There's no showing off, and what little visual effects it has are used sparingly and effectively.  They highlight the dance routines by not employing a lot of quick cuts like they do now.  It's obvious that the stars are performing their routines from beginning to end, which makes them all the more impressive.  The dancing is like vaudeville (which is where O'Connor got his start), and as a result, feels so alive.

It's overlong and the lead gets upstaged a little by just about everyone, but it's still a great movie (although not the classic that everyone claims it is).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Parental Guidance

2.5/4

Starring: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Tom Everett Scott

Rated PG for Some Rude Humor

To me, the only thing that comes close to being as irritating as the proudly nihilistic hipsters that have made Wes Anderson a demigod in independent film are the yuppie suburbanites who, due to their love of their kids, only eat organic food and spout pop psychology despite not knowing a thing about either.  They're so "trendy" they've lost sight of reality.  These people get the satirical treatment they so richly deserve, but it's neither clever or incisive enough to entertain.

Alice Simmons (Tomei) is embarrassed by her parents, Artie (Crystal) and Diane (Midler) Decker.  She considers them out of touch and old fashioned.  Alice is raising three kids with her husband Phil (Scott): Harper (Madison), a stressed out violinist who is so busy practicing that she has no time to live, Turner (Rush), who has a stutter and an image problem, and Barker (Breitkopf), who talks to an invisible kangaroo.  When Phil is called away on business for a week and asks Alice to come with him, she brings in Artie and Diane to look after her kids, but only the way she does it.  Of course, this leads to befuddlement then frustration on the part of the grandparents, who end up putting their feet down and start letting the kids be kids.

The problem with the film is that writers Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse don't go for the jugular.  While it's true that the film is aimed at families, that doesn't meant that it can't be clever or have bite.  Sadly, that's the case.  The funniest stuff is in the trailer.

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler make a good team.  Both are proven comic talents and capable dramatic actors (although this film places more emphasis on the former rather than the latter).  Marisa Tomei is also good as the helicopter parent who is so concerned with her kids succeeding that she's lost sight of their need to live life.  While it can't be said that there's nothing done with her character, there is ample material here that should have been gone after with both guns blazing.  Bailee Madison is decent as the pre-teen who has inadvertently been forced to grow up too quickly, and both Rush and Breitkopf turn in unforced performances as well.

The problem with the film is that the film lacks teeth.  I'm not saying that the film needed to be darker or edgier, but the targets should have been attacked with more wit and vigor.  Consider the scene at the minor league baseball game, where Artie finds out that there are no outs and every game wins in a tie.  The film points out how little sense this makes, but it could have gone further.  What would have really made this film stand out is if it went after why these people think the way that they do.  The film should have shown a mirror to how absurd and counterproductive it is to spend all your time trying to make your kids perfect\ rather than having them learn for themselves and make their own choices.  That is, after all, what the film is really about.

Breakdown

3/4

Starring: Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy, Kathleen Quinlan

Rated R for Strong Violence/Terror and Language

If Hitchcock ever made an action movie (as opposed to an adventure thriller like "North by Northwest"), I imagine it would be something like this.  It starts out as a potent psychological thriller where the villains are in control, but then the tables turn when their victim refuses to play along.  Sure, it could have been a much more potent and unsettling thriller without all the crashes and action at the end, but director Jonathan Mostow is no mere hack when it comes to creating exciting action sequences (he directed "U-571," also starring Jack Noseworthy).

Jeff Taylor (Russell) is moving to San Diego with his wife Amy (Quinlan in the first of two movies where a trip to San Diego goes to hell...the other being "The Hills Have Eyes" remake), and like everyone in this kind of movie, they decide to take the scenic route (note to everyone who wants to avoid running into nasty killers on road trips: stick to the freeways).  After nearly ramming into two rednecks, their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere.  Luck comes their way when a helpful trucker (Walsh) offers to take them to a diner down the road to call a tow truck.  Amy agrees, but Jeff stays with their new SUV.  Eventually, he gets the car started himself, but when he arrives at the diner, she's not there, and neither the bartender nor the barflys have seen her.  Through a stroke of good fortune, he finds the trucker who helped them, but he claims to have never seen them before.

It would be wrong to criticize "Breakdown" for doing what it does because it works.  Instead of taking the psychological thriller route, Mostow has made an action movie.  On those terms, the film works.  It's exciting, unpredictable, and contains consistent suspense.

The acting is effective for the film's purposes, but not standout.  This makes Mostow's decision to turn the film into an action movie a smart move because for a psychological thriller to work, the performances have to be top-notch.  Kurt Russell is adequate, but this is far from his best work.  He was a better everyman in "Executive Decision."  Part of the reason it's not as easy to form a connection with Jeff is because he's forced to do a lot of amazingly stupid things; he almost belongs in a slasher movie.  The late great J.T. Walsh is also uneven.  As a too-helpful Good Samaritan and liar, he's good, but Walsh isn't particularly menacing.  There are times when he seems miscast.  The less said about Kathleen Quinlan, the better.  Quinlan has never been a good actress, but fortunately, she's gone for most of the film.

Mostow has a good sense of pacing, but the atmosphere (an essential part of any thriller) is only so-so.  The cinematography by Doug Milsome is closer to a Troma movie than a psychological thriller.  Or an action movie.  The strong editing by Derek Brechin and Kevin Stitt picks up the slack, however.

I think I've described this movie as best I can.  If you're looking for a thriller that is more visceral than psychological, this is a movie that's worth checking out.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Single White Female

3.5/4

Starring: Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Steven Weber, Peter Friedman, Stephen Tobolowsky

Rated R for Strong Sexuality, Violence and Language

We like to think of our homes as our own.  They're a place of safety where we can go to relax and recharge our batteries after dealing with the rough outside world.  But how do you survive when that sense of safety is gone?

After Allison Jones (Fonda) discovers that her fiancee Sam (Weber) has cheated on her with his ex-wife,  she throws him out.  Her friend Graham (Friedman, sounding a lot like John Heard) tells her that she does not need a man in her life and is well-equipped to achieve her dreams on her own.  Still, the thought of living alone is depressing, so she puts an ad out for a roommate.  After interviewing all the freaks and losers, she chooses the last applicant, Hedra "Hedy" Carlson (Leigh).  Hedy is shy and sensitive, but handy around the house.  The two of them become close, as girlfriends are wont to do.  But Allie is starting to notice things about her new roommate that unsettle her.  Some, like buying the same clothes, is relatively harmless.  Others, like getting the same haircut and hair color, are creepy.  But when Allie lets Sam back into her life, Hedy goes from being meek and awkward to being possessive and downright psychotic.

What makes "Single White Female" so frightening is that it taps into our fear of being trapped with someone we fear.  Inevitably, there's going to be a little friction with two people living in the same place, but when you're living in the same place with a person who is growing more disturbing by the day with no way to get them out, it becomes stressful and violating.  Director Barbet Schroeder taps into this fear in a very real way.  Consider how angry Hedy gets when Allie spends the night at Sam's place without calling to check in.  "You're making me feel like I'm 16 years old here," Allie tells her.

The performances are perfect.  Bridget Fonda was given the choice of either playing Allison or Hedy, and she chose Allie because she felt it was the more complicated part.  After watching her here, it's impossible to imagine her as Hedy.  She's the consummate professional New Yorker, but unlike the stereotype, she's not a rude person who couldn't give a desperate man the time of day.  "You're too nice," Hedy tells her after her boss (Tobolowsky) sexually assaults her.  Fonda plays the character with the right mixture of vulnerability and strength to make her real and sympathetic.

As the increasingly unstable Hedy, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a fantastically creepy performance.  It's not just the way the character is written by Don Roos (the screenplay is excellent) or how she says her lines.  Leigh reveals a lot about Hedy through her body language.  Depending on the situation, she can be shy, scared or angry.  She doesn't react to situations as normal people would; there's something childlike in her mannerisms (she bites her lip a lot and at drags her hand across her face like a toddler when she's embarrassed) and how possessive and needy she feels towards Allie.  Hedy is a very real character, and that's what makes her so frightening.

The three members of the supporting cast are also top notch, but like most movies of this ilk ("Fear," "Fatal Attraction," "Misery," "Devil's Pond," "Bad Influence," etc), this is really a two character piece.  Peter Friedman is a good ear and problem solver for Allie as her gay neighbor upstairs.  Stephen Tobolowsky is surprisingly good; known for playing terminally nerdy characters ("Groundhog Day," "Sneakers," etc), the goofy looking character actor is quite effective as Allie's lecherous boss.  Steven Weber is the weak link.  As Sam, he's effective, but not standout.

Director Barbet Schroeder directs this film with a sure hand for atmosphere, and until the very end, pacing.  Hitchcock is clearly an influence, but the film bears a stronger resemblance to Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby."  The building is similar to the one in Polanski's classic, and so are the interiors. His cinematographer Luciano Tovoli makes good use of space.  In the beginning, the shots are wider, making the apartment seem bigger and more vacant.  As the film goes on, the shots become tighter and the apartment seems smaller and more cramped.  Editor Lee Percy does something similar with the rate of the cuts; the longer the film goes on, the quicker the cuts.  Both of these are key to increasing the tension to nearly unbearable levels.

But Schroeder remembers the key to making a superior entry into the "stranger within" genre (which, if you haven't figured it out yet, is what this movie really is): character development.  He takes time to establish the characters and nurture the chemistry between Allie and Hedy.  Fonda and Leigh have good chemistry as friends and, more importantly, as enemies.  We feel what we're supposed to feel because we understand and believe in the characters and their relationship.

The film stumbles in the final act.  Although it has a superior level of psychological tension and the climax is terrifying, it takes too long to get there.  There's a little too much talking and planning as the film goes into its inevitable standoff.  It's still very suspenseful because of the Hitchcockian element (I personally would have loved to see what Hitch would have done with this story), but the tension that had been growing for the better part of an hour flatlines.  It doesn't grow again until the climax.

Of the top three entries in this genre, the king is still "Fear."  Both "Fatal Attraction" and "Single White Female" are excellent entries into the genre, but this one narrowly comes in at number two because of its claustrophobia and the visceral tension.  For lovers of pure, undiluted terror, this is a must see.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Gamer

3/4

Starring: Gerard Butler, Logan Lerman, Michael C. Hall, Amber Valletta, Kyra Sedgwick, Ludacris, Alison Lohman

Rated R for Frenetic Sequences of Strong Brutal Violence Throughout, Sexual Content, Nudity and Language

The first time I saw "Gamer," I was thinking "What the hell did I just see?"  I liked what I saw, but there's so much going on and it is so fast and kinetic that it was difficult to piece together.  The second time around it was easier, and although it's far from flawless, it is guilty fun.

In the near future, reclusive billionaire Ken Castle (Hall) has found a way to take video gaming to the next level.  Not only are controllers unnecessary, players can control live human beings.  There are two games where players can do this (both controlled by Castle): "Society," which is essentially a live version of Second Life, and Slayers, where players can can control death row inmates who are fighting their way to freedom.  If they win 30 battles, they walk away with a free pass (but as we know, this has never happened).  The best Slayer is Kable (Butler), who is controlled by teenager Simon (Lerman), and he has to survive four more battles to win his freedom.  Of course, Castle can't let that happen because Kable knows some of Castle's dirty secrets (although he doesn't remember them).  But there are people who are prepared to help Kable win at any cost (a hacker group known as the Humanz) to expose Castle.  And there's a tabloid reporter, Gina Parker Smith (Sedgewick), who has stumbled onto the story of a lifetime.

No one really does any acting.  There's not enough time.  "Gamer" moves so fast that all the actors can do is play catch up, which they do.  Gerard Butler acts intense, Logan Lerman acts like an egotistic teen, Amber Valletta acts like a zombie (she's forced to be controlled by a fat loner named Gorge (Ramsey Moore) in "Society"), Kyra Sedgwick acts like a reporter, and Ludacris acts mysterious.  The only one who does any real acting is Michael C. Hall, who is having a ball chewing the scenery as the megalomaniacal Steve Jobs wannabe.  He's fun to watch (the scene where he gets his henchmen to dance along to a musical number is worth watching the movie for).  Alison Lohman is worth singling out, although for the opposite reasons.  She's awful.

Writing and direction duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor use every gimmick they can think of to keep the film's energy up: shaking camera (not too much), quick cuts, changes in cinematography, heads-up displays, and so on.  Some of this is cool, like when we see Logan controlling Kable from behind him.  Other times, it's excessive.  But we're talking about the directors of "Crank" and its sequel, and the producers of the underrated horror movie "Pathology" (also starring Milo Ventimiglia, who appears in a brief cameo).  Subtlety is not something these two understand.

"Gamer" is one of those movies that, while not great art, is decent entertainment.

Repo Men

2.5/4

Starring: Jude Law, Forest Whittaker, Alice Braga, Liev Schreiber, Carice van Houten

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut was rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Grisly Images, Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity

If the health care fiasco in the US wasn't so corrupt and bloodthirsty, the satirical bent of the plot would be funny.  But, since health insurance companies place their greed over human life, it's almost possible to believe that if the technology for artificial organs on demand existed, there might be a company like The Union.

The Union is a company that, for a price, will give you an artificial organ.  "You owe it to yourself.  You owe it to your family," they say to nervous customers.  And they have a right to be.  The prices are obscenely high  (600K+ for a pancreas, for example), but the interest is obscene (in one case, it's 19% to start).  But since the customers don't have a choice, they sign on the dotted line.  And if you can't pay your bill, they send the Repo Men to take it from you.

Remy (Law) and Jake (Whittaker) have been best friends for years.  They're also partners for The Union as Repo Men.  They don't care about the fact that the people whose organs they repossess usually die because, "A job's a job."  That philosophy changes for Remy when a repossession goes wrong and he has to have his heart replaced.  Being a person with an artificial organ personalizes the experience for Remy, and he's unable to do the job anymore.  Unfortunately for him, that means that he is unable to pay the bill, so he's forced to go on the run.  He meets up with Beth (Braga), who has more artificial organs than real ones, and they plan to take back their lives.

The acting isn't the best, mainly because the characters are so thin.  Jude Law coasts on his charisma, which is considerable.  He's not being lazy like he had been when his career went into a standstill, but this is not his best work (which, by the way, would be his breakthrough performance in "The Talented Mr. Ripley").  There are times, like when Remy is fooling around, where he seems miscast.  Forest Whitaker is also solid, but not spectacular.  He appears to be having fun playing a man of limited intelligence and be able to kick ass.  Alice Braga is in top form as usual, and her accent doesn't hamper her performance.  Sadly, Carice van Houten gets the short end of the stick; all she has to do is play Remy's bitchy wife, and she's only around for a few scenes.  The best of the lot is Liev Schreiber.  Normally a low-key character actor ("The Manchurian Candidate" remake, "The Omen" remake, etc.).  He has a lot of fun chewing the scenery as Remy and Jake's boss, Frank.  The film really comes alive when he's on screen.

First-time director Miguel Sapochnik has a gift for action scenes and special effects.  While not revolutionary, they are cool to look at and the action scenes are kinetic and bloody enough to get the adrenaline pumping to an acceptable amount.  If only he knew more about pacing.  The middle portion, where Remy is having a crisis of conscience while awaiting the Repo Man goes on for far too long.  Cut 10 minutes off and you'd have a decent movie.

The plot is derivative, yes, but it's guilty fun (especially the sex scene at the end, which is so gross that it could be called a parody).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Blue Steel

3/4

Starring: Jamie Lee Curits, Ron Silver, Clancy Brown, Elizabeth Pena, Louise Fletcher, Philip Bosco, Kevin Dunne, Richard Jenkins

Rated R for Strong Graphic Violence including a Rape, Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity (I guess...)

Can a movie with a script that is beyond silly be redeemed by excellent direction?  While I'm of the opinion that any script can work if handled correctly (sometimes it order to work, the script requires the film to be very tongue-in-cheek or extremely warped), it's a rare case when this occurs.  "Blue Steel" is a case in point.  The film starts off effectively, but the longer it goes on, the sillier it becomes.  However, it is very suspenseful and action packed.

Megan Turner (Curtis) is a rookie cop who is forced to gun down a shoplifter (Tom Sizemore in his first film appearance).  Because the gun is missing, she can't prove that he was even holding a gun, she can't prove that it wasn't murder.  So she's designated to desk duty, but luck comes her way when she meets a charming broker, Eugene Hunt (Silver), who sweeps her off her feet.  What Megan doesn't know is that Eugene was in the supermarket on the night of the shooting, and he stole the shoplifter's gun.  Now, he's using it to go on a killing spree, and it's up to Megan to take him down.

The performances are solid.  Jamie Lee Curtis is good as the rookie cop, although she looks a little old to be doing it and she's a little too well-known to be fully believable.  Still, Curtis has always been a solid performer even in the worst of movies (like "Drowning Mona"), and that hasn't changed here.  Curtis does all she can to hold the Megan's character together as the plot, and her actions, grow more and more absurd, but eventually it becomes too much for her.  She's more credible at the beginning.  Likewise, Ron Silver is also good until the material defeats him.  As a romantic and a stalker, he's good.  But as a violent schizophrenic, he's over-the-top.  Clancy Brown is his usual low-key self.  Louis Fletcher and Philip Bosco are good as Megan's parents, but the subplot about domestic violence is pretty superfluous, and the conclusion of it is pretty reprehensible considering what some women have to go through.  And it's always nice to see Elizabeth Pena on screen.  Richard Jenkins is interesting in a small role as Eugene's lawyer because he's actually allowed to show energy (he's usually so low-key that he's comatose).

I wasn't the biggest fan of "The Hurt Locker," the 2008 hit that made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar.  I thought it was overlong and very overrated (for me, the clear winner was "Avatar," which was directed by her ex-husband, James Cameron).  But with her third film, "Blue Steel," she shows that she knows what she's doing.  The action sequences are loud, violent and packed with adrenaline and suspense.

As a film, "Blue Steel" is lacking.  However, as a set piece for superbly crafted action sequences, it's worth seeing.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

3/4

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Sylvester McCoy

Rated PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images

Without a doubt, anticipation for the first installment of "The Hobbit" franchise was very high, despite audience outrage that it was being split into two, then three movies.  Still, despite being overlong, it's worth seeing.

When I watched and was absorbed by the first trilogy, I became curious about the dwarves.  Apart from Gimli, we didn't see many of them (none that had any speaking lines).  With "The Hobbit," the dwarves take center stage (apart from the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf the Grey).  It provides the film with an interesting flavor and eliminates redundancy.

The dwarves, as it happens, had a city in the Lonely Mountain.  They were forced out when the dragon Smaug barged in and nestled himself in all their treasure.  Now Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) has rounded up 13 dwarves to go back to the Lonely Mountain and serve Smaug an eviction notice.  To help them, Gandalf the Grey (McKellan) has enlisted the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) to tag along.

The acting is solid, except for the fact that apart from Bilbo and Gandalf, the only one who is developed at all is Thorin, and he's strictly two dimensional (and we only know Bilbo and Gandalf because of the previous movies).  Most of the other dwarves are indistinguishable from each other except by their appearance.

Other than that, the problem with this movie is two-fold.  First, not surprisingly, is the length.  At 2.5 hours, this film is way too long, and the beginning drags substantially.  Once the group gets to Rivendell, things pick up, but until then there were definitely times when I was looking at my phone.  The character of Radagast (McCoy) is almost entirely superfluous.

The second is that there's no clear plotline.  The film lacks a central villain and the film just ends.  There's no closure.  With "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers," each film had a beginning, middle and end while still tying itself to the other films.  That doesn't happen here.

I'm going to wait until I see the other two films to decide on whether or not the decision to divide the story into three parts was creative or financially driven, but as it looks now, it seems like a cold hard slap in the face to make audiences pay three times to see one movie.

About the 3D...

Like all big budget movies, "The Hobbit" is being shown in 3D.  I will say that the image is bright and detailed, and it's never obvious that it's 3D, so that part works well.  What doesn't work is that there are times when the 3D doesn't track well, and it looks laggy.

About the 48 frames per second...

In another shameless attempt to bilk moviegoers out of their hard-earned money, Hollywood has used "The Hobbit" as a testing ground for showing movies at a higher frame rate.  Theoretically, since there are faster frames, there's less time between them so it'll be more detailed.

That's the theory, anyway.  As for what it's really like...

Avoid it.  It's awful.  You know those rough edits they show of movies they show on those "making of" documentaries?  That's what this movie looks like.  It's so unreal that it's unbearably distracting.  I had to leave halfway through because it was so annoying (this, by the way, is why it took me so long to write a review...the second time I tried, my 3D glasses fogged up so I had to exchange them for a new pair and missed part of the movie).

In short, the best way to see this movie is in IMAX 3D.  Or 2D.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Turbulence

2/4

Starring: Lauren Holly, Ray Liotta, Hector Elizondo, Rachel Ticotin, Ben Cross, Brendan Gleeson

Rated R for Terror, Strong Violence and Language

"We seem to have a surplus of idiots on board."--Ryan Weaver
"Turbulence" is hilarious.  I was splitting a gut the whole way through.  From its cheesy look to its absurd plot contortions to the characters who have absolutely zero brain cells, this is a must see for bad movie connoisseurs.

Teri Halloran (Holly) is flight attendant whose engagement was just called off.  Naturally, she's a little depressed about this, but that's going to be the least of her problems.  She's flying from New York City to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, and along for the ride are two captured criminals: bank robber Stubbs (Gleeson) and "suspected" serial killer Ryan Weaver (Liotta).  Trouble starts when Stubbs gets free and starts killing people, and the ever helpful Ryan tries to get everything under control.  Of course, Teri eventually realizes that Ryan is in fact a psychotic killer, and he wants to crash the plane into a densely populated area.

How dumb is this movie?  Oh lord, where to begin.  Let's start with the set up.  Who in the right mind would transfer two violent felons on board a passenger jet, even if they are surrounded by cops?  Wouldn't the airline have a problem with that because of the bad publicity?  Or what about the Christmas decorations on the plane.  Isn't that a fire hazard?  Can a passenger jet fly upside down?  Would a sane person really trust a suspected serial killer that easily, no matter how kind and helpful he tries to be?

The script is so loaded with contrivances it's impossible to list them all.  There isn't a single character on board that has any brain power.  For instance, instead of killing Teri once she knows he's a killer, he babbles about books and movies with her (I know, I know, killers in movies always talk and toy with their victims before they inevitably get killed).  Or, how instead of flying the plane, Teri insists on going to help her injured friend (not knowing that she's already dead), even though she has (finally) grown suspicious that Ryan is actually a killer.  Or that she spend time making small talk with scary Ryan when the plane is heading into a Category 6 storm.

The premise is interesting, but writer Jonathan Brett takes the most roundabout and unbelievable routes to set it up.  And, the plot ideas are so ridiculous that you almost have to see it to believe it.  Director Robert Butler, a long time TV vet, doesn't help matters.  The film always looks stale; in fact, it looks like a TV movie (despite having a $55 million budget).  There are very few dynamic shots in this movie.

The acting isn't the best either.  Lauren Holly is miscast.  She doesn't have the presence or the talent to play an action movie heroine.  Ray Liotta chews on the scenery a lot, but he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself; the role is beneath him and he seems to know it.  Of the cast, the only ones who give good performances are Rachel Ticotin as the helpful crisis worker on the ground, and Ben Cross, as the helpful pilot who guides Teri in flying the plane.

I'll admit that I had fun watching this movie.  It's funny in an unintentional sort of way, but there is some legitimate suspense too.  I'm not going to recommend it because it looks so bad, but it could be a fun movie to watch when you're drunk.

Kingdom of Heaven (Director's Cut)


2.5/4

Starring: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Marton Csokas

The version being reviewed is the Unrated Director's Cut.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Violence and Epic Warfare

As much as I would like to say good things about Ridley Scott’s true vision of this Crusades story, I can’t.  The problem lies not with Orlando Bloom (as one might assume), but with the seriously confused script by “The Departed” scribe William Monahan and the bungled handling of some of the intrigue that goes on.

Balian (Bloom) is a blacksmith (not named William Turner) whose wife has recently committed suicide.  Being of Catholic faith, this condemns her to an eternity in hell, so he reluctantly agrees to go with the father he never knew he had (Neeson) to save the soul of his wife and his own.  But when he gets to Jerusalem, he finds that the city is not so much threatened by the Saracens (Muslims), but by the rift between the Templar Knights, who are acting on the word of the Pope and want to destroy the Muslims, and King Baldwin (an uncredited Edward Norton) and his supporters, who want to keep the peace and allow people of all faiths to enjoy the Holy City.

Orlando Bloom is like Michael Cera; he can only play one type of role, but when it fits, it works.  Eva Green is also good as Sybilla, Baldwin’s sister and later Balian’s lover.  Liam Neeson, David Thewlis and Jeremy Irons provide able support.  But it is Edward Norton who steals the show.  As the leper king, Norton is both wise and fatalistic, and he tears at the heartstrings as well.  It’s an especially amazing accomplishment since the mask he wears is really quite creepy.

The main problem with the film is its protagonist.  Until the end of the film, Balian really doesn’t do anything.  It seems he’s only in the film for the sole purpose of watching him go from being a guilt-ridden blacksmith to the de facto general of Jerusalem, something that happens entirely by coincidences.  It’s not credible and it lacks the rooting interest that the film needs to involve the viewer.

The intrigue that happens behind the scenes is both poorly written and ineptly handled.  It’s not always clear who is related to who and what a certain character wants.  There are also a few too many “words of wisdom” thrown out there.

There are a few good things about this film.  The cinematography is gorgeous and the setting is effectively realized.  And although the bulk of the film is confused and uninvolving, the final battle scene is superbly done.

I saw the Director’s Cut, but not the theatrical version.  I’ve heard that this one fleshes out a major subplot that was left out by nervous studio executives who wanted to keep the running time low.  As much as I respect seeing a director’s true vision, it still doesn’t help this film.

The Ghost and the Darkness


2/4

Starring: Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, John Kani, Tom Wilkinson

Rated R for Some Violence and Gore involving Animal Attacks

This could, and should, have been a good movie.  After all, what’s scarier than being hunted by a pair of maneating lions?  Unfortunately, the film (which is based on a true story) is a dud.  Some of the sequences are somewhat exciting, but everything else about this movie is a disaster.

Colonel John Patterson (Kilmer) is an engineer who is sent by a viciously ambitious contractor named Beaumont (Wilkinson) to build a bridge over the Tsavo River in Africa.  He’s under a lot of pressure (if he doesn’t get it finished in five months, Beaumont will destroy him), so the tribal and cultural strife of the workers only adds to the stress.  Just when things start to go smoothly, a pair of lions starts invading the camp and snacking on the workers.  Despite his best efforts, Patterson isn’t able to deal with the problem effectively, so Beaumont reluctantly sends in an expert big game hunter, Charles Remington (Douglas).  Now, Patterson and Remington have to figure out how to track down and kill the lions before they end up becoming their afternoon meal.

The film gets off to a solid start; the drama of building a bridge sets up an effective foundation for an action movie.  But when the lions start showing up, the problems begin.  The deficiencies in the script and director Stephen Hopkins utter lack of talent call attention to themselves continuously.

The film’s biggest problem with the film is that Hopkins has no idea how he wants to present the lions.  Are the anthropomorphized monsters who can think like humans, or are they merely one of the dangers of wild Africa?  Hopkins can’t decide, and he changes his mind depending on the situation.  That violates the most important rule for any horror movie: consistency is everything.

At least we have Val Kilmer as the lead.  Kilmer is a good actor even in the lamest of movies, and his sureness helps the film a lot.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Michael Douglas, whose performance as the wacky Big Game hunter Charles Remington is a lazy misfire.  In fact, Remington was an invention of the screenwriters, and it’s a big mistake to include him.  Not only is he poorly written, but Douglas is in full “take the money and run” mode (ironic since he was an executive producer for this movie).  A better match for Patterson is Samuel (Kani), his local assistant.  Those two work well together; Remington is a big fat zit.

I’ll admit that the film isn’t a total loss; the action scenes are often moderately exciting, and I liked the scene where Patterson and Kani playfully rebuff Starling’s (Brian McCardie) attempts to convert them to Christianity (Jerry Falwell, eat your heart out).  Unfortunately, the characters are skeletons and the storyline is constantly bungled by a talentless director.  Skip this one and watch “Congo” instead.

Dreamgirls

3/4

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles, Danny Glover, Eddie Murphy, Annika Noni Rose

Rated PG-13 for Language, Some Sexuality and Drug Content

“Dreamgirls” is not a musical, at least in the way that “TheLion King” and “Rent” are.  Oh, there are a lot of musical numbers, and more is revealed in the songs than in the spoken dialogue.  The difference is in the context in which they are presented.  When someone sings, it’s always either in a performance or a recording session.  With one exception, no one bursts into song suddenly like they do in traditional musicals.

Deena (Knowles), Effie (Hudson) and Lorrell (Rose) are three friends who have formed a singing trio called “The Dreamettes.”  While they have the talent to make it big, it takes more than that.  Help comes along when a car salesman named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx) spots them at a talent show.  Looking to get into the music business, Curtis arranges them to become the new backup singers to African-American rocker Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Murphy).  It doesn’t take long for Early to become a major star, and for The Dreamettes, now dubbed The Dreams, to become stars on their own.  But as we know all too well, success has a price.

The interesting thing is that “Dreamgirls” looks at the dark side of show business from a different perspective.  Yes, we all know that marketability trumps talent, but “Dreamgirls” actually examines this mentality.  We get to see the full devastation of this kind of thinking because Curtis is a complete sociopath.

The performances are effective, but for the most part, having a great set of lungs and the ability to carry a tune trumps all.  The performances most recognized are Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, and for good reason.  Hudson has a great voice, and she doesn’t just sing her songs, she imbues them with fire and pathos.  We know exactly what she is feeling when she is singing.  For an “American Idol” contestant, this should be a given (or considering what that show sells as talent, maybe not).  But unlike many popstars crossing over into film, Hudson can act.  Effie is stubborn and has a massive ego, the combination of which end up costing her dearly.  Likewise, Eddie Murphy shows us things that we have never seen.  Although he’s got the smile and the comic timing that we all know, he has the capacity to show emotion, and he’s got some great lungs as well.  Everyone else does their job, except Jamie Foxx.

The best performance in the film is also the most ignored.  At one point, Marty Madison (Glover), Early’s old manager, calls Curtis a “two-timing snake” and warns Early and the girls that he’s only going to use them.  Even he doesn’t know how right he is.  Curtis is as ruthless as they come.  His stars are products to him; their own feelings and desires mean nothing to him unless they may keep him from succeeding.  He has no soul or conscience; whenever he’s “sorry,” it’s only so the person won’t leave.  That is, unless they are of no use to him, in which case he disposes of them with no thought or care.  And boy, can he hold a grudge.

Unfortunately, the film has a few major problems.  For one thing, the first forty minutes are pretty rough.  There is little plot and even less character development.  Too much was left on the cutting room floor.  This is one movie where a few extra minutes would have done wonders.  Also, the songs only work in the context of the film; on an iPod, only one or two are worth listening to.

In the end, the second half is strong enough to warrant a recommendation, but barely.

The Mummy Returns

3/4

Starring: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Freddy Boath, Patricia Velasquez, The Rock


“The Mummy Returns” is the first sequel to the 1999 smashhit, and it’s surprisingly a lot of fun.  It’s also quite a bit different than its predecessor.  That one was a unique mix of horror, history and pulp adventure.  This follow up is almost all action; the only scenes where someone isn’t swinging a sword, shooting a gun or doing some kind of stunt are the ones that are included simply to move along the plot.  While I will make no statement saying that that the original didn’t play fast and loose with Ancient Egyptian history and mythology, “The Mummy Returns” goes even further.  Not that that’s a bad thing…

Set ten years after the first adventure, Rick O’Connell (Fraser) has married Evelyn (Weisz) and they have a young son named Alex (Boath).  The two are archaeologists (but considering some of their techniques, I think some people who practice the same thing in real life might have an apoplexy at that statement), and while they are investigating an ancient tomb, they find the Bracelet of Anubis, which was owned by the mythical Scorpion King (The Rock).  The Bracelet, as we learn gives the wearer control of the armies of Anubis (provided that he kills the Scorpion King first).  That’s bad news for humanity, because a group of cultists, led by Baltuz Hefez (Alun Armstrong) want to resurrect Imohtep (Vosloo) so he can kill the Scorpion King.  But before that can happen, young Alex puts on the Bracelet, so the cultists have no choice but to kidnap him and bring him to the Oasis of Ahm Shere, where he can awaken the mythical man.

In creating his script, Stephen Sommers did a number of things right.  First and foremost, he had the characters grow up.  Rick is a father figure and an adventurer rather than a reluctant hero, while Evelyn is tougher and less klutzy.  He also brings back minor characters for expanded parts.  Ardeth Bay (Fehr) is as much of a sidekick as Jonathan (Hannah) is, and Anck-Su-Namun (Velasquez) has been regenerated into one of the cultists (also played by Velasquez).  Imohtep also emerges as a genuine character, having been relegated to a largely wordless monster in the first film.

Probably the most important thing that Sommers does is that he streamlines most of the rituals from the first one.  We know how Imohtep and Anck-Su-Namun have to be regenerated, so it’s unnecessary to waste time showing how this is done.  Sommers knows this, and he condenses this material as much as he can.
Like their characters, the actors have grow into their characters.  Fraser and Weisz are back, and their chemistry appears to have grown up during the three years since the first film was released.  John Hannah is as funny as ever, although he has his moments of action and drama.  Vosloo proves that he doesn’t need special effects to convince us he’s a badass villain.  And Freddie Boath doesn’t sicken us with being too cute; on the contrary, he’s a foul-mouthed, mischievous little kid who doesn’t care if he’s kidnapped, he’s still going to drive the adults he’s with nuts.

In general, “The Mummy Returns” is action, action and more action.  In the first film, Sommers proved how adept he was at mixing exciting action and off-beat comedy.  He demonstrates the same skill, but takes it to the next level.  For once, the jokes rely more on timing than raunchiness.

Unfortunately, that comes at a price.  The storyline is paper thin, and there are more plotholes and less character.  Still, it’s definitely a lot of fun, although you’d be best to stop visiting the franchise after this one, since “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is anything but that.

The Roommate


2.5/4

Starring: Minka Kelly, Leighton Meester, Cam Gigandet, Aly Michalka

Rated PG-13 for Violence and Menace, Sexual Content, Some Language and Teen Partying

I suppose part of the reason why I’m giving this movie a lukewarm review as opposed to completely eviscerating it because I love these kinds of movies, and I fully expected this movie to end up on my Bottom 10 list for the year.  After all, it stars a cast of photogenic actors who made a name for themselves where good looks matter far more than acting talent (Meester in “Gossip Girl,” Gigandet in “The OC” and “Twilight”).  And it’s a PG-13 movie in a genre that demands an R rating.

The plot is virtually the same as “Single White Female” only transported to a college in LA (where else would a movie like this take place?).  Small town girl Sara Matthews (Kelly) has just moved into her new dorm, and has already made friends with the local party girl, Tracy (Michalka).  Her roommate only shows up when she comes home drunk from a party.  Her name is Rebecca (Meester), and she seems like the ideal roommate: sweet, good looking, and easy to like.  Apparently, Sara hasn’t seen “Single White Female,” or else she’d take Tracy more seriously after she claims that Rebecca was waiting outside her room all night for no reason.  Of course, Sara has other things on her mind, like her lecherous teacher (Billy Zane) and her new boyfriend, the sexy drummer named Stephen (Gigandet).  But when Sara mentions that she’s thinking about moving into her friend’s apartment, Rebecca takes it personally.  And that’s when things start getting ugly.

The “stranger within” formula works time and time again for a few reasons.  First, it takes time to develop the characters.  In slasher movies, the rule of thumb is the less you know about the killer/monster/evil villain, the scarier he is.  In the psychological thriller genre, it’s the exact opposite.  Second, it allows the tension to build slowly as the hero/heroine (usually the latter) is placed in harm’s way, but she’s too far in when she finally realizes it.  Again, high levels of tension can work from beginning to end, but it takes a master to pull it off, and most who attempt fail spectacularly.  Finally, actors are given the chance to act, rather than stand behind/in front of a mask and scream.  As long as the film succeeds in these four areas, it works.  Director Christian E. Christiansen manages to do this, albeit barely (he understands the rules a lot better than Curtis Hanson, who bungled other genre entries “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” and “Bad Influence”).

Surprisingly, the acting is effective.  Minka Kelly is good as nice girl Sara.  She’s like a big sister; sweet, loving and supportive.  Leighton Meester is less successful as Rebecca.  She’s good when she’s shy and introverted, but when she’s required to go loco, the role escapes her talents.  Cam Gigandet may never be known as a great actor, but he is good looking, which is all that’s really required here (surprisingly, he does not take off his shirt, which is something of a requirement for hot guys in movies like this.  He does constantly wear a skin-tight t-shirt, which is close enough, I guess).  He’s effective here, and generates a little heat with Kelly.

For a thriller, it’s surprising that the thriller elements are the least effective parts of the movie.  Actually, they’re often hilariously bad.  The film is on surer ground when it details what it’s like to be in college; this material rings true.

I can’t recommend the film; too much that’s supposed to work doesn’t, and the desperation of the screenwriter to follow the formula is evident in many scenes.  But for those in the target audience, at least you can be assured that there is other worthwhile stuff going on then ogling at your favorite TV stars.

Desperate Measures


1.5/4

Starring: Andy Garcia, Michael Keaton, Marcia Gay Harden, Joseph Cross, Brian Cox

Rated R for Violence and Language

You know, for the longest time, I kept getting “Extreme Measures” (the much better Hugh Grant medical thriller) and this movie confused.  Both films share half their titles, and they convey similar meanings.  But one thing that must not be confused is their level of quality.  “Extreme Measures” is a solid thriller.  “Desperate Measures” is anything but.

The premise has promise.  A cop named Frank Connor (Garcia) is in an unenviable situation: his son Matt (Cross) is dying of leukemia, and the only one who can give him a bone marrow transplant that will save his life is a serial killer named Peter McCabe (Keaton).  After much pressuring and begging from Connor, McCabe agrees to undergo the procedure.  But McCabe escapes and goes on the run.  He’s racking up an impressive body count, and the police are willing to kill him in order to stop the carnage.  But Connor can’t allow that.  If McCabe dies, then his marrow becomes useless, and his son will die as well.

Most thrillers do not rank up high on the intelligence scale.  It takes too much time to explain everything, and pacing is crucial in a thriller.  Therefore, it’s the director’s job to keep the tension to a high enough level that we don’t notice the flaws.  Surprisingly, Barbet Schroeder, who directed the near-brilliant “Single White Female,” is unable to accomplish this.

The main reason why this movie is so awful is because the script is really, really bad.  The cast is first-rate, but the script makes them do some really stupid things.  For example, after an explosion, Connor steals a motorcycle and crashes through the hospital door to go look for McCabe.  Really?  Wouldn’t have it been easier, and faster, to just jump off and run through the door?  Not to mention the fact it would draw unwanted attention from the cops who think you’re helping the killer escape.  Or how McCabe is able to frighten two police dogs by hissing at them.  And of course, the good guys don’t hit the killer when he’s down (this actually happens twice!).  I’ve seen slasher movie characters smarter than these guys.

The cast is atypical, but they do okay because they’re good actors.  Garcia, who is usually more at home in dramas, acquits himself reasonably well in the action hero role.  He gets the desperation down, which really helps us accept him.  Michael Keaton is surprisingly effective as the killer, despite the fact he’s better known for romantic comedies like “Multiplicity.”  Although his southern twang fades away fairly early, his performance is effective.  Marcia Gay Harden gives the best performance (which isn’t especially surprising) as Matt’s helpful doctor.  Brian Cox is utterly wasted as Connor’s higher up.

It’s kind of hard to fault Barbet Schroeder for the disastrous result of the film.  He’s working with a horrible script, but Schroeder doesn’t seem to try to plug any holes or smooth over the rough kinks.  He plays up the unnecessary action sequences in an attempt to keep the energy level up, but it only serves to show how dumb this movie is.  This is a psychological thriller that Hitchcock would have enjoyed playing with; gunfights and stunts fit in like a square peg in a round hole.

When will Hollywood learn that being able to sell a film (good premise, popular actors, etc.) is different than making a good film.  People may be brought into the theaters, but they surely won’t come back.

A Time for Drunken Horses

1/4

Starring: Ayoub Ahmadi, Rojin Younessi, Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini, Madi Ekhtiar-dini

Not Rated (Probably PG for Thematic Material)

It was about the time that "A Time for Drunken Horses" was released (2000) that I first started getting into movies.  I can't remember why I wanted to see it, although I distinctly remember my local paper giving it either a 3.5/4 or a 4/4 (I think it was the latter).  Still, I knew nothing about it.  It has taken until tonight for me to be able to see it.  It wasn't worth the wait.

After their father died, young Ayoub (Ahmadi) must get a job and take care of his siblings, including his crippled brother Madi (Madi Edhtiar-dini), who will die if he doesn't get constant doses of medication.  But the medication is failing, and unless Madi gets an operation in Iraq he will die (and an operation will only extend his life for 7 or 8 months).  Not only is the operation expensive, but the journey is dangerous.

The problem here is not the acting (all the actors, none of whom are professionals, do their jobs admirably) or the story.  Or even the pacing (slow movies like this have their place...anyone remember "A Separation"?).  The problem is that there's little story and no character development.  As a result, it's impossible to care about what happens to the characters.  Only during the final scene was I engaged.

To its credit, the film does two things right.  First, the cinematography by Saed Nikzat (this was his first film), is great.  The film takes place in the mountains of the Middle East, and it's a cold, bleak place.  It's gorgeous, but unrelenting.  Second, the film gives insight into what life is like in this kind of an environment.  It's not pretty, but the verisimilitude is astounding.  Sadly, neither one of these qualities make it worth sitting through the tedium that is "A Time for Drunken Horses."  And the ending is kind of a cheat, too.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Guilt Trip

1.5/4

Starring: Seth Rogen, Barbara Streisand

Rated PG-13 for Language and Some Risque Humor

"The Guilt Trip" is really two movies in one: an cringe-inducing comedy and a moderately effective comedy-drama.  The last act is decent enough, but definitely not worth sitting through the first hour to get to.

Andy Brewster (Rogen) is a young chemist who has a brilliant idea for a new cleaner he calls Scioclean (as in science + clean...ho ho ho).  Because his mother Joyce (Streisand) is lonely, he invites her to join him on a trip to sell his product.  It's a decision he's going to regret.

The nagging, neurotic mother is a stereotype frequently associated with Jewish women, but frankly, they're found across all faiths.  Everyone's mother nags them about this, that and the other thing (mine does).  That's their job.  Handled correctly, it could be the basis of a hilarious comedy.  Unfortunately, director Anne Fletcher does nothing with it and Streisand is so annoying that after 10 minutes I wished that Andy would have left her at home with duct tape over her mouth.

Streisand is horrible, but she's not the only problem.  Joyce is a caricature, which is especially surprising since the screenwriter, Dan Fogelman, wrote one of 2011's best films, "Crazy Stupid Love."  Andy is meant to be the straight man to her "comedy," but Rogen looks like he'd rather be anywhere else (one hopes that the pay was good).  The jokes aren't funny, and Joyce is an annoying harpy who never shuts up.  A half hour into this film, I wanted to scream, "SHUT THE HELL UP!"

The film picks up after Andy and Joyce have their obligatory "fight" where he tells her how annoying she really is.  Joyce's neuroses settle down and we get a chance to absorb the silence and the lack of her screeching.  It also gives the Streisand and Rogen a chance to act, which they are both capable of doing.  It was at the end that I got a little invested in Joyce's romantic past because she has stopped being such a shrew.  It's too little, too late, as the saying goes.

I admit to grinning a few times and chuckling out loud once (despite everything), but really, this trip is one you definitely do not want to take.  If you're looking for a road trip comedy featuring products no one cares about, just put in "Tommy Boy."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Spartacus (1960)

3/4

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Unistov, Tony Curtis

Rated PG-13 for Graphic Violence (I guess)

Stanley Kubrick is widely considered one of the top directors in film history.  It's not hard to see why.  Nearly every movie of his is considered a classic, and the two that I've seen ("Eyes Wide Shut" and "The Shining") are very, very good.  "Spartacus" is good, and I do recommend it, but it is not the classic that many believe it is.

The film details the life of the slave turned rebel Spartacus (Douglas).  After being sold to fight as a gladiator and being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of a nasty senator named Crassus (Olivier) and a few of his piggish friends, and has lost his love, Varinia (Simmons) to Crassus, Spartacus has had enough.  He revolts, and the rest of the slaves there escape with him.  They inspire a number of other slaves to join the rebellion, and soon their numbers grow astronomically.  Originally a laughable unfortunate event to the senate, it quickly becomes a threat to Rome itself.  Meanwhile, two senators seek to use this conflict for their own ends.  Crassus wants the conflict to explode so he can ride in and destroy it, thus become heroic and popular enough to become a dictator, while Gracchus (Laughton) wants to let them go free to prevent any more instability in Rome (due to the fact that Rome is already at war with someone else).

Unusual for a Kubrick movie, I found the performances to be lacking in many respects, especially the lead.  Kirk Douglas is a legendary actor, having starred in this, "Paths of Glory" (also directed by Kubrick), and "The Bold and the Beautiful."  But he underplays the role, which means that in an epic like this he threatens to get drowned out by everything else that's going on.  Compare this to what Mel Gibson did in "Braveheart."  Jean Simmons is good, although the germination of their relationship forms with a few sparing words and some exchanging of looks.  Not exactly the stuff to get the heart soaring.  Laurence Olivier is perfectly nasty as the vicious Crassus, although he could have used a little more energy.  Charles Laughton makes Gracchus into a man who is not as evil and duplicitous as he seems.  Peter Unistov (in an Oscar-winning performance) is quite good as Spartacus' former trainer, who seeks to profit from the conflict in any way that he can.  The best performance goes to Tony Curtis, as the soft spoken singer who becomes one of Spartacus' right hand men.

At over 3 hours, "Spartacus" is a long movie.  Although most epics are, "Spartacus" suffers from poor pacing.  Some scenes, in fact most, are great, while others tend to drag.  The script is also problematic.  Not only is the romance aspect underdeveloped (although Douglas and Simmons have chemistry with each other), the subplot with Gracchus and Crassus is sloppily written.  Interestingly enough, Kubrick didn't like the script either.  He was not given control of it and found it to be full of stupid moralizing.  That can be seen in some scenes where the dialogue exchanges are kind of hammy.  Kubrick does the best that he can, but even a filmmaker of his limitless talent would struggle with a script like this (after this film, Kubrick resolved to take control of all aspects of his films).

Also worth mentioning is the fact that Kubrick was not the original director.  David Lean turned the offer down, and Anthony Mann was fired when he didn't get along with Douglas.  Kubrick was then hired, but he is known for his intensive preparation for his films, which he obviously did not have time for on this project.  To his credit, the film always looks great (and with Kubrick's films, that's always a given).

Would this have been a better film if Kubrick had gotten to write and direct the film he wanted.  Probably, although no one can say for sure.  Still, this is a movie worth seeing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ravenous

3/4

Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette, Neal McDonough, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer, Stephen Spinella

Rated R for Considerable Gore and Strong Violence

Antonia Bird's thriller "Ravenous," opens up with an ominous quote (as some movies do).  She chose Nietzche's famous quote: "He that fights with monsters should look to himself that does not become a monster."

And right under that slides in another popular quote: "Eat Me!" (credited to Anonymous, of course).

Both quotes are appropriate, but more importantly, they set the tone for the movie.  Yes, this is a thriller (and one could argue that it falls into the horror category as well), but it's immediately apparent that Bird isn't afraid of twisting our expectations.

Captain John Boyd (Pearce) has just been proclaimed a hero for getting behind enemy lines during a battle of the Mexican-American War.  But the truth, as his superior (Spencer in his final role) tells him, isn't nearly as glorious.  He only ended up behind enemy lines after he chickened out at the start of the battle and was carried to the pile of corpses when he played dead.  He's sent to Fort Spencer in the mountains of California, which "thrives on tedium."  He meets the other inhabitants: Col. Hart (Jones), the kind commander, Reich (McDonough), the grunt, the perpetually stoned Cleaves (Arquette), the spiritual Toffler (Davies) and the always drunk vet/doctor Knox (Spinella).  Shortly after his arrival, a wounded man (Carlyle) arrives at the camp and tells a terrifying story about a trapped wagon train that descended into cannibalism.  Thinking there might be survivors, a few of the soldiers journey to the cave where it happened and find that things are much more frightening than they believed.

The idea at the heart of the movie is a Native American myth where if one person eats the flesh of another, they absorb the other person's strength.  It's an interesting idea, and Bird makes the most out of it.  She uses this idea to reference vampire stories, morality, and Manifest Destiny.

The acting is right on the mark for such a strange movie.  Guy Pearce, who's always good in even the worst of movies (like "Lawless"), is great as the shell-shocked Boyd.  A life of tedium and away from war is just what he needs, but not what he'll get.  Robert Carlyle relishes the opportunity to go over-the-top, and he's always fun while still carrying an air of menace.  Jeffrey Jones, who will be forever known as the evil Mr. Rooney in the overrated "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," takes advantage of the opportunity to take a starring role.  He's quite good, and steals his scenes.  David Arquette has absolutely nothing to do except act high as a kite.

It goes without saying that "Ravenous" is awash with blood and gore.  And it is.  There is more blood and guts than in most horror movies, and considering the tone and the bleak cinematography (which looks great, by the way), the film probably deserves an NC-17.  Like the best filmmakers, Bird isn't afraid of pushing buttons or turning away high-strung viewers.

Speaking with honesty, "Ravenous" is closer to a misfire than an success (perhaps that had something to do with the unhappy production history, where the director was changed twice and writer Ted Griffin was forced to make "countless rewrites").  Still, the film takes chances, lots of them, and you'll never hear me say that the end result is ever uninteresting.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

3/4

Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Lauryn Hill, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkenna, Mary Wickes, James Coburn, Maggie Smith

Rated PG for Some Mild Language

"Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" is one of those rare sequels (before today's Hollywood, where franchises are planned before anything else) that is better than the original.  Barely, but still superior.

After the events in the first film, Dolores Van Cartier's (Goldberg) singing career is just starting to take off.  That's when three of her old friends, energetic Sister Mary Patrick (Najimy), soft-spoken Sister Mary Robert (Makkena) and salty-tounged Sister Mary Lazarus (Wickes), come to Vegas to plea for her help.  They're teachers at a school whose pupils are, how do I put this, teenage terrors.  The sisters need Dolores to re-don the habit and become Sister Mary Clarence once again.  Reluctantly, she agrees.  They students are nightmares, but they've met their match with this nun.  Unfortunately, they're going to need a miracle to keep the school from closing for good.

Okay, so the plot is nothing special.  Frankly, it's almost like an early ancestor to the masterful TV show "Glee."  It's not nearly as funny, insightful or toe-tapping as Ryan Murphy's show, but it's decent enough.

Whoopi Goldberg slides back into the role easily.  She's tough and sassy, but caring.  She may not desperately want to do it, but in the end her heart wins out.  Kathy Najimy and Wendy Makkena are also a lot of fun.  Ditto for Mary Wickes, who has some of the best lines (improvisation?).  Maggie Smith is barely in the film, sadly.  James Coburn is always nice to see, although his character is really a writer's construct, and he is unable to bridge the gap.

The film is famous for, if nothing else, counting future record-breaker Lauryn Hill among the cast.  Actually, she's the main character of the students.  It's a good performance; Hill possesses a low-key charm and a natural talent.

Bill Duke is an effective character actor/director.  While he's not Martin Scorcese or Steven Spielberg (and based on his other film that I saw, "Hoodlum," probably won't be), his craftsmanship is effective.  Really, that's all that's needed.  Directorial flourishes and deep, subtle characters don't really have a place in a movie like this.  The one goal of a sequel to "Sister Act" is to get the bellies laughing and the toes tapping.  For me, it only did the former (maybe because I'm not an R&B fan).  It's a little long at 147 minutes, but whatever.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Venom

2.5/4

Starring: Agnes Bruckner, Jonathan Jackson, Laura Ramsey, Rick Cramer, D.J. Controna, Meagan Good, Bijou Phillips, Pawel Szajda, Davetta Sherwood

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence/Gore, and Language

"Venom" is a mix of the good and the bad.  There are some effectively tense scenes and the film always looks great.  However, it is poorly organized and the editing is at times haphazard.  I can't in good conscience give it a 3/4, but it comes pretty damn close.

Eden (Bruckner) and her friends are chilling at a drive-in when they see the local redneck tow-truck driver, Ray Sawyer (Cramer).  After exchanging a few snide words behind his back, Eden gets off work and drives home.  She's stopped by her ex-boyfriend Eric (Jackson), and they argue about why they split up (it's because she decided to go to Columbia University instead of LSU without telling him, although they can't decide who dumped who).  Ray stops by to make sure that Eden is okay, but the mini-traffic jam causes another driver to run off the road.  Ray saves the driver, a voodoo priestess named Miss Emmie (Deborah Duke), but the car falls off the bridge as he tries to retrieve her box from the backseat.  This terrifies Miss Emmie's granddaughter, CeCe (Good), because it contains the souls of a number of evil men, and they've taken hold of Ray.  Now, Eden and her friends have to find a way to stop Ray before they end up in mausoleums.

Let me start with what works because it will make me feel better about not giving this movie a 3/4.  First, the film always looks great.  Although it's not exactly scary atmosphere a la "Halloween" or "The Descent," you can really feel the heat and the humidity of the Louisiana Bayous.  Cinematographer Steve Mason does a good job playing with light and shadow.

Second, director Jim Gillespie manages more than a few tense scenes.  The crash scene has a fair amount of suspense and is solidly executed.  We can feel Tammy's (Phillips) fear as she's running through the garage, and a death scene late in the film has a surprising amount of tension and sadness.

Now for what doesn't work.  The film is unorganized and there are scenes that are obviously missing.  Director Jim Gillespie, who directed "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the mega flop "Eye See You" (it was disowned by Universal Studios and sold to DEJ Productions after filming was completed...an overreaction in my book because the movie was simply mediocre), has a good grasp on how to scare the audience, but not how to tell a story.  The relationships between the characters seem to be stronger than what is shown on screen.  Perhaps it's due to the bad editing, but the relationships are ill-defined.  Do Eden, CeCe, Eric, Sean (Controna), Ricky (Szajda) and Rachel (Ramsey) actually know Tammy (Phillips) and Patty (Sherwood) or not?  If they do, they why do they spend so much time apart?  Gillespie wants it both ways, and it doesn't work because we're having to follow multiple storylines at once.  I know a lot of movies do this, including slasher movies, but it plays out poorly in "Venom."

The acting is adequate for the film's purposes.  Agnes Bruckner, who got raves for her performance as a troubled teen in "Blue Car," is the best of the lot, although sometimes the dialogue trips her up.  Jonathan Jackson, who mainly plays romantic leads, is miscast.  There are times when he's okay, but for the most part playing a sort of-jerkish hunk is out of his range.  Meagan Good is rather stiff as the one who knows what's going on but can't do anything about it.  Laura Ramsey is horrible as Rachel.  No one else bears a mention except that Method Man has a cameo as a police officer.

"Venom" is basically your average slasher movie.  It has an acceptable amount of tension, a decent amount of gore (although we are cheated from some of the kill scenes, especially the most unique one), a good sense of atmosphere, and so on.  It also knows what audiences want from a movie like this: hot characters doing stupid things (in this case, very stupid), the villain who is never as dead as the heroes think he is, a reasonably high body count, and a body that suddenly goes missing.  No nudity, but that hasn't been big in any movie not featuring a drug addict since the 80's.  It's decent enough.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Storm

2/4

Starring: Kerry Fox, Anamaria Marinca, Stephen Dillane, Rolf Lassgard, Alexander Fehling, Kresimir Mikic, Drazen Kuhn

Not Rated (Probably PG-13 for Material involving War Crimes)

"Storm," which was distributed by Film Movement, an organization dedicated to art films, is essentially a Hollywood courtroom drama dressed up in art and sexed up with terms like "war crimes."  And unfortunately, it's not a very good one.  Every plot development is predictable (and at times confusing), the characters are cliches, and by and large the acting is flat.

Hannah Maynard (Fox) is a prosecutor in the Hague Criminal Court who has just been passed over for promotion.  Instead, the job went to her co-worker Keith Haywood (Dillane), who gives her the task of closing a relatively open and shut case.  A Serbian commander named Goran Duric (Kuhn) is on trial for war crimes.  All Hannah has to do is lead the witness through his testimony and close the case.  But the witness, a shy and soft-spoken man named Alen Hajdarevic (Mikic), is lying about his testimony and after being confronted with the lies, commits suicide.  Now Hannah and her assistant Patrick (Fehling) have to find new evidence within the week or else Duric walks free forever.  Luck comes their way when they realize the one person who can tell the truth is Alen's sister, Mira Arendt (Marinca).  But getting her into the courtroom isn't going to be easy.

The story has promise.  Little enough attention has been paid to the Bosnian War (morbid as this sounds) that it gives the story a fresh setting, or at least a sense of it.  But the story is so bogged down by cliches that it becomes predictable and boring.  The stubborn prosecutor who grows a conscience, the important witness who's in danger, the boss who's only concern is politics, the traitorous friend, etc; it's all here.  The longer the story goes on, the more convinced I was of what was going to happen.

The acting is for the most part, uninspired.  Hannah Maynard, whose only claim to fame is being in Danny Boyle's debut film, "Shallow Grave," is flat.  The only thing worth mentioning about her performance is that there's no attempt to make her look sexy like they do in Hollywood.  Her co-star, Anamaria Marinca, can actually act (she had the lead in the Romanian thriller "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days"), but she's saddled with limp material.  She does the best that she can with it; her revelation about what happened to her is heartbreaking.  Stephen Dillane's only decent performance was in the HBO miniseries "John Adams," and his work in "Storm" doesn't change that.  He's boring.  Rolf Lassgard is good as Hannah's lover, except for the fact that it's often hard to understand what he's saying, particularly in his last scene (which is really important).  Also worth mentioning is Kresimir Mikic, who is good as Amir.

Although "Storm" isn't as pretentious as some arthouse movies are, co-writer and director Hans-Christian Schmid should have recognized that he didn't have anything special on his hands.  The film is the Emperor's New Clothes; change a few details and it would be a John Grisham thriller.  Had he taken things less seriously (the grainy look of the film and constant handheld shots give it an air of heavy drama that the film doesn't earn), this could have been a bit more fun.

Like most 2/4 movies, "Storm" isn't a bad film.  It is watchable and somewhat compelling.  It just doesn't offer more than any other courtroom drama, despite what the director hopes.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Before Sunrise

3.5/4

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Rated R for Some Strong Language

The key to any great romance is chemistry.  Physical appearance, skill at sex scenes, or dialogue mean little unless the two lovebirds go together.  We have to believe that the two characters could, and should, fall in love.  Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" works because we love Jesse and Celine, and we want them to be together.  Due to their circumstances, it's not possible, but we still wish it.  It's a pleasure to spend an hour and a half with these two.

Celine (Delpy) is a young French woman on a train headed home from Budapest.  Much to her annoyance, she is sitting next to a middle aged couple who are shouting at each other.  She moves to the back of the car and sits across from Jesse (Hawke), a young American.  They chat.  It's all small talk; the kind of thing you'd say to the random person next to you when there are two assholes at each other's throats a few rows down. He invites her to have lunch with him in a go for broke sort of way.  She agrees.  It is there that they realize that they have a lot in common.  The train gets to Vienna too soon for both their tastes.  Jesse invites her to spend the night exploring the city with him.  She agrees again.  Soon their connection becomes much, much deeper.

There's really not a plot in this movie.  That's okay, though.  This film isn't about plot.  It's about Jesse and Celine, and how they interact with each other.  In essence, it's 90 minutes of them talking.  However, unlike most romances and every movie starring Katherine Heigl, they actually talk.  They talk about live, love, romance...stuff two intelligent people would talk about when they're getting to know each other on the first date.  At least part of the reason, I think, that they're so open with each other is that they both know that this is going to be a one night thing, so there's no reason to worry about boring the other person or saying something stupid.  And by the time that they realize a much deeper connection has been built, they know and are comfortable enough with each other to not care.

The acting by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy is exceptional.  In a perfect world, both of them would have gotten Oscar nominations.  They're so good and so relaxed with each other that their performances seem effortless.  It takes less than a second to forget that this is a scripted film, rather than a camera watching these two travel around the city.  The dialogue has an improvised feel, despite being so literate and philosophical.  That's how good these two are.  Hawke makes Jesse into a slightly cynical Gen-Xer (almost to the point where I became a little irritated with him, and I'm sure that was intentional) while Delpy makes Celine into a much more positive and worldly woman.

Richard Linklater simply follows his characters.  There are times when he chooses deliberate camera angles to enhance their unspoken feelings, but for the most part, he's simply filming them talking.  This isn't a cinematographer's show, and there's no room for visual flourishes.  The shots are simply a way for us to see the characters and how they interact.

In a not at all strange way, this film is very similar to Ruba Nadda's arthouse hit "Cairo Time."  Both are dialogue heavy romances that rely on character and dialogue to involve the viewer.  As good as "Cairo Time" was, and it is very good, "Before Sunset" is better.  The conversations in this movie are built upon ideas, and the interaction in this film is rarely guarded so we get a more complete picture of both characters.

I feel lucky.  People who fell in love with this film when it was released in 1995 had to wait 9 years to see Jesse and Celine again (except for a brief clip in Linklater's film "Waking Life, which was released in 2001).  I bought "Before Sunrise" and it's sequel, "Before Sunset" in a combo pack for 8 bucks.  I can't wait to see Jesse and Celine again.  And after seeing this movie, neither will you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Eraser

3/4

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vanessa Williams, James Caan, Robert Pastorelli, James Coburn, James Cromwell, Roma Maffia

Rated R for Violent Action Throughout and Some Language

"Eraser" is one of those good old fashioned action movies.  The kind that in days of endless superheroes and cheesy fantasy, we remember when most action movies were filled with bullets, brawn and stunts.  There are no witches, wizards or elves to be found here, and the lead character doesn't have a skin tight outfit (although he is like the Energizer bunny...he'll keep going til the cows come home.  That's Ah-nuld for you).

Witnesses who testify in high powered criminal trials are sometimes sent into Witness Protection.  Some, like Johnny Casteleone (Pastorelli), have trouble staying in hiding.  When you're found out by the people who want you dead, they send in guys like John Kruger (Schwarzenegger), who clean up the mess ("This only happens one.  Next time, you're dead.").  When Lee Cullen (Williams), an executive at Cyrez, a weapons manufacturing company, gathers evidence against her bosses, she's put into Witness Protection under Kruger's watchful eye.  But the conspiracy runs deep, and soon they're both on the run.

The plot isn't anything special, and actually, the villain's moves don't always make a lot of sense.  The script could have gone through another rewrite.  But no one goes to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie for the plot. They go to see him kick major ass while delivering his signature deadpan one-liners.

Neither is the acting, although the same exception applies.  Arnold Schwarzenegger is more of an action star than an actor like Sean Penn or Michael Fassbender, although he is not nearly as bad as his reputation suggests (see "True Lies" for an example.  Hell, anything he does for James Cameron is good.).  Although he does solid work overall, his range is stretched at times.  Vanessa Williams is adequate as the damsel in distress, but I don't think she has the right kind of presence to succeed as an action actress.  Compare her to Jamie Lee Curtis in the aforementioned "True Lies," or Linda Hamilton in the "Terminator" movies.  James Caan has a lot of fun being the bad guy for once, and he relishes the opportunity to chew the scenery.  The late great Robert Pastorelli adds some good comic relief as the wiseguy that Kruger saves at the beginning of the movie.

Chuck Russell has always been an adequate filmmaker.  He doesn't have an actual style, but he's good enough that calling him a "director-for-hire" is a little too harsh.  He's good at making set pieces, which is essentially what "Eraser" is.  There's nothing deep or complex about the film, nor should there be.  All that's required is that the film includes lots and lots of action and excitement.  The film succeeds on both counts.

Russell is at home with movies that require a lot of special effects (he also directed "The Mask" with Jim Carrey).  "Eraser" has a lot of them, and some of them are really cool.  The weapons in this movie, rail guns, are super cool.  They can shoot through walls and blow people back 50 feet.  That's awesome.

For anyone who craves good old-fashioned action without superheroes or overdone CGI, this is a good pick.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Hitchcock

2.5/4

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Scarlett Johannson, Jessica Biel, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow, Kurtwood Smith

Rated PG-13 for Violent Images, Sexual Content and Thematic Material

It is rather tragic that Alfred Hitchcock, the undisputed Master of Suspense and possessor of a famously morbid sense of humor, died 11 years before Anthony Hopkins played his most famous role, the wickedly evil Hannibal Lector in "The Silence of the Lambs."  I have no doubt in my mind that Hitch would have been amused with the character, and probably would have loved to bring him to the screen had he the chance.

It is therefore fitting, I think, that Hopkins portray him on film.  Alas, this is not the film that we have been looking for.  "Hitchcock" is a decent film, but suffers from shallow writing, poor focus and unorganized direction.

Alfred Hitchcock (Hopkins) has just released his classic "North by Northwest," and is hungering for his next picture.  A writer named Whitfield Cook (Huston) has a script that obviously needs pruning (it's almost as long as "War and Peace") and he want's Hitch's wife Alma's (Mirren) help on it (which annoys him to no end).  Suddenly, he gets his hands on a book called "Psycho," inspired by the serial killer Ed Gein (Wincott).  He loves it and wants to turn it into a movie.  But he runs into so many roadblocks that he ends up financing the whole thing himself, and it may not be able to be shown in the US unless it gets past the censors (Smith). Hitch took a big chance making this film to his specifications, and it paid off.  The new film "Psycho" became arguably his most famous and well-beloved film, and set the groundwork for a new genre.

The main problem with this film is that it's horribly focused.  There's so much interesting stuff going on but much of it is undeveloped.  Director Sacha Gervasi wants to tell everything, but within the constraints of a single movie, especially one that's just a hair over 90 minutes, that's impossible.  What Gervasi ultimately decides to follow it the relationship between Hitch and Alma, which becomes strained during filming.  But the story here isn't particularly interesting.  It's not Hopkins or Mirren's fault; they're just saddled with a lame plotline and a script that doesn't match their talent.

Speaking of Hopkins, he's one of the film's problems.  He's a brilliant actor, but he can't play everything, and there are times when he struggles with the character.  We eventually come to accept him as Hitch, but it's a tougher sell than it should be.  Mirren is much more believable as Alma, although this is a role that she could have done in her sleep.  Danny Huston is flat as the hack writer who seeks to woo Alma away from her husband (this subplot is resolved in a cliche manner).  Everyone else does their jobs, but they're wasted in a movie that concentrates on the least interesting aspect of the film.

Also curious is Gervasi's decision to have Hitch talk to Gein.  Well, his spirit, anyway.  It's an interesting thing to do (although like a lot of what's in the movie, it's been done before), but here it's a waste of time.  It doesn't add anything to the proceedings and interrupts the movie's fragile flow.

I originally gave this movie a 3/4, but in the end I decided to lower it to a 2.5/4.  There is some good stuff here, but it's either not as good as it should be or it's tossed away in favor of something less interesting.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Executive Decision

3/4

Starring: Kurt Russell, John Leguizamo, Halle Berry, David Suchet, Oliver Platt, Len Cariou, J.T. Walsh

Rated R for Violence

Between March of 1996 and July 1997, there were three big budget action movies set on airplanes: "Executive Decision," which features soldiers attempting to gain entry to a hijacked passenger jet, "Air Force One," which features a hijacked Air Force One, and "Turbulence," which features a passenger jet hijacked by a serial killer.  Of the two that I've seen (haven't seen "Turbulence" although it's reportedly awful and was a major flop for MGM), "Air Force One" is the best, but "Executive Decision" is still good fun.

A terrorist (Andreas Katsoulas) has been captured, but the deadly nerve agent he had in his possession is missing.    Now, it has found its way onto Oceanic Flight 343, which is flying from Athens to Washington DC.  Now it's up to a team of soldiers led by Lt. Colonel Austin Travis (Segal) to use a special plane to climb aboard Oceanic 343, defuse the bomb and retake the plane.  Of course, nothing goes as planned, and the remaining four soldiers along with intelligence analyst Dr. David Grant (Russell), who knows all about the lead terrorist, and the plane's engineer, Dennis Cahill (Platt) to complete the mission before the US shoots down the plane to avoid the bomb taking out the entire eastern seaboard.

Comparisons to "Air Force One" are impossible not to talk about since they share so many strong similarities (although to be fair, this came out first).  The first 20 minutes are almost carbon copies, and both of them feature a similar hostage situation and a rough landing (although they occur in dramatically different circumstances).  Apologies to Stuart Baird, a film editor making his film debut, but Wolfgang Peterson did it a lot bigger and badder.  Look to the opening action sequence and the mid-air action.

That's not to say that "Executive Decision" isn't fun.  It is.  It's got some great action, real tension, and a great performance by Kurt Russell.  And while there are a  few things that you'll find in both movies, there are many more that you'll only find here.

The script is a little on the thin side, and some of the dialogue is clunky.  Also, there are some obvious lapses in intelligence on the part of the main villain (too many close calls makes them appear like writer's constructs).  Still, this movie is a lot of fun.

Although he by no means "saves" the movie (the film's other qualities are too strong to necessitate a "saving" performance), Kurt Russell gives a terrific performance.  Like in "Backdraft," Russell can be much more than a cool-headed hero.  A lot of action films have the hero be an everyman who's obviously out of his element.  With Russell in the role, we really believe it.  David Suchet is effective as the lead villain, but frankly, he's better than the script deserves.  Had he been given better dialogue, he might have been as menacing as Gary Oldman in "Air Force One."  Halle Berry is good as the token female flight attendant who helps David.  Everyone else does their jobs well.

Stuart Baird makes "Executive Decision" into a decent film debut.  It's not perfect, and the direction could have used some tightening up, but all in all, it's a solid film.  His later two films, "U.S. Marshals" and "Star Trek: Nemesis" (which featured Tom Hardy as the villain, and is where he first came to my attention), proved  him to be a capable filmmaker.  This is where I will make an aside to Hollywood: if you're going to make just a decent yarn, hire Baird instead of wannabes like Len Wiseman or Marcus Nispel.

The bottom line is that if you have to choose, pick "Air Force One."  The ideal though would be to watch both.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Scream

3/4

Starring: Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Courtney Cox, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, voice of Roger Jackson

Rated R for Strong Graphic Horror Violence and Gore, and for Language

Although history has clearly showed that "Scream" has played well to audience members who are not slasher movie aficionados, this is one of those movies where the more movies of the genre, the more references and enjoyment you'll get from the movie.  I've seen my fair share of slasher movies, although few of the "classics" (I have seen "Halloween," and own "Friday the 13th" but haven't seen it), although not many before I saw Wes Craven's film for the first time.  After watching a few of these, some good ("Wrong Turn"), some awful ("The Nun"), I realized how much more of the humor and the references I got.

The film gets off to a great start.  In fact, it can be easily argued that the opening scene, which takes up 12 minutes, is in its own way, almost brilliant.  Not only is it scary and well-made, it sets the stage for what kind of a slasher movie the film is.  Once Casey Becker (Barrymore) and Ghostface (Jackson) start talking, any presumption that this is going to be another generic teen slasher goes out the window immediately.

After Casey and her boyfriend (Kevin Patrick Walls, who was given the role after he didn't get the part of Billy) are gutted like fish, the town of Woodsboro is in a state of shock.  Well, not really.  The parents are, but the teenagers gossip about it (as they are wont to do).  Sidney Prescott (Campbell) is on edge not only because her father is out of town, but her mother Maureen (Lynn McRee in photos) was brutally raped and murdered a year ago minus a day.  They know that they're in a horror movie, and openly discuss how the murders relate to the movies they've seen.  But as is required for movies like this, there are more attacks and more teenagers end up in the morgue.  And of course, Sydney is at the center of it.

Known horror director Wes Craven (who directed the overrated "A Nightmare on Elm Street," which is one of the many movies parodied in this movie) and Kevin Williamson lampoon the genre at every turn.  Although not as obvious or openly funny as its "real" parody, "Scary Movie," there are plenty of grin-worthy moments and a few laughs among the scares.  For example, Craven makes a cameo in the film as a janitor dressed as Freddy Krueger, and there's a brief bit where a scene from a horror movie is mirroring exactly that is happening to the characters.  Some of these are too obvious and cute for what is a mostly straight horror movie, but not enough to damage the movie's flow too much.

The acting is as effective as it can be for a horror movie, although to be frank acting is rarely a strong suit for this genre (there are a few exceptions, however.  "Halloween" and "The Descent" come to mind).  Neve Campbell is good, but is rough around the edges.  She's more low-key than your usual scream queen, and I'm not sure that is the right way to go.  Better to go with someone like Jamie Lee Curtis than Michelle Williams when you need a hot actress with a great set of lungs (although Williams did star in "Halloween: H20" with Curtis).  Skeet Ulrich is better as her rebel-looking boyfriend Billy Loomis (ha ha).  He looks, sounds and acts far too much like Johnny Depp (who starred in Craven's "Nightmare") for this to be a coincidence.  Rose McGowan is pretty decent as Sidney's best friend, Tatum, and David Arquette is okay as her brother (who's a cop, no less), but he sometimes fades into the background.  Courtney Cox makes for a very bitchy and very sleazy tabloid reporter.  Jamie Kennedy is good as the local movie nerd, Randy Meeks.  The weak link is Matthew Lillard, whose mannerisms and facial expressions can get a little annoying.

Frankly, I think Wes Craven's reputation as a horror icon is a bit overblown.  He's a competent director, to be sure, and many of his movies are good (especially in a genre infamous for its crap).  However, he has his flops ("My Soul to Take" ranks as as one of the worst horror movies I've ever seen).  This film really doesn't show him at his best.  His direction isn't as crisp as it should be, and the acting isn't the best.  Its latest sequel, "Scream 4," was a lot better, scarier and funnier.

"Scream" is a pretty good horror movie.  In fact, it's a pretty good movie, period.  I'm not surprised that it did a lot better than expected ($173 million against a $15 million).  The script is smart, knowing and able to use it's knowledge of horror film conventions to make a unique film that still fills every requirement of the genre (Williamson's script caused a bidding war in Hollywood...one of the few times where Hollywood recognized a good script and actually went after it).  Craven knows the genre and how to tweak it just enough to provoke both laughs and scares, and it's got plenty of gore.  There's no T&A, though, and that's the only requirement that the film is missing (Campbell has had a no-nudity clause in her contract for all of her career except for one film, "When Will I Be Loved?" in 2004.  For the record, Campbell does take her top off, or at least appears to, once in the film, but she is blocked by Ulrich).  Not that that makes much difference.