Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mike's Musings: Top 10 of 2013

I didn't see as many movies as I did last year.  Far from it.  Which is why two movies this year have 3/4, although I bumped up "Oblivion's" to 3.5/4.  What does that say about this year's movies?  Nothing much, really.  I've missed a few of the Oscar contenders because I don't like the arthouse theaters in my area.  I reserve the right to add them if and when I see them.

Note: I completely forgot about "Frozen," which is clocks in at number 8 on my list.  "Homefront" is kept as an honorable mention.

Honorable Mention.  Homefront.  This is a good old fashioned action movie, only with more depth than is commonly associated with action movies.  The bad guys aren't as bad as they seem, and when things get tough, they act in ways that we don't expect them to.

10.  Oblivion.  A visually dazzling sci-fi mystery with strong performances.  Although inferior, it bears mention to last year's Top 10'er "Looper."  Unfortunately, it doesn't bear well to repeat viewings.

9.  Gravity.  This one needs to be seen in 3D and in the biggest screen possible.  Unfortunately, it's out of theaters by now, but I was fortunate enough to see it in IMAX 3D.  It's a beautifully made film with two great performances.

8.  "Frozen."  One of the year's most delightful musicals.  An interesting, although imperfect, story, fun characters and some great songs ("For the First Time in Forever" and "Let it Go" are my favorites from the movie)...it's no wonder the film made it to my Top 10 list.

7.  Closed Circuit.  This is an extremely suspenseful thriller where nearly every scene is a new reveal.  It's like Agatha Christie for the modern age.  It's one thing to have a story that presents a new twist at regular intervals. It's quite another to keep it credible and to increase the suspense.  This one does both.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street.  For the most part, comedies wear out their welcome after 90 minutes.  "The Wolf of Wall Street" bucks the trend by making a movie that had me laughing out loud on a fairly consistent (and frequent) basis for the better part of three hours.  Martin Scorcese, you've done it again.

5.  Kick-Ass 2.  No one seemed to like this movie as much as I did.  Oh well, that's happened before, and it's bound to happen again.  Everyone's opinion is different, after all.  Regardless, "Kick-Ass 2" mines the new territory that was neglected in the first one.  And it does so in a fashion that equals the freshness and brilliance of the first one.

4.  Rush.  Emotionally complex, strongly acted and at times unbearably suspenseful, this is one of the better racing movies to come along in quite some time.  Both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl deserve the Oscar nominations that they will not get (Bruhl got a Golden Globe nod, but it'll take an act of God to get him in the final five at the Oscars).  The movie did not do well at the box office, probably because of a lackluster marketing campaign.  Pity.  This is a movie people should see.

3.  The Way Way Back.  One of the best coming of age stories to come along in years.  It literally had me standing up and applauding at the end of it.  I'm not kidding.  Like the two stars in the aforementioned "Rush," Sam Rockwell and especially Steve Carrell deserved Oscar nods.  This is definitely an under-the-radar gem that is worth seeking out.

2.  Star Trek Into Darkness.  I didn't like this movie as much as I do now when I first saw it.  But the more I watch it, the more I like it.  I appreciate the strong story and the emotional depth of its characters.  It's got more depth than we get from most action movies.  Plus the action scenes are spectacular too.

1.  Captain Phillips.  I nearly put "Star Trek Into Darkness" at the top spot.  But I decided against it.  While "Star Trek" is more fun, this is an overall better movie.  It's also thoroughly exhausting and draining.  Expect this to score more than a few Oscar nods.

Mike's Musings: Bottom 10 of 2013

While I mentioned that this year had a few huge flops, overall it was a great year for Hollywood.  Still, it's that time of year again, where I single out the biggest stinkers of the year.

Dishonorable Mention: Epic.  There's no review for this movie because, due to a storm and the cancellation of the remainder of the film by the theater, I was unable to see the entirety of the film.  I meant to go back and catch the last ten minutes of the film at a later date, but I never got around to it.  And there's certainly no way I'd sit through it again.  From what I saw (and there's nothing the film could have done to make me rate it much higher), it would clock in at number 10.

10.  You're Next: While this movie was really bad, it's as much an insult to filmgoers on part of the studio to release it so close to the senseless murder of Chris Lane.  Aside from that, I still wouldn't have given it a higher rating.  The movie sucked.  Did the director have too much coffee while filming this?

9.  Insidious: Chapter 2.  The first chapter was a masterpiece.  It scared the living hell out of me, and ended up at number 2 on my Top 10 list that year.  This sequel, on the other hand, is an abomination.  It doesn't make any sense.  The actors have forgotten how to act.  And James Wan had absolutely zero interest in any part of this movie other than picking up a paycheck (considering the budget, it must have been modest, although he probably got a percentage of the gross).

8.  Evil Dead (2013).  I haven't seen the original "Evil Dead," but considering how beloved it is, and how it jump-started Sam Raimi's career, I have to believe that it was better than this piece of garbage.  The characters were your average slasher movie characters: stupid and annoying.  The only thing worth mentioning about the movie was the gore, which was so over-the-top that it lost its luster very quickly.  Barf bag, please!

7.  Free Birds.  The people behind this crapfest should be ashamed of themselves.  This film was marketed towards families with young children.  They should be exposed to good movies like "Spirited Away" or anything in the Disney canon.  IF they think that every movie is like this, they'll never watch another movie again.

6.  Metallica Through the Never.  I was actually curious about this movie.  The idea of a concert film mixed with a traditional narrative intrigued me.  Unfortunately, this is just a concert film about a band with a huge ego and no discernible range or talent.  Dane DeHaan and Nimrod Antal deserved better.

5.  The Purge.  It's the old adage: good premise, bad execution.  The idea behind this movie is intriguing, but the film does nothing with it other than to tell a generic home invasion story with a few mildly interesting twists and a villain who won't stop spouting philosophical garbage.  At least it was short.

4.  This is the End.  This movie should have been a lot better than it was.  Apparently, everyone else liked it but me.  It got great reviews and made a lot of money at the box office.  Maybe I was with the wrong crowd.  I found it to be extraordinarily self-indulgent (admittedly, there were a few funny moments here and there) and overlong.  This movie defined the definition of "missed opportunity."

3.  Pacific Rim.  And the scariest movie of the year is not a horror movie.  It's a loud, gross and incomprehensible wannabe genre movie from the immensely talented Guillermo del Toro.  This movie sounds like one of those direct-to-DVD movies you find in the discount bin at Target.  And that's where it belongs.

2.  Greetings from Tim Buckley.  Technically, this movie was made in 2012, but it wasn't released theatrically until this year, which is why I'm including it in this list.  There's a very fine line between realistic and dramatically boring.  This film crosses it.  A little realism goes a long way, and unfortunately, this is all minutiae that isn't interesting at all.  Sorry, Penn.

1.  Identity Thief.  Oh lord, please don't bring up this worthless excuse of celluloid.  It's so awful that I'm getting sick just thinking about it.  Not only is it the worst movie I've ever seen in the theater, it's one of the most offensive.  Hell, it's one of the worst movies I've ever seen, period!

Now, on to a happier list.

47 Ronin

2.5/4

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Min Tanaka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, Some Disturbing Images, and Thematic Elements

One would assume that the story of the 47 Ronin, Japan's national legend (thousands of people visit the graves of these men each year), deserved a better treatment than this.  The themes of honor, revenge and sacrifice would be at home in an epic action movie on par with "The Last Samurai" or "Avatar."  Instead, we have this fantasy/action picture, which, while certainly not bad (in fact, I almost gave it a 3/4), is a little underwhelming.

The story of the 47 ronin (samurai without a master...a huge disgrace under the Japanese code of bushido) has been told so many times since the actual event in 1701 that it has its own genre (chushingura).  This $200 million film is just the latest version.

Kai (Daniel Barber) is a "half-breed," a partly Japanese man living in feudal Japan.  He was found on the side of the road by Oishi (Manato Sekiguchi).  His father, the local clan leader, Lord Asano (Tanaka), takes the boy under his wing and raises him as his own.  Unfortunately, the only ones who give him any respect are Asano and his new sister, Mika (Aria Maekawa).  Everyone else views him with extreme disdain.

Fast forward about twenty years.  Lord Kira (Asano) is the ruler of a rival clan, and seeks to take over the city ruled by Asano.  With the help of a witch (Kikuchi), Kira bamboozles Asano into attacking him, which makes the Shogun (Tagawa) really angry, although he allows Asano to commit suicide to regain his honor.  He also doesn't allow any of Asano's samurai to seek revenge, even though this leaves them as ronin.  Unwilling to let Asano's death go unpunished, Oishi (Sanada) gathers Kai (Reeves) and the rest of the samurai to take down Kira.

Lets get the obvious out of the way.  Ideally, the role of Kai should be played by a Japanese actor.  But there were box office considerations to take into consideration, so Keanu Reeves (who is of multi-cultural descent, although none of his heritage is Japanese) was cast.  To be fair, the producers cast more than a few Japanese actors in supporting roles, including Sanada, Asano, Kikuchi, Shibisaki, and Jin Akanishi).  But it still feels a little uncomfortable watching this movie with Reeves in the main role.

Speaking of Reeves, this isn't a good role for him.  Reeves is not as bad of an actor as some claim (in all honesty, there are more good performances of his than bad ones), but his range is limited.  Fortunately, he doesn't have much dialogue in this movie.  Better is the always good Hiroyuki Sanada, who has had supporting roles in movies like "Speed Racer," Danny Boyle's "Sunshine," and the aforementioned "The Last Samurai."  Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi gives new meaning to the term "over-the-top," but isn't always successful.  Still, she's pretty badass (turning herself from a liquid kimono to a big dragon...way cool).  The best performance is given by Ko Shibisaki, who is positively lovely as the adult Mika.  Most of the film's limited emotional component comes from her.

Memo to Hollywood: don't give a first-time director a $200 million special effects extravaganza.  While the special effects are cool, he has a way to go with his storytelling abilities and character development (although part of the blame has to go to the screenwriters).  Carl Rinsch does a solid job; he's a hell of a lot better than some other directors.  The story is coherent and moderately engaging.

So far, the film has bombed at the box office.  While it's a little early to tell if it is the disaster that some people are proclaiming (it's only been out a week), it's not going to wow the box office.  The movie should have been taken more seriously than it actually was.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

3/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Ruth Wilson

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements and Some Unsettling Images

These days, it seems that almost every Oscar hopeful is a biopic of some kind.  From "Patton" to "Schindler's List" to "Rush," biographies mean gold statues.  The reason, I think, is that the audience knows who the person is, and the characters are more realistic and intelligent than in the majority of fictional movies.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is about the relationship between Walt Disney and P.E. Travers ("Mrs. Travers, please!") during the making of the classic adaptation of her beloved character, Mrs. Poppins.  It's not necessarily the most cinematic tale, but it is interesting and the acting is strong (with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as the leads, that shouldn't come as a surprise).

Twenty years ago, Walt Disney (Hanks) made a promise to his daughters that he would bring Mrs. Poppins to the screen.  And for twenty years, the author who created her, P.E. Travers (Thompson) has stubbornly refused to do so.  Now, she's out of money and not writing any more books, her agent begs her to sign over the rights.  When he tells her that all she has to do is go to LA for two weeks to see what they're doing, she agrees on the stipulation that she can refuse to give permission if she doesn't like it.  So, Walt introduces her to Don DaGradi (Whitford), the screenwriter and Robert (Novak) and Richard (Schwartzman) Sherman, the songwriters, to see if they can't come to some sort of an arrangement.  It does not go well.

The subplot of the film deals with young P.E. Travers, called Ginty (Buckley) and her father Travers Goff (Farrell).  Ginty loves her father, who nurtures her imagination and passion for creativity.  But Travers is an alcoholic, and that fractures their relationship.

Both stories are on equal playing field, which is the ideal for movies that tell two stories at once (although few succeed in doing this).  Much of the reason is that the performances are strong across the board.  Hanks and Thompson are in top form as the showman as the showman and stubborn writer, and Buckley is adorable as the young Ginty and Farrell is excellent as the loving but troubled Travers.

The potential problem the film faced is what to do with Disney.  There's no way that the Walt Disney Corporation would allow their namesake to be portrayed as anything less than a flawless man, so there's a risk that he would become boring.  The filmmakers sidestep that problem by making him really care about the project and being determined to get the film made.  The casting of Hanks also helps tremendously.  Disney is basically a P.T. Barnum clone; he's always showcasing something and trying to make Mrs. Travers as happy as possible so she'll sign over the rights (including getting her a personal limo with a genial driver named Ralph (Giamatti)).  For her part, Mrs. Travers is as difficult and demanding as possible, although she has her reasons for doing so ("They're family to me," she says at one point).

I wouldn't be surprised if both Hanks and Thompson get Oscar nominations.  Hanks in particular is a shoo-in, for either this film or "Captain Phillips" (Academy rules prevent an actor from receiving a two nominations in the same category...for my money, his performance as Rich Phillips is more deserving).  Thompson is always wonderful to watch, and she gives Mrs. Travers the depth that she requires and deserves.

But the best performance is not from Hanks or Thompson.  It's Colin Farrell.  From "Minority Report" to "Horrible Bosses," Farrell has always shown tremendous talent, even in awful movies like "Seven Psychopaths" and the "Total Recall" remake.  But he's never really gotten the chance in an Oscar contender.  While a nomination for him is up in the air, he deserves it.

The first two thirds of the film are effective (but not perfect...Mrs. Travers's stubbornness is as uncomfortable as it is amusing because of how likable DaGradi and the Shermans are), the third half is troubled.  Director John Lee Hancock tries to tie Travers to the character Mr. Banks, but it doesn't work.  Maybe it's because I haven't seen "Mary Poppins" in ages, but I didn't know who Mr. Banks was.  Furthermore, it's unclear what exactly Travers needs to be redeemed from (if it's from his alcoholism, than it's still problematic because it's unclear what effect that has on Ginty personally).

So the question remains, do the first two acts redeem the third enough for me to recommend the film?  Yes.  The performances by the cast and the story are strong enough to carry us through the film.  And while the relationships between Travers and Mr. Banks & Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) and Mrs. Poppins aren't developed enough, the connection between Walt and Mrs. Travers is.

And by the way, the PG-13 is just a marketing ploy.  There's nothing in here that makes this inappropriate for families (actually, the scene that probably "earned" the rating will probably go over the little kids' heads).

Santa's Slay

3/4

Starring: Bill Goldberg, Douglas Smith, Emilie de Ravin, Robert Culp, Dave Thomas, Saul Rubinek

Rated R for Violence, Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity

Read that title carefully before you let little Susie see this movie.  It's "Slay," not "Sleigh."

"Santa's Slay" is a guilty pleasure.  It's unbelievably cheesy and obviously made on the cheap.  It's not particularly smart, either.  But, it is funny.

Santa, as we learn, is not a very nice guy.  In fact, he's the son of Santa and someone named Erica (who, aside from Mary, is the only woman to have a virgin birth).  He's as nasty as they come, but after he lost a curling bet with an angel, he was forced to be nice to kids and spread Christmas cheer for a thousand years.  Time's up!

Nicholas Yuleson (Smith) lives with his Grandpa (Culp), who is a little bit odd.  Nicholas, who isn't the brightest bulb in the bunch, doesn't believe in Santa Claus and doesn't have much of a taste for Christmas.  That's all going to change when he realizes that Santa is indeed real, and wreaking havoc in Hell Township.  It's up to him, his would-be girlfriend Mac (de Ravin) and Grandpa to take down Santa.

If lines like "You shot Santa?" or "Run away, Santa's on the loose!" bring a grin to your face, this movie is for you.  It's a twisted black comedy that delights in turning a lot of Christmas cliches on their ears.  Presents become explosives, candy canes become knives, and the town pastor (Thomas) is a regular at the local jiggle club.  My sense of humor runs toward the nasty, so stuff like this is right up my alley.

The film's opening sequence, which features the likes of Fran Drescher, Chris Kattan, Rebecca Gayheart and an uncredited James Caan, is brilliant, and worth renting just to see it (although it can be found on YouTube).  It's pure black comedy: unlikable characters acting awfully and getting their just desserts (this is probably the only instance where a dog's violent end didn't offend me).

Unfortunately, the film suffers considerably after that.  Acting, writing and cinematography are all poor.  The lead actor, Douglas Smith (brother of the more talented Gregory Smith) is stiff as a board.  More impressive is Emilie de Ravin, although sometimes the awful dialogue defeats her.  Robert Culp is a scene-stealer as the kindly but slightly kooky Grandpa.  WWE star Bill Goldberg is perfectly cast; he's menacing, but understands the concept of comic timing.  He can toss off one-liners with the best of them.

The film also looks stale.  This was made on the cheap, and it looks like it.  Writing-wise, the film is also lacking.  There are more than a few delicious one-liners (including a twist on a popular Christmas song and a reference to "A Christmas Carol") and writer/director David Steiman knows how to twist common Christmas traditions for comic effect, but there's plenty of bland expository dialogue to go around.

He also can't sustain the comic momentum, and the film's humor runs dry fairly quickly.  The first third is hysterical, the second is funny, and the third is mildly amusing.  The film's score, which is made up of Christmas tunes set to rock music, is also bland and repetitive.

Still, this has the makings of a cult film.  It's going to appeal to a certain group of people who, like myself, appreciate this sort of thing.

Taxi to the Dark Side

4/4

Narrated by Alex Gibney

Rated R for Disturbing Images, and Content Involving Torture and Graphic Nudity

"Taxi to the Dark Side" is a documentary, yes, but it is far more disturbing and terrifying than most horror movies.  Why?  Because it's real.

Alex Gibney, who directed the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," has used his no-nonsense and no-frills style to examine the torture of detainees by the US government post-9/11.  Little by little, he examines every facet of what happened and why.

Without a doubt, the horrors that occurred at Abu Gharib and Bagram were among the most shameful events in the history of our nation.  Gibney shows us images, and occasionally videos, of the treatment that these people endured.  Insane amounts of sleep deprivation (to the point of inducing psychosis), forced nudity, manipulating the detainee's fears, sensory deprivation (which induced psychosis), forcing them to stand for more than 24 hours.  And those are the mild bits.  Borderline sexual assault, brutal beatings, forced masturbation, and murder were also used.

Sure, there were a few bad apples like Lyndie England and Charles Granier, and Gibney doesn't let them escape unscathed.  But as he uncovers, they were following ambiguous orders.  Intentionally ambiguous orders that came straight from the top.

Shortly after 9/11, Dick Cheney wanted results in any way that he could get them, and was determined to venture into "the dark side" (his words) to get them.  So he, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and legal advisor John Yoo intentionally created an culture of ambiguity to allow this to happen.  For example, they created a series of techniques that were to be used on detainees, but did not tell the soldiers how to implement them.  With the pressure of getting results and the stress of being in a war zone, this proved to be an explosive situation.

There is a lot of interview material from a variety of people.  Lawyers for the detainees were horrified that these people were denied their most basic rights (including habeas corpus), military officials were outraged at the lack of direction and the fact that their demands for an end to the torture were ignored, and some of the soldiers who took part in what happened explain what they did and why (all of them show a lot of remorse).

Gibney narrates the film, but like in the best documentaries, he does not editorialize or sensationalize.  He only explains the minimal background necessary.  He lets the information, and his interviewees, to speak for themselves.  His methodology is systematic, and he breaks it down into sizable chunks.

The film is apolitical.  To be sure, the Bush administration is not shown in a positive light.  George W. Bush is let off surprisingly easy; he's shown to be an oblivious buffoon who's only purpose is to be a poster boy.  Dick Cheney is portrayed as a Machiavellian tyrant and Donald Rumsfeld as his attack dog.  John Yoo is shown to be a sleazebag who advises them how to get around the Geneva Convention.  But he lets them speak for themselves.  Yoo is interviewed on camera, as are military personnel who support, or at least justify, the policies.

What's really disturbing is that the Bush administration not only knew what was going on, they created a way for it to occur.  They also knew that the best way to get information is not by torture, but by talking to the detainees.  In a deleted scene, Alex Gibney's late father explains that during World War II, they had the greatest success by talking, and even befriending, the Japanese POWs.  It took more time, but they got great intel.  And it was correct, unlike the torture of one terrorist who was allegedly due to be on United 93, who's intel led to the invasion of Iraq and a huge embarrassment for Colin Powell (Powell said it was the worst day of his life).  They also found a way to protect themselves while leaving the soldiers, who were given almost no training and put in an environment where they were cutoff from normal society and demanded results from people they didn't know or understood.  One of the interviewees said it was impossible to get information from someone if they didn't know what the evidence against them was (which was almost always the case...the only thing they knew was that the detainees were terrorists).  Studies have shown that almost none of the people detained were terrorists, and those who wouldn't give information were considered troublemakers, and were sent to Guantanamo Bay for more extreme torture.

Gibney also destroys the so-called "time bomb" scenario.  While that may make for good drama, he and his interviewees say (an clip of Jack Bauer torturing someone in this instance is shown), but it has never happened.  And as one man points out, if a terrorist has gone that far, then he's probably so intent on succeeding that he's willing to die to carry it out.

I think Gibney's father said it best when he said that he and his fellow soldiers felt like the good guys because they were better than the enemy.  They didn't sink that low, and the allowed the detainees their basic civil rights.  We should hold ourselves to the same standards, or else we become the very thing we are fighting against.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

3.5/4

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Kyle Chandler, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin

Rated R for Sequences of Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Drug Use and Language Throughout, and for Some Violence

If you can imagine "Goodfellas" as a raunchy sex comedy, you'll have some idea of what "The Wolf of Wall Street" is like.  It follows the formula of his 1990 gangster classic to the letter, although the specifics are polar opposite.  It's just as R-rated (in fact, it's only the names of Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio on the marquee that keep this from getting an NC-17...and what they mean by "sequences of" is beyond me, since if there was any more it could be called a porn flick).

Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) arrives in New York City seeking to make his fortune in the stock market.  He learns all he needs to know from a trader named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in what is sadly little more than a cameo).  He's all set to be a hotshot until the stock market crashes and the firm closes.  So he decides to go to a small company that sells penny stocks to suckers.  With the skills he's learned from Mark, he blows the minds of everyone working there.  Then he decides to open up his own company, and with methods that are blatantly illegal, he becomes a stock market hotshot almost overnight.  He and his partners, which includes Donnie Azoff (Hill), a nutso family man and his father Max (Reiner) are making so much money they don't know what to do with.  Soon enough, he catches the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Chandler), who is eager to take him down.

Martin Scorcese is doing for Leonardo DiCaprio what he did for Robert DeNiro from the 1970's to the mid-1990's, which is to say, show the audience what a force of nature he is on screen.  While it's not his best performance (that goes to his most famous role as Jack Dawson in "Titanic"), but it's up there.

Present in just about every scene, the film essentially lives and dies on DiCaprio, and he nails it.  He plays Jordan Belfort as a cross between a Christian revivalist and a frat boy.  Jordan is both electrifying and charismatic, but he's also immature and narcissistic.  Most importantly (and in a testament to his talent), he gets us to like this character despite the fact that he is a corporate monster.  Able support is provided by Jonah Hill, who plays his right-hand man (and is more insane than he is).  Newcomer Margot Robbie is great as his bombshell wife, making her into more than a bimbo bombshell.

Comedy isn't the first genre that comes to mind when one thinks of Martin Scorcese.  Typically, he makes grim thrillers like "Taxi Driver," "The Departed" or the aforementioned "Goodfellas."  I was actually pretty disappointed when I heard this was a comedy, thinking it would be an arthouse comedy (of sorts).  I was dead wrong.  This is a consistently outrageous and hilarious comedy with at least three sequences that are explosively funny.  At three hours, it's very long for a comedy (most run long in the tooth at more than 90 minutes).  But Scorcese has a story to tell that has something to say, and that not only allows for a longer laugh time, but provides a richer comedic experience.

As good as the film is, it's not perfect.  The main problem is that, as enjoyable as this film is, it's about 10 minutes too long.  The film's funniest sequence, which involves drugs, a car and a phone call, is a case in point.  With a little tightening at the scripting or editing stage, this sequence would be perfect.

The bottom line is that this is a very good movie.  Easily the funniest comedy of the year, and one of the best films of the year.  It didn't do well in the Golden Globe nominations, which are generally considered a precursor for the Oscars, but expect the Academy to hand it a few nominations.  A Best Actor nod is virtually guaranteed for DiCaprio (and maybe a win?  Finally?), and a Best Picture nod is almost a certainty.  It will certainly rank highly on my Top 10 list at the end of the year.

Kick-Ass 2

3.5/4

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Morris Chestnut, Jim Carrey, John Leguizamo, Lindy Booth, Clark Duke, Donald Faison, Olga Kurkulina

Rated R for Strong Violence, Pervasive Language, Crude and Sexual Content, and Brief Nudity

"This isn't a comic book!  This is real life!"

My main criticism with the first "Kick-Ass" was that while it while it provided a more realistic view of superheroes, they still seemed immune from the law.  That's changed here.  Not only do these costumed vigilantes (that's what they are, and they know it) face physical danger, they face personal and legal trouble for their actions.

Dave Lizewski (Taylor-Johnson) has hung up the Kick-Ass costume for good.  But he's bored, so he begins training again with Mindy Macready (Grace Moretz).  When he looks online, he finds out that someone is gathering superheroes to form a league.  Dave thinks that this is the best thing ever, and he wants in.  There, he meets Colonel Stars and Strips (Carrey, who withdrew support for the film after the Sandy Hook massacre), an ex-mafia enforcer turned born-again Christian, Doctor Gravity (Faison), a physics teacher, the White Bitch (Booth), who is into Kick-Ass, gay Insect Man (Robert Emms), Battle Guy, whom Dave immediately knows is his friend Marty (Duke) and a middle-aged couple (Steve Mackintosh and Monica Dolan) whose son Tommy went missing.

Meanwhile, Chris D'Amico (Mintz-Plasse) is vowing revenge against Kick-Ass.  After his mom dies (in a gag that is pretty funny), Chris enlists the help of his butler, Javier (Leguizamo), to help him become the world's first supervillain, The Motherfucker.  The battle lines are drawn, and when The Motherfucker goes to war, Kick-Ass has to decide where to draw the line.

"Kick-Ass" took a superhero to the next level by both embracing and mocking the conventions of the superhero genre.  "Kick-Ass 2" does the same thing with almost equal success.  Mark Millar (who wrote both comics) and co-writer/director Jeff Wadlow mine new territory by employing familiar stereotypes in a real world setting.  The characters reflect on what they're doing and the consequences for them.

In this way, the film resembles Christopher Nolan's masterpiece "The Dark Knight."  Although Nolan's film is an altogether stronger film, it took place in it's own world.  "Kick-Ass 2" doesn't do that.  It stays in our world and postulates legal and moral questions about being a superhero, and answers them as realistically as possible.  Considering that the film carries over the irreverence of its predecessor, that's pretty far.

The cast slides easily back into their roles.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chole Grace-Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are all in fine form.  Grace-Moretz's role (and by de facto, Morris Chestnut's, since he plays Marcus, her new guardian) has been expanded.  While Dave has his adventures with the new gang of superheroes, Mindy hangs up Hit-Girl's costume to save what is left of her childhood (as a favor to Marcus).  Millar and Wadlow have a lot of fun putting a firecracker like Mindy Macready in a high school setting (which is pretty dead-on in its portrayal).

Director Jeff Wadlow creates the askew tone of the first one to the extent that one probably won't notice that it's not made by the same director (Matthew Vaughn stayed on as a producer).  It also has so many in-jokes and skewers so many of the superhero conventions that it's impossible to remember them all.  But like the first one, it has something to say.  The first one asked what it would be like to be a superhero in real life.  This one asks if it's really worth it.

If I have made this film seem like a philosophical art-house film, rest assured that it is most definitely not.  It's a hyper-violent (absolutely not okay for kids) and frequently hilarious superhero movie.  I can't wait for "Kick-Ass 3."

I Know What You Did Last Summer

3.5/4

Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., Ryan Phillipe, Anne Heche, Bridgette Wilson

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence and Language

All throughout my life, there was no movie I was dying to see more than "I Know What You Did Last Summer."  I was constantly begging my parents to let me see it.  Ask them if you don't believe me.  Looking back, I'm glad they had the good sense to keep my fourth grade self from seeing a slasher movie, but there you have it.  It's really not that hard to see why it appealed to me.  The trailer was awesome, the poster looked seriously mysterious, and let's face it, that's a hell of a great title.

It's July in a fishing village on the east coast.  Julie James (Hewitt) is celebrating her friend Helen Shivers (Gellar) as the new beauty queen.  They and their two boyfriends, rich snob Barry Cox (Phillipe) and local boy Ray Bronson (Prinze, Jr.) are going out partying on the beach.  On the way home drunk Barry (who at least has the good sense to let Ray drive...under protest, but there you have it) decides to stand in the sunroof and be an asshole.  He splashes his liquor all over the car.  That's he sees someone standing in the road, but when he shouts "Look out!" it's too late.  The car smashes into a man who is now lying crumpled in the middle of the road.  Unwilling to throw their futures away, these four friends reluctantly decide to throw the body off a pier.  One year later, they realize that you can run from your past, but there are some secrets that just won't die.

There are a few things that push "I Know What You Did Last Summer" to the top echelon of slasher movies (more on the genre later).  First is that it has a strong story with an interesting subtext.  Whodunits are always interesting because they leave you hungering for answers.  The film is based on a story by teen thriller guru Lois Duncan, and it's a good story.  But there's something Duncan and screen scribe (whose script was put into production almost immediately after "Scream" became a massive hit) Kevin Williamson add to the production that beefs up the plot and makes the characters more identifiable.  The story shows, without pretension or drawing out the story needlessly, how trauma and guilt can warp personalities and destroy relationships. Before the accident, these four were close friends with their own plans and dreams for the future.  After the accident, none of these dreams have been realized and they avoid each other like the plague.

The performances help the film a lot.  None of them are crying out for Oscar attention (in fact, they're not especially memorable).  But they do succeed in getting us to identify with these people, and for a thriller to work, that's crucial.  Leading the pack are Jennifer Love Hewitt, who makes Julie into a resourceful but guilt-ridden young woman, and Ryan Phillipe as the conceited boor Barry.  They have their stiff moments, but they are effective.  Less impressive are Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze, Jr.  Neither one has much dramatic range, and it shows.

It's interesting to note that Lois Duncan disliked the movie intensely.  Apart from the premise, almost nothing from the novel made it into the movie.  Duncan especially hated the fact that they had turned her teen thriller into a slasher movie after her own daughter was murdered in 1989 (still unsolved).  The latter is actually the film's problem.  Kevin Williamson has changed the story's genre (not exactly a rare occurrence) in a way that is not particularly successful.  The story and its characters are strong enough on their own that gratuitous violence (although it's not as violent and gory as some members of the genre) and chase sequences are unnecessary.

Not that that hurts the film too much.  It's put together with skill by Jim Gillespie (whose later films were not particularly good, making me believe that the lion's share of the credit has to go to Duncan, and to a lesser extent, Williamson) and is consistently suspenseful and scary.  The final scene is a tease, but still, where else can you find a whodunit where the heroine actually knows the killer's motives before she knows who the killer is?

The Affair of the Necklace

3/4

Starring: Hilary Swank, Simon Baker, Jonathan Pryce, Adrien Brody, Brian Cox, Joely Richardson, Christopher Walken

Rated R for Some Sexuality

If you haven't guessed it by now, I say to you now that I'm a huge history buff (although I prefer anything pre-Christianity).  To me, history is like one big story that tells us about fascinating characters and how they lived.  I also like twisty, intriguing mysteries.  Both are in evidence in "The Affair of the Necklace."

Years ago, Jeanne de Valois (Hayden Panettiere) was a happy little girl living in France.  Then her father, a critic of the monarchy, was arrested and killed for his actions.  Penniless and cast out from her home, Jeanne witnessed the death of her mother and grew up an orphan.  As an adult Jeanne vows to get her home back and her name restored.  She and a kindly gigolo named Retaux de Vilette (Baker) set in motion a plan to do so.  Her plot, which involves an embarrassed cardinal (Pryce) seeking to win back the favor of Queen Marie Antoinette (Richardson) and a very expensive necklace, ends up pushing the nation closer towards its eventual revolution.

The performances vary.  Hilary Swank is effective as Jeanne; this is not an instance when she is coasting by on her charisma.  But as Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "it's a role that Cate Blanchett or Kate Winslet could play blindfolded." They may have been better choices for the role.  Perfectly cast is Simon Baker as Retaux, her mentor (of sorts) turned co-conspirator turned lover.  With his adorable boyish good looks and superb performance of wit and depth, Baker steals the movie.  Jonathan Pryce is effective but no more as the duped priest with a voracious sexual appetite, Adrien Brody is a non-entity as Jeanne's husband of convenience (who also ends up being a co-conspirator), Joely Richardson is flat as the ill-fated queen, while Christopher Walken is uneven as the charlatan Cagliostro.

The film was directed by Charles Shyer, who has directed lightweight fare and numerous romantic comedies like "Father of the Bride" and its sequel.  Shyer has shown to be an adequate filmmaker with no style.  He's a director for hire, and that hasn't changed here.  It presents the story, but nothing more.  Actually, he might have taken his time more, since it's a little overstuffed.  There's so much plot that, even with Brian Cox's narration explaining everything, there's no room for character development.  Or even breathing room.  An extra ten to twenty minutes would have helped things immeasurably.

Still, this is a fascinating story filled with intrigue, blackmail and double-crosses.  Jeanne's motives were not as noble as they were in real life, but that's okay.  It makes it a better story.

The film has its problems, yes, but it's pretty entertaining nonetheless.

300

3/4

Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro

Rated R for Graphic Battle Sequences Throughout, and Some Sexuality and Nudity

"300" is a cult classic; an adrenaline cocktail that was born to have rabid fans.  It is violent and bloody, and all the better for it.  There is nothing subtle about this blend of machismo and brutality.  It doesn't seek to be anything other than it is: a deliriously over-the-top action movie designed to get the fists pumping and the blood flowing.

In Ancient Sparta, war is not just a hobby or a necessity.  It is a way of life.  From birth to death, men prepare for war and women breed soldiers.  One day, a Persian emissary (Peter Mensah) comes with one request for the Spartan King Leonidas (Butler): earth and water.  In other words, the Persian king Xerxes (Santoro) requests submission and a small tax in exchange for their city-state not to be obliterated.  Now, Spartans are a proud people, so Leonidas kills the messenger and his bodyguards and prepares for battle.  Unfortunately for him, the Ephors (priests to the old gods) deny him permission to go to war.  So he and 299 of his best warriors are left to defend Sparta.  His wife, Queen Gorgo (Headey), appeals to the council to send in the rest of the army, but she faces fierce opposition from Theron (West), who has designs on being king himself.

This really isn't a plot-centric movie.  There's just enough story to facilitate the action scenes, which are numerous and go beyond over-the-top.  That's actually the film's problem; the action scenes eclipse the story to the point when the film pauses to explain the plot back home, we wish it would shut up and get back to the bloodletting.

It's not for lack of trying on the part of the cast.  Lena Headey is perfect as the strong but loving Queen Gorgo.  It's a shame that few women in film are given as much gumption as her because she's just as badass as the men (as Leonidas points out, the women would probably be happy to fight along side the guys).  Dominic West is at his sleazy best as Theron; he's a formidable adversary who gets us to hate him with no effort.

On the male front, the acting is just as strong.  Gerard Butler was an unknown at the time of the film's release, having appeared in only in supporting roles in movies like "Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life," "Reign of Fire" and "Timeline" (although he did play the title role in the musical version of "The Phantom of the Opera," but that movie wasn't exactly a massive hit).  Still, he balances the line between macho and farce, and knows exactly how to shout the movie's numerous quotable lines.  Rodrigo Santoro (whose character is almost entirely computer generated---Xerxes is at least 8 feet tall with a deep, booming voice while Santoro is only 6'2" and has a soft voice) is a terrific villain; he's menacing and exotic.  Terrific support is provided by Vincent Regan as Leonidas's dutiful captain, David Wenham as Dilios (who, in addition to fighting, narrates the film) and in a small role, future acting all-star Michael Fassbender (who is front and center for one of the film's funniest jokes).

While it may not be Zack Snyder's best film (that would be "Watchmen") or his biggest ("Man of Steel"), it is his most enjoyable film.  It cemented his ability as a director of skill, and he uses dozens of filming techniques to maximum effect.  Playing with light, extravagant and lavish creatures and sets, and most importantly, playing with zooms and film speeds.  He knows exactly how far to push the limits of the action for maximum effect.

Historically, this film is hardly accurate.  Well, sort of.  When it comes to setting up the plot (which establishes Spartan culture), it's pretty dead-on.  But in the battle sequences, fantasy takes over.  That's a good thing, because realism has no place in a movie like this.  Unless it helps the film's agenda.

Upon its release, "300" was controversial.  Ideologically, there were attacks from both sides of the political spectrum.  Some thought it was fascist, others thought it glorified war.  Some thought it was discriminatory towards people with disabilities (the character of Ephialtes, played by Andrew Tiernan).  Still others thought it was racist towards Persians, and in the words of British film critic Steven Rea (not to be confused with Neil Jordan regular Stephen Rea), a "cross-section of Western stereotypes of Asian and African cultures).

Over here, people saw it as a metaphor for the Iraq war.  Conservatives hailed it as showing the necessity of staying the course no matter what the cost, while liberals claimed it as showing the cost of fighting when it's an exercise in futility.

Ultimately, "300" can't be seen as a political or racial metaphor.  Nor should it be.  It's simply too ridiculous to be taken seriously.  This isn't one of those movies that has something to say.  Snyder's only agenda is to craft an action movie that gets the adrenaline pumping.  And to that end he succeeds marvelously.

Flawless (1999)

1.5/4

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Skipp Sudduth, Wanda DeJEsus, Daphne Rubin-Vega

Rated R for Pervasive Language and Strong Violence

not to be confused with the 2007 movie with Michael Caine and Demi Moore

Who could have thought that a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, two of the best actors now working, could have been boring?  And yet, Joel Schmaker's 1999 thriller/buddy comedy, is one long slog through cliches and boredom.  There's very little of interest here.

Walter Koontz (DeNiro) is as grumpy and reactionary as they come.  A former security guard who foiled a bank robbery rears ago, Walt is living in a bad apartment building in New York City.  Making matters worse is that on the other side of the courtyard, Rusty the drag queen (Hoffman) lives there and sings loudly with a bunch of her friends.  One night, there's a violent struggle between one of the tenants and a few thugs looking for some drug money.  Walt gets his gun and tries to help, but on the way, he has a stroke that leaves him paralyzed on one side of his body.  Deeply ashamed, he sits in his room all day until his doctor comes and tells him that physical therapy will help him.  His physical therapist, a black man named LeShaun (Kyle Rivers) tells him that singing will help him get his speech back.  Unwilling to travel very far in his current condition, Walt is forced to take lessons from none other than his nemesis, Rusty.  Rusty agrees under protest, but only because she needs the money.  Meanwhile, a nasty drug dealer named Mr. Z (Luis Saguar) is trying to find the money stolen from him by said tenant.

The plot line of opposites attracting is as old as the hills, but it works for the same reasons that we see romantic comedies: we see two people change and grow for the better.  Life isn't that simple, but then again we rarely go see movies to see real life (quite the opposite in fact).  That said, this movie is a misfire of nearly epic proportions.  It's the worst movie that DeNiro and Hoffman have ever been in.

It's not their fault.  They give solid, if unspectacular, performances.  DeNiro plays the grump who needs to be more accepting while Hoffman plays the colorful (emphasis on "colorful") foil who shows him the light.  It's not that the fundamental concept is bad.  It's that the script is shallow and the characters are cliches.  There's nothing about Walt or Rusty that differentiates them from other characters in better movies.

The script is awful.  The dialogue is bland, and the direction by Schumaker (who also wrote the script) is pedestrian.  There are only a few scenes that are interesting.  One is a party and the other is the climax.  The former is fun, and the latter is suspenseful.

It's clear that Schumaker's inspiration for this movie is "Rear Window."  He wants us to be involved with the lives of the other tenants and the characters that float in and out of the story.  The problem is that the supporting characters aren't interesting either.  The only one who shows any life is Walt's friend Tommy, played by character actor Skipp Sudduth.  He caught my attention more than Walt or Rusty.  The subplot of the drug dealers chasing down the money is not only by-the-numbers and dreadfully boring, it makes little sense.

Trust me.  DeNiro and Hoffman deserve better than this,  And they have much better movies because of it.  Rent one of them instead.

Dawn of the Dead: Director's Cut (2004)

3/4

Starring: Sarah Polley, Jake Weber, Ving Rhames, Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers, Mekhi Phifer, Lindy Booth, Inna Korobkina, Michael Barry, Jayne Eastwood, Boyd Banks, R.D. Reid, Kim Poirier, Matt Frewer, Bruce Bohne

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Pervasive Strong Horror Violence and Gore, Language and Sexuality

I love a good zombie movie.  I mean, what is scarier than a bunch of undead ghouls chasing after you like an army of ants?  Kill one, and there are a dozen more behind them.  Even worse, if they bite you, you become one of them.  But for the most part, we can expect three things from them ("Warm Bodies" being the exception): lots of action, gore in copious quantities, and some good scares.  Zack Snyder's remake of George A. Romero's classic (unseen by me) provides all three.  And a bit more.

It's a normal day for Ana (Polley) in Wisconsin.  She's late getting off work at the hospital, and she makes plans to go rollerblading the next day with her young neighbor Vivian (Hannah Lochner).  She snuggles next to her husband and goes to sleep.  When she wakes up, things appear to be normal.  They are not.  Vivian is standing in her doorway with her mouth chewed off and looking very gray.  The little girl attacks her husband, who dies shortly thereafter, and pretty soon they're both after poor Ana.  When she gets outside, things are even worse: zombies are running from house to house attacking people, and the whole city has gone to hell.

Eventually, our resourceful heroine ends up at the mall with a few other people (most of whom are on hand to die gruesome deaths at some point).  Included in the ragtag group are Best Buy worker Michael (Weber), cop Kenneth (Rhames), and expecting couple Andre (Phifer) and Luda (Korobkina).  There, they have to deal with the dumb but arrogant security guard CJ (Kelly) and his two cronies Bart (Barry) and Terry (Zegers).  Showing up later are tough talking trucker Norma (Eastwood), father and daughter duo Frank (Frewer) and Nicole (Booth), gay organist Tucker (Banks) and redneck Glen (Reid).  Together, they have to figure out one thing: how to stay alive until help comes (if it comes at all).

Zack Snyder's remake isn't particularly ambitious.  It has simple goals, but it achieves all of them.  There's plenty of action, gobs of gore, and some decent shocks and scares.  Unlike the cliched zombie, which is slow and lumbering, these guys take after the "new" zombie as established in Danny Boyle's overrated cult hit "28 Days Later:" they're fast and strong.  Much more lethal.

Unlike most horror movies, the acting is surprisingly strong.  There isn't a weak performance to be found, although James Gunn's script doesn't allow much in the way of depth.  But he gives them enough to work with that they can create people with personalities.  It's a refreshing change from movies these days where everyone seems to be a carbon copy of the person next to them.

If there is a criticism, it's that the cinematography is a little too dark.  It is entirely possible to create a scary movie without every frame seeming like it was filmed under a cloudy overcast.

Nevertheless, every zombie movie lover should check this one out.  It's a blast!

Scotland, PA

1/4

Starring: James LeGros, Maura Tierney, Christopher Walken, Tom Guiry, Kevin Corrigan, James Rebhorn

Rated R for Language, Some Nudity, Drug Content and Brief Violence

My dad is a huge fan of William Shakespeare.  Every time I tell him about stories or movies, he compliments Shakespeare and how he knew everything about storytelling.  He watched Kenneth Branagh's legendary adaptation of "Hamlet" with me, and we also watched the truly warped version of "Titus" starring Anthony Hopkins.  I considered waiting until he had some free time so we could watch "Scotland, PA," a humorous adaptation of Shakespeare's infamous tragedy "Macbeth," but I didn't.  In all honesty, I think my dad would thank me for sparing him the pain of watching what Billy Morrisette did to his hero's work.

Yeah, you read the above right.  Writer/director Billy Morrisette has turned "Macbeth" into a comedy.  Let me rephrase: writer/director Billy Morrisette has tried to turn "Macbeth" into a comedy.  I make the distinction because the attempt is a complete and utter failure.  The idea has promise (this would be a great job for The Coen Brothers).  The execution does not.

The film fails all three of the prerequisites for making a good comedy: it's not funny, it's not interesting, and it's not well-paced.  The jokes are largely absent (not only are they not particularly funny, they're not there), the characters are boring, and the film crawls.

For reasons only known to Morrissette, he has decided to set the film in the 1970's.  I have no idea why he did this because it serves no purpose other than to have the characters decked out in goofy costumes and hairdos.  Maybe it was to avoid having to deal with actual police procedure, although that stuff can slide if the movie is interesting (especially in a comedy).

In any event, Joe "Mac" Macbeth (LeGros) and his wife Pat (Tierney) are workers at a crappy fast food restaurant called Duncan's.  It's run by a total idiot named, you guessed it, Duncan (Rebhorn).  After they squeal to him about their annoying manager stealing from the store, he promotes Pat.  Then he tells him his new idea about a drive-thru, and Pat thinks it's a good idea to rob and kill him and take over the restaurant.  Once the deed is done, they're living the high life (relatively speaking).  Of course, things descend for both of them once people start sniffing around.  Mac becomes paranoid, Pat tries incessantly to remove a burn from her hand that she got doing the deed, and more people end up six feet under.

Morrissette has assembled a cast of talented character actors, but none of them are compelling (except for maybe Walken).  LeGros is boring, Tierney tries (and fails) to make Pat interesting, and everyone else is a non-entity.  Christopher Walken injects a little energy into his scenes, but there's only so much that he can do.

I'll give Morrissette credit for his guts.  But that only goes so far when the result is this atrocious.  I think that, in reference to Hamlet's famous quote, Will Shakespeare would choose not to be when it comes to being associated with "Scotland, PA."

War Eagle, Arkansas

3/4

Starring: Luke Grimes, Dan McCabe, Brian Dennehy, Mare Winningham, Misti Traya, James McDaniel, Mary Kay Place

Rated PG-13 for Language and Sexual References

Looks can be deceiving...

Initially, "War Eagle, Arkansas" appears to be a standard order buddy comedy.  It's got the shy, handsome lead and his colorful and quirky best friend.  But as the film goes on, we realize that director Robert Milazzo has tapped into something much more original and powerful.

Enoch Cass (Grimes) is a star baseball player in the tiny town of War Eagle, Arkansas.  His best friend is Sam "Wheels" Macon (McCabe), so named because his cerebral palsy has left him confined to a wheelchair.  Both of them fill a need for each other: Enoch has a severe stammer, especially when he gets nervous, so Wheels does a lot of the talking for him and gives him confidence.  Enoch is strong enough to perform the physical activities that neither Wheels nor his mother Jessie (Place) can do.  But their bond is so strong and mutually dependent that it could threaten Enoch's future as a baseball player.

Both Enoch and Wheels are well-developed, which is crucial for the movie to work.  They fulfill each other's needs.  But Milazzo takes the time to show that while the relationship has its good points for both of them, it's becoming unhealthy for Enoch.  Enoch is so shy that he has to have Wheels call up the girl he likes (this eventually leads to a hilarious and unconventional date).  His relationship with Wheels also jeopardizes his future as a possible college ball player, which Wheels realizes.

The performances are effective, but no one truly wowed me.  I guess that makes sense for a quiet, laid back drama like this.  Both Grimes and McCabe are terrific.  It's not that they get the physical aspects of their characters (which are never less than entirely convincing...I was kind of shocked to see McCabe standing in a picture of the film's premiere), but that they get inside their characters's heads.   They understand the people they are playing, and that gives the film its emotional punch.  It's hard not to feel for the painfully shy Enoch and Wheels' tell-it-like-it-is approach to life leads to some amusing moments.  The rest of the cast provides solid support, but this is their show.

The problem with the film is the ending.  I can't go into specifics without giving anything away, but I will say that it's almost a cheat.  It gets us hoping for one ending, then it suddenly changes its mind and presents the exact opposite as a happy ending. It's pretty jarring.

This is a small film made for a small audience.  But the people involved wanted to tell it, and that's what makes it worth seeking out.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

3/4

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace and the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch

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

When news came out that Peter Jackson was finally going to make "The Hobbit," the prequel to "The Lord of the Rings," fans were extremely excited.  Then the news came that it would be split in two, which raised the eyebrows of many.  Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that it would be split into three films, which annoyed just about everyone.  Jackson and New Line Cinema claimed it was so they could insert J.R.R. Tolkien's ideas for the story that never made it into the book, the public still felt screwed.  They had to pay three times and wait three years to see the whole story.  That made sense for the trilogy, since it was based on three books, but "The Hobbit" is a much shorter story.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was the realization of fans' fears: it was a needlessly padded version of the first third of the story that had long stretches of boredom.  Even with the bloated running length tossed aside, it still wasn't nearly as good as the original trilogy (I've watched the Blu Ray special extended version and was never bored for a moment).

Part two, "The Desolation of Smaug," rectifies this problem for the most part, mainly because all of the set-up is complete.  We're finally getting into the meat of the story.  I'm not saying that there are some stretches of time that should have been excised, but this installment doesn't drag as much.

After a short story that takes place before the first film, the story picks up where Jackson left us a year ago.  Bilbo Baggins (Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (McKellan) are journeying to the Lonely Mountain with a group of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage), who are trying to take back their homeland from Smaug the Dragon (Cumberbatch).  Their journey is not without trials.  They have to convince the arrogant Elf-King Thranduil (Pace) to give them passage.  And they have to do the same in Laketown.

The plot sometimes gets repetitive, but Jackson keeps things moving for the most part.  The action scenes are exciting (Jackson has uncanny skill in crafting them).  The best one in my opinion takes place in a river; it's a lot of fun and at times hilarious.

The cast from the first film slides easily back into their roles.  The new additions are, unfortunately, on the weak side.  Lee Pace is uneven as Thranduil; usually he's effective but there are definitely some stiff moments in his portrayal.  Still, he gets us to hate him, although he doesn't seem to glide like Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving and Liv Tyler did in the original trilogy.  Speaking of Bloom, he's disappointing as well, although the writing is as much at fault as his performance.  Bloom may never be a great actor (although he's not nearly as bad as people claim), but he was terrific in the original trilogy.  But little of Legolas's warmth has returned; he's a cold and heartless Elf.  Evangeline Lilly gives the best performance of the three, but she pales in comparison to Liv Tyler.

Peter Jackson's visual sense is as amazing as his storytelling ability, but neither skill is as good as we've come to expect.  The story is interesting, but it's just not as compelling as "The Lord of the Rings."  The quest to for a group of dwarves (plus a wizard and a Hobbit) to oust a fearsome dragon just isn't as gripping as a quest to defeat all evil that involves a whole fantasy world.  Jackson tries to open it up as much as possible, but it's fundamentally a different story.  The decision to turn it into a grand epic hurts the film.

The visuals are also an issue.  In the original trilogy, Middle Earth came alive.  We felt as if we were there.  Every time I watch it I want to just touch the screen and get sucked into that Jackson's world.  That doesn't happen here.  The visuals, while being more detailed, are also less convincing.  Every frame in "The Lord of the Rings" seemed real, not CGI.  The orcs seemed like real creatures.  That's not the case here.  It's all CGI, and it couldn't be more obvious.  Whether it was because Jackson played with the frame rate (although I saw it in IMAX 3D, which is supposedly at normal speed), it's weird watching it.  This was a problem with the first one too, by the way.

Nothing I can say will change anyone's mind if they're going to see it (or not see it).  But these are my thoughts about the film, and hopefully they'll give you an idea of what to expect.

Last Vegas

3/4

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content and Language

I did not have high hopes for this movie.  I thought it would be like "The Bucket List" (also starring Morgan Freeman), where a safe, Z-list script would be cast with big stars so that undiscriminating audiences would be suckered into seeing it.

Fortunately, I was wrong.  "Last Vegas," which is being marketed as "The Hangover" for the AARP crowd, is 90 minutes well spent.  It's not a masterpiece by any means; the funniest moments are in the trailer, and it's unlikely that many of the jokes will earn more than grins.  But, the four leads work hard to make their characters real, and that goes a long way.

Paddy (DeNiro), Billy (Douglas), Archie (Freeman) and Sam (Kline) have been best friends all their lives.  Now in their golden years, they're coming together again for a weekend in Vegas to celebrate Billy's upcoming nuptials to  Lisa (Bre Blair), a girl half his age.  So the gang heads to the City of Sin for a weekend of drinking, girls and gambling.  And they're hoping they can stay up late enough to enjoy it.

There's nothing in this movie that we haven't seen before.  There's wish fulfillment (to the point of incredulity), bonding, and some unexpected romance.  Each character has his own little subplot too: Paddy is grieving over the loss of his wife a year ago (this feeds into his beef with Billy), Archie is trying to have some fun while ignoring his worrywart son (Michael Ealy), Sam's marriage is on the skids, and to put some zest into it, his wife gives him a card with a condom and a viagra pill with the obligatory Vegas quote.  And Billy is trying to decide if his future lies with Lisa or Diana (Steenburgen), the pretty lounge singer that they meet on their first day.  Plus they all get revenge on a drunken jock named Dean (Jerry Ferrara, who is surprisingly hot) who picked a fight with them.

While it is true that the script doesn't make the most of the cast's considerable talents (all five of the leads have won Oscars), the actors don't coast through their roles.  They work to make their character unique and interesting, and that makes the cliched moments work.  I was surprised at how effective the film was and how much I grew to like the characters.  Special mention has to go to Robert DeNiro, who makes his obligatory subplot poignant.

The problem is that the jokes aren't particularly funny.  The majority of them work, but they fall into the "smiles" category, rather than the "laugh out loud" variety.  There are some exceptions, especially their final punishment of  Dean.

This is a genial, rather inoffensive comedy (the R rating was deservedly appealed, although I'm sure it wouldn't have been had it had a lesser known cast).  I enjoyed myself, and I think a lot of people will too.

The Good Son

2.5/4

Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Elijah Wood, Wendy Crewson, David Hugh Kelly, Jacqueline Brooks, David Morse

Rated R for Acts of Violence and Terror involving a Disturbed Child

I have to wonder who this movie was made for.  Sure, after "Fatal Attraction" became a massive hit, the "stranger within" genre became all the rage.  Far be it for me to criticize a movie for lacking a precisely defined audience, but did anyone really think that there was an audience for a movie like this starring pint-sized actors?

"The Good Son" is one of those movies like "Hollow Man;" it should have been a lot better than it actually was.  The premise, which is essentially "Single White Female" with prepubescent boys, has promise, but the execution is poor.

Mark (Wood) is a sad little boy.  His mother just passed away.  Because his father Jack has been called away on business, he is staying with Jack's brother Wallace (Kelly) and his family.  Much to the pleasure of Wallace and his wife Susan (Crewson), Mark hits it off splendidly with their son, Henry (Culkin).  That is, until Mark realizes that his new friend has an evil streak.

This is not a terrible movie by any means.  There is some suspense, and I was never bored.  But I kept thinking that, with someone more talent behind the camera, this could have been a better movie.

Clearly, 20th Century Fox was banking on their "Home Alone" hero, Macaulay Culkin, to bring in audiences.  It's not hard to see why, since everyone who saw "Home Alone" fell in love with him on screen.  But this is not at all like "Home Alone."  This is a creepy, sometimes unsettling, thriller that is not kid-friendly in the least.

The performances are effective, but no more.  Macaulay Culkin is solid, but there are times when the character demands more than he is capable of giving.  His delivery isn't always as strong as what is necessary for the character to work.  Elijah Wood is wonderful as always (has he ever given a bad performance?), which is especially laudable considering how bizarre his character acts.  The best performance is given by Wendy Crewson, a character actress who is probably best known for playing Harrison Ford's wife in "Air Force One."  Crewson is outstanding as Susan, who showers Mark with all the love she can give.  She's grieving too, since her infant son Richard drowned recently.

Most of the film's problems can be attributed to two things: director Joseph Rueben and Macaulay Culkin's father.  When it was released, "The Good Son" was infamous for the star's father interfering with the production.  The script was written by Ian McEwan, the famous British writer who wrote the novel that served the basis for "Atonement."  But when Kit Culkin started making demands left and right, McEwan's script was changed drastically.

Rueben may have been the guy they finally hired to direct the movie, but he wasn't the right one.  He directed "The Stepfather" (the original) in 1987.  That movie wasn't very good, and this one isn't either.  There are many scenes that don't land because they are ineptly handled (including a game of hide and seek that is just unsettling and uncomfortable to watch...in a bad way).  The child actors are badly directed.  And the climax is just absurd.  It's a little creepy, but it's also so ridiculous that it's almost unintentionally funny.  And at the end of that scene, I was thinking, "Oh, come ON!"

Like I said.  This isn't a terrible movie by any means.  But, if you want to see a really good movie about a child from hell, put in "Orphan."

Watchmen: The Director's Cut

4/4

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Rated R for Strong Graphic Violence, Sexuality, Nudity and Language

"Watchmen" is a super adult version of Pixar's "The Incredibles."  Admittedly, that's a gross understatement of what "Watchmen" accomplishes (not to bash Brad Bird's delightful feature), but the underlying concept is true.  Both take a look at the trials and tribulations of what being a superhero is really like and what it means.  "The Incredibles'" vision was light and fanciful.  "Watchmen's" is considerably darker and more pensive.

The Watchmen are a group of superheroes that watch over New York City.  Replacing the Minutemen, who guarded the city decades ago, The Watchmen were the guardians of the city until being a superhero was outlawed a few years back.  All of them are doing their own things in the present (which is 1985 in the film): Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl (Wilson) is living the simple life.  Silk Spectre II aka Laurie Jupiter (Akerman) is having relationship issues with her former teammate, Dr. Manhattan (Crudup).  Dr. Manhattan, who as the result of a scientific accident became so powerful that people call him a god, has lost all interest in humanity.  Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Goode), has come out of the superhero closet and used his past (and his intelligence, as he is the smartest man in the world) to become a one-man business tycoon, and has employed Dr. Manhattan to find a renewable source of energy.  There's also The Comedian, aka Edward Blake (Morgan), a holdover from the Minutemen who has used his skills for the US Government (as did Dr. Manhattan, who is still under their employment).  And then there's Rorschach (Haley), who refuses to hang up the costume, a fact that has put him on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

One night, The Comedian was attacked in his apartment and thrown out the window.  Rorschach thinks that someone is picking off The Watchmen and takes his theory to Dan and Laurie, who dismiss him. but more evidence makes them thinks that he may be onto something.

Forget about the plot.  That's just one aspect of this ambitious project, based on the celebrated graphic novel by Alan Moore.  This is a rich and complex character study of three fascinating people (and a few others) and a meditation on human nature.

By far the most interesting characters are Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach.  They are the most colorful so they're the ones that everyone will remember.  Dr. Manhattan is all-powerful and as such can look at the past and future.  He is fully aware of how his powers have changed him, and thus he feels completely disconnected to human beings.  It should be said that the special effects that transformed Billy Crudup into the blue, heavily muscled Dr. Manhattan are incredible and never unconvincing.  Rorschach is a sociopath who believes in justice at all costs.  Even if the end justifies the means, Rorschach is dead-set on evening the score.

The performances are terrific across the board.  From top to bottom, they're composed of character actors, which helps us see the character rather than big stars.  Patrick Wilson is a good everyman; he's our window into the story.  Ditto for Malin Akerman, who successfully handles the complexity of her relationship to Dr. Manhattan, and the love triangle that develops between them and Dan (which is very atypical).  Billy Crudup is nothing short of brilliant as Dr. Manhattan.  He plays the character as a soft-spoken, almost philosophical, alien.  Dr. Manhattan is so much more than human, and Crudup conveys that in his performance.  Jackie Earle Haley radiates intensity as Rorschach, but we understand what drives him.  The rest of the cast provides excellent support, except for Matthew Goode, who is a little flat (surprising, after his brilliant performance in "Match Point").

This must have been an almost impossible project to make.  It had been in development hell for years, and considering the dense and complex nature of the narrative, would have to be handled extremely delicately.  Even more, Alan Moore's graphic novel is widely considered to be a classic (Time Magazine called it one of the Top 100 novels of the 20th Century).

Not only is the translation from book to film successful, it is in my opinion superior to the source material.  I read the comic during college.  I found it to be so dense and complicated that I had to flip back and forth because I kept getting lost.  Zack Snyder excises much of the material dealing with the Minutmen and keeps them as supporting characters.  In doing so, he streamlines the narrative and is able to cleanly address the philosophical issues raised in the story.

Snyder brings his trademark visual style to the film, which was fully on display in "300."  This is a great looking film and Snyder makes the most of it.  This is a beautiful film to experience, and the action scenes, of which there are many, pack adrenaline.

I have few nitpicks about the plot, but they're superficial.  "Watchmen" really is an amazing movie.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Gods and Monsters

3/4

Starring: Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave

Rated R for Sexual Material and Language

Like more than a few films, "Gods and Monsters" is closer to a misfire than a complete success.  It's emotionally cold, but well-acted and always interesting.

The film takes place after the Korean War.  Filmmaker James Whale (McKellan) is retired and living out his life in his home.  Although he has a few friends come to visit, usually it is just him and Hana (Redgrave), his dutiful housekeeper.  One day he spies a handsome man working in his yard.  His name is Clayton Boone (Fraser).  James, who was one of the few openly gay men working in Hollywood, wishes to meet him and sketch his face.  They quickly form a strong bond that changes them both forever.

The best thing about this movie is the characters.  James, Clay, and to a lesser extent, Hana, are well drawn, three dimensional individuals.  It's interesting to spend time with them.  James's career may have been squashed by the powers that be, but he is happy with his life.  Unfortunately, he doesn't have much time left because he is suffering from constant minor strokes that will eventually kill him.  Memories flood his mind, mixing and matching in a disjointed order.  Still, he has his dry wit intact.  Initially, Clay seems to be a big dumb galoot, but appearances can be deceiving.  "Thoreau...with a lawnmower," he says of himself at one point.  While his employer's homosexuality makes him uncomfortable, he decides to take a "live and let live" approach to it (James has a tendency to tow the line a little too closely for Clay's taste, however).  Hana is also interesting.  She's been James's housekeeper for 15 years, and they know each other far too well.  Hana, who is devoutly religious, is convinced that James will spend eternity in hell because of his sexuality, but she still cares deeply for him.

As you can imagine, sexuality is an ever present theme in this film.  But it is not about being gay or straight.  Rather, it's about the complex relationship that develops between James and Clay.  It's a deep friendship and a mentor/pupil relationship combo.  Writer/director Bill Condon understands this and presents it beautifully.

The performances are top notch.  Leading the pack is Ian McKellan, who rightfully scored an Oscar nomination for his performance as James.  James is an intelligent man, who, more than anything, needs companionship (preferably a handsome hunk).  The role is tricky because we have to get on his side even though he does some strange and borderline reprehensible things (his encounter with a fan who interviews him is an example).  McKellan nails the role, a successfully navigates the psychological aspect of his character (which is uniquely presented).

Before he became famous for slaying mummies with Rachel Weisz, Brendan Fraser was known as a character actor in movies like "School Ties" and comedies like "Airheads" and "The Scout."  While his performance isn't as brilliant as McKellan's or Redgraves (partly due to the fact that his character isn't as interesting nor is he given as strong dialogue), he does more than hold his own against the British legends.  Clay is the ideal partner (so to speak) for James.  He's straight but handsome, tough but willing to listen and care.  Moviegoers who approach this film with memories of Rick O'Connell will be surprised at the depth of his performance.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't work on an emotional level.  While I liked and understood the characters, I didn't feel their emotions (one exception: James's reminiscing about Leonard Barnett (Todd Babcock), his lover during World War I).  That renders some of the film confusing as to why the characters do what they do (particularly the final clip).

Still, the film is strongly written; Bill Condon won an Oscar for adapting the novel "Father of Frankenstein" by Christopher Bram (this is not a factual biopic but a fictionalized one...Clayton Boone was not a real person).  And the film allows us to spend time with three very interesting and compelling individuals.  Not bad for someone whose previous film was "Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh."

Firestorm

2/4

Starring: Howie Long, William Forsythe, Suzy Amis, Scott Glenn

Rated R for Violence and Language

"Firestorm" starts of fairly well.  It assembles all the cliches of the action genre: the motley crew making small talk before going into the violent fray, the slo-mo, the hero who saves the cute little blonde girl (and the dog) when his superior thinks she can't be saved.  One of his crew even throws his helmet in the air when he emerges with the little girl in his arms.

I was grinning to myself watching this.  Not so much affectionately, although I sorely miss action movies that take place in sunshine with no guys in capes.  No, I was smiling because it was so overplayed.  This sequence is so overblown that Dean Semler had to have intended it to be a parody.  Then again, considering how deadly serious he takes the rest of the movie, which is unbelievably silly, maybe not.

Jesse Graves (Long) is the new chief of his unit of Smokejumpers (people who leap into the inferno of forest fires to contain it when no one else can).  A few months after rescuing the family of stranded campers, in which his chief, a wise (a term I use extremely loosely) man named Wynt (Glenn), was injured, another fire has started.  But it's just a cover; the fire was deliberately set to allow for a few prisoners, led by Randy Earl Shaye (Forsythe), to escape into freedom.  Naturally, Jesse ends up right in the middle of this (by accident, of course) and fights to save the day.  Especially since they have a pretty ornithologist named Jennifer (Amis) as a hostage.

As is usually the problem for most movies like this, the script is terrible.  The characters are stupid, and the plot, in addition to being really silly, isn't particularly interesting.  It's not that fires can't be a good backdrop for a movie, because "Backdraft" proved that they can.  But the script spends more time explaining the fire trivia to set up the plot than it does creating characters worth caring about and a compelling narrative.

The acting befits a movie of this quality.  Which is to say, it's not very good.  Howie Long is pretty bad.  If he were any more wooden, he'd have caught fire before the trees.  With his intense gaze and gravelly voice, one would think that William Forsythe would make an ideal villain.  Sadly, Shaye isn't really interesting or threatening. Future Mrs. James Cameron Suzy Amis is usually pretty stiff, but at least she's better than Long.  It's kind of sad to see Scott Glenn in a movie like this since it's so far below his talents.

The film was directed by Dean Semler, who won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for "Dances with Wolves."  I don't remember much of the movie that won Kevin Costner two Oscars, but this film is neither well-directed, nor, surprisingly, good looking.  The film is stale, and Semler overdoes the fire so much that the most interesting parts are the ones where there isn't a flame in sight.  Admittedly, the effects in the climax are kind of cool, but they're also very cheesy.

The film was originally an epic action film that was supposed to star Sylvester Stallone (for a whopping $20 million smackers to boot).  Unfortunately the studio that was producing it went bankrupt, and 20th Century Fox bought the script but made it into a smaller movie.  Frankly, they probably should have left it the way it was.  It really could only have helped things.

Dark Ride

2.5/4

Starring: Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Alex Solowitz, Andrea Bogart, Jennifer Tisdale, David Clayton Rogers, Patrick Renna

Rated R for Strong Grisly Horror Violence and Gore, Sexuality, Nudity, Language and Some Drug Content

Earlier this year, I went to my first "real" haunted house.  It was fun, and it had a much bigger budget than the Dark Ride in this movie, but it wasn't very scary.  It overdid the monsters and the effects (all of which were "cool" but not scary) to the point where it was overkill.  The movie "Dark Ride" is the same way.  It's a pretty cool concept for a slasher movie, but the level of violence and gore is so extreme that it becomes a turn off.

Twenty years ago, two young girls went on the Dark Ride and didn't come out.  Both were gruesomely murdered by a hulking serial killer.  To make matters worse, more than a dozen bodies were found in the ride, and the Dark Ride was closed for good.  Now, it's about to be re-opened, and a group of college students think that it'll be fun to spend the night there on their way to New Orleans.  Of course, history has a way of repeating itself.

The acting varies, although thespian ability has never been a trademark of the genre (after all, no one watches a movie like this expecting something from Merchant/Ivory).  Lead actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler is pretty bad as Cathy.  Based on what I've seen of her, Sigler can't act.  Ditto for Jennifer Tisdale, who plays the token blonde Liz.  David Clayton Rogers is invisible as Cathy's maybe-boyfriend Steve.  More interesting are Andrea Bogar (who plays Jen the hitchhiker), Alex Solowitz (who plays the frat-boy stoner Jim) and movie-loving Bill (Patrick Renna...Ham Porter all growed up).

I liked the premise of the movie.  After all, it is pretty ironic to have a horror movie set in a haunted ride.  Unfortunately, the film doesn't really deliver.  It is intense and it is scary, but there's something about the way it was made made me a little depressed.  I don't know what it was.  Maybe it was the gore, which was sickeningly extreme.  Maybe it was just watching helpless men and women struggle to survive a run-in with a particularly brutal serial killer.  I'm not sure.

Aside from that, the movie has some pretty serious problems.  The editing is at times awkward, which makes things confusing.  Director Craig Singer also doesn't do a good job of setting the stage.  I rarely knew where everyone and everything was.  He also has the tendency to show-off, particularly when he's trying to show how the characters are reacting to the stress of their situation.  It's more than a little self-indulgent and not at all convincing.

I was mulling over the idea to give a tentative recommendation to the film, but then I saw the ending.  In short, it doesn't work at all.  It doesn't make any sense and leave the plot hanging wide open.  Some movies do well with open-endings, but typically slasher movies aren't among them.

Nice try, though.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Assault on Precint 13 (2005)

3.5/4

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Maria Bello, Gabriel Byrne, Drea de Matteo, John Leguizamo, Brian Dennehy, Ja Rule

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

"Assault on Precinct 13" was a thriller directed by John Carpenter.  Yes, that John Carpenter, although this was made two years before he made Michael Myers a name no one would forget ("Halloween" was his next film).  I haven't seen it, but it's considered to be something of a cult classic.  This remake, starring the always reliable Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, is a thriller of the first order.

It's New Year's Eve.  Precinct 13 is going to be closed and torn down after many loyal years of service.  The building's last workers, ex-undercover officer turned desk worker Jake Roenick (Hawke), sexy secretary Iris Ferry (de Matteo) and old timer Jasper O'Shea (Dennehy) are packing up the last of boxes before they celebrate the new year.  Occurring at the same time is the transfer of ruthless crime lord Marion Bishop (Fishburne), who has just been arrested, but can't be let out on bail due to the holiday.  A traffic accident and a blinding snowstorm has forced them to take refuge at Precinct 13, much to Jake's displeasure.  But things are going to get much, much worse.  A bunch of corrupt cops armed with impressive firepower have laid siege to the station intending to eliminate Bishop, and to cover it up, everyone else.  Roenick and his co-workers are going to have to team up with Bishop and the three other low-lifes that are spending the night in the Precinct if they want to have a chance for surviving.

The word "grim" comes to mind when describing director Jean-Francois Richet's approach to the story.  It's not as bleak as say, "Pandorum," but it comes close.  Richet makes good use of the atmosphere.  The storm is ever so threatening and we can feel the intensity of the blinding snow.  The cops outside are ruthless and have the upper hand, and their leader, a vicious cop by the name of Marcus Duvall (Byrne), will kill without question.

The performances are effective, but every member of the cast that I've seen before has done better work elsewhere.  Hawke is always a welcome presence on the screen (even in crap like "The Purge"), and it takes less than a minute for us to get on his side.  Laurence Fishburne radiates cool, malice and intelligence.  Maria Bello is great as Jake's shrink, and Drea de Matteo is certainly sexy (and can act just as well).  Gabriel Byrne is truly chilling.  Reliable character actors John Leguizamo and Brian Dennehy give solid performances as well.  Special mention has to go to rap star Ja Rule, who has some amusing moments as Smiley, a small-time fraudster who refers to himself in the third person.

Suffice it to say that this is not a happy movie.  Richet has no compunctions about showing violence in all its brutality, nor does he shy away from dispatching characters we care about.  He doesn't dramatize death and bloodshed in this movie.  It's realistic and intense.  When someoen dies, there's no dramatics with it.  Boom, dead.

If you're like me, and love this kind of uncensored and highly-charged kind of action movie, this is not one to miss.  And maybe it's time I check out John Carpenter's original.

Fire with Fire



3/4

Starring: Josh Duhamel, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Julian McMahon, Bonnie Sommerville, Eric Winter

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language and Brief Sexuality

As I've said before, I always encourage movies that take risks and try new things.  I'm a little more lenient on movies that do so, and "Fire with Fire" is one of them.  It has its problems, yes, but overall, I think it's a worthwhile experience.

Womanizing firefighter Jeremy Coleman (Duhamel) is unlucky enough to witness the brutal murder of a gas station owner and his son.  The killer is Aryan gang leader David Hagan (D'Onofrio), and unfortunately for him, Jeremy escapes the same fate.  At the urging of narcotics officer Mike Cella (Willis) and district attorney Karen Westlake (Sommerville), Jeremy agrees to testify against Hagan and will be placed in Witness Protection until the trial.  But Hagan is crafty and dangerous, and he has the tools and the manpower to find Jeremy and take him out.  Not only him, but his fellow firefighters and his new love, Witsec agent Talia Durham (Dawson).  After a hit on him leaves Talia gravely injured, Jeremy believes that the only way to take back his life is to take down Hagan and all of his associates.

This sounds like a straightforward revenge thriller.  I suppose, on some level, it is.  But director David Barrett is more ambitious.  He wants this movie to be realistic, and not a generic action movie that Bruce Willis would have starred in during his heyday as an action star.

First, let me tell you what I liked about this movie.  I liked the depth of the characters, and how Barrett resists taking the easy way out.  Jeremy is desperate, but completely unqualified to be a killer.  The thought of taking another life horrifies him, and he is not good at covering up his crimes.  Likewise, both Mike and Talia want to stop him, but they understand his desperation and the need to take down Hagan.  This isn't plot seasoning; it unfolds naturally and influences the characters' actions.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from some pretty serious problems.  First off is the script.  There are times when it plays dumb, there is some truly awful dialogue, and there are a number of plotholes (characters have information without us knowing how they got it).  Really, the script should have gone through at least one more rewrite to smooth out the kinks and the holes before going into production.

The acting is also flat.  All the cast members have shown charisma and ability in the past, but here, they're stiff and generally unconvincing.  I blame David Barrett, whose career consists of directing and producing episodes for a variety of TV shows (although he got his start as a stuntman, of all things).  I was reminded of the movie "The Astronaut's Wife" in the sense that a talented cast is rendered ineffective because the director is uncertain how far to push the emotionality of a scene.  Some scenes are too overwrought while others don't go far enough.  All the performances seem unrehearsed.  The only performance worth mentioning is Julian McMahon (who became famous for playing the sex-obsessed plastic surgeon Dr. Christian Troy on TV's "Nip/Tuck"), who is surprisingly menacing as Hagen's assassin.  Unfortunately, he has too little screen time.

Also problematic is the romance between Jeremy and Talia.  Not only do Duhamel and Dawson have zero chemistry together, their romance is undeveloped.  We're supposed to root for them to be together after one love scene.  For a movie that is supposed to derive a lot of its momentum from this relationship, that's a big problem.

The film is just over 90 minutes long.  For a comedy, that's the appropriate length, but an action movie, particularly a dramatic one like this, needs a longer running time.  The story needs room to breathe, and with an extra 10 to 15 minutes, Barrett could have developed the film's characters and themes a little bit more (for example, Jeremy's relationship with his fellow firefighters is undeveloped).

And yet, I liked the movie.  I liked how it went in unexpected directions and how it never took the easy way out.  There are some good scenes here and there, and the film is never uninteresting.  It is by no means a perfect movie, but I enjoyed it.